Yesterday, Pompey looked to bounce back from the disappointment of Tuesday night, when they drew with Morecambe, courtesy of a 94th minute equaliser from Barry Roche, the Shrimps’ ‘keeper. However, fortunately for the Blues, they did not have long to look back on their heartbreak, as they hosted Leyton Orient in an important game at Fratton Park. The Pompey team included four changes from Tuesday night, as Kieron Freeman, Christian Burgess, Gary Roberts, and Kyle Bennett all came into the team to replace Ben Davies, Adam Webster, Kal Naismith, and Gareth Evans. The game was made even more important when it was discovered that many of Pompey’s promotion rivals had had their games postponed due to the weather, effectively making the Pompey’s match a game in hand. Among the visiting team, there was no place for ex-Pompey midfielder, Nigel Atangana, while player-manager, Kevin Nolan started.
Right from the off, the game was scrappy, with chances very hard to come by, and Pompey could not seem to find their usual rhythm when on the ball. The opening half an hour came and went without a single clear cut opportunity for either team, but then out of nothing, Smith broke away up the left wing and pulled the ball back to Bennett. The ex-Doncaster man then threaded the ball through to McNulty, but Alex Cisak was off his line quickly to dive at the Scot’s feet and avert the danger. The ball was then picked up by the right corner flag by Freeman, who sent in a cross, which was just glanced wide from the head of Bennett. Back at the other end, Pompey were given a lucky escape when a seemingly harmless cross from Jobi McAnuff was met by the head of Sammy Moore, who failed to hit the target from six yards out. As the half time whistle blew, the warning signs were there to be seen for Pompey after a poor first half performance.
Playing towards the Fratton End in the second half, Pompey started brightly as they looked to make a mark on the game. An early Ben Close corner was half cleared by the orient defence on 50 minutes, before Freeman crashed a half volley towards the bottom corner, only to see it deflected wide. But it was the visitors who came closest to scoring when Ryan Fulton failed to hold a long range shot, allowing the ball to come back for Nolan, who had the whole goal to aim at, with Fulton on the floor, but lifted his shot up so it hit the crossbar on its way over. That was another huge let off for Pompey, but they failed to take note as, on 53 minutes, Jobi McAnuff scored a goal out of nothing. The ball was fed to him 25 yards out, and the Pompey defence failed to close him down, allowing him to curl a shot across Fulton and into the top corner. Orient should have added to their lead on 57 minutes, when League 2 top scorer, Jay Simpson, found himself with time in the penalty area, but fired his shot over the bar from ten yards. Soon after that, Simpson was again allowed to find space in the area, but saw his diving header drop into the arms of Fulton when it looked easier to score than miss. A rare half chance for Pompey came on 62 minutes, as a Kyle Bennett free kick from the left hand side bypassed everyone in the penalty area, leaving the far post completely open to tap in, but nobody presented themselves for the chance and the ball bounced out for a goal kick. Cook responded by bringing on Adam McGurk and Gareth Evans, and later Conor Chaplin, to try and force an opening, to replace Marc McNulty, Kyle Bennett, and Michael Smith. Chaplin looked lively when he came on, and the Worthing youngster was involved in a couple of late chances for Pompey. Firstly, an Adam McGurk drive was blocked in the area, with Chaplin’s rebound also being blocked, before Christian Burgess’ header across goal came to the young striker, who could only loop his header up onto the roof of the net. That proved to be Pompey’s last chance, although Simpson was denied by the legs of Fulton late on to keep the margin of defeat to one goal for Pompey.
The result sees Pompey drop down to seventh place in the league, although if Pompey and the teams around them win their games in hand, Pompey would sit in fifth place. More worryingly, Pompey now sit six points off the final automatic promotion spot, having played one more game than Oxford United, who sit there. That means Pompey could find themselves nine points off automatic promotion in the coming weeks, making their goal very difficult to achieve. However, as Paul Cook says, there are still 18 games in which to give a good account of themselves and try to break into the promotion places. In terms of the performance against orient, it was all very flat. It was reminiscent of the first few games of the season, when Pompey seemed happy to keep the ball without really threatening the opposition goal. There was plenty of passing the ball about in their own half, but the killer pass simply did not seem to be there, and Pompey only managed three shots on target all game. The two new signings, Smith and Freeman, did not look like they were of a similar standard to those they were replacing, in Lavery and Davies, and there have been calls among the Fratton Faithful for the return of Matt Tubbs into the first team picture, as well as for Chaplin to play a more prominent role in order to ease the pressure on McNulty being the team’s only prolific scorer. Either way, there needs to be a vast improvement on the performance, as Pompey host Bristol Rovers on Saturday, another rival for promotion. The Gas, in fact, currently sit above Pompey, albeit having played two games more, making the game even more vital to the Blues’ promotion hopes.