Portsmouth travelled to the One Call Stadium on Saturday wanting to keep their slim title hopes alive by beating their play-off chasing opponents. Mansfield went into the game one point off the top seven and knew that they had to get something out of the match if they were to continue their play-off challenge. Paul Cook made three changes to his starting eleven as Christian Burgess replaced Jack Whatmough in the centre of defence, Danny Rose came in for Stanley Aborah in midfield and Conor Chaplin was preferred to Nicke Kabamba up front.
The match was by no means a classic, and chances were hard to come by in the first half. Pompey struggled to find their usual fluency of passing and were forced to send the ball long towards Chaplin more often than not. The only consolation for Pompey fans can be that the hosts failed to create any clear-cut chances either, with the exception of a couple of tame efforts which David Forde gathered easily. It was not until the brink of half-time that a meaningful attempt on goal was made, and that came when Kal Naismith manufactured some space for himself on the right of the penalty area and forced Jake Kean to claw the ball wide of his near post. With the exception of that late point of interest, it was a fairly dull first half, although Blues fans were encouraged at the break when they saw that neither Plymouth nor Doncaster were winning, meaning that, if Pompey could get a goal, they would move up to second, just one point off the top of the league.
One might have thought that this was encouragement enough for the visitors, but they had their hearts in their mouths early in the second period when a defensive error from Matt Clarke brought his place in the game into question. The defender tried to turn away from Danny Rose in his own half and lost out to the Mansfield forward, before pulling him down as he made his way in on goal. There was no covering defender and Clarke was the last man so the whole ground was expecting him to be given his marching orders, but, to Pompey’s relief, the referee decided that the tackle was only worthy of a yellow card. The home players and supporters were incensed at the decision and, from where I was, it looked like they had good reason. Paul Cook even said in his post-match interview that he felt the referee had made the wrong call, so Pompey can consider themselves very fortunate indeed. The Stags then continued their assault on the visitors’ goal, and thought they had taken the lead when Rhys Bennett was adjudged to have been offside when Alex MacDonald’s shot deflected to him, allowing the defender to score.
However, it seemed luck was on Pompey’s side, as just six minutes later they took the lead through Carl Baker. The attacking midfielder played a one-two with Naismith before finding himself in what seemed like a cul-de-sac. However, he managed to cut back inside and fire a shot into the bottom corner of the net, although it looked like it might have taken a touch off Conor Chaplin on its way in. Both players claim the goal, but it has officially been given to Baker – not that Pompey will care! The Blues then made a double substitution to try and protect their fragile lead, as Jack Whatmough was brought on for Conor Chaplin and Gary Roberts came on for Baker in a move which saw Roberts and Kal Naismith lead the line in a 3-5-2 system.
The change seemed to stem the flow of the constant bombardment of Pompey’s penalty area, and the back three were brilliant in repelling almost everything that came towards them. However, the hosts did have one last golden chance to keep their play-off hopes alive, when substitute Matt Green was played in on goal, only to chip the ball over the bar when one-on-one with Forde. It was yet another let off for the Blues, and you just got the feeling that they were destined to secure the three points. In the closing stages, Kyle Bennett was replaced by Stanley Aborah as Cook looked to hold out for the remaining minutes, but Pompey had one last chance to make the game safe. Since coming on, Gary Roberts had sound himself spending the majority of the time chasing lost causes, but showed great endeavour as the game entered added time in shielding the ball on the right wing before laying it across to the oncoming Naismith, but the Scot failed to keep his shot down and was livid with his wastefulness. It didn’t matter in the end, however, as the full-time whistle blew soon after, ending Mansfield’s play-off ambitions and ensuring that the league title went down to the last day of the season.
Plymouth ended up coming from behind to secure a win which put them a point clear of Doncaster, who could only draw, while the Blues’ win moved them just a point behind Rovers. That means that, on the last day of the season, all three of the promoted teams have a chance of winning the league title. For the Blues to win the league, they would need Plymouth to fail to win against Grimsby and Doncaster to fail to win at Hartlepool, while the Blues need to win at home to Cheltenham. I have to admit that Pompey’s chances of winning the league are slim at the best and fans need to remember that this has been a very successful season, no matter where the Blues finish in the top three. As far as this game was concerned, it is not one which will live long in the memory of Pompey fans and, in truth, they were very lucky to get anything out of the match. They were battered for large periods of the game and could – and probably should – have had to play out most of the second half with ten men.
However, people do say that the mark of champions is winning without playing well…