Stone throws Pompey a lifeline

Portsmouth 1 Manchester United 0
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The Independent Football

Stay up, Pompey; Pompey, stay up. The chances of Portsmouth's braves doing so improved immeasurably with this heroic victory, which sends them five points clear of relegation with a game in hand on Leeds United, for whom it is now essential to retrieve three of them when the teams meet at Elland Road next Sunday lunchtime.

Stay up, Pompey; Pompey, stay up. The chances of Portsmouth's braves doing so improved immeasurably with this heroic victory, which sends them five points clear of relegation with a game in hand on Leeds United, for whom it is now essential to retrieve three of them when the teams meet at Elland Road next Sunday lunchtime.

For Manchester United, the fixture that jumps out is on 8 May at home to Chelsea, who are pulling ahead of them in the chase for the runners-up position and second Champions' League place. Missing Roy Keane and Ruud van Nistelrooy again, they had abundant possession but did little with it, and suffered a first defeat at throbbing Fratton Park since 1955.

Not that they have been regular visitors: the atmospheric old ground, with one end open to the elements and the whiff from the toilets wafting up through the wooden main stand, has seen top-flight football for only two seasons in the past 45 years. Portsmouth have no intention of forfeiting their status this time, and suddenly the figures are beginning to add up. No side outside the top six have won more home matches, and it is now four wins and a draw from five games, prompting an ebullient Harry Redknapp to tell his players afterwards: "If you'd started playing like this a month ago, we could have been in Europe."

Only four of yesterday's starters cost the Premiership's supreme wheeler-dealer a fee, but now that more players are fit, his options, as well as the omens, have begun to look more promising. "Mid-season we were decimated by injuries," Redknapp said. "Now we've got a squad again, all fighting to get into the team."

The balance did not look quite right in the first half here, with Eyal Berkovic flitting behind the front two and Steve Stone out of place on the left. Correctly anticipating a second-half assault as United tried to pull back Stone's 36th-minute goal, Redknapp shrewdly removed Berkovic in favour of the more defensive-minded Nigel Quashie, shifted Stone back to his more natural position on the right and watched United dominate for 45 minutes without finding the touch of quality necessary to break down a defence in which the central pair of Dejan Stefanovic and Arjan de Zeeuw were outstanding.

So United failed to score for the first time in 17 games dating back to the 1-0 defeat at Wolves in January that marked the end of Rio Ferdinand's season and - coincidentally or not - the beginning of their decline. "We had no composure on the ball in the second half," the United manager Sir Alex Ferguson admitted. "We got frustrated and started just putting balls into their box. When they scored it was a great boost to them and they could just counter-attack."

There was greater cohesion earlier on, when Louis Saha headed over the bar after beating Shaka Hislop to Nicky Butt's cross, the goalkeeper then redeeming himself with a low, one-handed save from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Closer to half-time, he would save another Saha header and a drive by John O'Shea, one full-back meeting a cross by the other (Gary Neville) and showing why Redknapp needed an extra wide-man on the pitch to stop the pair marauding forward.

By that time, however, Portsmouth had a precious goal in the locker, the two United backs having proved less effective at their day job of defending. Lomana LuaLua, infuriatingly unpredictable, had one of his better moments in sprinting past O'Shea for a low cross that first Wes Brown and then Neville, under pressure from blue-shirted harriers, failed to clear. As Stone, who had stationed himself at the near post, put it: "I turned round and realised I'd missed it and it just came back to me." Once again he reacted more quickly than Brown, hooking the ball high into the net.

In the absence of Ruud van Nistelrooy, who should return for the home game against Charlton on Tuesday, United initially used only Saha down the middle, with Solskjaer and Ryan Giggs both out wide. Ferguson gradually changed the emphasis during the second half, bringing on more and more attacking players - Cristiano Ronaldo, then Darren Fletcher and eventually David Bellion - without causing serious disturbance to the home defence or the raucous crowd.

Not until the four minutes of added time was there real threat of an equaliser. In the same attack, bodies thrown in the way of shots by Saha and Bellion did their job before Matthew Taylor unwisely put both hands up to a hooked shot by Neville, bringing unanswered roars for a penalty. Ferguson, who might have been expected to explode, instead chose to praise the integrity of the referee, Neale Barry. Strange days indeed.

Portsmouth 1 Manchester United 0
Stone 36

Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 20,140

STATS OF THE DAY

P'MOUTH MAN UTD

3 Corners 13
17 Fouls 8
2 Offsides 0
3 on, 5 off Shots 6 on, 6 off
2 yellow Cards 1 yellow

Man of the match Dejan Stefanovic: Big and strong, he was outstanding in defence as United threw men forward

Stats supplied by Opta

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