LONDON: Portsmouth’s top flight aspirations go under the microscope today when Harry Redknapp leads his first division leaders into one of football’s great stages – a sold-out Old Trafford.
The draw for the third round of the FA Cup has thrown up six all Premiership affairs. But it is Manchester United’s tie against Portsmouth that has captured the imagination and attracted the biggest clutch of television cameras.
Portsmouth are currently five points clear at the top of the first division and are odds-on favourites to return to the top flight for the first time since they were relegated from the old first division in its final 1991/92 season.
But while the south coast port is buzzing with the team’s current success, few members of Redknapp’s squad will have any idea what to expect when they run out at Old Trafford.
A capacity crowd of just under 68,000 will be the biggest crowd any Pompey side has played in front of since the 1939 FA Cup final, which they won.
Redknapp is happy to see his side written off as no-hopers. “Nobody gives us a chance, not even me,” he joked.
“Seriously it makes a bit of a change because we go into almost every game with people expecting us to win.
“This is what the big time is all about and if you can’t look forward to occasions such as this then there is not much point in getting up.”
Portsmouth have come off the boil a little in the last month, drawing four out of their last five matches in their division.
They have also been hit by the loss of central defender Arjan de Zeeuw through injury.
But Redknapp has secured the service of Arsenal’s Stathis Tavlaridis on loan as cover.
The Pompey manager also has a knack of upsetting Manchester United having secured good Old Trafford results with West Ham and, most memorably, having masterminded Bournemouth’s third round win over the then Cup holders in January 1984.
United goalkeeper Fabien Barthez is doubtful for the match after straining his thigh in the win over Sunderland on Wednesday. United are hopeful however that Ruud van Nistelrooy has recovered from a toe infection in time for the match.
United’s neighbours Manchester City take on Liverpool at Maine Road on Sunday in the other choice tie.
Liverpool have been given added motivation to do well in the Cup following the disintegration of their Premiership challenge as a result of a run of 10 games without a victory.
But Gerard Houllier’s side will not relish the prospect of facing a City side currently on a run of form, not to mention Nicolas Anelka with a point to prove.
The former France striker was bitterly disappointed when Houllier deemed him surplus to requirements at Anfield in the summer but he has resurrected his career under the shelter of Kevin Keegan at City.
The former Arsenal and Real Madrid misfit scored his 10th goal of the season in the 2-2 draw at Everton on New Year’s Day but was substituted for the first time this season after admitting he was badly fatigued.
He has now been ordered to put his feet up before the Liverpool game after declining the offer of a weekend off.
“He will be fit for the Cup game,” Keegan said.