Pompey returned to league action on Saturday, when they hosted Hartlepool United at Fratton Park after the home win against Accrington Stanley in the FA Cup the week before. Since then the third round draw has been made for the FA Cup, and Pompey will travel to Portman Road on 8th January to take on Championship side, Ipswich Town. As for the Hartlepool game, Paul Cook made two changes from the side which emerged victorious in the cup, recalling the league ever-present, Christian Burgess, to the side in place of loanee centre half, Matthew Clarke. The other change was very foreseeable, with Cook recalling Caolan Lavery after being cup tied, in place of last week’s goalscorer, Adam McGurk. Ex-Pompey loanee, Trevor Carson, lined up for the Pools, receiving a warm reception on his return to Fratton Park.
Right from kick off, the home side were in the acendancy, with Caolan Lavery latching onto an Enda Stevens inside the area, but he was unable to bring it under his spell and the ball ran out for a goal kick. Hartlepool were almost gifted a goal after ten minutes, when Webster made a forward run but was robbed of the ball by Mikael Mandron. He played in Rakish Bingham, who should have scored when one-on-one with Murphy but could only send his shot into the midrift of the Irish ‘keeper. Although Pompey were struggling to get shots away in the opening 20 minutes, they were making some very encouraging runs and coming very close to opening up the Pools’ defence. As has been the case in recent matches, the pace and direct running of Lavery and McNulty were stretching the defence and allowing space for Kyle Bennett and Gareth Evans to come inside with the ball. Pompey accumulated an extortionate number of corners in the opening minutes, but the delivery into the box oft failed to beat the first man. Brian Murphy, again, raised question marks over his reliability as a goalkeeper when he rushed out of his goal to clear a dangerous through ball but mishit his clearance through the middle of the pitch. It broughty back nasty memories of the goal Pompey conceded earlier in the season against Wycombe, but fortunately Murphy’s clearance arrived at the feet of Michael Doyle, who was able to avert the danger. Ben Davies had a shot at goal from a free kick just outside the area on 25 minutes and, although he got the ball over the wall, it curled just wide of the bottom corner with Carson beaten. Kyle Bennett then had an effort on goal on 30 minutes after an encouraging run inside his man. He beat his marker on the inside and and brought the ball towards goal before lashing a shot from 25 yards just wide of the near post. Pompey finally broke the deadlock on 33 minutes, however, when Caolan Lavery received the ball just outside the left corner of the penalty area. he cleverly dragged the ball across his body to work some space for himself, before curling a delightful shot past Carson and into the top corner. That opened the floodgates, and two minutes later the ball was in the net again. This time, Ben Davies and Kyle Bennett worked an opening down the right hand side, and the former’s low cross into the area was poked past Carson by the sliding Adam Jackson, when under pressure from Evans. Jackson’s central defensive partner, Matthew Bates, almost got in on the scoring five minutes later when he headed Enda Stevens’ cross towards his own goal. However, Carson reacted quickly to pluck the ball out of the area and save his teammate the embarrassment. On the brink of half time, Murphy was called upon to acrobatically turn Scott Fenwick’s long range drive out for a corner to keep Pompey’s two goal lead intact. The half time whistle blew and the team was applauded off after a magnificent first half performance.
Straight after the break, Marc McNulty wonderfully crafted a goalscoring chance for Gareth Evans after beating three men on a run that began just inside the opposition half, but the ex-Fleetwood winger couldn’t keep his shot on target. A dubious free kick was give to Hartlepool on the edge of the penalty area after Stevens was adjudged to have fouled Fenwick, but Carroll’s free kick was whipped just wide of the far post with several Hartlepool players inches away from getting a decisive touch on the ball. There was a typical lower league goalline scramble about three yards from the Pompey goal on 58 minutes, with a variety of players hacking at and falling on top of the ball before Evans managed to clear the ball away. Hartlepool had appeals for a penalty turned down on the hour mark when Rakish Bingham was knocked into by Stevens outside the area before running a further ten yards into the penalty box and taking a tumble. However, all he got for his efforts was a deserved yellow card for diving. On 65 minutes, Michael Doyle picked out Stevens with a cross field pass. The left back brough the ball into the area before finding McNulty. The Scot’s shot was saved by Carson, but he was able to win it back and tee up Evans, who made no mistake. Another Pools free kick went narrowly wide of the far corner soon after, when Carroll’s cross-shot had to be diverted away by the head of Webster when there were two Hartlepool players poised to head the ball in behind him. With 77 minutes gone, young winger, Ben Tollitt was sent on for Kyle Bennett, who received a standing ovation after a great performance. McGurk then came on for Lavery on 80 minutes, meaning that the former played in the ‘hole’ behind the striker and McNulty would play a more advanced role. Pompey were forced into making their final substitution on 83 minutes when Burgess was caught by a late tackle when bringing the ball clear of the penalty area. Matt Clarke came on for the remainder of the game, while the Pools player in question received a yellow card and a somewhat hostile atmosphere. In the last minute, a pinpoint pass from Enda Stevens found McNulty who broke through the defence before slotting the ball calmly into the corner of the goal when one-on-one with Carson. That signaled the end of the game, and recorded a third successive home win in all competitions for Pompey.
The performance was very pleasing for Pompey with the attacking foursome of Evans, Bennett, Lavery and McNulty continuing their encouraging goalscoring record when playing together. Pompey fans, players, and coaches will be keen to see both Lavery and McNulty’s loans extended in January so that they can remain Fratton Park until the end of the season. However, the defence looked shaky at times, with both centre halves being caught out at times, and Brian Murphy still looking shaky at times. However, with a young centre back pairing of Burgess and Webster, some mistakes are always going to be likely and the defensive record this season has been very encouraging. Ben Davies and Enda Stevens continued their solid form and provide could experienced support for Burgess and Webster, while Michael Doyle and Danny Hollands are always available to slot in in a more defensive role if any of the back four are caught out of position. All in all, I think the Hartlepool game has shown how well the Pompey team is coming together and how well they compliment each other. The four attacking players seem to link up telepathically at times, while Davies and Stevens work very well in the transition phases of the game and Doyle and Hollands have very cool heads and are always available for a pass to keep possession. Hopefully, Pompey can continue their good run of form against Northampton on Saturday and go into the Christmas fixture congestion with momentum. This Tuesday, Pompey Academy host Manchester City in the FA Youth Cup, and the future of English football will be on show at Fratton Park… with the added bonus of seeing the City academy players too!