It is time, Sir Alex Ferguson has announced, for Manchester United to make an impact on the FA Challenge Cup competition again. Two successive fourth-round defeats, preceded by an even more ignominious "did not enter" against their name, are unworthy of a club present at 14 post-war finals and successful in nine of them. If they continue to combine the fluency of yesterday's first half with the good fortune enjoyed in the second, a 15th should not be ruled out.
Sir Alex had promised Portsmouth's gnarled old managerial team of Harry Redknapp and Jim Smith, whom he dubbed the Odd Couple, that a glass or two of his best red wine would be awaiting them whatever the result. For almost 40 minutes, that looked like being the only thing United gave the First Division leaders; Ruud van Nistelrooy, who might have been celebrating a hat-trick after seven minutes' play, made do with the first of two successful penalties and David Beckham curled in a wonderful free-kick, all in the first quarter of the game.
But shortly before the interval Steve Stone unexpectedly halved the deficit, and after Redknapp and Smith had asked their charges for greater self-belief – very politely, no doubt – Portsmouth responded with verve and audacity. Nothing came of half-a-dozen opportunities, however, and Van Nistelrooy's second penalty was followed by a marginal offside decision at each end, one cancelling out Svetoslav Todorov's effort and the other allowing Paul Scholes to complete a scoreline underscored with flattery.
With an eighth game in three and a half weeks looming on Tuesday – the Worthington Cup semi-final first leg against Blackburn Rovers – United made seven changes, seeking to freshen things up without devaluing either their challenge or the tournament. The starting line-up did not look significantly weakened and was coasting until Roy Keane strained a hamstring and, as Ferguson admitted, some lazy passing encouraged Portsmouth to believe in the improbable.
Manchester United were supposed to take this opportunity to show Portsmouth what they can expect in the Premiership next season. Instead, they showed the First Division leaders rather too much of their split personality.
After half an hour, a totally outplayed Portsmouth probably felt like slinking back to the Nationwide League, as they were being unceremoniously asked to do by the Stretford End. Had the home team been four or five goals ahead at that point, instead of just two, the visiting team could have had no complaints. However, after another half-hour, Portsmouth have a goal, United are still on two and the Stretford End is strangely quiet as Matthew Taylor plays the best pass of the afternoon to send Nigel Quashie bearing down on Roy Carroll. Quashie has only the goalkeeper to beat, but he loses his head and puts the ball into the crowd. Pompey's chance is gone.
Another half-hour later and United have won the tie with two late goals, as everyone suspected they might, yet there is considerable sympathy for Harry Redknapp's view that his team did not deserve such an unflattering scoreline.
Regardless of a heavy defeat, Portsmouth and their 9,000 noisy fans will return to the South Coast feeling a lot happier about going back to Old Trafford next season.
If only Portsmouth had been as good as their supporters. The famous Pompey chimes rang out loud and long at Old Trafford yesterday, but unfortunately for the campanologists, the bell tolled for the First Division leaders, and it is Manchester United who go through to the fourth round of the FA Cup.
Somebody said it wasn’t half a good cup tie; in reality that was exactly what it was. For the first 45 minutes, the underdogs forgot that the role demanded tooth-and-claw commitment and stood back in awe of their celebrated opponents. The result was that they left themselves with too much to do when they belatedly decided to have a go.
There was the merest whiff of an upset midway through the second half when Nigel Quashie raced clear and, one-on-one with Roy Carroll, wasted a golden opportunity to make it 2-2. Had that one gone in, the outcome might have been different.
Instead, United scored twice in the last 10 minutes and ended up winning with plenty to spare, which was their due.
If the ultimate giants were to be slain, Portsmouth needed to work like Trojans and keep United at bay long enough to put them, and the crowd, on edge.
Portsmouth gave Manchester United a two-goal start, and a scare, before finally capitulating at Old Trafford yesterday. The First Division leaders did not make a real contest of this third-round tie until Steve Stone pulled a goal back late in the first half; thereafter, though, they forced United to work very hard for a place in tomorrow's fourth-round draw.
The interval was only seven minutes away when Stone replied to those opening goals by Ruud van Nistelrooy and David Beckham. Significantly, it was in Portsmouth's first attack of the game that the former England midfielder scored. That was an accurate measure of how overawed, and outplayed, the visitors had previously been.
But, as United manager Sir Alex Ferguson acknowledged, Stone's goal gave the visitors and their 9,000 magnificently vocal supporters a psychological lift that brought his own team, shorn of the injured Roy Keane, little but trouble in the second half. "They got among us and they play good football - that's why they are top of the First Division," Ferguson conceded willingly.