It's that time again. At 1pm on Saturday Saints and Pompey will kick-off the 38th competitive South Coast Derby. The recent history between the two clubs was discussed extensively on this site prior to the December 18th meeting at Fratton Park, so there's no need to go over any old ground. A lot has happened in the 111 days since the last fixture though. Saints led the Championship table then as they do now, but the squad is now significantly stronger thanks to a few new additions in January. Portsmouth on the other hand have suffered nothing but trauma since Joel Ward's late equaliser handed them a 1-1 draw against their bitter rivals. The club looked comfortable in lower mid-table going into 2012, but have since been hit with a 10 point deduction for going into administration. Michael Appleton's men are now staring League 1 in the face, and have been forced to offload several high earners in an attempt to stave off liquidation. Everything points towards a home win on Saturday, but you can never be completely certain when predicting derby matches.
The last meeting between the two sides came at a good time for Portsmouth and a fairly difficult period for us. Pompey looked much more resilient after the arrival of Michael Appleton, who guided his team to back to back wins at the start of December. Saints had started to wobble slightly in late November. The lack of depth in the squad was exposed when key men Rickie Lambert and Kelvin Davis missed matches through injury. The pair returned for the contest at Fratton Park, but Saints were still fairly thin on the ground. The fact that Lee Holmes - a player who now plies his trade in League 2 - was on the bench should tell you all you need to know about the lack of alternatives we had within the squad. Four months later Saints are now blessed with greater options in reserve. Richard Chaplow has recovered from his long term injury, while Jason Puncheon has also returned to the side following an 18 month dispute with Nicola Cortese. Tadanari Lee, Billy Sharp and the barely used Yago Falque also arrived. Saints do have a few absentees for Saturday, with Lee ruled out until next season. Frazer Richardson and David Connolly have been out for the last few weeks, but Rickie Lambert looks set to return after missing last week's loss at Blackpool. Saints go into this derby in a lot better shape than we did the last one. Blackpool aside, we've been a lot more solid at the back over the past few months. Our attacking play perhaps isn't quite as attractive as it was at the start of the season, but the goals are still there. Saints also posses the mental strength required for highly pressurised promotion race. We go into the game in fine shape, and with a sell out crowd behind the team, there's no reason why they shouldn't storm to yet another home victory.
The Portsmouth side that lined up against Saints back in December has since been decimated. 6 of the 13 players involved that day have now left the club. Stephen Henderson, Liam Lawrence, Erik Huseklepp and Hayden Mullins have gone out on loan in an attempt to reduce the wage bill, while Joe Mattock and George Thorne have returned to West Brom. Pompey have since brought in a handful of young players on loan, including Man City pair Luca Scapuzzi and Karim Rekik, with Scott Allan and Chris Maguire also arriving from West Brom and Derby respectively. Michael Appleton now has an unbalanced squad which includes several high earners the club could do without. Tal Ben Haim is on a reported £36,000 a week, while the likes of Kanu and Benjani continue to pick up big money without contributing. Morale has been extremely low since the club suffered a ten point deduction for going into administration for the second time in two years. Pompey can no longer afford to fly to away games, while players have to pay for their own meals in the club's canteen. Having said all that, Appleton's men have occasionally shown signs of resilience in recent times. They secured impressive home wins over Birmingham and Hull last month, but also suffered humiliating losses to Coventry and Burnley. Pompey go into Saturday's match up with the same sense of foreboding that we had back in 2005 when Alain Perrin's boys ran out 4-1 winners in one of the darkest days in the history of Southampton Football Club. That's not to say Portsmouth should be completely written off. Back in 1987/88 they pulled off a shock 2-0 win at the Dell, despite getting relegated that season. A repeat of the 1975/76 season would go down a treat for Saints fans though. Pompey were relegated to the third tier that campaign shortly after suffering a 1-0 defeat to their hated rivals.
We would all like to see an avalanche of goals on Saturday, but the reality is derby days are often cagey affairs. Saints are more than capable of handing out a complete hammering to their neighbours, but there's also a fairly good chance that the game will be settled by the odd goal. These games are rarely good spectacles, despite the electric atmosphere. Michael Appleton will almost certainly look to flood the midfield and nick something on the counter or at set pieces.
Saints simply must win this game. It's been seven long years since our last derby day victory, and with both clubs heading in different directions it's absolutely crucial we settle the score. There's a very good chance both sides won't cross paths for at least a couple of years. While there is absolutely no doubt about whom the better side is now, Pompey still have a decent claim over bragging rights, having secured the most recent victory. We won't truly be able to put to bed the terrible memories of 2005, Lua Lua, Redknapp and everything else until we beat them again. Our journey back to the top the past three years has been nothing short of astonishing. A win on Saturday to set us up for promotion would be the icing on the cake.