Exhilarating contest

Nicolas Anelka (right) opens the account for Chelsea.-AP Nicolas Anelka (right) opens the account for Chelsea.

Portsmouth has denied last season’s top four at home this season and, once its own contingent returns from Ghana, will continue its pursuit of European qualification with real gusto, writes Dominic Fifield.

Avram Grant gatecrashed Harry Redknapp’s post-match briefing, sidling in and planting his hands on the home manager’s shoulders before taking a seat at his side. The startled Redknapp was discussing Chelsea’s title credentials at the time. “When they get their missing players back they’ll have a real chance,” he offered. “And, to be fair, that’s all down to this man.”

Grant chuckled at the compliment, although relations between the pair have not always been so cordial. Back in the summer of 2006 Redknapp had reacted with dismay when Alexandre Gaydamak appointed the Israeli as Portsmouth’s technical director. It was, in the manager’s eyes, a move reminiscent of Velimir Zajec’s arrival in a similar role some two years earlier, an imposition from above which had eventually prompted Redknapp’s resignation.

The manager’s instinct was once again to walk away, but Grant grew on him. “I didn’t know him and he was almost given to me, put on me in a way, and I wasn’t happy at the time,” reflected Redknapp once his opposite number had departed Fratton Park after the pulsating draw. “I reacted in my normal way when people do that to me — I wanted to walk away or whatever. But I didn’t. I met him, liked him and enjoyed being in his company. I couldn’t be happier for him now.

“We talked football and became great friends. I quickly realised he wasn’t here to take my job. He’d spent a lot of time travelling the world, watching Milan train, seeing how (Fabio) Capello and (Giovanni) Trapattoni work, and is a real student of football. He has an awful lot of knowledge and experience. While he was here it was always the case that he was going to go to Chelsea in some capacity. I had a feeling he might be taking the job there.”

Jose Mourinho had feared the worst when Grant’s name was first mentioned at Stamford Bridge a year ago and that concern was duly realised in September 2007. His replacement has excelled, quietly and confidently, even if he was denied a club record-equalling 10th consecutive win.

This was a collision of two excellent sides who mustered an exhilarating contest, particularly in the second-half when the game became increasingly gung-ho. Chelsea’s failure to prevail may have put them six points adrift of Arsenal but, propelled by rejuvenated wingers, a revived Michael Ballack and the menace of Nicolas Anelka, they remain hugely impressive.

Jermaine Defoe celebrates after getting the equaliser for Portsmouth.-AP

Anelka was denied in first-half stoppage-time by David James but volleyed the visitors ahead 10 minutes into the second-half after a break downfield. “Everybody at the club thinks we can still be champions,” said the £15m French striker. “When the players come back (from the African Cup of Nations) we’ll have a big squad and some players can rest, so we can become stronger and stronger.”

So too will Portsmouth. Redknapp’s signing of Lassana Diarra, underused at Chelsea and Arsenal, already looks a masterstroke, the France international eclipsing Claude Makelele in central midfield. “He’s some player,” added Redknapp. “He’s got everything.

He could play anywhere in any team. He’s only 22 and has played the last 10 games in midfield for France. He went to Arsene Wenger when he was left out of the team and said, ‘I want a move.’ I’d better make sure I don’t drop him. He’s in every week.”

While Diarra busied himself in the centre, Milan Baros and Jermain Defoe stretched Chelsea’s defence. The Czech should have won a penalty after inducing Juliano Belletti to handle the ball. Then Baros flicked on and Defoe finished smartly, and he could have added a decisive second in the frantic final moments. Regardless, Pompey have denied last season’s top four at home this season and, once their own contingent return from Ghana, will continue their pursuit of European qualification with real gusto.

THE RESULTS February 3:

February 2: Birmingham 1 (Larsson 68) drew with Derby 1 (Villa 89). Half-time: 0-0; Blackburn 0 drew with Everton 0; Liverpool 3 (Crouch 57, Torres 69, Gerrard pen-89) bt Sunderland 0. Half-time: 0-0; Manchester City 1 (Gelson 28) lost to Arsenal 3 (Adebayor 9 & 88, Eduardo 26). Half-time: 1-2; Portsmouth 1 (Defoe 64) drew with Chelsea 1 (Anelka 55). Half-time: 0-0; Reading 0 lost to Bolton 2 (Nolan 33, Helguson 58). Half-time: 0-1; Tottenham 1 (Berbatov 21) drew with Manchester United 1 (Tevez 90). Half-time: 1-0; Wigan 1 (Kilbane 45) bt West Ham 0. Half-time: 1-0.

January 30: Chelsea 1 (Ballack 32) bt Reading 0. Half-time: 1-0; Derby 1 (Jihai o.g. 47) drew with Manchester City 1 (Sturridge 63). Half-time: 0-0; Everton 0 drew with Tottenham 0; Manchester United 2 (Ronaldo 10 & 13). Half-time: 2-0; West Ham 1 (Noble pen-90) bt Liverpool 0. Half-time: 0-0.

January 29: Arsenal 3 (Adebayor 40, Flamini 72, Fabregas 80) bt Newcastle 0. Half-time: 1-0; Bolton 0 drew with Fulham 0; Middlesbrough 1 (Aliadiere 19) bt Wigan 0. Half-time: 1-0; Sunderland 2 (Murphy 15, Prica 65) bt Birmingham 0. Half-time: 1-0.

January 26: Aston Villa 1 (Young 73) drew with Blackburn 1 (Santa Cruz 68). Half-time: 0-0.

January 21: Liverpool 2 (Benayoun 19, Crouch 88) drew with Aston Villa 2 (Harewood 69, Aurelio o.g. 72). Half-time: 1-0.