Luton 1 Pompey 3: Neil Allen’s match report

Michael Smith levels for Pompey. Picture: Joe Pepler
Michael Smith levels for Pompey. Picture: Joe Pepler
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Michael Smith, much maligned and definitely misunderstood.

Yet the striker battling to win over many of the Fratton faithful announced his return to the starting line-up with a moment of class.

And with it he laid the foundations for a Kenilworth Road result which could prove pivotal for the Blues’ promotion aspirations.

For last night at Luton wasn’t merely about three points, it was the injection of belief into a support perhaps losing heart and with fading faith.

Certainly, it would be reckless to write off Paul Cook’s men in November while placed fifth ahead of their latest fixture.

However, there have been doubts among some – and at the home of the side positioned above, Pompey pulled off a stunning 3-1 victory.

At the heart of it was Smith, the player in the side for the suspended Conor Chaplin and scorer of the equaliser at Cheltenham on Saturday.

Danny Hylton’s header had presented the Hatters with a seventh-minute lead, while moments later he had another ruled out for off-side.

Then, on 11 minutes, the ball fell to Smith on the edge of the Luton area and he drove in a magnificent first-time angled shot into the net via the inside of the far post.

Pompey had their equaliser and on the stroke of half-time Gareth Evans pounced to make it 2-1 following Carl Baker’s corner.

The second period lacked the intensity of a breathless opening 45 minutes but the Blues were in firm control.

Christian Burgess struck the bar, while the scoreline was sealed by substitute Kal Naismith’s stunning strike on 84 minutes.

It was a crucial victory against Nathan Jones’ side, restoring some leaking confidence and repairing some of Smith’s reputation.

In the build-up, Cook revealed Smith would replace the suspended Chaplin as Pompey’s lone striker.

That was the only change to the side which drew 1-1 at Cheltenham on Saturday.

With Smith called into the starting line-up, Amine Linganzi took his place on the substitutes’ bench following his three-match ban for a sending off at Cambridge United.

Curtis Main was still absent through an abdominal strain, while there was again no room for Adam Buxton, Tom Davies or Ben Close.

Smith’s first involvement was to superbly hold off his marker before clipping a ball around the corner for Baker to run on to.

In the third minute, the Blues won a free-kick down the left and, from Gary Roberts’ delivery, Matt Clarke’s free header at the far post was parried by Christian Walton.

It was an excellent stop from the keeper, yet the Blues’ central defender should really have broken the deadlock.

Yet on seven minutes there was a goal, which arrived from the head of Hylton.

Left-back Alan Sheehan’s initial cross was headed clear but when the ball returned to him, he was granted all the time in the world to deliver it back into the box, with Hylton making no mistake.

Disappointingly, nobody had closed Sheehan down for that second cross, while Evans was on the floor injured throughout the attack.

The Hatters thought they had scored a second on nine minutes when Isaac Vassell tricked his way down the left and crossed for Hylton to net from close range.

However, the linesman’s flag cut short the home celebrations, with the goalscorer ruled offside.

The breathtaking start continued, however, with the Blues levelling on 11 minutes through a stunning Smith strike.

The striker fed Baker from the left and, when the midfielder’s route to goal was blocked, the ball returned to the vicinity of Smith.

From the edge of the box, he launched a first-time right foot shot which smacked against the inside of the far post and found its way into the net.

Evans received the first booking of the night when, on 17 minutes, he caught Alex Gilliead from behind after the ball had gone.

On 20 minutes, Roberts was obstructed as he attempted a one-two with Kyle Bennett down the left, yet the resulting free-kick was cleared.

At the other end, Bennett was adjudged to have tripped Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu and, from 25 yards, Sheehan delivered a free-kick which was headed for a throw-in by Burgess.

On the hour mark, Baker’s cross from the right was met with a decent header from Roberts, although comfortably claimed by the keeper.

The first half remained entertaining and Michael Doyle sent a far-post volley into the side-netting following Roberts’ corner from the right.

The match was being played at a cracking tempo and, with half-time approaching, Roberts’ left-foot drive from outside the box was beaten out superbly by Walton.

There were home appeals for handball in the box on 42 minutes when Gilliead’s cross from the left was blocked by the flying body of Evans – but no penalty was given.

Then David Forde dived to his right to beat out Hylton’s powerful shot from long range.

On the stroke of half-time, the Blues took the lead when Baker’s left-wing corner caused problems and Evans was on hand to lash the ball into the roof of the net.

With the resumption of the game following half-time, Stevens was booked on 48 minutes for a trip on Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu.

The second half, however, was lacking the blistering pace of the first, not that Pompey were concerned as they sought to retain their lead.

Danny Rose was the latest Blues player to be booked following a tug on Cameron McGeehan as the midfielder burst down the middle.

Cook’s side were denied by the bar on 63 minutes when Baker dug out a cross from the right and Burgess powered a header against the woodwork. An off-the-ball incident between Sheehan and Baker then won the Blues a free-kick on the right, from which Evans planted a header wide of a gaping goal.

Following a Forde punch – and with Luton hunting for a leveller, Sheehan steered a shot towards the empty net, only for Clarke to clear off the line.

And Pompey responded in devastating fashion, the ball dropping to substitute Kal Naismith on the right-hand side of the penalty area.

The Scot then crashed home a powerful right-foot drive from the angle, giving Walton absolutely no chance.

During five minutes of time added on, the Blues remained in control and safely saw out a precious 3-1 victory.