AVRAM GRANT has remained steadfast in his conviction that his side’s standards must not be allowed to drop despite the uncertainty surrounding the club’s future but even the manager’s defiant stand showed signs of weakening after the most painful of defeats.
Denied an early goal because of an incorrect offside decision before Frederic Piquionne finally put them ahead, Pompey saw a point slip from their grasp when Salif Diao struck the winning goal – the midfielder’s first in the Premier League since a rare strike for Liverpool in 2002 – well into added time after Robert Huth had equalised.
In regular circumstances, the manner of this loss would be devastating. But to a manager and squad who do not know whether they will even be in gainful employment after March 1, the date the High Court will determine the outcome of the winding-up petition served by the taxman, it was just about as bad as it gets.
Grant correctly emphasised that preserving the future of the club is the overriding priority right now but this result just about sets the seal on any hopes he had of masterminding an unlikely escape from the bottom three. On this occasion, they couldn’t even take advantage of the 73rd minute dismissal of Stoke full back Andy Wilkinson for a second yellow card.
Eight points adrift of safety, the one thing that can be predicted with any degree of certainty is that if Portsmouth remains in existence beyond the end of the season, they will start next season in the Championship.
Winger Qunicy Owusu-Abeyie reflected the sombre mood. “It’s a very bad result because we needed to win,” said the former Arsenal youngster, signed on loan last month from Spartak Moscow. “Is it over for us now? We cannot afford to think like that.
“I’m lost for words. I’m so sad and disappointed because we didn’t get the three points we expected. I would love to say we can win all of our last 12 games and come out of relegation but I don’t know if it will go like that.
“It’s the lowest I’ve felt after a game. It looks bad, but we can’t lose faith. You never know, we could pull off a miracle.”
Unfortunately we do know, and they won’t.
So far the club has had as many owners as it has had league wins and realistically needs to find a fifth willing to inject large sums of cash into an apparently lost cause quickly. That remains the only likely source of salvation after the Premier League decided not to permit Portsmouth to offload players this week, despite FIFA giving its approval and, according to Pompey chief executive Peter Storrie, having proposed the idea in the first place.
It could hardly be gloomier. “I don’t like to use the word impossible,” said Grant, when asked about the scale of the task ahead. “It’s a hard job, but it’s a big challenge because the challenge is now to keep the club alive more than anything and I think when everybody sees the team spirit, it does not affect us.”
Against that backdrop, Stoke’s victory passed almost unnoticed, but Diao’s late goal means Tony Pulis’s side sit comfortably in mid-table and will face Manchester City in this week’s FA Cup replay in an upbeat mood.
Diao, in particular, will be eager to play after his unexpected goal. “Salif was meant to give us a little protection when he came on,” said Huth.
“Instead he went and scored the winner.
“I don’t know what he was doing in their six yard box. I’m surprised he didn’t get dizzy when he got within sight of goal as he has never scored for us.”
MATCH RATING: *** – Portsmouth defiance in the face of endless setbacks has been impressive and a cruel as the finale was, there was no denying it was dramatic.
REFEREE: Mike Dean (Wirral) 4 – Was let down by his assistant who ruled Piquionne’s early effort offside, but was directly to blame for ignoring a strong Pompey penalty claim and the unnecessary sending off of Wilkinson.
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