Reading have waited three long months to exact revenge on Portsmouth for that painful 7-4 defeat on the south coast. But in the reverse fixture yesterday, Steve Coppell's side never really had a chance after playing all but four minutes a man short following the early dismissal of Ibrahima Sonko.
Both teams needed a confidence boost, Reading to erase the memory of yet again being on the losing side despite scoring four this time at Tottenham last Saturday Portsmouth to kickstart a season that began so promisingly but which had faltered of late.
Coppell kept faith with the players who defended like novices against Spurs while Harry Redknapp put Lauren and Kanu on the bench, both having looked distinctly below par in the 1-0 home defeat to Middlesbrough at the weekend. Redknapp stuck rigidly to the 4-5-1 formation that has served Portsmouth so well away from home in contrast to their own ground where, amazingly, the last time they scored in the league was against Reading in that goal feast on 29 September.
The game got off to a rip-roaring start. With four minutes on the clock, Sonko gave away a penalty for the third time in four games, clipping Benjani's heels as the Zimbabwean striker raced on to a routine long ball. Straight red was referee Mike Dean's decision, only for Niko Kranjcar to take the resultant spot-kick and strike it against the post.
Almost immediately, Bobby Convey came within a whisker of giving 10-man Reading the lead, then found himself sacrificed as Coppell was forced to re-organise by taking off the American midfielder in exchange for an extra defender in Andre Bikey.
As if all that wasn't dramatic enough, what followed in the ninth minute bordered on the crazy. Marcus Hahnemann inexplicably flapped at a Muntari free-kick, the ball went straight through his gloves and Sol Campbell, with an outstretched leg, got the last touch to give the visitors the lead in his 50th Pompey appearance.
It could have got even worse for the Royals when captain Graeme Murty, having already been cautioned, tugged back Sylvain Distin but got away with nothing more than conceding a free-kick. Not surprisingly, the half-time whistle brought a chorus of boos directed at Dean and although Reading began the second half promisingly, they were finally killed off just after the midway point when John Utaka left Nicky Shorey in his slipstream with searing pace before rounding Hahnemann for the clincher.
Portsmouth now have the joint best away record in the division with seven victories. The downside is that four key squad members will shortly be leaving for the African Nations Cup, leaving Redknapp short of cover. "I'll only have 14 outfield players so we're looking for a couple of loans or frees," he said. "If we'd opened up teams more at home, we'd be sitting at the top of the league. I'd love to get this club into Europe but that'll be difficult."
Coppell refused to criticise Sonko for being dismissed. "I can count his mistakes this season on one hand, he's been terrific for us," said Coppell. "I think most people would say that being sent off and a penalty is too harsh a punishment but there is always this grey area. We wanted the chance to make amends after what happened at their place and have a real go at them. But after five minutes we were down to 10 men and there was an awfully long way back."
Goals: Campbell (9) 0-1; Utaka (66) 0-2.
Reading (4-4-2): Hahnemann; Murty, Sonko, Ingimarsson, Shorey (De la Cruz, 71); Hunt, Cisse, Harper, Convey (Bikey, 7); Doyle (Long 83), Kitson. Substitutes not used: Federici (gk), Lita.
Portsmouth (4-5-1): James; Johnson, Campbell, Distin, Hreidarsson; Utaka, Bouba Diop, Hughes (Lauren, 83), Kranjcar (Taylor, 89), Muntari; Benjani (Kanu, 64). Substitutes not used: Begovic (gk), Nugent.
Referee: M Dean (Wirral).
Booked: Reading Murty, Cisse, Bikey. Portsmouth Hughes.
Sent-off: Reading Sonko (4).
Man of the match: Johnson.
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