Saturday, August 11, 2007
Todd strike keeps Derby thinking positive
Derby County 2 - 2 Portsmouth
Accompanied by the August sun, the start of the season offers a time for unparalleled optimism. Expectations will be exceeded, summer signings will invariably prosper and the new season will offer everything the old one did not.
So the theory goes, anyway. Derby and Portsmouth, at least, can remain positive for a while longer before reality can exert a depressing effect.
Both sides were enterprising and, for both, cause for cheer came from the new signings within the final 10 minutes.
Because the quickfire exchange of goals came from summer arrivals. Given that Derby are newly promoted and Portsmouth managed by Harry Redknapp, it was inevitable there would be an influx at both clubs, but the identity of the goalscorers was indicative of their different aims, as well as their different financial muscle.
Portsmouth's second goal, seemingly securing victory, came from John Utaka, an exuberant African with a surfeit of tricks, then Derby's equaliser came from Andy Todd, now consigned to the category of journeyman and an unlikely recruit for most Premier League teams.
But, in an inversion of expectations, Todd's was the spectacular strike, albeit the kind of flying header that represents a central defender's best chance of figuring in compilations of memorable goals.
Todd, however, was deployed elsewhere, even if he initially had a particularly defensive interpretation of his midfield duties, rarely straying more than five yards ahead of the back four. By the end, circumstances forced him to appear in the Portsmouth box to salvage a point.
'We've got to be prepared to adapt and adjust and ask certain players to play in certain positions which may not be their favourite positions,' was Davies' explanation of his tactical switch.
Todd also adds height to Derby, making Utaka's goal all the more galling for them. It followed a set-piece, Sylvain Distin's free kick being headed in by Hermann Hreidarsson for the African to slide it in.
He was involved, too, in Portsmouth's first goal, finished by Benjani after first Utaka and then David Nugent had moved the ball from left flank to right. Despite his appearance on the opposite wing, Utaka had started on the right, but his tendency to wander is apt. This is man who has made his way from Nigeria to Portsmouth via Egypt, Qatar and France.
Nugent, whose journey from Bury reserves to the Premier League, was facilitated by Davies in his days as Preston manager, endured a mixed debut.
If his speed aided Portsmouth's counter-attacks, his finishing was tentative.
Indeed, nerves may have afflicted two other newcomers. Sylvain Distin and Hermann Hreidarsson formed the left half of the Portsmouth defence, and it was through there that Matt Oakley advanced to score Derby's fourth-minute opener (Portsmouth went five matches at the start of last season without conceding; they didn't manage five minutes this time).
With Sulley Muntari a competitive presence in the midfield, it meant five components of Redknapp's £20 million makeover of Portsmouth were playing.
Needless to say, more recruits are wanted even if Redknapp, an expert at downplaying expectations, prefers to suggest his is a permanently uphill battle.
'If we get in the top half, I'll be delighted, absolutely delighted,' he added. 'I still think we need strength in one or two positions.'
Derby, whose rebuilding is at a less advanced stage, have a greater need for players as well as momentum from a week that includes two away games. 'I don't think we will be ready challenge until the beginning of September,'
Davies admitted, perfectly aware of the negative predictions that are the lot of the promoted teams.
He listed: 'Derby to go down, Davies to get sacked, it's the same every season, it happens to all the teams that come up.'
There were reasons at Pride Park to suggest they may confound virtually every tipster. A committed performance ranks among them, along with the encouraging displays of the players in tandem on the right flank, Craig Fagan and Tyrone Mears, who were both criticised last season.
Set against it, however, has to be the travails of a defence that featured, in Darren Moore and Andy Griffin, two former Portsmouth players, neither the most comfortable when confronted with pace. Utaka possessed that in abundance
MAN OF THE MATCH: John Utaka - Early impressions were that the winger could prove infuriating and inconsistent, but he is certainly entertaining. He scored one and made another, rewarding Redknapp for his decision to play an attack-minded formation.
INS AND OUTS: Derby remain eager to sign Kenwyne Jones from Southampton, while Davies also praised his team-mate Jhon Viafara. The American Benny Feilhaber is almost secured and, as the Derby manager said: 'We have to add quality to the midfield and forward areas. There are many conversations taking place.' One concerns Giles Barnes, though bids from several clubs, West Ham included, have not met Derby's valuation of the teenager.
DERBY VERDICT: Reports of their unsuitability for the Premier League may have been exaggerated. This was a spirited performance, and there is a realism about their chances: Davies, unlike Adrian Boothroyd 12 months ago, would settle for 42 points and 17th place.
PORTSMOUTH VERDICT: They should be among the more attack-minded members of the mid-table pack. Whether Nugent - or anyone else - can take the chances they will create should determine if Europe is a possibility.
THE KING OF THE ONE-LINERS: Redknapp answered a question whether he was feeling pressure from above with a response of: 'What, from God?' His reaction to discovering Todd scored was: 'Bloody hell, it's a wonder he didn't get a nosebleed. He's never been that far up the field before in his life.'
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