In many ways this was an impossible match for Liverpool. Rafael Benitez's stuttering regime would have received little credit for overcoming a club that may end up sharing a ground with Havant and Waterlooville. Had they failed to beat Portsmouth, who had not won at Anfield since George VI was on the throne, the recriminations might have been enormous.
Under the circumstances, the only option open to Liverpool was to win swaggeringly and this they did, although this was not an unblemished night. Midway through the second half, Steven Gerrard appeared to strike Michael Brown with his forearm as the two men ran off the ball. After he got to his feet, the Portsmouth skipper shouted to the referee, Stuart Attwell, that it warranted a three-game ban, which would see the Liverpool captain miss Sunday's encounter with Manchester United. However, since Attwell awarded a free-kick, the FA may rule the incident has been dealt with.
"They tell me the referee was only four metres away but did not see it, although there were a lot of things he did not see tonight," remarked the Portsmouth manager, Avram Grant, after suffering his first defeat to Liverpool at the sixth time of asking. "But I have always liked Gerrard; he is a good player and a fair player." Among the things Attwell missed were two blatant penalty claims, when first Ricardo Rocha handled in the area and when Glen Johnson was brought down by Nadir Belhadj, who was to score the limpest of consolations.
Things began badly for Portsmouth when David James aggravated a calf strain, allowing his understudy, Jamie Ashdown, to take to what was to prove an unforgiving stage. It was a good game to miss.
It was while he was on Merseyside that James earned his nickname "Calamity" and the error that opened the floodgates was one he might have recognised. Ashdown tried to clear an awkward back-pass only for his clearance to be charged down by Gerrard. The ball fell to Maxi Rodriguez, who with serene calmness squared it to the lurking figure of Fernando Torres, who before the interval was to strike the post and have a fair claim for a penalty turned down.
His finish triggered a sequence of three goals in six minutes, a time in which Pompey fell apart completely. Torres had a hand in all three – controlling the ball with his thigh before setting up Ryan Babel who ran into score from the edge of the area and creating the third with a back-flick finished by Alberto Aquilani, who returned the favour for the one goal Liverpool scored in the second half.
Although he might not have seized the headlines, Aquilani provided the creativity that had been achingly absent in successive defeats at Wigan and Lille that made many wonder how long Benitez's bleeding regime could stagger on.
The Italian had appeared symbolic of everything that was increasingly wrong with Liverpool. He had come in to replace the adored Xabi Alonso, he was injured when he arrived and by the time he was ready to make a serious contribution, Liverpool were out of contention for every trophy except the Europa League, a piece of silverware which in August they had no intention of competing for. It may have been against the Premier League's bottom team, but here was proof of the footballer Benitez thought he had signed.
The victory was comfortable enough for the Kop to launch into repeated choruses of "Yanks Out", although compared to some of the men who have run Fratton Park, Tom Hicks and George Gillett resemble Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.
Liverpool (4-1-4-1): Reina; Johnson (Kelly, 70), Agger, Carragher, Insua; Mascherano; Rodriguez, Aquilani, Gerrard (Benayoun, 73), Babel; Torres (Ngog, 80). Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Kyrgiakos, Kuyt, Lucas Leiva.
Portsmouth (4-3-2-1): Ashdown; Finnan, Wilson, Rocha, Hreidarsson (Owusu-Abeyie, 75); Brown, Diop (Mokoena, 64), O'Hara (Webber, 85); Dindane,Belhadj; Piquionne. Subsitutes not used: O'Brien (gk), Hughes, Mullins, Kanu.
Referee: S Attwell (Warwickshire).
Booked: Portsmouth Mokoena, Dindane.
Man of the match: Aquilani.
Attendance: 40,316.Reuse content