Portsmouth ride the rollercoaster to safety

Portsmouth 3 Birmingham City 1
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The Independent Football

Thrilling, dramatic, passionate and controversial, this was an emotional roller-coaster of an afternoon that Portsmouth players and fans will not forget in a hurry. Stupendous goals from Dejan Stefanovic and Lomano LuaLua had the home crowd singing the theme song from The Great Escape with ever greater gusto, as Portsmouth chalked up their third win in four games.

It was touch and go for a while. The match was ignited by an outbreak of controversy and drama right on the stroke of half-time. As Yakubu Aiyegbeni chased the ball towards the box, Martin Taylor clumsily headed back to his goalkeeper, Maik Taylor, who had advanced out of his area, only to flap the ball into the path of Yakubu who gleefully rolled it into an empty net.

The ground erupted in celebration but turned to fury when the referee, Barry Knight, ruled out the goal, having earlier blown his whistle for handball. Knight led the protesting procession as he went to consult the linesman, and amid all the sound and fury there was an outbreak of handbags featuring Eyal Berkovic and Kenny Cunningham. This yielded no retribution from Knight, but he then sent off the keeper for handball.

When the dust settled, the upshot was a free-kick for Portsmouth 20 yards out. Up stepped Stefanovic, who curled a dream of a shot around the wall into the bottom corner. Pandemonium. Earlier it had been frustration all the way - a torrent of offsides, even a move which was curtailed by the referee when he got in the way, and a tremendous save by Taylor from Amdy Fayé's header.

Birmingham, who had seemingly woken from the dead after half-time, nevertheless looked finished when LuaLua scored the second in the 60th minute. He left Cunningham for dead on a lightning run from halfway, and raced into the box where Yakubu waited to receive his pass, but the pass went to a defender. But the ball ran back to the striker, who skinned Martin Taylor, and smashed it spectacularly into the corner of the net.

Stern John pulled a goal back for Birmingham, but a deserved win was clinched when Yakubu slotted in a penalty after the unhappy Cunningham handled in the area.

The Birmingham manager, Steve Bruce, was fuming afterwards at the sending-off. "It was absolute nonsense to send off the keeper,'' he said. "If the referee had used a bit of common sense he would have just given the goal and kept 11 players on the pitch, because nobody stopped on his whistle. Then he made it worse by going over to the linesman. How often do we talk about the inadequacy of referees? It was baffling."

The Portsmouth manager, Harry Redknapp, was not worried about that. "It was a vital win for us,'' he said.

Goals: Stefanovic (44) 1-0; LuaLua (60) 2-0; John (67) 2-1; Yakubu (72) 3-1.

Portsmouth (3-5-2): Hislop 6, Primus 6 (Pasanen 5, 50), De Zeeuw 7, Stefanovic 8, Berkovic 6 (Quashie 5, 75), Stone 5, Smertin 6, Fayé 6 (Harper, 82), Yakubu 6, LuaLua 8. Substitutes not used: Wapenaar (gk), Sheringham.

Birmingham City (4-4-2): Maik Taylor 6, Cunningham 5, Tebily 5 (Morrisson, 5, 45), Martin Taylor 4, Upson 7, Johnson 6, Savage 4 (Clemence 5, 58), Hughes 5, Clapham 5, John 6, Forssell 5 (Morrison, 78). Substitutes not used: Motteram , Cissé.

Referee: B Knight (Kent) 4.

Bookings: Portsmouth: Quashie. Birmringham City: Cunningham, Clemence. Sending-off: Taylor.

Man of the Match: LuaLua.

Attendance: 20,104.