Mansfield 0 Pompey 1 '“ Neil Allen's match report

So it goes right down to the League Two wire.

By The Newsroom
Sunday, 30th April 2017, 1:31 pm
Updated Tuesday, 9th May 2017, 7:04 pm
Carl Baker scores Pompey's winner against Mansfield Picture: Joe Pepler
Carl Baker scores Pompey's winner against Mansfield Picture: Joe Pepler

Not promotion, of course, that outcome having been decided almost two weeks previously.

Instead the title is up for grabs on the final day of the 2016-17 campaign.

An unexpected opportunity has suddenly tantalisingly presented itself to Paul Cook’s side.

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Carl Baker scores Pompey's winner against Mansfield Picture: Joe Pepler

The only divisional honour to elude the Blues in their Football League existence stands vacant as three clubs clamour to claim ownership.

Such has been the ghastly manner of Doncaster’s choking since sealing their promotion, they have been caught at the finish line.

Now the Fratton Park promotion party scheduled against Cheltenham could develop into League Two title celebrations.

A remarkable scenario for Pompey players and management in the ongoing aftermath of that season-defining defeat against Crewe.

Carl Baker scores Pompey's winner against Mansfield Picture: Joe Pepler

Saturday’s hard-earned victory at Mansfield marked 28 points from a possible 33 since that March 4 loss to the Railwaymen.

At that stage the Blues were fifth – 13 points off the summit.

Today they sit third and a mere two points away from current leaders Plymouth, who wrestled the initiative off Doncaster at the weekend.

League Two’s form side have transformed the impossible into the achievable.

During his post-match address following a 1-0 win at Field Mill, Cook joked how he was getting the sack had his team not defeated Crawley at the start of their run.

A tongue in cheek utterance, of course, nonetheless another reminder of the magnificent turnaround in Pompey’s late-season fortunes.

The Blues have not occupied higher than second spot since September, while have not topped a League Two table since victory at Bristol Rovers on September 26, 2015.

Conceivably, those statistics could be gloriously surpassed next weekend at the death.

Albeit Plymouth and Doncaster must both fail to win in their encounters on the road at Grimsby and Hartlepool respectively.

Yet Cook’s men possess momentum and a home fixture against a Cheltenham side fresh from securing their Football League presence.

Stringing together a maiden fourth successive league win since early September could snatch the crown from their rivals’ grasp. Yes really.

So much for winding down after clinching promotion at Meadow Lane and forget about takeover talk distracting the players.

Pompey’s tunnel vision remains transfixed on first place as long-time champions-elect, Doncaster, have wracked up three consecutive defeats.

Not that the Blues particularly deserved victory over Mansfield on Saturday during a smash-and-grab raid.

Steve Evans’ play-off wannabees were mightily impressive, denied by the magnificent David Forde, awful finishing and one calamitous refereeing decision.

Even Carl Baker’s 56th minute winner was against the run of play in an off-day for the visitors.

Nonetheless, inspired by a mighty defensive display, Cook’s men fled with all three points to keep their own aspirations intact.

They call such an outcome the mark of champions, well that remains to be seen.

Still, victory was Pompey’s despite struggling as an attacking unit and barely putting the Mansfield back line under pressure.

Kal Naismith even ballooned a late attempt over the bar from eight yards out following excellent work from substitute Gary Roberts down the right.

Had that registered it would have given the scoreline an absolutely unjust reflection of a match the hosts should have taken.

Perhaps such a statement is not giving enough credit to the visitors’ defence, who were the true stars in a 12th away victory of the campaign.

The Blues possess the best defensive record in League Two and once again stood firm, particularly under the late aerial bombardment engineered by the Stags boss’ substitutions.

Christian Burgess was at his brilliant best, substitute Jack Whatmough provided essential late clearing power, while Forde behind them was immense.

As for holding pair of Michael Doyle and Danny Rose, they chased and harried everything, the latter demonstrating energy levels to be admired.

The outcome was a 19th clean sheet of the league season – and a stab at that League Two title on the final day.

For the Field Mill encounter, Cook made three changes, bringing back two of his trusted guard.

Rose was restored to midfield in place of Stanley Aborah, whose neck problem had kept him out of training in the build up.

The other returning hero was Burgess, taking the spot of Whatmough, having been rested from the previous weekend’s victory over Cambridge United.

Elsewhere, Conor Chaplin was handed a first start since January, with Nicke Kabamba dropping to the bench.

Yet such is the immense depth in this squad, once again the alterations yielded a Pompey victory.

The first half was largely lifeless, a dull affair perhaps only lightened by Naismith completely missing the ball and ending on the floor during an attempted left-foot shot on goal.

Although Pompey’s top-scorer did draw a fine near-post save from Jake Kean on 36 minutes with a right-foot effort.

The second-half livened up considerably, initiated by the Stags as they returned from the dressing room determined to grab the win they required to maintain play-off interest.

On 48 minutes, referee Lee Swabey’s decision not to send off Matt Clarke stunned even Pompey’s bench.

Caught in possession by the Stags’ Danny Rose, the defender managed to bring down his opponent with only Forde left to face.

Inexplicably, a yellow card was shown by the Devon match official – much to the home support’s disbelief.

Rhys Bennett than had a goal disallowed for offside before Pompey broke the deadlock through Baker.

Collecting Naismith’s pass down the left, the midfielder surged into the box before brilliantly swivelling and firing a right-foot shot home.

It was a lead this Pompey defence was never going to surrender, despite the inevitable ensuring pressure piled on, taking in six minutes added on.

Now it’s all eyes on Saturday. Surely it couldn’t happen. Could it?