Portsmouth 3 Sunderland 1 '“ Neil Allen's match report

A predetermined tongue-in-cheek insinuation rather than impeccably-timed coincidence, surely.

Sunday, 23rd December 2018, 8:43 am
Updated Thursday, 10th January 2019, 10:44 am
Celebrations as Ben Thompson nets in Pompey's 3-1 victory over Sunderland. Picture: Joe Pepler

It wasn't merely Kenny Jackett's table-toppers delivering a powerful message on Saturday.

In the glorious aftermath, Fratton Park's PA system also contributed, chiming in with McFadden & Whitehead classic '˜Ain't No Stopping Us Now'.

For those supporters metaphorically cartwheeling out of the ground and able to identify the 1979 tune amid exuberant chatter and bursts of joyous chanting, a wry smile could be afforded.

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At the season's half-way mark, with each opponent encountered and evaluated, the Blues head into Christmas four points clear in League One.

The visit of Sunderland was earmarked as the sternest test of Pompey's promotion resolve, a pivotal encounter attracting Fratton's largest crowd for seven years.

Only Gillingham and Charlton had previously drawn blood yet, in truth, represented undercard occupiers. The undisputed main event had rightly long been reserved for the Black Cats.

The subsequent outcome provided more compelling evidence that Jackett's men are admirably equipped to remain several steps ahead of challengers during the campaign's second half.

Certainly the 3-1 scoreline provided convincing assurances to those among the Fratton faithful whose natural cynicism continues to smother the emergence of any boisterous belief.

Pompey's home form has lacked the consistency and conviction of displays demonstrated on the road in an ongoing club-record run. Incidentally, both league losses have also arrived at Fratton Park.

Yet, on Saturday, all goals arrived during a stunning second period as ruthless Pompey exploited a one-man advantage in devastating fashion.

Once Glenn Loovens was dismissed minutes following the interval, it prised apart a closely-contested occasion which had previously failed to generate the goal-scoring opportunities to match thunderous commitment.

From that moment, the Blues seized control and were merciless in their assault.

This team which has resided at League One's summit since September have largely lacked a swagger, rather a unit of supreme efficiency churning out regular positive results.

Constructed upon a brilliant defensive unit, the bulk of the 20 triumphs in all competitions heading into the Sunderland clash have been ground out, often with impressive ease. Nonetheless, few opponents have been blown away.

Against Sunderland, in admittedly favourable circumstances, suddenly there was a cocky strut about Pompey, the confident walk of a champion, unquestionably epitomised by the brilliant Ronan Curtis.

The Irishman with limitless self-belief conjured up the inspiration to capitalise on Loovens' abrupt departure, a show fittingly witnessed by recently-appointed Republic of Ireland boss Mick McCarthy.

A sublime ball to create the game's decisive moment, an eighth goal of the campaign, a booking in recognition of a hot-headed high challenge and an exit three minutes from time through injury. It was quite the all-action second half.

Jackett revealed Curtis had suffered a tight quad, the culmination of high-octane endeavours at a vibrant Fratton Park. We await to discover his availability for the Boxing Day visit to Gillingham.

Still, the mind casts back to November 2016 when Paul Cook's side were booed during patient attempts to pick apart Mansfield's nine-men. It was uncomfortable to hear, yet the future League Two champions subsequently ran out 4-0 winners.

However, there was nothing subtle about the Blues' attempts to profit from the Black Cats' self-inflicted punch to the stomach. The approach was relentless, brimming with intensity and ambition, and deservedly drew a final-whistle ovation.

This was the visit of arguably Pompey's most feared promotion rivals, a side previously with one league defeat all season and still widely-perceived as title winners in waiting considering such Premier League-hangover playing resources.

As a consequence, 19,402 packed into the famous old ground, with 2,637 occupying a noisy Milton end. It represents Fratton Park's largest crowd since December 2011, when Southampton last visited.

And Jackett's troops coped with the pressure magnificently, emphatically dispatching their adversaries to maintain top billing this Christmas.

In truth, the veteran Loovens, an opponent in Pompey's 2008 FA Cup final victory over Cardiff, can have no criticism of that 47th minute red card, certainly there was no protest from the culprit himself.

Curtis' wonderful pass down the left picked with perfection the path of Oli Hawkins, who had managed to drift the wrong side of the Dutchman to carve his way into the penalty area with a clear shot available.

However, Loovens' desperate attempts at retrieving the situation only succeeded in clipping the Blues striker, sending him tumbling. The dismissal rightly ensued, with no evidence the central defender had challenged for the ball.

For the penalty, up stepped Gareth Evans, duties he previously successfully carried out in the Meadow Lane promotion party and then title-clinching thumping of Cheltenham.

There was no mistake, crashing the spot-kick high into the top corner for his ninth of the season, while handing Pompey the precious breakthrough.

Barely five minutes later and Fratton roared once more.

The impressive Hawkins intelligently steered a header into the path of the unmarked Curtis down the left and the winger surged down the flank before drilling in a left-foot finished from an improbable angle.

The Derry City recruit, however, was at fault for Sunderland's 57th-minute lifeline, switching off when stand-in right-back Luke O'Nien arrived at the far post to connect successfully with Reece James' pinpoint cross from the left.

Still, Pompey's advantage was made unassailable and any building nerves swiftly dispersed when, on 63 minutes, Ben Thompson completed the scoreline.

Evans' right-wing corner was met with a powerful Hawkins header brilliantly kept out by keeper Jon McLaughlin, only for the loanee from Millwall to gallop into the box and crash a first-time right-footed finish.

There was still time for substitute Brett Pitman to see a goal ruled out, having diverted Ben Close's on-target effort past the keeper from an off-side position.

Close, who made an eye-catching impact during his 19 minutes on pitch, also saw another shot well saved, while Hawkins wastefully placed a header wide of the far post when he should have done far better.

Perhaps if Lynden Gooch had converted Duncan Watmore's left-wing cross shortly before half-time, with the scoreline goalless, the outcome may have been different, yet Craig MacGillivray was superbly equal to it.

That represented a rare positive moment for Jack Ross' side. Once Loovens exited, they were ripped apart by the cold-eyed Blues in a cut-throat manner to be applauded.

Ain't no stopping us now? Today, many more believe so.