Pompey 1 Bristol Rovers 0: Neil Allen's match report
The lingering agony of the Checkatrade Trophy continues.
Still, if it is the end, Pompey rounded off their participation in style.
Their Southern Group A finale against Bristol Rovers last night attracted the Blues’ lowest-ever Fratton Park post-war attendance – again.
The 1,200 gathered inside beat the 1,355 who turned up for the previous match against Reading Under-23s in the much-maligned competition.
But at least there was something to cheer, after Kal Naismith’s stunning 35-yard drive settled matters two minutes from time.
It remains to be seen whether their 1-0 victory is enough to progress into the knockout stages, with Yeovil and the Royals completing the group tonight.
Defeat for the Glovers, aided by a favourable goal difference, would be enough for Pompey to progress further.
So Paul Cook’s side must wait for their fate to be decided – a pause made easier, however, by a welcome victory which ended a run of three successive home losses.
In a match of few opportunities, the Blues’ much-changed side – eight in total – were handed a sixth-minute penalty when Michael Smith was tripped by substitute Rovers keeper Will Puddy.
The striker, who was making a rare appearance, took the spot-kick himself. But he saw his effort saved, leaving him on three goals for the season.
Rovers’ Luke James also struck the post during the first half, but there was little to talk about after the interval aside from several Naismith free-kicks.
Yet just as it appeared a goalless draw would be sending Cook’s men out, Naismith rifled in a shot from 35 yards which proved decisive.
The ball swerved in the wind and rain and sped past Puddy in the centre of the goal to decide the occasion in the 88th minute.
Now the Fratton faithful wait with baited breath for tonight’s outcome to discover if there are still more Checkatrade Trophy fixtures to come.
Inevitably, there were widespread changes initiated by Cook as he retained just three of the side which suffered FA Cup elimination to Wycombe on Saturday.
Ben Close, Milan Lalkovic and Adam Buxton again featured, with the other eight names on the team-sheet altered.
In came Drew Talbot for his first match since August 27 – having recovered from a hamstring injury – with Buxton moving across to line up at left-back.
Jack Whatmough and Tom Davies formed the centre-half partnership, with Liam O’Brien named as keeper in place of David Forde.
Despite being in the midst of a three-match ban, Amine Linganzi was able to appear as he partnered skipper Close in the holding-midfield roles.
Kyle Bennett and Naismith came into the attacking midfield positions, with Smith completing the line-up as the lone striker.
As for visiting manager Darrell Clarke, he made six changes to the side which drew against Crawley in the Cup.
When the game got under way, Rovers made a substitution after 142 seconds, with keeper Kelle Roos replaced by Puddy.
It was a pre-arranged decision designed to enable another change without fear of collecting a fine – and one the Bristol press contingent had been made aware of before kick-off.
With Puddy’s second touch, though, the keeper had gifted the Blues a sixth-minute penalty.
He dallied over a backpass, allowing Smith to dispossess him, before bringing down the Pompey striker out of desperation.
Smith took the spot-kick right-footed – but Puddy made amends by diving to his right to keep the ball out.
Rovers responded with Peter Hartley heading narrowly wide from their first corner of the game.
Rory Gaffney should have then broken the deadlock in the 11th minute – but he produced an awful miss from four yards out.
Daniel Leadbitter charged up from right-back and delivered a superb cross which his team-mate somehow managed to head past the near post from close range.
There was another let-off for the Blues on 15 minutes when James rifled in a right-foot shot from 30 yards which smacked against the left-hand post, with O’Brien beaten.
The visitors were threatening on a far more consistent basis and Gaffney clipped a shot narrowly over the bar following an excellent run past several challenges.
In a rare attempt on goal from the hosts, Naismith drilled in a shot from 30 yards which struck the roof of the Milton End on 24 minutes.
At the other end, O’Brien had to dive to his right to keep out Jermaine Easter’s low effort three minutes later.
The last kick of the first half saw Naismith curl a left-footed free-kick inches away from the far top corner of the net.
It was scoreless at the break and on 55 minutes Linganzi missed a golden opportunity to net when he sent a header from Naismith’s free-kick into the ground and over the bar.
An awful challenge from Davies saw him take out James, although, with advantage played, Whatmough did superbly to tackle Leadbitter as he burst through for a one-on-one with O’Brien.
Mark McChrystal took out Close in the 72nd minute on the edge of the area, earning the central defender a booking in the process.
It would be Close’s final touch, though.
He was then taken off along with Buxton, with Danny Rose and Gareth Evans introduced to the action.
On 77 minutes, Bennett made way for Noel Hunt for Pompey’s third and final substitution.
The Irishman’s first touch was to flick the ball on for Smith down the left, and the striker produced a clever drag back to find space to produce a low cross.
It was teed up for either Hunt or Rose, only for the duo to get in each others’ way, so neither made contact with the goal beckoning.
With the match heading for a draw and subsequent Blues elimination, Naismith tried his luck from long range with a swerving 35-yard shot.
The ball ended up in the back of the net and suddenly the win was theirs.
Now it is over to Reading under-23s and Yeovil to decide whether Pompey’s interest in this year’s competition continues.