Cambridge United 2 Portsmouth 1: Neil Allen's verdict - Newcastle conquerors claim another cup scalp as below-par Blues deservedly dumped out of Papa John's Trophy

There were just 1,308 present – as opposed to a packed St James’ Park – to witness the latest Cambridge United cup triumph.

Tuesday, 11th January 2022, 9:14 pm
George Hirst battles away for Pompey in their Papa John's Trophy encounter at Cambridge United. Picture: Simon Davies/ProSportsImages
George Hirst battles away for Pompey in their Papa John's Trophy encounter at Cambridge United. Picture: Simon Davies/ProSportsImages

And certainly Mark Bonner’s men weren’t forced to face incessant pressure as experienced against Newcastle United in the FA Cup some 72 hours earlier.

Nonetheless, their latest conquest was lapped up by the home crowd, who saluted progress in the Papa John’s Trophy at the expense of a disappointing Pompey.

Danny Cowley’s men were largely second best throughout, to the extent Alex Bass was the Blues’ undisputed man of the match in a strong personal display.

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His team-mates, however, were found wanting, with a 2-1 scoreline perhaps flattering them considering the superiority of the hosts.

Cowley had named a strong side for the last 16 encounter, handing Clark Robertson his comeback after sidelined by injury since September.

He left the pitch at the interval in a pre-determined substitution – and both Cambridge’s goals arrived after the break through Harvey Knibbs.

Granted, Michael Jacobs did net with a far-post header on 75 minutes to stoke faint hopes of another barnstorming late comeback.

Yet Cowley’s men were unable to respond – nor did they warrant anything from the match, to be truthful.

Cambridge carried more threat, possessed greater bite and drive about them and, tellingly, Bass was considerably the busier keeper of the two.

Indeed, the Blues can have no complaints over the outcome. The better side won on the night, ensuring Pompey have failed to beat the U’s in three encounters this season.

And with the last chance of silverware now over, Cowley’s troops face MK Dons at home on Saturday with attention fully fixed on League One and the play-offs for the remainder of the campaign.

For the Abbey Stadium trip, also joining Robertson in Pompey’s squad following a significant lay-off was Ryan Tunnicliffe, having been sidelined since late October.

He was named among the substitutes, providing another fitness boost to Cowley as he continues to welcome back senior players.

Still, it was a strong starting XI fielded by Pompey’s head coach, despite making five changes to the team which left it late to defeat Exeter in the same competition on Friday night.

Curtis, who grabbed two goals after coming off the bench, was rewarded with an Abbey Stadium start, along with Reeco Hackett.

Michael Jacobs also came into the side, having been linked with a switch to Doncaster earlier in the day,

Yet there was no place for John Marquis, having made his first start in 10 fixtures at St James Park. Instead he was named among the Blues substitutes.

Intriguingly, Paul Downing was not present in the 18-man squad, with Harry Jewett-White operating as the 19th man.

Pompey’s injury list now contains just long-term casualties Jayden Reid and Liam Vincent.

When the match got underway, the returning Robertson had the first touch for the visitors, confidently dealing with a ball forward following Cambridge’s centre.

Sloppy play from Kieron Freeman put the Blues under early pressure when firstly his cross-field pass went straight to an opponent, then his pocket was picked while attempting to shadow the ball out.

Fortunately Louis Thompson was on hand to come across and block Wes Hoolahan, albeit handing the U’s the game’s first corner after five minutes.

Then a break down the left saw Sam Smith cut the ball back dangerously, but fortunately Hackett popped up from nowhere to intercept and clear.

On eight minutes, a stunning finger-tip save from Alex Bass saw him push Smith’s goal-bound header over the bar following an excellent ball into the box.

More poor play from Pompey saw Robertson’s strong slide challenge unable to rectify a team-mate’s inaccurate pass and Harvey Knibbs racing clear down the left.

However, the midfielder got greedy, driving an angled shot straight at Bass rather than squaring for the screaming Hoolahan to net.

The under-pressure Blues had a golden opportunity on 16 minutes following Hackett’s free-kick from the left.

That was flicked on by Thompson, finding its way to George Hirst at the far post, yet the striker couldn’t make a clean connection and it went harmlessly through to Dimitar Mitov.

Jack Lankester collected the first booking of the evening after catching Thompson late as the Pompey midfielder nicked the ball past him.

Cambridge were still looking the most dangerous side, particularly on the break, yet Jacobs did force Mitov into a comfortable low stop with a shot from outside the box on 40 minutes.

With the scoreline goalless at half time, Sean Raggett replaced Robertson in a clearly pre-determined move, with the substituted Scot warming down at the interval.

There was also a change for the hosts, who introduced Ben Worman for Liam O’Neil in midfield.

The deadlock was broken on 49 minutes when the Blues couldn’t clear an attack and Knibbs struck a low right-footed shot which found its way into the bottom corner of the net.

The shot appeared to go through the legs of a Pompey man before drifting agonisingly out of Bass’ reach - and Cambridge were 1-0 up.

The Blues slipped further behind on 58 minutes, with that man Knibbs netting once more.

On this occasion it was a header inside the six-yard box, getting on the end of a sumptuous cross with the outside of his left foot from Hoolahan on the right.

Pompey made a quadruple substitution on 61 minutes, with Hackett, Thompson, Curtis and Hirst replaced by Marquis, Lee Brown, Tunnicliffe and Marcus Harness.

It signified all of their allotted five changes, meaning no entrance for Arsenal loanee Azeez.

In the 71st minute, May and Hoolahan were replaced by Paul Digby and James Brophy, with both departing players getting a terrific reception from home fans.

Cambridge had the ball in the net after successive saves from Bass, yet while the third attempt did beat him, the offside flag was raised.

Immediately Pompey went to the other end and grabbed themselves a lifeline through Jacobs to make it 2-1.

Brown’s corner from the right found the far post, where it was met by the head of Jacobs, striking several players on its way into the net.

Marquis had a golden chance five minutes from time when Harness flicked the ball on and the striker sent an instinctive stooping header wide of the target.

Positioned inside the six-yard box, he should have done better, as Cambridge fans were only too aware.

The fourth official indicated six minutes of time added on, with Marquis agonisingly going close to connecting with a left-wing cross, only to be flagged offside.

But, unlike Crystal Palace under-21s and Exeter previously, this time there would be no Papa John’s Trophy progression through a stoppage-time goal.

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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