MK Dons 1 Portsmouth 0: Jordan Cross' verdict as profligate Blues buckle up for a bumpy finale to play-off charge
‘Put your seatbelts on,’ enthused Pompey’s boss as he previewed the trip to the side who currently rank as the ultimate exponents of possession football in Europe. ‘It’s going to be a hell of a game.’
Danny Cowley could scarcely contain his enthusiasm at the prospect of locking horns with football’s new pass masters, as he refused to succumb to the concerns at the growing fault lines in his squad and instead assumed what has quickly become his default setting of energised positivity in his four weeks at the Fratton helm.
Fast forward 48 hours to the time Blues fans are usually preparing for what they are about to witness next from their unrelentingly inconsistent players on a Saturday afternoon, thoughts instead turned to how we might well need our safety restraints as this godforsaken 2020-21 season reaches its turbulent climax.
The issues the Cowleys are facing yet can scarcely acknowledge in the public domain, were once more glaring in a match which for spells particularly in the first half, lived up to the white-knuckle billing afforded the occasion by the Pompey head coach.
Russell Martin’s side took ownership of the football in a manner which said they weren’t for sacrificing their principles as Crewe had four days earlier, and Pompey pressed in a way incessantly impressed upon them by their new management team: the openings followed in quick-fire fashion at both ends.
Yet, the developing pattern of poor decision making and laboured thinking was too often prevalent how Pompey executed their attacks. And it’s ultimately the key contributing factor why they today find themselves out of the play-off places, which are the minimum requirement this season.
Time and again, the Blues found themselves in the position to counter at pace in the fashion they were set up for. But too often they lacked the brightness, attention to detail or basic technique to arrive at the correct final outcome.
And when they did, Ronan Curtis and John Marquis once more failed to apply the final flourish to deliver a tangible reward for Pompey’s enterprise.
The Republic of Ireland international’s 32nd-minute drive may have cannoned off the outside of the post when freed by Marquis, but the presence of mind to take a touch which was missing would surely have brought the required outcome.
Similarly, Pompey’s top scorer should have done better when lashing a more than presentable opportunity over with the aid of deflection, after having an audacious overhead kick excellently saved, in the last action of a basketball match of a first half.
Cowley’s men were left to rue those moments along with skipper Tom Naylor heading against the woodwork three minutes after the restart, but for every one of those incidents the home side could point to arguably more presentable openings.
Twice they were denied by the frame of the goal, with indomitable defending proving the other obstacle as a side whose possession stats now average 65.3 per cent for the season - more than Manchester City, Barcelona, Paris St Germain or any other club operating at a similar level to MK Dons or above in Europe’s five leading leagues.
To focus on Pompey’s issues going forward which now make it a single goal from a nightmare eight days for their promotion ambitions, would be to ignore the glaring errors which led to the Cowleys leaving the land of the concrete cows empty handed.
First was the needlessly daft challenge by Charlie Daniels, which his tormentor Ethan Laird happily went over on the fringes of the box to allow Scott Fraser to gleefully smash home the game’s decisive spot-kick four minutes before the break.
Then came the moment which firmly put paid to gathering hopes of a comeback with nine minutes remaining.
Jack Whatmough’s form under new management has been imperious and unsurpassed, yet his attempt to compensate for a loose touch with a reckless lunge on Charlie Brown has delivered another fracturing blow to an already brittle squad.
The four-game suspension means the man who was headed for player-of-the-season honours may now have no say in how the season plays out. It’s a frustrating and infuriating blow.
Although, not particularly aimed at the defender he so values, those were the kind of emotions Cowley was doing his best to contain as he considered his lot in the chilly spring Buckinghamshire sunshine with five games remaining.
The man from Essex did his best to conceal his feelings, but his calm exterior belied a consternation at the character traits he’s seeing from some of his players. Just for a moment the mask slipped in his post-match address, in reaction to one or two displays of indifferent body language he will not be prepared to accept.
Cowley knows that’s not a battle to address head on now, however. Nor the screaming reality a complete overhaul is required for whoever takes this squad forward.
For now, the Pompey boss’ focus has to be on summoning every technique and tool garnered in a lifetime of coaching to extract every last ounce of energy, will and determination out of this group of players.
And that started with a display of single-minded resolve. ‘Over my dead body are we not getting in the play-offs,’ he repeated, as he sought to get his belligerent message out to the Pompey masses.
A defining fortnight now lies head beginning against the division’s two bottom sides, the first of whom are in crisis and seemingly without a manager for Tuesday’s trip to Swindon’s County Ground.
Buckle up, ladies and gentlemen, because it looks like it could to be a bumpy ride.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
The News has launched a subscription offer which gives you unlimited access to all of our Pompey coverage, starting at less than 14p a day.
You can subscribe here to get the latest news from Fratton Park - and to support our local team of expert Pompey writers.