The FA Cup had few greater seasons in terms of upsets than the 2007/2008 campaign. There was Havant and Waterlooville’s run to the fourth round of the competition, Barnsley’s incredible back to back victories over cup kings Chelsea and Liverpool and then there was the most unheralded semi-final line up in recent memory.
This game, however, between Manchester United and Portsmouth was one of the most significant in the south coast club’s history. Having remained in the top flight since gaining promotion in 2003, Pompey had rarely threatened to achieve more than Premier League survival.
The clubs had met a month earlier in a league game at the same venue, a fixture remembered best for Cristiano Ronaldo’s breathtaking free-kick. There had been nothing on evidence that night to suggest Harry Redknapp’s charges would be anything other than a walkover for the imperious league champions.
Although Barnsley’s home win over Chelsea came on the same afternoon, the Portsmouth victory was arguably the more unexpected result of the sixth round weekend. Such was United’s dominance over the first 78 minutes that the thought of a win for the visiting team was less likely than Havant and Waterlooville going to Anfield and getting a result.
A territorially dominant home side looked well on top in the first half of the clash, Ronaldo unlucky not to win his side a penalty, however it was the second half in which the likelihood of United moving another step closer to a potential treble appeared inescapable.
The Portsmouth goal survived several scrambles- Ronaldo hitting a drive wide when it was easier to score and Carlos Tevez conspired to block a goal-bound effort from a corner. The most remarkable escape came when Sylvain Distin was able to cover behind the impressive David James and stopped Michael Carrick’s goal-bound effort on the line, giving the Portsmouth keeper time to quell the attack.
From another corner, Nikko Krancjar broke at pace, and after locating Milan Baros in the middle United’s penalty box, the mercurial striker was brought down by substitute goalkeeper, Tomasz Kuszczak. The Polish stopper was harshly sent-off and Sulley Muntari stepped up to stroke the resultant spot kick past auxiliary glove man, Rio Ferdinand.
Despite a handful of nervous moments, Redknapp’s men held on to record a major victory, dashing Sir Alex Ferguson’s hopes of a second treble. For United, the result was a minor blip on what was still a phenomenally successful season- completing a European Cup and Premier League double.
Portsmouth’s success, completely against the run of play, turned out to be the worst thing possible for the club. At the time, of course, the victory was championed as an indication that the FA Cup was alive and kicking, For Pompey, however, it was the beginning of a period of extensive financial outlay, following the FA Cup triumph at Wembley over Cardiff City. Attempting to match their status as a UEFA Cup side, Portsmouth spent heavily on Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch in an attempt to forge a new potency up front. The now Spurs duo saw a satisfactory start to their time at Fratton Park, but a morale sapping draw with AC Milan, having lead 2-0 with minutes remaining, put paid to the dream of sustained European success.
Within eighteen months the club were back at Wembley, a handful of the 2008 heroes remaining as Portsmouth were downed by league champions, Chelsea. By this point the Fratton Park faithful had seen three managers attempt to steady the ship after Harry Redknapp lead an exodus in the autumn of 2008. Four new owners and a calamitous league campaign the price for overreaching after their cup triumph.
Next week marks the three year anniversary of that extraordinary game at Old Trafford- there will be a few Pompey fans still cursing that remarkable block from Sylvain Distin that indirectly precipitated the club’s fall from grace.
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