Doncaster 2 Portsmouth 1 - Realism is here as poor Blues must refocus on a play-off battle rather than promotion push
Pompey produced another compelling argument for why they are simply not good enough for automatic promotion.
At the Keepmoat Stadium tonight, the oft-trumpted challengers for the top two once again fell flat on their faces.
If talking is to be done on the pitch, it was largely verbal diarrhea as Doncaster cruised a 2-1 success more comfortable that it suggests.
But for substitute John Marquis’ stoppage time consolation and an even later Harvey White chance, it wouldn’t have been remotely close.
Realism has been sinking in for several weeks now, with light gradually shone on the team’s baffling inconsistency, attacking failures and absence of high quality.
All alarming weaknesses were present at Doncaster, as a side which lost their manager the previous day and embroiled in a run of four defeats in five were allowed to rediscover their form.
Kenny Jackett had even elected to field three centre-halves and wing-backs for the occasion.
It fared so dismally that it was scrapped around 20 minutes – with the Blues already trailing to Reece James’ opener.
Clearly a tactical misjudgment from the manager, whose players failed to get to grips with its sudden introduction.
Haji Mnoga eventually ended up on the right wing once it was ripped up, the unfortunate youngster out of his natural environment in a team lacking crucial balance.
Pompey did improve after the break, but substitute Fejiri Okenabirhie made it 2-0 – and effectively the match was over with 20 minutes to play.
Of course, the optimists will point to 15 matches remaining and cite plenty of points to play for.
Yet Pompey are limping into the run-in devoid of form, lacking any kind of momentum and without a settled side or system.
The play-offs are surely the realistic target – unless something remarkable now occurs.
The truth is, there is not a hint of something magical occurring. Instead it will be grinding their way through to remain play-off contenders.
Incidentally, Ipswich and new manager Paul Cook are now points behind with a game in hand. And we all know how he loves a late-season surge.
Jackett had made two changes to the side so disappointingly held 1-1 by Gillingham at the weekend.
Lee Brown, whose first-half mistake led to the Gills’ equaliser, made way for Charlie Daniels.
While Jack Whatmough replaced Andy Cannon, representing a system change rather than the centre-half playing in midfield.
Whatmough joined Sean Raggett and Rasmus Nicolaisen in a back three, with Haji Mnoga and Daniels serving as wing-backs.
It was an unusual position for Mnoga to play on his third Football League outing, yet with Callum Johnson and James Bolton still missing through injury he was next in line.
Elsewhere, Harvey White moved inside to partner Tom Naylor at the heart of midfield, with Marcus Harness given a central role behind the front two.
There was no recall for John Marquis on the return to the club where he was so prolific before departing in the summer of 2019.
Instead he occupied a spot on a Blues bench which included the omitted duo Brown and Cannon.
In the opening seconds, Ellis Harrison crossed from the left, which was taken on the chest by Roan Curtis.
The Irishman swivelled and struck a shot which bounced just wide of the far post, with the keeper beaten.
Doncaster responded immediately, with a cross flighted in from the left, over the head of Rasmus Nicolaisen, and finding Brad Halliday.
The right-back met it with a first-time right-footed shot, placing it wide of the far post when it briefly threatened to find the net.
On 10 minutes, Jon Taylor became the first player to be booked following a tug on Curtis by the halfway line.
Doncaster took the lead on 12 minutes when Mnoga couldn’t connect with a fine ball into the box.
Popping up on the left, Reece James capitalised by prodding a left-footed finish past Craig MacGillivray to make it 1-0.
Moments later, Daniels’ deep free-kick into the box found its way to Whatmough, who lashed a right-footed shot comfortably over the bar.
Harness was the next to be booked as he slid in with a foul while chasing back into his own half.
There were strong appeals for a Pompey penalty on 22 minutes when a smart move culminated in Harness pushing the ball to Mnoga inside the box.
Electing not to shoot from the angle, the youngster tumbled to the floor under a side-by-side challenge by James, yet no spot kick was forthcoming.
Then a sloppy pass across the pitch by White was intercepted by Taylor, yet a wonderfully-timed slide block by Raggett thwarted the attacker.
Taylor could play no further part in proceedings, to be replaced by Fejiri Okenabirhie.
By now Pompey had reverted to a back four, with Whatmough going to right-back and Mnoga occupying a right-sided midfield role.
The visitors were offering absolutely nothing, although Harness did drive into the box just before half-time and saw his shot blocked for a corner.
Jackett made two substitutions at the break, with Marquis and Cannon replacing Mnoga and Curtis to fit into a 4-4-2.
The Blue started the second period with much more intensity, offering a greater threat in the opposition’s half.
On 52 minutes, Harrison laid the ball back to White and the midfielder fired a first-time left-footed shot which fizzed just over the bar.
Then Whatmough delivered a low cross from the right which Marquis flung himself out, yet narrowly failed to connect, amid muted appeals for a penalty.
Doncaster made a double substitution on 64 minutes, with John Bostock replaced by Scott Robertson and Josh Sims coming off for Jason Lokilo.
On 70 minutes Rovers extended their lead when Fejiri Okenabirhie managed to find space down their left and crashed a ferocious left-footed effort into the far corner from the tightest of angles.
Immediately Harness put in a dangerous cross from the right which was missed by Marquis at the far post.
On 83 minutes, Cannon’s shot from distance deflected off the back of White and looped just past the far post in a far goal threat.
In four minutes of time added on, Marquis swivelled and fire a shot into the top corner for his 15th of the season.
Then White almost netted from close range at the death, yet it was too late as Pompey edge towards a play-off battle rather than promotion push.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
The News has launched a new subscription offer which gives you unlimited access to all of our Pompey coverage, starting at less than £1 a week.
You can subscribe here to get the latest news and transfer updates from Fratton Park - and to support our local team of expert Pompey writers.