Bristol Rovers 2-1 Pompey: Jordan Cross' big-match analysis
The question was posed in the aftermath of Pompey's rise into the play-offs.
Kenny Jackett’s men began 2018 in League One’s top six.
But are they going to have the minerals to stay there?
We were given a clear indication of the answer in the resolve and will of the Blues’ start to the year at Bristol Rovers.
Alas, it yielded nothing but pain as Liam Sercombe broke Pompey’s hearts with a 90th-minute winner in a heartily-contested New Year’s Day showdown.
The points looked to be heading back to PO4 following Oli Hawkins’ delicately-placed 64th-minute header.
The resistance of Jackett’s side was finally punctured with six minutes remaining, however, as optimism turned to disappointment.
Luke McGee epitomised the Blues’ determination as much as anyone at the Memorial Stadium, but it was his failure to deal with Billy Bodin’s 25-yard effort which allowed Stuart Sinclair to equalise with six minutes left.
Then came Sercombe’s intervention as Jackett’s men backed themselves to see out Rovers’ onslaught, but came up short.
Pompey remain in the play-offs, though, as attentions now turn to whether they have the numbers to sustain their charge as the season gathers pace?
With 16 fit senior players travelling to face Darrell Clarke’s men, the answer appears to be patently obvious.
Harry Redknapp was a fan of comparing his substitutes’ bench to that of his side while insisting he was down to the bare bones.
Jackett could have forwarded that same argument with sincerity and conviction when the team-sheets were handed in at the Memorial Stadium.
A Bristol Rovers side who’d won just two out of the previous 12 games going into the New Year’s Day meeting named a nine-goal striker in Ellis Harrison as a substitute.
In addition, one of the division’s most talented players in eight-goal midfielder Sercombe and three young Premier League loanees were all on their bench.
The Blues, in contrast, were forced to recall Theo Widdrington from his loan spell with the Hawks to be part of the travelling squad.
Academy youngster Matt Casey was also joined by youth winger Dan Smith among the Pompey subs.
That team-sheet alone was a compelling argument to Michael Eisner to look for some further leeway in Pompey’s £3m player budget.
It was the home side who started the brighter, with two efforts on goal within the first 90 seconds.
The second saw Bodin force McGee into a sprawling low stop to his left, gathering the ball at the second attempt.
The Blues’ response was three early interventions from Matty Kennedy as he was continually fed the ball.
One delivery found Hawkins at the back post, before Sinclair cleared his header back across goal.
Then it was Nathan Thompson’s chance to maraud forward, but Rovers defender Lee Brown was equal to his delivery.
Bodin saw his cross flash across the face of goal in the seventh minute of a busy opening, before Jamal Lowe saw his dragged shot deflected wide from 10 yards.
It was Kennedy who was providing the outlet for Pompey on the counter, but he had a poor playing surface to thank as the ball bobbled up before shanking a 30-yarder well wide.
The pattern of the game had settled into the home side enjoying the lion’s share of possession and Jackett’s men threatening on the break.
Christian Burgess had to be alert to nick the ball away from Tom Nichols as he aimed to get his shot off.
Then fortune favoured the visitors when Sinclair collided with Bodin as they both looked to pull the trigger in the box from Brown’s deep cross.
Rovers’ 4-3-3 formation gave the Blues questions to answer.
Lowe being used in a narrower role to aid Ben Close and Adam May centrally provided space for the home side to exploit in wide areas, which left-back Brown made the most of.
Thompson then gave Rovers something to think about going the other with a foray forward which led to keeper Adam Smith being extended by Brett Pitman’s 25-yarder.
The work Jackett has hammered into his team paid off in a stoic first-half display, with Rovers offered barely a chink of light in attacking space.
However, Bodin nearly succeeded in doing so seven minutes before the break until Matt Clarke snuffed out the danger.
Then Burgess again got his timing spot on with a foot in on Nichols two minutes before the interval.
The loss at Shrewsbury showed there was no leeway for errors in such a rearguard action as the visitors went in level at the break.
A cheap penalty would go down in that category and the home side were appealing for a spot-kick four minutes after the restart.
Nichols was a little too theatrical in his fall under the attentions of Thompson, however, convincing referee David Webb to wave play on.
Bodin nearly undid McGee at the near post in the 50th minute, before Nichols ricocheted Chris Lines’ follow-up wide.
A flurry of Pompey attacking play then saw Lowe’s cross fly across the face of goal, before Pitman wriggled the room to cross – but Lines cleared off the line.
Then the 1,165 travelling Blues fans scattered around three sides of the stadium were celebrating, when Hawkins got his placement bang on to direct his header inside Smith’s far post from May’s raking 65th-minute cross.
That saw the angst surface among the home supporters as a textbook away performance gathered pace.
Pompey had two chances to make it a comfortable finale for their supporters, as first a peach of volley from Close was blocked, before Kennedy’s jinking run ended with him flashing an angled shot inches past the far post.
Instead, the final 15 minutes were lived on the edge as Bodin flashed a 25-yard effort goalwards which McGee tipped over – after the Rovers cavalry arrived in Harrison and Sercombe.
An 83rd-minute melee served warning of what was to follow seconds later as McGee failed to deal with Bodin’s thumped effort from outside the box – and Sinclair was there to pick up the pieces and snaffle his effort away.
Sercombe then provided the late, late drama as his true hit found its way through the mass of bodies and beat McGee to his right.
That ensured the danger of limited ambition had hurt Pompey for the second away adventure on a bounce, on a day when their rearguard action looked so close to paying dividends.