If the mark of champions is to go from struggling one minute to supremacy in a high-scoring thriller the next, then Portsmouth have the First Division title as good as wrapped up.
With the help of two goals from Svetoslav Todorov, Harry Redknapp's side went five points clear at the top last night after defeating Norwich City, who had looked much the better side during the first half. For long periods the visitors had promised to become the only opponents this season to complete the double over the leaders, but with their fourth successive defeat they are slipping behind in the race for the play-offs.
"We'll keep fighting until it's mathematically impossible," insisted their manager Nigel Worthington, who must nevertheless have cursed the fact that his players had nothing to show for the opening 45 minutes.
Ostensibly Zema Abbey was the lone striker in a 4-5-1 formation that seemed to baffle Portsmouth but he was seldom lacking for support from midfield. Mark Rivers sent a header over at the end of a move that began with a bad pass from Matthew Taylor that was typical of the home side's cumbersome first-half efforts.
Although Steen Nedergaard opened the second half by hitting the bar, there was little hint of what was to come. Four goals in five minutes added spice to a contest that was hardly in need of extra ingredients.
No sooner had Todorov's deft chip sent Yakubu Ayegbini stumbling in to put Portsmouth ahead in the 57th minute than Rivers was crossing for Clint Easton to equalise from close-range. Ayegbini then reciprocated at the other end with the pass from which Todorov evaded Adam Drury's challenge to restore Portsmouth's lead. With his first goal of the season Rivers then fired Norwich back on to level terms after Linvoy Primus failed to clear Abbey's cross.
Todorov's 72nd-minute winner was easily the best of the lot, although he owed his unstoppable volley, hooked in with his back to goal, partly to the fact that Robert Green could only weakly punch out Paul Merson's corner.
Portsmouth (3-4-1-2): Hislop; Primus, De Zeeuw, Festa; Harper (O'Neil, h-t), Sherwood, Quashie (Diabaté, 66), Taylor; Merson (Foxe, 74); Todorov, Ayegbini. Substitutes not used: Kawaguchi (gk), Péricard.
Norwich City (4-5-1): Green; Nedergaard (Roberts, 86), Mackay, Bromby, Drury; Rivers, Holt, Russell (Emblen, 86), Easton, McVeigh (Nielsen, 78); Abbey. Substitutes not used: Crichton (gk), Shackell.
Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).
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