Lassana Diarra has been sold, Jermain Defoe may well follow this month, and it took a David James save, one of his season's best, to avoid defeat and avert the notion, for now at least, that the south coast club is suffering a full-blown crisis.
Exit at the first hurdle in defence of the FA Cup that they won last May would have been unthinkable not only because they were facing Championship opposition but because they are deep in debt and up for sale. But that would have been their fate had the England goalkeeper James, after 70 minutes, not tipped a header from eight yards by Bradley Orr over the crossbar.
It would not have reflected the pattern of the match but would have been in keeping with the problems Portsmouth have at the moment. As it is, they still have a difficult replay in nine days' time at Ashton Gate. Gary Johnson, the City manager, said this result felt like a win.
Defoe, who was out ill, wants away and his absence here will have at least maintained his transfer value, estimated at £20million by his club, as he is not cup-tied. Listening from his sick-bed, he would not have felt much regret at making his intentions known, given the paucity of what was on show. Tony Adams, the Portsmouth manager, is prepared to let his best striker go if the money is right although he said, "I refuse to confirm or deny that £20m price." Adams did confirm he felt his players "had done enough to win this tie," adding, "It was important to get back to clean sheets."
Tottenham Hotspur, Defoe's former club, are suitors, but are not prepared to match the sum attached to the England international, even though the north London club have some £48m burning a hole in their pockets after the sale of Dimitar Berbatov and Robbie Keane last summer.
With Glen Johnson also absent, through injury, the hosts were weak down their right-hand side as well. Therefore it fell to Sylvain Distin, of all people, to provide some of the highlights. The French centre-half had three clear chances before the interval, the first two cleared off the line and the last one punched out by the goalkeeper Adriano Basso 10 minutes before the break. A minute later Niko Kranjcar was brought down by Cole Skuse but referee Phil Dowd refused to give a penalty despite the obvious foul.
A clearer chance, six minutes into the second half, fell to Kranjcar but the Croatian's header was embarrassingly wide from six yards. Soon after that, David Nugent curled in a shot but Skuse was covering on the line and headed clear.
The low attendance of under 14,500, who made themselves heard by booing at the final whistle, further added to the general air of discontentment around Portsmouth at the moment, which the possible departure of Defoe will do nothing to diminish.
Portsmouth: James, Wilson, Distin, Campbell, Belhadj, Cranie (Pamarot 82), Nugent, Mvuemba, Davis, Kranjcar, CrouchSubs: Begovic, Little, Kanu, Lauren, Hreidarsson, Armand TraoreBooked: BelhadjBristol City: Basso, Orr, McCombe, Carey, Fontaine, Skuse, Elliott, Johnson, Sproule (Williams 64), Styvar (McAllister 83), John (Adebola 62)Subs: Henderson, Noble, AkindeBooked: JohnReferee: Phil Dowd (Staffordshire).