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Liverpool Daily Post match report

HAVING brought back some magic to the competition in their last FA Cup assignment, Liverpool were content simply to restore their own battered pride yesterday.

After a week spent nursing the considerable wound left by their late defeat at Manchester United, Rafael Benitez's side responded in ideal fashion by sidestepping a potentially damaging reverse at Portsmouth to ease into the fifth round.

While never reaching anywhere near the level of performance that has characterised this campaign, Liverpool did just about enough to ensure John Arne Riise's spectacular strike four minutes before the break ultimately proved decisive.

Steven Gerrard had given the visitors the lead from the spot following a generous decision by referee Phil Dowd, and although Sean Davis gave Portsmouth hope with a 54th-minute header, Liverpool, despite one or two moments of concern, were never genuinely under threat.

Riise's goal was perhaps the only memorable moment of a largely abject FA Cup tie that was the polar opposite of the thrill-a-minute rollercoaster witnessed at Luton Town in the third round earlier in the month.

Don't blame Liverpool for that. They can only beat what is put before them, and in the first half in particular Portsmouth offered nothing to suggest they will avoid joining Sunderland in dropping into the Championship next season.

Indeed, the main danger to Benitez's side was complacency and they were also at times guilty of being dragged down to the home team's abysmal level as passes were too often astray and possession in the final third scant and poorly used.

Harry Redknapp's side made a better fist of things after the interval, but even then Liverpool rarely had to shift out of second gear as a belated Portsmouth charge never really managed to build up a sufficient head of steam to worry them.

Liverpool have played better this season and lost - at Old Traf-ford, for example - but this victory was wholly deserved.

And though instantly forgettable, the importance of bouncing back from last week's setback should not be undermined.

Under Benitez, Liverpool have gradually gained a steely backbone and a gritty determination to get things done, and those qualities again came to the fore.

They were needed. Some roughhouse tactics from Portsmouth during the first half attempted to knock Liverpool out of their stride, with a number of feisty challenges leaving their imprint on Gerrard, Jan Kromkamp, Jamie Carragher and Mohamed Sissoko.

However, the visitors were more perturbed by a Fratton Park pitch which, although freshly laid after Port-smouth's defeat to Everton a fortnight ago, was still far from perfect and began cutting up even in the opening stages, with a swirling wind only adding to the difficulties underfoot.

That, though, was no excuse for Liverpool's performance in attack where both Fernando Morientes and Djibril Cisse - surprisingly paired up front by Benitez - were again disappointing.. Both frittered possession away cheaply, though in mitigation they weren't helped by the visitors' inability to consistently find a way through a clustered mid-field.

Nevertheless, Liverpool remain hampered by a distinct lack of cutting edge. Robbie Fowler could well have more of a part to play this season than even he might expect.

Although lazy pundits will no doubt tiresomely debate the zonal marking system after the concession of a second set-piece goal in successive weeks, Benitez could at least take heart from his team's overall defensive performance.

And the manager will have in particular been pleased with the display of Sami Hyypia, who responded in the right manner to the extra competition from new arrival Daniel Agger.

Another new signing, Kromkamp, was given his first start since his move from Villarreal, and the Holland international improved as the game went on to hint at significant involvement in the coming weeks.

In fact, a low-key beginning to proceedings was only sparked into life once Kromkamp had been given the traditional welcome to the FA Cup by a clattering challenge from Vincent Peri-card that earned the home striker a deserved caution in the 10th minute, with Richard Hughes following his team-mate into the book moments later with a similarly poor tackle on Carragher.

Portsmouth manager Redknapp had opted to pack the home midfield and made four changes from the side that was hammered 5-0 at Birmingham City the previous week, Dean Kiely handed a debut in goal following his move from Charlton Athletic during the week.

Such weight of numbers led to a war of attrition in the centre of the park.

Gerrard was less than impressed by a needless elbow in the face from former Anfield colleague Gregory Vignal, and such niggles were a feature of a poor first quarter that was summed up when Pedro Mendes's attempted shot went out for a throw in.

It was perhaps fitting, then, that when the visitors went ahead nine minutes before the break the goal was literally handed to them by Portsmouth's ineptitude.

A corner on the right from Gerrard was curled into the box and, with no Liverpool player in the vicinity, the ball struck Dejan Stefanovic's hand after he missed his attempt to clear.

While more heralded individuals have escaped censure for such offences in recent times, referee Dowd immediately awarded the penalty and, unlike Michael Owen in Liverpool's last FA Cup visit here, Gerrard tucked the ball away despite Kiely diving the correct way.

The lead was doubled five minutes later in emphatic fashion when Morientes's improvised flick on the halfway line gave Riise space in which to burst forward and eventually let fly with an accurate drive that went through Andy O'Brien's legs and crashed into the bottom far corner from 20 yards.

It could have been 3-0 before the break when Gerrard pounced on a dreadful clearance by O'Brien and played Morientes in, but Kiely redeemed his centre-back by clawing the ball away at the Spaniard's feet.

Svetoslav Todorov was introduced as a second striker for Portsmouth at half-time, and nine minutes later played a part in helping the home side back into the game.

Kromkamp was adjudged to have fouled the substitute, and O'Neil's inswinging delivery on the left was flicked in by Davis's head beyond Pepe Reina, who was making his FA Cup debut after being preferred to Scott Carson.

Riise then wasted a decent chance to instantly restore the two-goal advantage by flashing a shot well over from a good position while Stephen Warnock was fortunate Davis couldn't control possession after intercepting the left-back's ill-advised back-pass to his keeper.

Gerrard had by then been moved into a more central position with Cisse wide on the right, but this only served to make Morientes even less potent before his inevitable substitution for former Portsmouth man Peter Crouch.

Redknapp's side increased their intensity to make up for their shortfall in quality, and Stefanovic came close with a curling free-kick that had Reina scrambling across his goal but flew safely over.

Crouch attempted a spectacular overhead kick that trickled wide before Reina saved bravely from substitute Azar Karadas and eventually clasped the rebound after Todorov's teasing cross from the left had caused mild panic in the Liverpool defence.

The visitors, however, held on.

Pride restored, now for the return of Liverpool's prodigal son.

PORTSMOUTH: Kiely, Primus (Priske 88), Stefanovic, O'Brien, Vignal (Todorov 45), O'Neil, Davis, Pedro Mendes, Hughes, Taylor, Pericard (Karadas 66). Subs: Ashdown, Cisse.
BOOKINGS: Pericard, Hughes, Davis.

LIVERPOOL: Reina, Kromkamp, Hyypia, Carragher, Warnock, Gerrard (Finnan 80), Alonso, Sissoko, Riise, Cisse (Kewell 83), Morientes (Crouch 72). Subs: Carson, Traore.
BOOKING: Sissoko.

REFEREE: P Dowd (Staffordshire)

© Copyright - Liverpool Daily Post

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