Luton 3 Portsmouth 2 – Neil Allen’s match report
Pompey were thanking their lucky stars at the interval – and cursing their wretched misfortune by the final whistle.
Luton emerged victorious from the top-of-the-table encounter in a riveting Kenilworth Road clash.
Yet it took a remarkable second-half Blues transformation to provide hope when there appeared to be none.
Kenny Jackett’s men came within five minutes of claiming what had seemed an improbable point after the opening 45 minutes.
Then George Moncur stepped up to deliver a sublime free-kick to secure a 3-2 success for Mick Harford’s men.
In the first half, Pompey were battered under wave after wave of Hatters attacks, struggling to keep the rampant hosts at bay in a painfully one-sided contest.
The fact the scoreline was 1-0 at the break through James Collins’ opener was a fractional source of comfort for the Fratton faithful.
It was brutal to witness, the Blues pummelled without a pause as they scrambled into the interval to regroup.
Then came a double substitution which threatened to change the match.
New signing Omar Bogle and Dion Donohue were introduced at the break, the three at the back system also ditched, and it rejuvenated the wilting visitors.
Ronan Curtis levelled on 52 minutes as suddenly it was the Hatters clinging on, keeper James Shea several times called into action when previously a spectator.
Collins grabbed his second from the penalty spot on 77 minutes – only for debutant Bogle to deservedly level two minutes later.
Then arrived that cruel blow to break Pompey’s hearts - and earn the relieved hosts a five-point cushion at the top of League One.
Jackett made two changes to the starting line-up which secured a 1-1 FA Cup draw with QPR at the weekend - but there was no place for Bogle.
Instead the loanee from Cardiff had to make do with a place on the bench at Kenilworth Road, with Brett Pitman again leading the line.
There was, however, a debut for Bryn Morris, having waited patiently for an outing following his arrival from Shrewsbury earlier in the month.
Meanwhile, Jamal Lowe was swiftly recalled to the team having served his one-match FA Cup ban.
The pair’s selection meant Dion Donohue and Louis Dennis dropping to the bench.
However, Nathan Thompson and Oli Hawkins were not in the 18-man squad, despite returning to training on Monday following injury.
The Blues opted not to risk the duo, instead pencilling them in for Saturday’s visit of Doncaster to Fratton Park, following a full week’s work on the training ground.
The hosts would post the first threat on goal when the game got underway, with seven minutes on the clock.
Jack Whatmough, followed by Matt Clarke, had to block shots from inside the area, then Jack Stacey drove the loose ball comfortably over the bar.
Next, James Collins’ acrobatic kick from Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu’s right-wing cross flew wide of the far post as Luton began to seize control.
On 10 minutes, James Justin’s low drive from 20-yards had Craig MacGillivray scrambling across his to goal to keep out, with a Blues defender completing the clearance.
At the other end, Sonny Bradley dithered in possession and when his clearance was blocked by Pitman, keeper James Shea managed to gather narrowly ahead of Ronan Curtis’ arrival.
Yet it was the Hatters in control and, on 19 minutes, MacGillivray pushed Kazenga Lualua’s drive around the post as the pressure continued.
It was proving relentless, with Luke Berry and then Andrew Shinnie firing in attempts from distance to exploit the conditions, yet MacGillivray safely gathered both,
In the 29th minute, Stacey did well to deliver a cross from the right-hand byline and Berry’s glancing header flew just wide of the far post.
There were sarcastic cheers from the Kenilworth Road faithful on the half-hour mark when the Blues won a corner down the right, but it came to nothing.
Pompey had a glimpse of goal when Anton Walkes clipped a ball down the line and Pitman cleverly turned it inside to Curtis, who failed to get off a shot quickly enough and was squeezed out.
On 37 minutes, MacGillivray came superbly off his line to block at Lualua’s feet after the forward was put clean through by a ball from the right.
Unsurprisingly, the deadlock was finally broken on 39 minutes when Lualua’s through ball found Collins and he produced a smart finish into the bottom far corner of the net.
It took until the 43 minutes before the visitors had their first shot, Gareth Evans slipping as he drilled in a right-footed effort, the ball striking the roof behind the goal as a consequence.
At the interval, Bogle and Donohue were brought on for Evans and Pitman and Jackett shook up his ineffective team.
Within a minute, Donohue had driven a first-time shot at Shea after the ball had fallen kindly on the edge of the area.
The home fans were stunned on 52 minutes when the match was all-square.
Clarke started off the move down the left, charging upfield, and his cross found its way to Curtis, who drove the ball into the far bottom corner of the net.
The Blues were looking a revitalised side after the break and already Bogle was making an impact, firing a shot just over the bar.
It then took a tremendous stop from Shea to keep out Morris’ powerful right-footed attempt after teed up by Lowe.
On 65 minutes it was the Luton keeper again to the rescue, beating out Curtis’ shot at his near post following excellent work down the left involving Lee Brown.
Donohue became the first booking of the match when, on 68 minutes, he slid into Alan McCormack after the ball had been played.
MacGillivray then produced a flying save to tip over Justin’s right-footed 25-yard shot.
On 77 minutes, Luton regained their lead after Whatmough had poleaxed Lualua inside the penalty area as the ball spun away.
It was unfortunate for the central defender, but the correct decision, and Collins made no mistake from the spot, putting it into the left-hand corner.
Yet within two minutes, Pompey were again level, this time through debutant Bogle.
Lowe found himself inside the box and squeezed in a shot from the left which crept through to the loanee striker, who tucked it home.
There was, however, another twist after Walkes had brought down Moncur on the edge of the area on 85 minutes.
Up stepped the January signing from Barnsley to stroke a sublime right-footed free-kick into the far corner and seal the match 3-2.
A dramatic end to an enthralling 90 minutes at an atmospheric Kenilworth Road.