Exeter 2 Portsmouth 3: Neil Allen's verdict - Ronan Curtis inspires dramatic triumph as Blues come back at the death to break Grecian hearts yet again
On this occasion, John Marquis wasn’t on the pitch, while Cameron McGeehan wasn’t even in the same country.
Yet Pompey once again pulled off a stunning late performance to break Exeter hearts and eliminate them from the EFL Trophy.
It was back in February 2020 when Exeter appeared set for a 2-1 triumph at Fratton Park – only for Marquis and McGeehan to strike at the death.
Perhaps it was fitting that Ronan Curtis would provide the inspiration almost two years later.
After all, it was the Irishman’s superb cross from the left which laid on Marquis’s headed winner in that fixture to send the Blues to Wembley.
In the present, Curtis had gone two-and-a-half months since netting at Accrington in October, spanning 11 matches.
However, he would be the two-goal hero at St James Park, netting twice at the death to claim a remarkable 3-2 victory.
Trailing 2-1 following a dreadful second half from Cowley’s men, substitute Curtis headed home Michael Jacobs’ free-kick on 89 minutes.
Then, in the third minute of time added on, he pounced to drive a first-time shot through a crowded goal line.
How the Irishman celebrated, taking off his shirt and embracing the 507 travelling support.
The Exeter fans would have been distraught, having deservedly appeared set for a trip to Cambridge United in the next round.
On their second-half display alone they warranted it, with Archie Collins making it 2-1 in the 76th minute.
In truth, Pompey should have been out of sight in the first-half, especially after George Hirst netted on five minutes.
Matt Jay levelled 68 seconds later and, for the rest of the half, Hirst and John Marquis missed some great opportunities,
Exeter we’re a different prospect after the break with the score line at 1-1, while the Blues were frustrating.
Then Curtis intervened superbly.
In team news, John Marquis was handed his first start in 10 matches, operating alongside striking rival George Hirst in attack.
However, there was no sign of Ellis Harrison, who is in talks over a permanent move away from Fratton Park and wisely not considered for selection in the meantime.
While Gassan Ahadme, who will return to Norwich this month with the cancellation of his loan, was not included in the match-day 18.
Elsewhere, with Gavin Bazunu given the night off, Alex Bass came in, while Louis Thompson was fit enough to be named on the bench.
Lee Brown returned to the team at left wing-back in place of Reeco Hackett, with the back three of Kieron Freeman, Sean Raggett and Connor Ogilvie remaining intact.
In addition, the recalled Miguel Azeez partnered Joe Morrell in the centre of midfield, with Shaun Williams rested.
However, Clark Robertson and Ryan Tunnicliffe are still not ready to return to match-day duty following injury and were absent from the squad.
Meanwhile, Pompey’s seven-man bench included Academy pair Toby Steward and Harry Jewitt-White, who have spent the week training with the first-team.
With Pompey kicking off the game, Brown knocked an excellent ball down the left to put Hirst into the channel for a promising early attack.
However, as the striker attempted to cut inside the defender, he stumbled and it was comfortably cleared by the Exeter man.
Moments later, Hirst collected Mahlon Romeo’s cross from the right and it fell to Marquis, whose first-time snapshot flew out for a throw-in on the opposite side of the pitch.
The Blues took the lead on five minutes when, from the right, Marcus Harness stood up a cross at the back post, where the unmarked Hirst planted a header in the far corner.
It was a goal simply constructed, but credit has to go to Harness - while the marking of the scorer was poor.
However, within 68 seconds, the hosts had found a leveller.
Ogilvie’s clearing header fell to Jay, whose surging run down the middle took him past several tackles and into the box.
He then finished it off with a stunning right-footed shot which found the top corner and, with six minutes on the clock, Exeter’s skipper had made it 1-1.
Following the bright beginning, the game entered something of a lull with little in the way of decent penalty box action.
However, on 25 minutes, a ball down the line put Marquis through down the left, yet he didn’t shoot quickly enough and Sam Stubbs blocked his eventual attempt.
The ball ricocheted kindly for Hirst at the far post, yet the scorer completely missed his kick as he attempted a shot on goal, much to the derision of the home fans.
On 29 minutes, Hirst’s clever spin and shot flashed past the far post, yet had taken a slight deflection to earn the visitors a corner.
From the resulting flag kick, the ball eventually came out to Brown, whose left-footed cross from the right should have been headed home by Hirst at the far post, but he nodded it wide.
Hirst then missed another glaring opportunity, this time from Brown’s excellent cross on the run from the left flank.
Once again the striker made a connection, but once more it lacked accuracy and flew wide when he should have done far better.
Morrell became the first player to be booked following a mis-timed challenge on Kyle Taylor, although the yellow card had been coming for the Pompey man.
With the scoreline 1-1 at the break, the Grecians made one change, with Pierce Sweeney replaced by Harry Kite.
On 47 minutes, Edwards’ cross from the left was met first time by Jay inside the box, but the skipper struck it straight at Bass, who did well to hold onto it.
The hosts had started the second half brightly and when Josh Key crossed from the right it was agonisingly not met by the desperate far-post lunges of two team-mates.
Exeter made a double substitution on 55 minutes, with Tim Dieng and Jevani Brown introduced for Kyle Taylor and Ben Seymour.
Pompey finally made a meaningful attack in the half when Miguel Azeez collected Brown’s throw-in and crossed from the left, but Marquis was unable to control.
In the 63rd minute, Cowley made a quadruple substitution, with five changes now allowed in the competition.
Hirst, Azeez, Marquis and Harness all made way, with Thompson, Michael Jacobs, Ronan Curtis and Hackett coming on.
Yet Exeter were looking the better side in the second half and Jay was agonisingly just unable to reach an excellent Jake Caprice cross from the left, ahead of Bass.
In the 76th minute, Exeter took the lead through Collins.
The midfielder collected a pass from the right and took three touches before firing in a left-footed shot which deflected off Freeman and found a way past Bass.
It was no more than the Grecians deserved on their second-half display - and now Pompey had 14 minutes to avoid a 2-1 defeat.
The Blues couldn’t even raise a goal attempt, yet, on 86 minutes, Morrell’s cross from the left was met by a Hackett header saved low down by keeper Cameron Dawson.
However, the leveller arrived on 89 minutes through Curtis.
Jacobs put a free-kick in from the right and there was the Irishman to apply a headed finish to make it 2-2 at the death.
With four minutes of time added on indicated by the fourth official, Curtis almost won it, only to head Hackett’s excellent left-wing cross over the bar when he should have done better.
Yet he would have the final say three minutes into time added on.
Hackett cut across the box from the right, trying to get it onto his left foot, then Curtis took over.
His low first-time shot found a way through a ruck of players to claim a dramatic 3-2 success.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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