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Monday, 13 October 2008

Fervent Fratton Park atmosphere awaits Kaka, Ronaldinho and co


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AC Milan are one of the biggest names in world football and have played in some of the most hostile environments across Europe. However, on November 27, they arrive at Fratton Park, the home of the FA Cup winners Portsmouth, and the passionate south coast fans are going to give the likes of Kaka, Ronaldinho and Rino Gattuso 90 minutes that they will never forget.

When Portsmouth drew AC Milan in the UEFA Cup it was like all their Christmases had come at once. But it was like they had won the EuroMillions jackpot when they discovered that they would actually be hosting the tie at Fratton Park. Portsmouth's first ever foray in Europe and they land one of the true giants of the game on their own patch. Does it get any better than this? Well Pompey fans will be hoping that it can by claiming the scalp of the San Siro club.

But just what sort of reception is AC Milan likely to receive when they arrive on the south coast? Dan Taylor, from the Portsmouth Supporters Club London, believes it will be a fairly noisy one and hopes that they could produce a shock result.

“Big clubs don’t like coming to Fratton Park - whether that’s the less than luxurious facilities or because the crowd being so close to the pitch I’m not sure.  The level of noise for those that haven’t experienced it must be a bit daunting. However, assuming Milan do not act like a bunch of primadonas and expect to have it all their own way I think they will get a great reception. While applauding the opposition never sits comfortably with any fan, Pompey supporters have always recognised and appreciated good football.  When Arsenal beat us 5-1 at home in the cup they got applauded off the pitch, because fans just had to stand back in amazement at the quality of football on display. Hopefully that won’t be the case in November, and we will be more amazed at the fact that we’ve taken a point, or more, from one of the true European giants of international club football.”

Dan, who has watched Portsmouth going from strength to strength over the past decade, still can't get his head around the fact that in a few weeks time he'll be watching AC Milan take on his beloved Portsmouth.

"When the draw was made I was full of amazement, coupled with panic. Amazement as to be playing AC Milan, a club with 18 international titles and 27 domestic trophies, was simply unfathomable this time last year - not least because you’d expect AC Milan to be involved in the Champions League. Panic because increasing work commitments have made it harder to get time off at short notice, and I am desperate to get to a European away game. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like I’m going to get the opportunity for an away day European shant, unless we progress to the later stages; and I’m certainly not counting any chickens just yet. I still haven’t quite taken it all in to be honest. It just seems crazy when I think back to when we were dependent on an away victory at Wigan to ensure Premiership survival . . .

"Given my inability to get time off work at the moment, and the cost of flights going up as soon as fixtures are announced, I’m selfishly quite pleased that we drew Milan at Fratton Park. I don’t doubt that a game in the San Siro would be a fantastic milestone in Pompey’s history and that speaking to some of our fans, they would give vital body parts to be able to go there with Pompey.  But if it means I get to stand in the Fratton End and help the chimes ring out with the likes of Kaka looking on and wondering “what the hell’s that all about” I’m quite happy to be called selfish."

However, it's not all about AC Milan. Also in Portsmouth group are Braga, Heerenveen and Wolfsburg and they're not going to be mugs. But Dan Taylor admits that he doesn't know an awful lot about them.

"Braga -  I only really know them from the name and the fact that their stadium was used in Euro 2004. I've read that they won the Intertoto Cup and that they've had a UEFA Cup experience before.

"Wolfsburg - I'd heard the name before and believe it or not I met a German Pompey fan who had come over from Wolfsburg to watch a home game. All I can recall from the rather drunken conversation with him was that the city was well-known for being the birth place of the VW Beetle.  It was also the destination for Andres D'Alessandro after he helped us secure that win at Wigan." 

"Heerenveen -  I have to confess I knew absolutely nothing about them, or even what country they played in. On looking though I see they finished 5th in the Dutch league and that they have had European experience before and that Rudd Van Nistelrooy used to play for them. They can't be slouches."    

Pompey begin their league campaign against Portuguese outfit Braga, managed by Jorge Jesus. They did indeed win the Intertoto Cup this year and this is their fifth consecutive season in European competition. However, they are yet to beat a British side in Europe so Portsmouth should be able to get a result against them at the Estadio AXA.

AC Milan come to Fratton Park before Portsmouth fly out to Germany to take on Wolfsburg, managed by former Bayern Munich boss Felix Magath. The Wolves find themselves in the UEFA Cup for only the second time in their history but they have established themselves as a Bundesliga club over the past decade or so. Again Portsmouth should have enough about them to get at least a point at the Volkswagen Arena.

The last game in the campaign for Portsmouth is at home against the Dutch side Heerenveen. They finished fifth in the league last season and saw off Vitoria Setubal 6-3 on aggregate. A number of top players have played for them too, like Marcus Allback, Afonso Alves and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, and are regarded as a main threat to Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord. If Pompey do require any points to progress further in this competition I'm sure the fans will spur them on in this game. 

Portsmouth booked their place in the group stages with a 4-2 aggregate win over Portuguese side Vitoria SC but fears have been raised that they do not have a big enough squad to cope with the demands of a joint assault on the Premiership and in Europe. And, Dan, who believes that two wins should be enough to book their place in the last 32, is hoping that injuries don't ruin their chances.

"Looking at the squad we have I'm not so certain we can cope with the fixture congestion that will inevitably result should we progress further beyond the group stage, nor the money to buy reinforcements in the January transfer window. When you look at the team we were more or less forced to put out in the Carling Cup, against Chelsea, and the subsequent result it doesn't fill me with confidence. If either Crouch or Defoe picked up an injury I'd worry about where our goals were going to come from and there's only so many games Sol can play before his legs start to feel the strain. So I guess it's a question of hoping our first team stay fit and they are rested at the appropriate opportunities . . .

"I'm sure Harry will do his best to keep all the players focused. He has been around long enough to know how to get the best out of them. However, if you look at the dip in form we suffered in the league, following our cup run last season, there are definitely grounds for concern.  At least we won't have to play extra time in the group stages!"

Everyone on the south coast is excited about AC Milan but if Portsmouth want to progress and become a permanent fixture in European football then they need to do the business against the other sides in their group and not just raise their game for Milan. November 27 is going to be a momentous day for all Portsmouth fans but December 17, when their European fate will be decided, is the most important one.

One thing's for sure though, nobody connected with Portsmouth and AC Milan will ever forget November 27, 2008.

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Colin Illingworth

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