Sunderland 2 Portsmouth 1: Neil Allen's verdict - Necessity for first-team rethink overshadows Pompey positives

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The wind tossed around empty crisp packets on the Stadium of Light playing surface.

Similarly, Kenny Jackett’s first-team blueprint was blown away in the aftermath of a sobering Sunderland defeat.

Scraping away the natural disappointment of a 2-1 loss, beneath lies a solid display, infuriating in aspects, but encouraging in parts.

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Certainly Pompey were far from overwhelmed upon their third trek to the north-east in three-and-a-half months, an occasion captured by the television cameras.

The Black Cats barely threatened Craig MacGillivray, while were forced to surrender the majority of possession to their visitors.

Hardly a throwback to when the Scot’s stunning goalkeeping display warranted praise from both managers following April’s 1-1 tussle.

The Blues deserved more, despite obvious flaws, including scatter-gun set-piece delivery and frequent final-third failure.

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A result possessing enough to hearten Kenny Jackett and those without a penchant for knee-jerk hysteria.

Tom Naylor cannot prevent Chris Maguire scoring Sunderland's winner on Saturday. Picture: Malcolm MackenzieTom Naylor cannot prevent Chris Maguire scoring Sunderland's winner on Saturday. Picture: Malcolm Mackenzie
Tom Naylor cannot prevent Chris Maguire scoring Sunderland's winner on Saturday. Picture: Malcolm Mackenzie

Nonetheless, Pompey’s starting XI selection is now under intensified scrutiny just four games into the campaign – and rightly so.

The form of Ronan Curtis is beginning to concern, while Anton Walkes’ displays are fluctuating in a right-back position still up for grabs.

The Stadium of Light outcome did not highlight a gulf in quality between two promotion rivals, rather it emphasised growing issues with the make-up of the Blues’ side.

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Take Curtis, last term deservedly crowned Jackett’s young player of the season following a whirlwind entry into the Football League.

Yet his rapid early strides have decelerated significantly in 2019. Now there are suggestions the wane can no longer merely be justified by an exhausting 18-month schedule.

The Irishman emerged from the Carabao Cup triumph over Birmingham with much credit, yet has been worryingly below par in his three League One outings so far.

Frustratingly for Jackett, the alternative of Ryan Williams remains inactive, his injury recovery continuing to drag.

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On Saturday, Gareth Evans entered from the bench to replace Curtis on the left wing for the final 28 minutes, suggesting at least he can be a rival.

As for Walkes, challenged to fill the chasm created by Nathan Thompson’s decision to walk away from Fratton Park, his performances are failing to convince supporters of his suitability.

Jackett delivered his own damning verdict, removing his right-back on 73 minutes and opting to throw on Ross McCrorie in an unfamiliar position.

The Rangers loanee, earmarked for a central-midfield role upon his summer arrival, subsequently excelled under his fresh remit, a swashbuckling presence down the flank.

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Just as daunting for Walkes, who last weekend reached 50 Pompey games, was the sight of 19th man James Bolton fulfilling extra work on the pitch after the final whistle.

At least Walkes no longer has to fear Thompson staging an unlikely comeback, cutting short his recent Blues training spell to sign for Peterborough on a two-year deal on Friday.

Still, suddenly Jackett possesses right-back options and, with Coventry visiting on Tuesday evening, realistically there could be a change.

Teams naturally evolve, Brandon Haunstrup and Walkes both lined-up in midfield for last season’s opening-day triumph over Luton.

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Yet Pompey’s boss is now faced with a significant selection dilemma over two players who have started in each of the opening four matches.

Regardless, there are highlights to be found among the rubble of defeat to promotion rivals Sunderland.

McCrorie’s cameo from the bench oozed class, while another summer arrival, Marcus Harness, turned in a goal-scoring man-of-the-match display.

It was the finest performance yet from the ex-Burton attacker as he grows into his new surroundings at encouraging pace.

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Harness’ willingness to drive with the ball at speed posed plenty of problems, while there are signs he is developing an understanding with John Marquis.

The pair were involved in the opening goal on 22 minutes, with Harness sent racing through only for the ball to become trapped under his feet.

Marquis’ follow up was crowded out and then it was the winger’s turn to pounce, steering a first-time right-footed shot into the far corner of the net.

The 23-year-old netted six goals last season – and Jackett will be urging him to considerably overhaul that tally in the absence of Jamal Lowe’s scoring calibre.

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Marquis, still searching for the maiden goal of his second spell, had signified Jackett’s sole change to the side which comfortably overcame Tranmere 2-0 last weekend.

He replaced Ellis Harrison in attack, while Ben Close and Andy Cannon continued their runs in the side having not started on the opening day.

With no sign of the injured Williams and Bryn Morris, now joined on the sidelines by Oli Hawkins, it represented the same match-day 18 as named the previous weekend.

Following successive Fratton Park victories, consisting of two clean sheets, the Blues headed to Sunderland with confidence – and started the occasion in dominant fashion.

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Harness’ opener handed the visitors a well-deserved lead, yet five minutes later the Black Cats were level.

Lee Brown needlessly gifted a corner when attempting to lay the ball back to Christian Burgess, the centre-halve's desperate lunge unable to keep the ball in play.

Grant Leadbitter’s subsequent outswinging right-wing corner was headed home by Jordan Willis, despite under close attention.

Jack Ross’ side had levelled out of nowhere – yet took a lead that would prove decisive on 39 minutes.

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Aiden McGeady initiated the move down their left, gliding past Walkes’ lunge and intelligently squaring for Chris Maguire to finish at the far post with ease.

Jackett’s men can consider themselves unfortunate to have entered the break 2-1 down, but rallied sufficiently in the second half to suggest an equaliser may arrive.

Crucially the final ball lacked, however, while set-pieces were wasteful, even with the introduction of Evans in a double substitution with Harrison.

Marquis dragged a shot from the angle wide, earning an uncomplimentary chant from the Sunderland fans, while the striker then turned provider to cross for Evans, whose on-target effort was blocked by Alim Ozturk.

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Then, on 80 minutes, McCrorie’s delivery from the right was met with a flying clearing header from Leadbitter arrowing towards his own goal.

Keeper Jon McLaughlin spared his blushes, drawn into a save to prevent a Blues leveller.

So a second league defeat in three August League One matches for Pompey – now Jackett is challenged with his first selection rethink.

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