Portsmouth 2 AFC Wimbledon 1: Neil Allen's verdict - Humdrum League One there for the taking for resurgent Blues

Thankfully an unexceptional League One continues to inspire promotion aspiration.

Sunday, 12th January 2020, 9:00 am
Updated Sunday, 12th January 2020, 6:17 pm

Competition is mediocre, a humdrum level of team ability contriving to create a highly-congested scramble for the Championship.

It’s heading for an electrifying finale, excitement somewhat out of step with this campaign’s bland ordinariness.

Never mind the quality, feel the width of the clubs challenging, such is the open nature of this gridlocked pursuit of the automatic places.

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John Marquis watches his header secure Pompey victory over AFC Wimbledon at Fratton Park on Saturday. Picture: Barry Zee

Pompey have been unconvincing this term, yet in fairness so have the others possessing ambition of seizing top-two qualification.

Regardless, they today stand a mere six points off top spot with a game in hand – despite residing in seventh place.

Wycombe have combusted, Ipswich have stalled, Rotherham have parachuted in as the new leaders, crisis-hit Sunderland suddenly occupy sixth, while six points separate fifth from 15th.

Life certain moves fast in this League One promotion hunt, as the Fratton faithful will testify.

The Blues’ previous encounter with AFC Wimbledon concluded with a 1-0 last-minute defeat which left them languishing in 17th by mid-October amid heightened calls for Kenny Jackett’s dismissal.

They have lost two of the subsequent 18 fixtures in all competitions – with Saturday their 12th triumph during this period of remarkable transformation.

Pompey have turned it around, goal difference presently fending them off from settling into the play-off positions. Nonetheless, this remains their highest placing of the season.

Incidentally, Jackett’s men are 19 points short of their tally at this stage last term, a campaign which would still see them finish outside the top three.

Clearly the target will be considerably lower to challengers in the present climate, in which the Blues are unquestionably strong contenders.

John Marquis, who has entered 2020 in prolific form, was the match winner on this occasion, netting just eight minutes after making his entrance from the bench.

Crucially, he contributed at a time when perhaps many were contemplating a unpalatable draw against a struggling Dons who had levelled with arguably their sole attempt on target.

Not that Pompey were in any danger of losing, yet a 1-1 outcome would have represented two points squandered in this fitful season.

Then, on 79 minutes, Marcus Harness’ cross-field pass found Ronan Curtis on the left and his wonderful right-footed delivery was glanced home by Marquis from six-yards out, marking the third-straight match in which he has scored.

The flat Fratton atmosphere livened, a rendition of ‘On Our Way’ erupted and the noisy 836 away following, so persistent throughout, were finally muted.

Andy Cannon afterwards spoke of the necessity for the Blues to discover a ruthless nature to their play having failed to put the match beyond Wimbledon’s reach earlier in proceedings.

He had an excellent point considering how Jackett’s men controlled the match with ease until the arrival of the visitors’ 62nd-minute equaliser against the run of play.

The occasion should have been sewn up long before the final whistle – instead it was left to a substitute to ride to the rescue and remove escalating fears this would be a wasted opportunity.

Once Marcus Harness opened the scoring on 20 minutes, there should have been no way back for a toothless Wimbledon side barely able to muster a meaningful threat.

The hosts were comfortable, yet not casual, there was a drive for more goals, particularly in a first half which was wholly impressive, although mildly disappointing the advantage was a mere 1-0 at the interval.

The team featured Cameron McGeehan for his debut following a midweek arrival from Barnsley, chosen ahead of Ben Close to partner Tom Naylor in the two holding roles in the customary 4-2-3-1.

Andy Cannon, now fully back in favour, edged out Marquis and Gareth Evans as the number 10, while Steve Seddon was named at left-back following his maiden start at Fleetwood in the FA Cup.

Meanwhile, Jackett made a statement by naming Alex Bass in goal, representing a change of selection policy to displace the previously undisputed number one Craig MacGillivray.

Certainly MacGillivray has every right to feel aggrieved, his form not warranting removal, despite the immense promise Bass clearly possesses.

Meanwhile, Jack Whatmough was among the substitutes, marking his welcome return to the first-team squad following almost 11 months out with a knee injury.

In addition, with the return of Brandon Haunstrup to the bench following injury, the match-day 18 possessed a healthy look, regardless of Brett Pitman’s ongoing omission.

What unfolded was an encouraging first half and deserved 1-0 lead at the interval courtesy of Harness’ sixth goal of the campaign.

The breakthrough was launched through the unlikely figure of Sean Raggett, reading a defensive situation to intercept and charge forward with the ball.

He then elected to give possession to Cannon, seizing the baton to sprint away and then intelligently slip in Harness down the right, who took a touch before crashing an angled right-footed shot into the far corner.

Jackett’s troops continued to probe for that vital second goal, only for Fratton Park to be stunned by Wimbledon’s equaliser on 62 minutes.

Substitute Mitch Pinnock found space behind right-back James Bolton and he superbly picked out the run of Joe Pigott with a precise left-footed cross.

The striker was unmarked as he slid in a right-footed finish from inside the six-yard box – and out of nowhere it was 1-1.

Jackett made a double substitution on 71 minutes with Bolton and Cannon replaced by Haunstrup and Marquis, the latter subsequently grabbing the decisive goal.

There was still time for Wimbledon substitute Scott Wagstaff to be sent off for two bookable offences in the 84th minute, his involvement spanning 13 minutes.

Indeed, the Blues should have increased their scoreline further in stoppage time, with Curtis getting greedy as he raced through and next Marquis producing a poor cross when Ellis Harrison was teed up for a tap in, giving credence to Cannon’s call for ruthlessness.

Still, it finished 2-1, the third such Pompey scoreline in eight days – with Marquis netting in each.

The Blues’ revival continues as they barge their way through the overcrowded promotion race. This is going to be an intriguing jostle for the finish line for all concerned.