Avram Grant, having lost his previous match as a manager in a penalty shoot-out with Manchester United, must have thought he was enduring another yesterday. Like the one in Moscow, it took place in driving rain and ended in the misery of defeat, but the circumstances here were more controversial, Mike Dean choosing to award three spot-kicks in all, two of which Wayne Rooney converted on the way to a hat-trick.
It was as if the referee, who has also handed out a higher average number of cards per game than any other, is engaged on a unilateral campaign to prevent the most minor misdemeanour in the box; worthy in its way but hardly consistent with what goes on everywhere else.
Had United not emerged from the mayhem with three points, Sir Alex Ferguson might have had something rather stronger to say on the matter. It was certainly just as well that he was confined to Fratton Park's rickety old wooden main stand rather than patrolling the technical area when Dean made the most perplexing of his penalty awards, the one bringing Portsmouth an equaliser on the half-hour.
The bottom club deserved to be level at that stage, if not by that means. For most of the second half, however, having fallen behind again just after the interval, they were largely outplayed. Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs – who will be celebrating his 36th birthday and 100th League goal today – were outstanding, Antonio Valencia continued his improvement on the right and Rooney was at his most ebullient. The only thing to concern Ferguson was a fallibility in defence that a sharper, and luckier, side than Portsmouth might have exposed more thoroughly.
Ferguson, who has another match to be spent in the stands, confined himself to saying: "The linesman has put the referee under terrible pressure and he has to listen to the linesman who is 50 yards away. You see these things every weekend in the penalty box. In fairness, Portsmouth had some good chances. Tomasz Kuszczak made three fantastic saves today, his performance was top-level."
Grant agreed with that, suggesting: "Very strange. We played very well, creating a lot of chances but conceding soft goals." He should surely have warned his new troops about United corner-kicks played back to Scholes on the edge of the penalty area, which was how the first opportunity of the game materialised after a quiet opening 12 minutes. Scholes, who has so often scored from that position, was left unattended and allowed to hit a fierce shot that was not far above the bar.
From then until the first of the penalties, however, Portsmouth gave better than they received. First Hassan Yebda put Aruna Dindane in but the striker was unable to lift the ball over Kuszczak, who in the absence of Edwin van der Sar was preferred to England's World Cup hopeful Ben Foster. (David James was still missing for Portsmouth too.)
Jamie O'Hara's fine 20-yarder was pushed for a corner and it was a relief from the pressure when Darren Fletcher set United away with a pass to Valencia, who made ground quickly as Hermann Hreidarsson dived in on him and found Rooney, whose trailing leg was caught by Michael Brown. Rooney had worked it cleverly and was able, without any evident sheepishness, to drive in the penalty.
Only seven minutes later referee Dean left himself open to accusations of levelling things up by awarding Portsmouth an even softer spot-kick. After many viewings of television replays, it was still only the best guess that Nemanja Vidic might have laid a hand on Frédéric Piquionne. Dean would not be moved by United's protests and Kevin-Prince Boateng improved on his feeble penalty at Stoke last weekend with a much more emphatic effort. Under other circumstances, another penalty might have been given when Hreidarsson's arm blocked Valencia's cross; but that was sufficient excitement for one half.
There was more at the start of the second period, when United twice broke through the blue ranks, the second incursion bringing a goal. Fletcher and Giggs combined to play in Rooney for his 10th goal of the season, and within five minutes he had the opportunity for an 11th as Dean decided that Giggs had been held back by Piquionne after dispossessing him; the penalty was straight and true.
Giggs was rightly rewarded with the goal that he struck from a free-kick three minutes from time, even if Portsmouth, for whom substitute John Utaka then hit the bar, hardly deserved to be on the wrong end of a 4-1 scoreline.
Referee: Mike Dean
Man of the match: Giggs
Match rating: 7/10Reuse content