Pompey 2 Leyton Orient 1 – Neil Allen’s match report

Conor Chaplin scores the second of his two goals against Leyton Orient Picture: Joe Pepler
Conor Chaplin scores the second of his two goals against Leyton Orient Picture: Joe Pepler
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Paul Cook gave the Fratton faithful what they craved – and with it strengthened Pompey’s promotion progress.

Supporter calls to operate with a 4-4-2 have been a constant presence since the manager arrived on the south coast.

Likewise, belief in Conor Chaplin’s golden touch has never diminished, and neither have demands for more regular starting XI inclusions.

For Saturday’s visit of Leyton Orient, Cook restored both subjects of debate to his team.

And with it produced a thoroughly-deserved victory to edge closer to a top three continuing to nervously glance over their shoulder.

Of course, the current Blues regime has been constructed upon the bedrock of a 4-2-3-1 system so mistrusted by many supporters.

It has contributed towards lifting the club from the lowest Football League placing in its history to reap a play-off semi-final spot, while this term they have long occupied fourth place.

Nonetheless, the formation has failed to convince a fan base keen to see the employment of two strikers, particularly on home turf, when extra attacking aggression is required to break down opposition.

On Saturday, the scoreline may suggest the fixture was a closely-fought contest, yet those present will testify it was as one-sided as they come.

Had it not been for some appalling finishing and Gavin Massey’s stunning strike, the match would have been emphatically settled before the first half had finished.

Orient boss Andy Edwards afterwards rounded on referee Brett Huxtable, a handy prop to distract from his side’s own inadequacies.

Yet the League Two strugglers are clearly one of the worst sides to visit Fratton this season, only good fortune preventing them suffering a humbling.

And at the heart of a strong Pompey display in all but the size of the scoreline was the recalled Chaplin thriving in a 4-4-2 system.

Many Blues followers are bracing themselves for the teenager’s departure, yet he continues to remain, signing a new three-year deal as recently as October.

Regardless of a future which unquestionably promises football played on higher plains, in the present he remains at Fratton Park and a talent to relish.

Granted, there was a missed penalty from Chaplin when the match was goalless, yet by the final whistle he had established himself as joint-top scorer and inspired a 2-1 victory.

During an encounter when his team-mates were frustratingly wasteful in front of goal and strike partner Michael Smith reticent to shoot, the youngster’s clinical nature was crucial.

A goal in either half from the striker was enough to capture a second successive home victory for Cook’s men.

In the wider scheme, the gap between the automatic promotion spots has been reduced to two points with 20 matches remaining.

Victory at Crawley next weekend and Carlisle failing to be win at Accrington would even see Pompey finally breaking into the top three.

Yet in the here and now, progress remains encouraging and Saturday’s display was one to enthuse over, particularly the opening 45 minutes.

Chaplin had been handed his first start in nine games having initially lost his spot through suspension for the November trip to Luton.

It meant he featured in a line-up alongside Michael Smith for the first time this season to form a conventional two-pronged attack.

With Cook surprisingly opting for a 4-4-2, Kyle Bennett made way for Chaplin in the only personnel change to the side which lost 3-1 in the televised trip to Doncaster.

The in-form Kal Naismith occupied the left flank and Carl Baker on the right as the Pompey midfield took on a more conventional look.

Meanwhile, the bench included Jamal Lowe, offering a maiden first-team opportunity since his arrival from non-league Hampton & Richmond.

Milan Lalkovic’s ankle injury collected in training had opened the door, while Jack Whatmough was replaced by Tom Davies to act as defensive cover.

As for Orient, they included former Pompey duo Nigel Atangana and Paul McCallum in a side on its third manager of a campaign which has descended into relegation fears.

Meanwhile, a system consisting of three central defenders, two defensive wing-backs and a holding midfielder sat in front reflected their approach to the fixture.

Regardless, the visitors were regularly cut apart by a Blues side positive in their approach, albeit until it came to plunging the sword into the oft-floored Orient.

Pompey’s bright start consisted of Baker and Naismith firing over when well placed, Enda Stevens scuffing a shot, while Chaplin was a whisker away from connecting with a low Naismith free-kick.

Yet on 21 minutes the breakthrough arrived after Stevens had poked the ball through the legs of Sammy Moore.

The left-back was obstructed as he attempted to retrieve the ball and the referee pointed to the penalty spot.

This season has seen Gary Roberts, Smith and Naismith all miss spot kicks, so the duty was handed to Chaplin.

However, the youngster’s left-foot shot was a welcome height for Alex Cisak, as he leapt to his left to keep it out and push it behind for a corner.

The Fratton faithful’s disappointment would last barely a minute, though, with Chaplin swiftly making amends.

Baker drilled in cross from the right and there was the striker at the far post to steer home the breakthrough, but no linesman’s flag for offside to interrupt.

Pompey went in search of extending their lead and Tom Parkes cleared Smith’s header off the line, with several other chances going begging.

Then, in Orient’s first and only attack of the half, Massey netted a wonderful leveller on 38 minutes.

Atangana laid it off from the edge of the area and the forward struck a viciously curling first-time right-foot shot which left David Forde no chance.

Fratton Park was stunned and continued to be baffled by the shear injustice of the 1-1 scoreline during the half-time interval.

The break saw Lowe introduced for the injured Gareth Evans for his bow, Baker dropping to right-back from where he assisted in the winner.

On 47 minutes, Baker’s excellent cross from the right was headed home at the near post by Chaplin and victory was Pompey’s.

Fully deserved on the back of changes championed by fans – and approved by Cook.