Pompey continued their promotion charge this afternoon with a good, if slightly scrappy, result against Newport County at Fratton Park. The Blues came away from the match with three more points towards their campaign to escape League Two, as Kal Naismith and Kyle Bennett scored the goals to put them six points clear of fourth place. Things seem to be going well for Pompey at present, as the teams around them all seem to be dropping points at this stage of the season. Today saw Luton and Carlisle lose, while Exeter and Stevenage drew today’s matches. Fortunately the Blues were able to make the most of their promotion challengers dropping points; something they have not always managed in the past.
Paul Cook made two changes to the side which lost at Stevenage last Saturday, with the suspended Christian Burgess and Noel Hunt dropping out of the starting eleven as Pompey dropped their 3-5-2 system in favour of a 4-2-3-1 formation. That meant Tom Davies kept his place in central defence, partnering Matt Clarke, while Kyle Bennett and Kal Naismith made their returns from injury to the starting eleven. This encouraged most of the Fratton Park crowd, many of whom have finally been won over by Paul Cook’s favoured system. Eoin Doyle kept his place in the side as the main striker despite finding it tough to score since joining the club. However, the striker was forced off in the first half after picking up a groin injury when having a shot, and was replaced by Conor Chaplin fresh from an embarrassing penalty miss at Stevenage.
The match was not the most exciting to have been played at Fratton Park this season, and very few chances were created for either side for much of the game. Pompey had plenty of early corners and free kicks, but many of the set-pieces were wasted. The only early chance which saw Pompey come close to scoring was when Kal Naismith whipped in a cross from the left hand side which Eoin Doyle was unable to get enough of a touch on as it flashed wide of the far post. Doyle came close a second time after about half an hour but scuffed his shot into the floor from inside the penalty area, injuring his groin in the process. It was actually the Exiles who came closest to opening the scoring after about 20 minutes as a goal line scramble in Pompey’s area somehow did not result in a goal as Ryan Bird had several efforts blocked. Pompey finally took the lead on the stroke of half-time when Carl Baker played a pinpoint pass to find the run of Kyle Bennett who ran through and slotted past Joe Day. It was a very well worked goal and was deserving of separating the teams at half-time.
The second half started in a way which was consistent to the first half, as neither side was able to create any real clear-cut scoring opportunities. The first talking point of the second period came when David Forde was involved in an altercation with Marlon Jackson where it appeared that the Pompey keeper was elbowed in the face by the Exiles’ striker. However, that was not the end of the battle as Forde later got his own back on his opponent with an elbow to the face. It summed up the quality of League Two refereeing that neither player was cautioned, and a free kick was given to Pompey on both occasions even though Newport could easily have had a penalty and both players were lucky to remain on the field. Kal Naismith had been struggling over the course of the game and had made several mistakes both on and off the ball, but it was the Scot who popped up in the penalty area to head home Conor Chaplin’s cross.
However, from that point on Pompey’s dominance in the match ended and the visitors really came into the match from that point. The Blues struggled to string passes together after the hour mark and Newport sent a flurry of long balls into the box. Somebody who didn’t cope all too well with that pressure was Tom Davies and he was struggling particularly with high balls in the wind. On a couple of occasions he misjudged high balls and let them bounce, putting himself in trouble, and on one such occasion he had to be bailed out by David Forde as the keeper was out quickly to smother Jackson’s shot, before hitting Davies with a barrage of abuse. Forde has to be given a lot of credit for today’s win, as he was also on hand on another occasion in the second half to push a goalbound effort wide of the post. The Irishman is often given a hard time by the crowd when he makes errors, but he hardly put a foot wrong today, with the exception of his elbow on Jackson. The visitors did end up scoring when Pompey were too slow in closing down the opposition on the right and allowed him to plant a cross on the head of Alex Samuel who nodded past David Forde. The defence looked far stronger after Kal Naismith was withdrawn in the last few minutes and Jack Whatmough came on to form a back five, winning everything in the air. The full-time whistle sounded without further incident and Pompey will be very pleased with the win, even if it was not as emphatic as it could have been.
At this stage of the season, with seven games remaining and Pompey being six points clear of fourth place, you would have to say that the Blues are well placed to finally win promotion. They are also just four points behind Plymouth Argyle, although the Pilgrims do have a game in hand which they play on Sunday against Doncaster. Another encouraging aspect of the performance was that Pompey were able to win with their backs against the wall towards the end, with David Forde showing his importance to the side with a couple of important saves. In previous years, especially last season, the Blues might have given in to the pressure and conceded a late equaliser, but Pompey showed great defensive resilience to see out the win. Next time Pompey play they will be on their travels to Hartlepool next Saturday, and they will need to put in another gritty performance to get past a side who are looking to secure their Football League status for another season.
David Forde: 9 – Forde was my man of the match today and Pompey could easily have either drawn or lost without him.
Gareth Evans: 7 – Evans put in a typical workmanlike performance and I would be surprised if he didn’t play every game between now and the end of the season.
Tom Davies: 5 – It was evident that Davies hasn’t played much over the past six months and he had to be bailed out by David Forde on a couple of occasions.
Matt Clarke: 7 – Clarke is one of the most reliable players in the team and the young defender dealt well with everything which came towards him today.
Enda Stevens: 7 – Stevens wasn’t as dangerous as usual on the left but he still did a good job at dealing with David Pipe on the right for the visitors.
Michael Doyle: 8 – Doyle was a calming influence on the team today and did a very good job of breaking up attacks with a series of strong challenges.
Danny Rose: 6 – Rose was not quite as influential today as he has been in recent weeks, as although he kept the midfield ticking over he was unable to create anything.
Carl Baker: 8 – Baker did well today and played a key part in Bennett’s goal. He linked up well with Gareth Evans and the pair regularly got to the by-line and put lots of crosses across goal.
Kal Naismith***: 6 – Naismith ended up scoring the all-important winning goal today but I wasn’t impressed with him over the course of the match as his crosses were often wasteful.
Kyle Bennett**: 8 – Bennett did very well today and took his goal exceptionally well. Towards the end of his match he started to lose his touch but on the whole he had a very positive impact.
Eoin Doyle*: 5 – It wasn’t Doyle’s day today and he missed a couple of chances before getting injured and being taken off in the first half.
Conor Chaplin*: 6 – Chaplin was unable to capitalise on the many balls which flew across the box while he was on the pitch.
Jamal Lowe**: 6 – Lowe failed to make an impact when he came off the bench. He did very well to craft a chance for himself but then wasted it.
Jack Whatmough***: 7 – Whatmough was only on the field for a couple of minutes but was very good in the air and repelled every wave of attack which came towards him.