Cambridge United 0 Pompey 1 '“ Neil Allen's match report
They defended as a team, they celebrated as a team and they received the supporters' adulation as a team.
Pompey were as one at the Abbey Stadium, no longer the patchwork-stitched creation so often infuriatingly glimpsed this season.
Paul Cook had spoken of introducing the missing ingredient during the build-up to Saturday’s trip to Cambridge United.
The Blues were crying out for defensive mettle, the strengthening of a fragile rearguard had become an overwhelming necessity.
Individual errors have punctured a promotion belief healthily inflated after the home demolition of Barnet just five weeks ago.
Yet against Shaun Derry’s side there was a collective might which underpinned a 1-0 triumph.
This was not an entertaining Pompey performance, their passing lacked fluidity, barely a meaningful attempt was mustered on the Cambridge goal.
In terms of creativity it was low-key, an overall workmanlike display against a side containing former Blues players James Dunne and Adam McGurk.
However, crucially Cook’s men successfully demonstrated they can defend as a unit.
An outcome just as welcome as any thumping away victory normally tasted upon trips to Cambridge.
There exists goals in this team, only three times in 18 fixtures the Blues have failed to register. At present that is not a concern.
Defensively, though, there is that criminal tendency to switch off, a costly lack of concentration ever-more apparent as the latest promotion campaign marches on.
In a bid to shore up the back, Matt Clarke was recalled to partner Christian Burgess, a widely-anticipated piece of surgery.
The former Ipswich youngster’s absence has been frustratingly enforced by injuries since April, robbing Cook of his most profitable centre-half pairing of last season.
The duo were, though, reunited for only a third time this season – Tom Davies dropping to the bench.
The result was an outstanding defensive display in which Burgess contributed one of his finest showings in a Pompey shirt.
The examination of their credentials was cranked up in the 61st minute following the warranted dismissal of Amine Linganzi.
The midfielder had been enjoying another good game in a holding midfield role, using his height and power to excellent effect.
His challenge on substitute Conor Newton may have won the ball, yet also involved a two-footed lunge which carried with it an inevitable outcome.
Cook had no complaints at the referee’s punishment, while Linganzi’s misjudgment will now deprive him of first-team football for at least three matches.
As for his 10 team-mates, they had to negotiate the final 29 minutes at a numerical disadvantage as the U’s chased an equaliser.
Such was their admirable defensive aptitude in the face of such adversity, Derry’s men where unable to register a single shot on target.
Instead, David Forde was called upon to claim a succession of balls into the box with a reassuring dominance so rarely seen from a Blues keeper in recent times.
Other attacks launched aerially were comfortably snaffled up by Burgess in particular, barely losing a header all afternoon, even against the imposing figure of Uche Ikpeazu.
Derry afterwards painted on a brave face, talking up his side being ‘on the front foot’, yet in truth they were never allowed a glimpse of goal by the visitors.
Cook had brought on Noel Hunt for goalscorer Conor Chaplin to continue stretching Cambridge, while the tireless Gary Roberts maintained an attacking remit, regardless of being down to 10-men.
The Blues’ focus was not fixed on merely defending their lead amid the anticipated late pressure, there remained ambition about their play.
But didn’t they defend exceptionally well.
It was gritty, it was gutsy, yes it was also ugly, yet this was a different angle to Cook’s troops and one barely observed during his regime.
Pompey needed their reduced number of players to rise to the challenge of protecting their goal for 29 minutes – and their response was simply outstanding.
Fitting then that the one slice of quality in the entire 90 minutes reaped victory for the visitors.
That arrived in the 24th minute, when Burgess breezed down the right into the opposition half and arrowed a diagonal pass into Cambridge’s penalty area.
Such was its lazer-precision, it picked out Chaplin, who rose between Leon Legge and Mark Roberts to plant a sublime header into the top corner of the net.
A breathtaking move and only the ignorant would label it route one. As Pompey fans can testify, Burgess’ usual standard of passing is nothing if not measured.
That was it in terms of memorable attacking moments as the encounter dropped back into a mundane framework.
Kyle Bennett did produce a 29th minute shot from the edge of the area which Will Norris couldn’t hold, the ball bouncing to safety.
In the second half, Chaplin was released down the left by Michael Doyle and wrong-footed Legge to conjure up space to fire a right-foot shot wide.
Meanwhile, Ben Williamson, on for dead-leg victim McGurk, pushed a shot wide of the far post from a decent position on 56 minutes after the Blues had failed to clear.
In fairness, there were also strong appeals for a Cambridge penalty within seconds of Chaplin’s opener, after Burgess succeeded in shouldering Ikpeazu to the floor as he surged through.
Referee Ross Joyce had already turned down such pleas long before the grounded Burgess swivelled round to protest his innocence.
Rare excitement in a fixture barely easy on the eye, not that Pompey supporters will mind.
Cook’s men displayed heart, desire and a thirst for effective defending in the face of a late onslaught from a Cambridge side fielding a full complement of players.
Considering the circumstances, it was a team performance every bit as impressive as a handsome home win against the likes of Barnet, Wycombe and Crawley.
The 1,850 away supporters witnessed a very different Blues – and the outcome was wholly impressive.