by Mark Storey
Michael Appleton believes Pompey’s next three matches will shape their season.
The Blues tackle West Ham at Fratton Park on Saturday ahead of trips to Cardiff and Peterborough.
That will lead Pompey into the final three months of a campaign that currently could go either way.
The Blues are seven points above the drop zone but just eight off the play-offs with a game in hand.
Appleton’s troops have lifted themselves away from danger with one defeat in seven ahead of the visit of a West Ham side behind leaders Southampton only on goal difference.
The Blues boss said: “The lads are in good spirits and in a position where they’re going into every game thinking they can win. They’re comfortable with how they’re playing and with the system they’re playing in.
“They seem to be enjoying their football, and I hope the people coming to watch the games can see that.
“Hopefully we can take this into the next three games because they will go a long way towards deciding what the last three months of the season will be like: whether we’re pushing on to finish as high as we possibly can, or the scenario we don’t want which is to put ourselves in a relegation fight.
“We’re just over the halfway mark but what really counts is the business end of the season from February and March onwards.”
The Hammers have failed to captialise on the mixed form of leaders Southampton, taking just one point from their last three league away games at Reading, Birmingham and Derby.
But Appleton is expecting a stern test from a side who remain favourites to win the title under Sam Allardyce.
He said: “This is probably going to be one of our toughest games of the season at home. With West Ham just coming down from the Premier League and ourselves having spent a lot of time there in the last decade, it’s a match-up that most people are looking forward to this weekend.
“We’ve got good home form, they’ve got good away form, and both sides have players with Premier League experience.
“West Ham are a really strong outfit, very steady with a lot of experience and some good younger players too. Sam Allardyce’s success as a manager is helping to rub off on the players.
“No team goes through the season where everything is rosy, but what you have to do is to stay together as a football club, come through the other side and crack on.
“West Ham have had a period with a few injuries and suspensions, and that’s perhaps why results have not been as consistent as they were earlier in the season. But Sam has had enough experience down the years to deal with those scenarios.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Sam. He’s been around the block and I’m sure he’ll be using every trick in the book to try to unnerve me, but it will take a lot to do that!”
Luke Varney (knee) and Ricardo Rocha (calf) will both miss out for Pompey on Saturday.
But Appleton will not be afraid to put teenage defender Adam Webster on the bench again.
He said: “Luke had an injection in his knee on Tuesday so he needs a few days for that to settle down. We’ve been patient with him and hopefully by the start of next week we’ll see him out on the training pitch doing some ball work.
“Ricardo has already done some light ball work. This weekend is far too soon for him, but like Luke hopefully he’ll be back training next week and we’ll have them both to choose from for the Cardiff game.
“I like Adam Webster. He’s been training with us for three weeks and has got better and better. He’s got a good temperament and attitude to go with his ability. My view is that if they’re good enough, they’re old enough.”