Play-offs occupy Portsmouth attention after 2-1 defeat to Charlton - Neil Allen’s match report
Doncaster slumped to defeat at League One’s bottom club, while Bradford bounced back to initiate victory over Peterborough.
With sights readjusted, the progress of both losing clubs now occupies the gaze of Pompey followers.
Encouragingly, the duo were left empty-handed on Saturday, cue a ripple of applause and nod of appreciation towards those who made it gloriously possible.
This is what the Fratton faithful have been reduced to.
The Blues were league leaders six weeks ago, now supporters are banking on negative outcomes for Doncaster and Peterborough to assure play-off qualification.
No slur intended towards either club, that must be made abundantly clear, yet not so long ago concentration was fixed on rivals possessing considerably loftier League One standing.
Within the public glare, Kenny Jackett and his players belligerently refuse to declare. The correct policy of course, acknowledgement of this hopeless cause would only further devastate remaining flimsy belief.
Realistically, however, Saturday’s 2-1 defeat at Charlton has expunged ambition of automatic promotion.
As a consequence, Luton and Barnsley have been removed as rivals. Instead fresh conflict has been established, with Doncaster and Peterborough inserted as antagonists.
For three-and-a-half months a relentless Pompey blazed the way at the top of the table, numerous club records established in the process, with those in their slipstream scrambling to keep pace.
Today, attention is centred on the requirement of six more points to secure play-off qualification.
The post-New Year lull has finally taken its toll. In terms of automatic promotion, the outcome at Charlton ensures there will be no wondrous revival, confirming existing suspicions of many, no doubt.
During Saturday evening’s morose aftermath, Jackett boldly set his team ‘eight or nine wins’ from the remaining 10 league fixtures to seal a Championship return.
Considering the fading Blues have triumphed once in their previous 10 League One outings, it’s a challenge sadly doomed to fail.
Understandably, there was optimism following recent uplifting displays against Barnsley and Bradford, with the booking of a Wembley trip sandwiched in-between.
Then Charlton entered the equation, positioned one place behind in the table and emerging as deserved winners from a televised encounter in which they bossed the occasion impressively.
Improbably, Pompey could have snatched a point at the death through a combination of Jamal Lowe and Ronan Curtis, following a sublime creative cameo from substitute Brett Pitman.
Yet that would have been rough justice on Lee Bowyer’s side, who dominated proceedings from largely the first minute, installing themselves as comfortably the better team.
Indeed, the Blues’ most cohesive spell of pressure arrived during the final 14 minutes, with Pitman’s introduction in the number 10 role behind fellow substitute James Vaughan.
That period, however, saw the Addicks remove the dangerous Igor Vetokele in favour of more defensive might in the form of Darren Pratley as they sank deeper to retain their advantage. They succeeded too.
Nonetheless, Pitman’s re-emergence was telling, following just 16 minutes of first-team action in the previous eight fixtures, albeit not a second arriving in the league.
An audition piece in a reserve friendly on Tuesday afternoon against Swindon convinced Jackett to allow the out-of-favour 31-year-old a turn playing behind the lone striker on a more prominent stage.
The former Bournemouth man subsequently lifted his team-mates upon his 76th-minute entrance at The Valley, providing guile, a willingness to take responsibility on the ball and injecting greater attacking threat.
Even that welcome input, though, couldn’t rescue Pompey – and their grandstand finish should not be allowed to mask an otherwise lacklustre display inhibited by poor ball retention.
From the outset, Charlton were swifter to the ball, more dynamic in midfield and dictated play in a manner to be admired, albeit perhaps begrudgingly by those of Blues persuasion.
Ben Close and Oli Hawkins, so outstanding in the previous weekend’s 5-1 humiliation of Bradford, shrunk into the shadows, unable to influence matters and consequently didn’t last beyond the hour mark.
Christian Burgess endured his toughest examination since a first-team return in which he has excelled, exposed too many times by pace and directness when dragged to the flanks, especially the right-hand side.
As for Tom Naylor, another to shine against the relegation-threatened Bantams, his distribution was again called into question, found wanting in possession, yet remains a pivotal midfield figure.
Aside from Pitman’s late star turn, it was Ronan Curtis who stood out, his determination, desire and tenacity admirably unaffected by the many below-par performances throttling Pompey’s display.
Granted, there exists immense self-assurance which so precariously borders on insolence, yet the Irishman is brimming with heart and courage. His effort can never be called into question.
It was Curtis who also claimed what proved to be a consolation at The Valley, netting his 12th goal of the campaign in the form of an unwarranted leveller on the stroke of half time.
From Pompey’s first corner, Lee Brown sent in a left-footed delivery down the right and the winger raced in to plant a powerful far-post header from the edge of the six-yard box into the roof of the net.
The delighted visitors would have been satisfied to have entered the break merely a goal down, such had been the Addicks’ dominance during the first period.
The deadlock had been broken on 41 minutes, Josh Cullen clipping the ball inside to Joe Aribo, who cleverly spun, touching the ball around Burgess, before drilling a left-footed shot into the far corner.
The moment had been coming, with only the unfortunate presence of Vetokele preventing Cullen registering earlier, the attacker’s back diverting the goal-bound attempt clear during a moment of outrageous fortune for the visitors.
Still, the Blues had half-time parity, yet the match continued in familiar fashion following the interval, despite the hosts losing holding midfielder Krystian Bielik to injury.
Then, on 51 minutes, arrived the decisive moment through Lyle Taylor.
Substitute Ben Reeves capitalised on Matt Clarke’s block bouncing kindly into his path by squaring for the Charlton striker to tap in unchallenged from four yards out.
There was an opportunity for a second Blues leveller on 83 minutes, Pitman superbly picking out Lowe peeling away at the far post and he connected with a first-time left-footed shot which also eluded Curtis’ desperate lunge.
So defeat for Pompey – and also for Doncaster and Peterborough.