Accrington 1 Pompey 0 '“ Neil Allen's match report
It was the setting for one of Pompey's finest performances under the management of Paul Cook.
Now the Crown Ground has served as the backdrop for one of the most baffling.
Saturday was incomprehensible in every aspect.
From Cook’s team alterations to the insipid display and then a woeful outcome, this was a Blues side unrecognisable from that which reeled off four successive triumphs.
An imposter parading in black whose impression of a promotion-chasing football team fell pathetically flat.
To question Pompey’s consistency would be ludicrous following the length of the impressive winning streak taken to Lancashire.
Yet at Accrington they produced a performance so perplexing it represented the complete reverse to recent encouraging League Two progress.
Certainly not an accurate portrayal of a side brimming with 13 goals from the previous five fixtures in all competitions.
At the Crown Ground on Saturday, the Blues failed to muster a single shot on target – and barely any off it.
Cook’s toothless side deserved nothing from the occasion, albeit Accrington only marginally better in a poor spectacle of a match.
Not that the Fratton fans should be concerned with how John Coleman’s troops fared, for the sole responsibilty behind the loss lay with Pompey, not the opposition.
Michael Smith, currently established as the pantomime villain opposite Peter Pan-cast Conor Chaplin, will collect heavy criticism over his unsatisfactory return to the first-team.
Similarly, the shock inclusion of Kyle Bennett, having failed to make the previous three league squads and not shone for the reserves, has attracted harsh words.
Nonetheless, considerably more than two players were complicit to an unimaginative team showing, lacking any tempo, starved of fluency and scarcely a moment’s quality offered.
As disappointing as the duo performed, this should not be a witch hunt against somebody who claimed a hat-trick 17 days earlier, or a winger who was the Blues’ chief creative force last season.
As a unit, Pompey’s attacking quartet in their entirety were startlingly out-of-sorts, mere shadows of the calibre of players witnessed in recent weeks.
Even when handed dead-ball situations, the delivery from Bennett, Gary Roberts and substitute Naismith was often wretched, in particular usually failing to clear the first man from corners.
They were not alone, Enda Stevens was unusually below par, while enforcers Michael Doyle and Danny Rose could not dominate, reduced to chasing as the visitors frantically attempted to seize back possession.
At least Tom Davies was magnificent on his return to the club he departed for Fratton Park in the summer, comfortably silencing danger man Billy Kee. A rare positive on the day.
And that is why Saturday’s footballing product was so mystifying for those 806 present in the Lancashire sunshine.
Clearly it wasn’t the real Blues. Thankfully.
Reassuringly, this has not been and will not be the norm under Cook’s tenure – an important consideration to bear in mind.
Still, on the back of the charge into second place, the Fratton faithful rightly expected more from a side oozing confidence and seemingly on the right path to promotion.
For all the bouquets tossed in the team’s direction during the past month, Saturday’s outing warrants plenty of constructive criticism.
Indeed, the continuing bugbear among supporters centres on Cook’s utilisation of Chaplin and – to an extent – Noel Hunt.
Despite his star showing as a substitute against Wycombe and Curtis Main still sidelined following 20 stitches in a face wound, the teenager was again overlooked for a start.
Instead Smith was presented with the lone raider role, ensuring he was back in a league line-up for the first time in five matches.
It was a decision Cook had hinted at in the build-up, based on what he anticipated to be the physicality of the away encounter amid a fractious relationship between both sets of backroom staff.
Meanwhile, completely out of the blue was Bennett’s reintroduction having completely slipped off the radar in recent weeks, dropping behind Milan Lalkovic and Kal Naismith.
He was named in place of Lalkovic on the left-hand side of the attacking three, completing the two changes to the side which defeated Wycombe.
It was an opportunity for both to impress, although, like many around them, they failed to convince during an instantly forgettable clash.
For all that was good about Pompey’s 3-1 defeat at the same venue in March – and it really was very good – this was simply abject.
Both sides contributed to a scrappy encounter, largely devoid of penalty area activity at either end with the goalkeepers barely involved.
Yet Pompey started encouragingly enough, Carl Baker delivering an excellent cross from the right which picked out Roberts at the far post.
Unmarked, the top scorer was able to take a touch before dragging an angled left-foot shot past the far post from such a prime position.
On 32 minutes, another Baker delivery found Doyle’s run into the box and his stooping header once more narrowly missed the intended target.
However, the Blues had a let off on 40 minutes when Sean McConville’s free-kick from the right clipped off the head of Christian Burgess and struck the far post.
The decisive moment arrived on 52 minutes when Paddy Lacey, signed from Barrow in the summer, crowned his first start in the Football League.
With back to goal 30-yards out, the midfielder spun round to crash a right-foot finish into the top corner to give David Forde no chance.
An effort of stunning quality and undoubtedly out of place in a mundane affair.
Cook introduced Chaplin, Naismith and Lalkovic from the bench, he switched to a diamond, two were asked to line-up in attack, several dice were thrown.
There was to be no coming back, however, with Smith heading one late chance over the bar following Naismith’s cross.
A team below par, it happens, all part of the footballing fabric which grips supporters.
Yet it remains truly bewildering following four Blues wins on the spin.