Pompey 3 Bristol Rovers 1 – Neil Allen’s report

Michael Smith opens his scoring account for Pompey Picture: Joe Pepler
Michael Smith opens his scoring account for Pompey Picture: Joe Pepler
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So normal service has been resumed at Fratton Park.

Ben Davies back in his rightful place, Paul Cook’s favoured system restored, the defensive axis of Adam Webster and Christian Burgess reunited.

And a dominant display yielding a classy and irresistible victory.

Equilibrium has been restored. Glorious rainbows have followed the ferocious Leyton Orient storms.

Crisis, what crisis?

As Blues boss, Cook must negotiate precarious progress along a fine line, gushing triumph one week, world-ending failure the next.

The seven days preceding the visit of Bristol Rovers had proven the most testing of his reign so far – then it was all smiles.

A 3-1 victory over their promotion rivals represented a first win in four league matches, not a spell to prompt hysteria by any means.

Yet during the same period, Northampton, Plymouth and Oxford United have continued to gallop ahead, while others have emerged strongly in the mix.

A win for Cook’s side over Rovers was not a requirement, realistically it was a cast-iron demand.

And it arrived with a swagger and a strut to bolster confidence and perhaps settle those fraying nerves among the Fratton faithful.

On occasions, yesterday was as good as the Blues have played in League Two this season. Even more impressively, it was achieved against a team that can be rightly classed as fellow contenders.

Had it not been for two miraculous saves in particular from Steve Mildenhall, the difference should have been even more emphatic.

The yang to the Orient yin, truly both sides of the coin.

The aftermath of the worst display of the campaign saw Cook come under scrutiny, while the sideshow of Matt Tubbs’ loan departure also raised questions.

A crowd of 17,808 witnessed the response. For every boo the previous week, Pompey deserved applause for their dismantling of Bristol Rovers.

Of course, it was no coincidence such a performance arrived upon the return to the starting line-up of Ben Davies.

Controversially rested for Orient, the veteran was back in his familiar right-back slot and promptly weighed in with two assists and a usual high-octane display.

His replacement that day, Kieron Freeman, didn’t make the squad for the Pirates’ visit.

Davies will surely feature in the top two of any Pompey follower’s player of the season vote. If there were any waverers present yesterday, he would have earned himself many more admirers.

The Blues’ best moments were delivered by the ex-Sheffield United player, whose progression to corner taker on both flanks also demonstrates the reliance in which he is now regarded.

Just as crucial was the return of Gareth Evans to the starting line-up following his omission for Orient. Come the final whistle, the midfielder was Pompey’s joint-top scorer.

The former Fleetwood player found his way back into Cook’s starting line-up following a reversion to the 4-2-3-1 system.

Once again the 4-4-2 had failed to shine on what was a third league outing of the season, and Pompey’s boss brought back his favoured formation.

It may have its doubters but the side have comfortably been at their best in the 4-2-3-1, whether it be in League Two or against Championship sides in cup competitions.

Effectively, Evans replaced Marc McNulty, with Michael Smith serving as the lone striker for his third match since joining on loan.

The third and final personnel change was Burgess getting the nod over Matt Clarke to partner Webster in the centre of defence.

Not since December’s visit of Hartlepool had the duo lined-up alongside each other for a league encounter, that occasion would see Burgess damage his ankle.

The subsequent performances of replacement Clarke have been admirable, yet his defensive rivals remain very much the future of the football club.

Indeed, such has been Webster’s rapid progress, the Blues may soon no longer be able to retain his immensely-talented services.

The 21-year-old was magnificent against Rovers, early on overpowering Rory Gaffney in a physical battle to impose himself for the remainder of the contest.

The transformation from a player set to be without a club in the summer of 2015 into a cornerstone of Pompey’s promotion push is remarkable.

Still, it was effectively back-to-basics for Cook in pursuit of a morale-boosting result – and it paid off handsomely.

As early as the second minute, Davies’ right-wing corner was powerfully met by the head of Burgess with Mildenhall brilliantly keeping it out with a point-blank save.

The deadlock, though, would still arrive reasonably early, Davies’ cross from the right met by Evans at the near post to steer it home.

It represented goal number eight of the campaign for the midfielder, putting him on level terms with perennial substitute Conor Chaplin and McNulty.

The Blues continued to dominate, Mildenhall superbly saving at the near post from Kyle Bennett, while Gary Roberts spurned a one-on-one opportunity.

Then in first-half stoppage time another Davies delivery, this time from the left, found the head of Smith to register his maiden Pompey goal.

Impressively, following the break Cook’s side maintained their tempo and Smith wasted a further two glorious opportunities when he should have done far better.

The most notable arrived via Roberts’ 53rd minute cross from the left and flicking off the head of Evans, Smith subsequently controlling before wastefully placing a shot past the post.

Yet it was his replacement, McNulty, who sealed the victory, galloping onto Bennett’s through ball before finishing from the angle.

Mildenhall then somehow clawed out Evans’ back-post shot from Bennett’s cross off the line in the push for more goals.

Lee Brown’s direct free-kick 20-yards from goal gave Rovers a stoppage-time consolation and a rather unrealistic look to the scoreline.

Not that it should detract from Pompey’s roaring return to form.

Yet soberingly, many, many more are required to achieve automatic promotion from League Two.