Just like Manchester City and Everton, Portsmouth is coming off their best season in England’s top division in years, and I’m not sure there’d be much argument from the South Coast side’s supporters by saying it was the best season in club history. Portsmouth wound up in 8th place, their highest-ever finish in the Premiership (though not in the old First Division). They won the FA Cup for the second time in their 110-year existence, thereby earning a berth in this season’s UEFA Cup, the first time Portsmouth will play in a European competition.
It was an amazing year for a team that seemed destined for relegation midway through the 2005-2006 campaign. At that point, Pompey’s fortunes changed forever. Wealthy Franco-Russian businessman Alexandre Gaydamak became co-owner of the club in January, which was in the bottom three at the time, and invested money immediately, allowing manager Harry Redknapp, who’d only come back to Portsmouth in December following a short stint at arch-rival Southampton, to bring in much-needed reinforcements. Portsmouth hit a good run of form at the end of the season and managed to escape the drop. Gaydamak then became sole owner in July. The rest, as they say, is history.
The combination of Gaydamak and Redknapp has worked wonders for a small-market side with the smallest stadium in the Premiership in Fratton Park, which seats just over 20,000 people. Gaydamak has financed acquisitions — Lassana Diarra, John Utaka, Sulley Muntari, David James, Niko Kranjcar, etc. — that have made Portsmouth a considerably better side, and the $22 million signing of striker Peter Crouch this summer was a club record. Redknapp, for his part, is Portsmouth’s most successful manager in terms of win percentage since Bob Jackson in the late ’40’s-early ’50’s, and in terms of total wins since George Smith, who was at the helm basically throughout the entirety of the ’60’s.
Most of Redknapp’s big transfer moves have come prior to this summer’s window, with the exception of Crouch, of course. He’s lost only one player so far, Muntari, though the attack-minded Ghanian midfielder was Portsmouth’s best field player last season, his only one in the Premiership. He will sorely be missed, but Inter Milan came-a-calling and offered significantly more money (around $10 million more) than what Portsmouth paid to sign him from Udinese in the first place. Redknapp and Gaydamak couldn’t turn that quick profit down, which effectively offset Crouch’s signing by half. Crouch and Defoe should form a lethal partnership up front; the pacey Defoe provides explosiveness and will run off balls won down from the air by Crouch, who has great body control and creativity for a man his size. Ben Sahar came on loan from Chelsea, and the Israeli international has made it clear that he intends to challenge for playing time on the front line.
With Muntari’s departure, Portsmouth’s strongest area shifts from the midfield to the defense, including David James, the league’s best keeper last year. Pompey conceded just 40 goals, though James single-handedly kept anywhere from 5 to 10 more out by coming up with an incredible save of some kind. Sol Campbell is the club’s captain and heart and soul of the back four. He’s joined in the middle by the vice-captain, Sylvain Distin, who started 36 league games last season, an impressive total for a center back. Both men stand at 6’4″ and are as physical as they come, so most aerial 50-50’s played by the opposing team into the penalty area go for naught. Glen Johnson thrust himself into contention for the England national team with his play at right back, finally living up to the potential Chelsea saw originally when they signed him from West Ham a few years ago. As with Manchester City, Portsmouth’s weak link in defense is at left back. Hermann Hreiðarsson occupies the position for Pompey. He’s getting on in years (34), doesn’t offer much going forward, and can be exploited by speedy right wingers, but he doesn’t make too many mistakes.
Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2):
CB: Campbell (captain)
CMF: Papa Bouba Diop
Portsmouth opens the season with as difficult an August as any team in the Premiership, with games at Chelsea and Everton sandwiched around Manchester United’s visit to Fratton Park. It’s the second straight year that Pompey has played those two “Big Four” giants in August; they took one point out of a possible six in the last go-around.
September and October are no easy feats either. Portsmouth will see Manchester City (away), Tottenham (home), Aston Villa (away), and Liverpool (away) — all European participants — along with Stoke City and Fulham in must-win home games.
After that tough run to start the year, Pompey will likely have to make up ground and have a perfect opportunity to do just that in November and December. Those two months bring 10 league games, and Redknapp’s side can conceivably win 9 of those and take points from all 10. The opponents they should beat: Wigan, Hull City, Blackburn, Newcastle, West Ham (all at home), and Sunderland, West Ham, West Brom, and Bolton on the road. Each of those matches are winnable, so we’ll see how Portsmouth does.
The South Coasters have to play Liverpool, Man United, and Chelsea in a four-game stretch in February and early March, an arduous task to say the least.
Portsmouth closes out the season with another straightforward slate of fixtures. Seven of their last eight — @ Hull, West Brom, Bolton, @ Newcastle, @ Blackburn, Sunderland, and @ Wigan — should be handled without too much difficulty, and a showdown against Arsenal at Fratton Park comes the first weekend of May.
Bottom Line: In terms of net loss and gain, the Muntari-for-Crouch tradeoff won’t help or hurt Portsmouth too much. The two bring different skillsets to the table and while Muntari is probably the better player overall, Crouch adds a lot more to the front line, both directly and indirectly, with what he can do. Last season was the first that the majority of the starters had a chance to really get used to one another, and that working relationship should continue to grow in ’08-’09. This is a talented bunch, but if Redknapp feels he needs an additional piece or two in January, Gaydamak will provide the money. It’ll be interesting to see how much, if at all, the extra UEFA Cup games will affect Portsmouth’s play in the Premiership. Expect no worse than another 8th-place finish, but I could see Pompey crawl up the table a bit higher than 7th as well.
Tomorrow I’ll preview the teams just outside the top four, both of which have an eye on breaking the traditional stranglehold imposed by England’s giants.