Sir Alex Ferguson described Manchester United's performance last night as "embarrassing" at times but it could have been a good deal worse than that. His team might have stumbled to victory but they are top of the Premier League this morning and Ferguson's phobia of a 19th league title for Liverpool looks ever more distant.
The United manager sacrificed a place in the FA Cup final so that his team would be fresh enough to beat Portsmouth and at times last night it did not feel like they were about to keep their part of the bargain. Not until Michael Carrick scored the second for the home side eight minutes from time did the stadium feel confident enough to break into a verse of "Are you watching Merseyside?"
Entertainment? Head west to Anfield. Trophies? The Premier League trophy looks even more safe on its shelf at Old Trafford after last night. Wayne Rooney's goal after nine minutes suggested that an old-fashioned rout was in the offing but by the time Ferguson came down to the touchline in the 66th minute to launch into a tirade against the same striker you knew that United were rattled. By then, Portsmouth had even mustered their one shot on target.
In his post-match interview Ferguson had the aspect of a man who felt rather fortunate to have secured the win that takes them three points clear of Liverpool at the top and he was a little more free with his opinions than is usually the case. "It can be so embarrassing when you look like you might throw a game away when you should have been five or six up," he said. "I was disappointed in the result at half time [1-0].
"It was a game in which there was some fantastic opportunities," he added, "and one where you say to yourself, 'The football is fantastic, I'm enjoying this' but on the other hand you know what happens when you don't take chances."
There were plenty of chances, too. United were letting them come and go in the first half with the certainty of a team who thought there would be plenty more. They lost Gary Neville to injury within 13 minutes and his replacement John O'Shea also hobbled off after a tackle from Nadir Belhadj in the second half. Both will be out for "weeks" said Ferguson. Rio Ferdinand was absent again: a precaution, the United manager claimed.
"Rio played his first games back in two or three weeks [against Porto and Everton] and it was too big a risk," Ferguson said. "They [Neville and O'Shea] will be out for weeks and that's a disappointment because they were both bad tackles and the referee has done nothing about it. I am disappointed in that because we normally expect a really firm display from Peter Walton but not this time."
There were times when Portsmouth looked so poor that you had to wonder if United might have been better served playing the FA Cup semi-final B-team in this game and sending the first-string to Wembley on Sunday. They created chance after chance in the first half, Ryan Giggs missed a couple, and by the time Portsmouth rallied in the second half there were moments when United even looked wobbly.
As for the title, United could seal it on 16 May against Arsenal at Old Trafford if they win the four intervening games. "We are in a better position now than we were [before Liverpool drew with Arsenal] that's for sure," Ferguson said. "Having seen that second half when we were so casual, we can't take anything for granted, we have to put our foot down all the time. I don't consider that we have any leeway in this situation."
The urgency about United soon dwindled in the second half as Portsmouth produced a fightback through Glen Johnson and Peter Crouch as well as the substitute Jermaine Pennant. Crouch's header on the 69th minute from Pennant's free-kick from the right was the nearest that they got to a goal but by then United were dawdling. Ferguson was anxious and his team looked little better.
"As always happens you start encouraging your opponents, they keep digging and digging and they got two opportunities in the second half," Ferguson said. "I was saying to myself, 'They are going to score here'. They got to the byline twice – Pennant and Johnson –and fortunately [Nemanja] Vidic dealt with the situation, he was in top form.
"Particularly in the first half some of the football was magnificent and the freshness showed in that respect," he insisted. "I think by the second half if you haven't taken your chances and your opponents are only 1-0 down when they should be 5-0 down then you encourage them."
Dimitar Berbatov was on the bench and did not get the call from Ferguson. Neither did Carlos Tevez whose one contribution last night was a jog down the touchline, his public protest against Ferguson's selection looking even more forlorn. Rooney's goal was made by a stunning pass from Luis Anderson. He hit a ball over the top behind Johnson that Giggs ran onto. He cut the ball back for Rooney to slot past James.
Yet only when Carrick ran onto Paul Scholes's pass eight minutes from time to beat James could Ferguson be sure of the win. It had been an inauspicious performance from Scholes on his 600th appearance for the club and the same could be said of United, but they are back at the top of the league and they will take some displacing now.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville (O'Shea, 13; R Da Silva, 52), Vidic, Evans, Evra; Fletcher, Scholes, Anderson (Carrick, 76), Giggs; Rooney, Ronaldo. Substitutes not used: Berbatov, Nani, Kuszczak (gk), Tevez.
Portsmouth (4-1-4-1): James; Johnson, Campbell, Distin, Hreidarsson; Davis; Nugent (Pennant, h-t), Mullins, Hughes, Belhadj; Crouch. Substitutes not used: Pamarot, Utaka, Cranie, Kanu, Begovic (gk), Basinas.
Referee: P Walton (Northamptonshire).
Man of the match: Anderson.
Race for the title: Remaining games
Manchester United Sat Spurs (h), 2 May Middlesbrough (a), 10 May Man City (h), 13 May Wigan (a), 16 May Arsenal (h), 24 May Hull (a).
Liverpool Sat Hull (a), 3 May Newcastle (h), 9 May W Ham (a), 16 May W Brom (a), 24 May Spurs (h).
Chelsea Sat West Ham (a), 2 May Fulham (h), 10 May Arsenal (a), 17 May Blackburn (h), 24 May Sunderland (a).
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