Pompey 1 Luton 0: Neil Allen’s match report

Christian Burgess scores the winner for Pompey with a first-half header Picture: Joe Pepler
Christian Burgess scores the winner for Pompey with a first-half header Picture: Joe Pepler
Ronan Curtis. Picture: Portsmouth FC

Ronan Curtis: I’ll handle Pompey pressure after public pursuit

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In the year which must bring promotion for the present Pompey regime, Fratton Park was treated to the perfect start.

Christian Burgess settled it with a first-half winner, guiding home Carl Baker’s free-kick from the left with his head.

An impressive result against a Luton side residing one place below the Blues in the League Two table.

Just as important, the win arrived on home soil.

What’s more, the 1-0 victory was achieved courtesy of a gutsy second-half display in which Paul Cook’s men came under some intense scrutiny.

A backline marshalled outstandingly by Matt Clarke stood firm. They demonstrated a spirit and fight in front of their own fans which must be applauded.

Pompey have been rightly criticised for their home form – particularly in recent months.

But there was a welcome steel to their win over Nathan Jones’ troops.

There were scares, such as Danny Hylton striking the bar on 53 minutes, while Luton’s switch to wing-backs piled on the pressure.

For the Blues, substitute Gary Roberts missed a penalty in stoppage-time, comfortably clearing the crossbar to end the chance to dismiss late nerves.

As it was, Burgess’ third goal of the season settled matters as Pompey cut the lead behind third place to four points.

Now it’s on to Doncaster on Thursday night as Paul Cook’s side strives to reap promotion in the 2016-17 campaign.

Cook made the one change to the team who earned four points from successive away games – most recently a goalless draw at Yeovil.

With his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation restored, Noel Hunt missed out, with Kyle Bennett recalled to the starting line-up to occupy the left-hand side of midfield.

That allowed Kal Naismith a more central role, occupying the hole behind lone striker Michael Smith, with Baker to his right.

Hunt found himself back among the substitutes to accommodate that change – a bench which also contained Roberts following his period of rest.

The attacking midfielder had been absent from the Blues’ past two matches, but was back in the 18-man squad for the visit of Luton, replacing Adam Buxton.

However, new-boy Jamal Lowe was not present, despite having now arrived at Fratton Park following a successful six months at non-league Hampton & Richmond.

The striker was not included for what would have been a final Beavers appearance on New Year’s Day.

Yet he also didn’t feature in Cook’s match-day squad for the visit of the Hatters.

Lowe did, though, train with his new team-mates on the pitch prior to kick-off.

When the match got under way, Baker, who earlier had to receive treatment following a knock to the head, swung in a teasing cross from the right.

But Smith was pulled up for tugging back Scott Cuthbert at the far post and the move was aborted.

On 11 minutes, Luton keeper Christian Walton was penalised for handling a backpass and, from the resulting free-kick, Michael Doyle was teed up with a shot which was charged down.

The visitors suffered a blow when Cameron McGeehan was left in agony after a challenge with Doyle, when the Blues man cleared the ball.

No foul was given, prompting the Hatters’ midfielder to receive a yellow card for his complaints while being treated, and that was to be his final act.

McGeehan was stretched off to an ambulance and was replaced by Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu on 20 minutes.

On the resumption of play, Gareth Evans drove a first-time left-foot shot over the bar from just outside the box, but overall the game was waiting to ignite in an attacking sense.

At the other end, Jonathan Smith drove a right-foot shot over the Pompey bar after it had deflected into his path.

On 28 minutes, Naismith and Enda Stevens combined well down the left and the ball was pulled back for Baker, who unfortunately missed his kick with his left foot.

The Blues were starting to dominate and Bennett drove a shot narrowly past Walton’s right-hand post during another attack.

They had their breakthrough on 31 minutes, though, when Bennett was fouled by Stephen O’Donnell down the left.

Baker took the free-kick and picked out Burgess, who headed home from just inside the six-yard box.

Smith became the second Luton player to be booked, having caught Doyle late.

There were an additional seven minutes at the end of the first half following McGeehan’s injury, and a sublime pass from Baker put Naismith through on goal down the right.

However, Cuthbert raced across to put in a brilliant sliding challenge and thwart the Pompey winger as he sized up a shot.

Then Naismith delivered a left-footed corner in from the right which was headed wide at the far post by Burgess as he tussled in the air.

With no substitutions at the break, it didn’t take the hosts long to get back into their stride, winning a free-kick down the right.

Baker delivered the ball into the box and Evans sent a free header from a central position straight at Luton’s keeper.

Then Michael Smith slipped Naismith inside, and when his shot deflected towards the far post Baker just couldn’t get it under control and poked the ball wide.

There was a scare for the Blues, however, on 53 minutes, stemming from Burgess missing a long ball from the back.

His mistake allowed in Hylton, whose clever right-footed chip sailed over David Forde and smacked against the crossbar, before being hooked clear.

That sparked a double substitution for the Hatters, who replaced Alex Gilliead and Jordan Cook with Olly Lee and Isaac Vassell.

On 65 minutes, poor misjudgement from Clarke as he attempted to shepherd the ball out on the byline allowed Hylton to get around the back, only for his pass to be stabbed wide by team-mate Jonathan Smith.

Roberts was introduced from the bench on 68 minutes for Bennett, receiving an excellent reception from the Fratton faithful.

Luton were putting Pompey under considerable pressure and Forde had to beat out James Justin’s drive at his near post.

Cook’s men had a golden opportunity to relieve the pressure when Naismith looked to race on to the ball at the far post – only for Michael Smith to pop up to intervene, ignoring his team-mate’s calls, and the move petered out.

As the match entered four minutes of time added on, the Blues had the chance to settle nerves after Smith and Hunt closed down Lee, who brought down the latter.

However, Roberts stepped up to sky the penalty high into the Fratton end. Not that it mattered as Cook’s side held on for a valuable victory.