Why delivering first punch is vital for Pompey promotion

Conor Chaplin is congratulated for his goal against Cambridge at the Abbey Stadium earlier in the season, with his strike proving the difference as Pompey recorded a 1-0 win
Conor Chaplin is congratulated for his goal against Cambridge at the Abbey Stadium earlier in the season, with his strike proving the difference as Pompey recorded a 1-0 win
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Paul Cook was entitled to wince when Jamal Lowe dragged a shot wide after 10 seconds of Adams Park action.

How his face must have contorted in agony when Eoin Doyle and then Enda Stevens subsequently fired attempts straight at Wycombe keeper Jamal Blackman.

For every occasion Pompey have opened the scoring in League Two fixtures this season, they have won.

That’s right, nine victories, 27 points, and the granite-hewn backbone to their present placing of seventh.

Cook’s men require an outstanding winning streak to revitalise aspirations of automatic promotion and resuscitate belief among many supporters.

With 18 fixtures remaining, they must claim triumphs in the majority. Stumbling to the finishing line can only reap more immense disappointment.

And the importance of drawing first blood should not be underestimated.

Granted, Cook’s side possess flaws, there remains an infuriating inconsistency and lack of brutal killer instinct. Plenty of heart but an absence of teeth-baring menace.

Yet there exists an admirable aptitude for protecting a lead – it’s just delivering that opening blow which continues to be the issue.

The Blues boss has long stressed the importance of starting on the front foot, retaining a high tempo from opening exchanges and applying a stranglehold on possession.

When Pompey are vibrant and energised, there are few League Two opponents who can possibly keep pace.

Should Cook’s side ruthlessly capitalise by scoring first, then evidence demonstrates the outcome should not be doubted.

The problem is, more often than not, they fail to, driving on the side’s erratic nature in this stuttering promotion bid.

However, during the nine league fixtures the Blues have broken the deadlock first, they have reaped victories in all.

Remarkably, in the process, only one goal has been conceded, reflecting an encouraging ability to control matches while nurturing the lead.

Last month’s stunning strike from Leyton Orient’s Gavin Massey represents that lone blip, although Cook’s men went on to regain their advantage to win the fixture 2-1.

Otherwise, they have claimed eight of their total 11 league clean sheets upon registering a game’s opening goal.

Even when forced to see out the final 29 minutes at Cambridge United with 10 men following Amine Linganzi’s dismissal didn’t see Pompey relinquish a 1-0 lead.

Likewise, Colchester, Exeter at St James Park, Crawley, Orient at Brisbane Road, Mansfield, Grimsby, and Luton at Fratton Park have failed to find a way back having conceded.

There remain concerns over the side Cook has assembled, whether it is stronger than that rolled out last season.

But their penchant for holding on to an advantage is undeniable.

On the flip side, while there may be a 100-per-cent win rate in League Two encounters, in cup competitions the Blues have not fared as well.

In the EFL Cup at Coventry and the Checkatrade Trophy at Yeovil – both in the opening month of the campaign – the visitors netted first only to lose.

Although, there was a 1-0 victory over Bristol Rovers in the Checkatrade Trophy – courtesy of Kal Naismith’s late, late strike from distance.

Regardless, in league football it represents a strength. It’s just an unfortunate trait that, in the majority of their matches, Pompey have tended to ship the opening goal.

The opposition have netted first in 16 league matches this term, with the Blues subsequently losing nine of them.

On three of those occasions, Pompey have slumped to a two-goal deficit, although notably won 3-2 at Newport County from that unfortunate position.

There was to be no such heartening comeback against both Doncaster and Stevenage at Fratton Park earlier in the campaign, though, with both resulting in 2-1 defeats.

At least Cook’s troops did recover from the blow of conceding first to beat Wycombe (4-2), Barnet (5-1), Luton (3-1) and, of course, Newport.

They also claimed draws against Carlisle, Plymouth and Cheltenham – the first two particularly impressive outcomes considering their present placing in the top three.

But 15 points have been amassed from those 16 games in which the Blues have conceded first – compared to 27 from nine when the roles have been reversed.

So Pompey head into today’s visit of Accrington Stanley striving to kick-start a winning run to propel them up the table.

They enter the fixture on the back of single-goal defeats to Exeter and Wycombe, results particularly stinging considering both opponents’ close proximity in the league table.

A favourable deflection off the shin of Danny Rose handed the Grecians the match-winner two weeks ago, while last weekend it was Scott Kashket’s ricochet off Matt Clarke to wrong-foot David Forde.

On both occasions the helping hand of fate was decisive, presenting the opposition with the opening goal in each. No more were required.

Which brings us to today’s presence of an Accrington side failing to match their impressive endeavours of last season.

John Coleman’s outfit are currently four points off the relegation zone, clutching one league away victory since September.

It represents the first of what has now developed into a remaining fixture list of 18 must-win games.

And the Blues know what they must do to ensure they collect the required result – score first.