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Jan 31, 2010

Pompey lose clash of rags vs riches

In the season when they have had three owners, in the month when their most successful captain for half a century announced he was suing them, in the week when they confirmed their footballers and staff would be paid late for a fourth time in the season, on the day after their putative player of the year was sold to Tottenham, the Premier League's poorest club visited the world's richest.

• Manchester City 2-0 Portsmouth: Adebayor scores on return
• City players were wearing "Team Bridge" t-shirts
• Prem Team of the Week

They lost. It has been the story of Portsmouth's season. Defeats are a constant, humiliations a habit. Their existence is both painful and precious. A winding-up order has been issued and a transfer embargo bizarrely lifted, albeit for a club without the money to purchase players. When 'Pay up, Pompey' has seemed a more appropriate slogan than 'Play up, Pompey', even the minor details are damning. The club website going offline became, like the cost of the goldfish Peter Ridsdale funded at Leeds, a sign of gross financial mismanagement at every level. For them, the Championship could beckon. The worst-case scenario is that oblivion will.

There are ways and means of assessing Portsmouth's problems, and it is sometimes simpler to say that everything that can possibly go wrong does. Given the congestion of mediocrity near the foot of the Premier League, it would be easy to assume the lowliest team are, to put it bluntly, rubbish. Yet Portsmouth are not. It is significant that four others have an inferior goal difference, that eight others have conceded more. The league table may not lie, but, like many of those who have run Portsmouth, it can be accused of being economical with the truth.

Managers frequently insist their performances merit more points. In Portsmouth's case, such claims have had credence quite often. The superior side for much of the first half at Eastlands, they struck the bar before conceding a goal that may have been offside. A patched-up side's defeat could appear inevitable, yet it was not.

Money eventually talked. Emmanuel Adebayor and Vincent Kompany scored for City, who now lie a point outside the top four. "We will fight until the end of the season," Roberto Mancini said. "There are three or four other teams who can arrive in the top four. We are in a good position now."

Portsmouth's fight is of another kind. "It's difficult but you saw the way the lads played in terms of the spirit and the togetherness, they get on and do the job," said the first-team coach Paul Groves.

Togetherness is made harder by the uncertainty over players' future. Avram Grant boycotted the press conference, perhaps unsurprisingly after seeing Younes Kaboul sold behind his back, and Groves was asked if the Israeli is considering quitting. "Avram's shown his commitment today," was the response. Whatever his destiny, the path to the exit is familiar: Asmir Begovic missed the game after spending Saturday in talks with Tottenham.

Amid the chaos, the only sense of order was on the pitch where, aided by Jamie O'Hara's return, Portsmouth passed the ball pleasingly and played with a sense of unity which isn't apparent elsewhere in the club.

They were inches away from leading. After John Utaka picked out Anthony Vanden Borre with a fine backheel, one Belgian's shot hit another - Kompany - and looped over Shay Given on to the bar. The rebound dropped invitingly for Danny Webber, but Stephen Ireland contrived to get himself in the way of the ball to prevent the former Manchester United trainee reaching it.

Four minutes later, City led. It was the consequence of a delightful ball and a terrific finish but an illustration that fortune doesn't favour the broke. Ireland lofted a pass over the Portsmouth defence, Adebayor brought it down adeptly and finished forcefully, striking his shot over David James. Yet the Togolese appeared to have begun his run too early. "Borderline offside," said Groves.

A second goal sealed their fate. Set-piece defending has been a flaw all season - indeed, it accounted for all three of the goals they conceded when they lost at Blackburn in November - and another corner proved costly. Martin Petrov took it, Kompany leapt above Tal Ben-Haim and headed it in. Not for the first time, Portsmouth could wonder what might have been: Ben-Haim was not their first-choice central defender until Kaboul's sale. Would he have stopped it?

Carlos Tevez later struck a post, while at the other end, after Given had pushed Angelos Basinas' shot out, Webber had a second chance to score a rebound. He fell over. "That's why you're going down," the City fans chorused. They may well be right.

But finishers cost money. City fielded a £50 million forward line, while Portsmouth played a winger alone in attack because his alleged £80,000-a-week wages would deter any sensible buyers.

Common sense and Portsmouth have not been seen in the same sentence too often of late. But, obscured by the sense of impending apocalypse, their players are quietly mounting a valiant effort to stay in the division.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Stephen Ireland - In a match where none were truly outstanding, Ireland at least provided some of the defter touches and finer passes in the midfield.

MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: It was an underwhelming display and Mancini admitted his players were fatigued after their midweek efforts against Manchester United. The solid citizens in his team, such as Nigel de Jong, ensured there was no upset. Pablo Zabaleta, who broke his nose, is an addition to City's injury list while Benjani, expected to move before the transfer deadline, was a notable absentee from the 18.

PORTSMOUTH VERDICT: It was very much a microcosm of their campaign: a decent performance was undermined by poor finishing and defensive lapses. The players will be belatedly paid on Monday, but the question is how many of them remain at the club by 5pm.

TEAM BRIDGE: Several of the City players wore T-shirts bearing a slogan as a show of solidarity towards one of their team-mates after Wayne Bridge's unwanted appearance in the headlines. "Wayne is a fantastic man," said Mancini. "The players are very, very close to him."

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