Pompey 0 Brighton 1

Liam Lawrence fire his spot kick off the post.  Picture: Steve Reid
Liam Lawrence fire his spot kick off the post. Picture: Steve Reid
Pompey skipper Brett Pitman Picture: Joe Pepler

Striker recall gets thumbs up from Pompey boss

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It was a performance which stole the show.

Granted, it was harsh on Aaron Mokoena, who produced one of his finest displays of a fitful Pompey career.

Nonetheless, this was Benjani Mwaruwari’s day.

And he was back at Fratton Park.

Once he strode across the famous turf some 10 minutes before kick-off on Saturday anything else which subsequently occurred was always going to be an anti-climax.

As it was, the finale proved to be a thrilling one.

Sadly Liam Lawrence’s penalty miss and a second defeat in four days as a direct result ensured it wasn’t a double celebration.

Mind you, not even a last-gasp point would have wrestled the headlines from a player who didn’t even lace up his boots for the clash with Brighton.

If ever there was a man to lift spirits amid an air of growing frustration among fans, the 33-year-old Zimbabwean is he.

Sold against his wishes to Manchester City in January 2008, his imprint on Blues fans had been indelible.

When news emerged of his shock sighting at Fratton Park before the Brighton clash, the chatter grew ever-more excited.

By the time he was introduced on the pitch clutching that number 25 shirt he famously wore, three quarters of the stadium exploded into a cacophony of noise.

It was a second coming for the free agent which took fewer than 48 hours to seal, from initial contact on Thursday night to the penning of a year-long deal on Saturday morning.

Certainly, his cameo was the perfect tonic for pepping up a south-coast derby which attracted a hugely disappointing crowd of 16,496.

For all talk of new regimes and fresh starts, there remains an undercurrent of dissatisfaction among supporters aggrieved at pricing and the effectiveness of the club’s transfer policy.

An abject showing against Barnet in the week had also done little to raise spirits.

Regardless, the Fans’ Conference did their best to boost the atmosphere by securing £11,000 worth of sponsorship to supply 17,000 flags to all Blues supporters on the day.

That provided magical scenes reminiscent of Pompey forays into two FA Cup finals in recent years as both teams took to the field.

In fairness to Brighton, they played their part, selling out their allocation in the Milton end.

Again, though, it was the arrival of Benjani to the party as a surprise guest which really lit the touchpaper.

Ultimately, the match which unfolded was full-blooded, niggly, aggressive and certainly hampered by the officiousness of referee Neil Swarbrick.

Fitting then that the decisive goal should be a scrappy effort, Craig Mackail-Smith somehow bundling the ball home.

Coming on the stroke of half-time – it was to be another 45 minutes before Pompey came closest to scoring.

And that came in the form of a penalty awarded five minutes into stoppage-time.

The outcome saw Lawrence strike the post before crumpling to the floor in disbelief.

Defeat was harsh on the hosts, particularly as it was a team performance unrecognisable from that served up against Barnet.

With four changes to the side that turned up that day – or rather didn’t – Ricardo Rocha and Dave Kitson both found themselves on the bench.

In came Kanu and Jamie Ashdown, while Hermann Hreidarsson and Tal Ben Haim were back from international duty.

The response was certainly what Cotterill craved as his players cranked up the energy levels and displayed new-found aggression.

An improved second-half display also produced several great opportunities, particularly for David Norris.

But in the end it was a second defeat in the week, this time played out in front of all three of the club’s owners in attendance in the directors’ box.

Certainly, the moment which provided the biggest cheer was that grand unveiling of Benjani before a ball had been even kicked.

You can only hope someone has explained to the owners the significance of the 33-year-old to the Pompey fans.

Of course, it would be folly to believe the veteran is the solution to all Pompey’s problems.

After all, he cannot play across the back four or in the centre of midfield.

There are also questions to be asked of his capacity to be regularly available for selection.

Since leaving Fratton Park three-and-a-half years ago, Benjani has made just 60 appearances.

Of those, a mere 33 have been starts during his stop-offs at Manchester City, Blackburn and Sunderland.

For Cotterill, though, it is another option in a squad which is still vastly understrength and endlessly linked with potential newcomers.

As it stands, Erik Huseklepp remains the prime target as the club close in on the Norwegian winger from Bari.

In the meantime, the games are coming thick and fast for the Blues, with Reading next up tomorrow.

On Saturday, irrespective of the improvement on the Barnet showing, a lack of cutting edge was clearly apparent.

Both teams were evenly matched throughout, although the hosts did step up the pace in the second half. In fairness, they had their moments in the first also.

After two minutes Kanu’s clever lay off fell into the path of Norris who drilled a shot narrowly past the post.

At the other end, Gary Dicker curled a free-kick into the arms of Ashdown, while Liam Bridcutt’s blaster appeared destined for the net only to crucially deflect off the head of Blues midfielder Hayden Mullins.

Ashdown also pushed a Romain Vincelot shot away after the Brighton man had been teed up by team-mate Dicker.

Then, on the stroke of half-time, substitute Crain Noone wriggled down the left and his cross was eventually, somehow, netted by former Peterborough hitman Mackail-Smith.

After the break Lawrence clipped a shot onto the roof of the net, while Hreidarsson’s fierce cross-shot was somehow kept out.

Norris also had several golden opportunities to level the derby contest.

Meanwhile, substitute Kitson was agonisingly close to nudging home Luke Varney’s flying header at the far post.

Then, five minutes into time added on, Lewis Dunk’s hand rose to gift Pompey a penalty.

No complaints over the identity of the man chosen to take the spot-kick,

Except the post represented the last act following the last kick of the match.

But, in truth, it was Benjani who had the first and final word.