Portsmouth 1 Middlesbrough 0: O'Neil puts Portsmouth in the clear blue water
Victory takes Redknapp's men out of the bottom three
Sunday 16 April 2006
Middlesbrough made a good game of it, but their manager, Steve McClaren, was forced to make changes to his side with West Ham to play tomorrow and both Uefa and FA Cup semi-finals ahead of them in the next seven days.
"It was a good time to play them, but what a run by us and what a great situation we are in now," said the Portsmouth manager, Harry Redknapp. "The players are up for it and so are our supporters, but we all know there could be a few twists and turns yet. Birmingham could beat Aston Villa and I'll suffer watching that. It ain't over yet."
Redknapp's right, but they were eight points adrift of safety last month and now have just four games to go with an excellent chance of staying up. This victory was secured by a second-half Gary O'Neil goal, some hard graft and fantastic support. Portsmouth fans are not always the friendliest, but few can match their enthusiasm and they again created a wall of sound.
"We are staying up" was the deafening cry from the "Blue Army" as the players applauded all sections of the ground long after the final whistle. "They picked us up when Middlesbrough had taken the sting out of the game," Redknapp admitted, "and kept us going when we had to see out the victory."
There was an air of apprehension, however, an hour before kick-off when Portsmouth's key striker Lomana LuaLua failed a fitness test on an ankle injury he sustained doing a trademark somersault celebrating his equaliser against Arsenal in midweek, his fourth goal in as many games. Redknapp drafted in the big target man Svetoslav Todorov even though the Bulgarian was carrying a knock, too.
Middlesbrough, who made five changes to their starting line-up, had the better of the game at the start of both halves but Portsmouth emerged the stronger and more determined team on both occasions. They also kept their first clean sheet in the League this year.
The referee, Andre Marriner, turned down two strong Portsmouth penalty appeals before the break and Todorov had a close-range effort superbly saved by the replacement Boro keeper Brad Jones. Portsmouth though were in danger of letting the initiative slip away at the start of the second half before a flash of brilliance by the much derided Benjani Mwaruwari helped create the crucial goal.
The Congolese forward wriggled past a few challenges on the edge of the area, found Todorov and he flicked into the path of O'Neil, who kept his nerve to score his seventh and possibly most important goal of the season with a low right-foot shot.
Middlesbrough did their best to chase an equaliser, but, understandably, were reserving some firepower for games ahead that mean more to them.
"I sent out a team I thought could win, so I am very disappointed and frustrated because we did enough to get something from that game" McClaren said. "But that was our 54th game. We have a massive semi-final week coming up and we want to win something this season.
"Our League form has suffered because of our success in the cups, but I know I can rely on these players in the big games. I'll put another team out on Monday that I think can beat West Ham while trying to get the strongest possible team ready for our first Uefa Cup semi-final on Thursday."
That may not be what Pompey's relegation rivals want to hear, but there is a mood on the South Coast that indicates nothing can stop them now. They have the momentum going into their final four games, with two at home, including the last day visit of Liverpool. "I'll suffer watching the other games, but all we can do is keep winning and hope that is enough. There are some very big games ahead," Redknapp concluded.
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