Portsmouth 1 MK Dons 2: Neil Allen's verdict - Fratton Park work off the pitch, now team rebuilding programme needs ramping up as striking issues again so costly

For those of Pompey persuasion venturing to Fratton Park, there were noticeable changes following a 36-day absence.

Sunday, 16th January 2022, 9:00 am

Most prominent, of course, was the ripping up of North Stand lower. Where once there was seating with spacious leg room is now mud and dirt during ongoing renovations.

It has been around a quarter of a century since an area inside the ground resembled a building site, namely the construction of the Fratton End.

Yet amid such stadium alterations, at least there was something reassuringly familiar to the Fratton faithful upon Saturday’s occasion of the Blues’ first home match since December 11.

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Pompey still require an effective striker – and continue to lack a half-decent cutting edge in attacking situations.

This issue was glaringly apparent during Kenny Jackett’s days, despite boasting a £1.5m strikeforce, having splashed out on John Marquis and Ellis Harrison in the summer of 2019.

The Achilles heel remains to this day, a handbrake stubbornly applied to any potential Pompey progress

The visit of MK Dons served as a reminder, not that anybody could possibly have forgotten the urgency for adding another centre-forward during this January transfer window.

Marcus Harness is dejected following Saturday's 2-1 defeat against MK Dons. Picture: Joe Pepler

Harrison has been offloaded to Fleetwood, while Gassan Ahadme has curiously earned a permanent move to Burton based on 60 minutes in a behind-closed-doors pre-season friendly at St George’s Park.

That leaves the increasingly-maligned Marquis and loanee George Hirst as Danny Cowley’s only central striking options at present.

Hirst did at least net his fourth Pompey goal in the subsequent 2-1 loss, while Marquis appeared to have claimed an injury-time leveller, only for celebrations to be interrupted by the linesman’s flag raised for offside.

Nonetheless, the Blues require additional firepower to complement the pair, a necessity reflected by a return of just 29 goals in 24 League One fixtures this season.

Discounting the bottom three, soberingly only Shrewsbury have scored fewer times than Cowley’s men in their league this season.

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It would be harsh to pin Pompey’s goal-scoring woes entirely on just their centre-forwards, despite ongoing profligacy from a position which not so long ago boasted the calibre of Brett Pitman and Conor Chaplin.

On Saturday, Connor Ogilvy somehow contrived to blaze over from six yards, Ronan Curtis demonstrated two awful opening touches to thwart himself when clean through, while substitute Louis Thompson crashed a shot wide from inside the box after presented with just the keeper to beat.

Indeed, Pompey had 22 shots against MK Dons, of which six were on target and one registered. Statistics can be manipulated, yet, in this instance, they are simplistically straight forward.

Curtis has registered three times in 23 appearances this season – the same amount as Lee Brown – while defensive regulars Kieron Freeman, Sean Raggett and Ogilvie have two goals between them.

Elsewhere, Marcus Harness is responsible for 31 per cent of the Blues’ League One output this term, having found the net nine times so far, signifying a personal-best haul.

Of course, this is merely preaching to the converted. Few could possibly argue against such overwhelming evidence tabled in the argument for a new striker – or fresh attacking players for that matter.

For while Marquis and, in recent matches, Hirst can be regarded as culpable, the final ball has also been lacking alarmingly in too many matches this season.

Delivery in the last third has become an escalating issue, frustratingly failing to capitalise in promising positions following excellent approach play.

Mo Eisa actually netted against the run of play on 20 minutes, in a rare MK Dons attack following a strong start for the Blues during which they barely left their opponents’ half.

It had been an excellent start from Cowley’s men, full of tempo, energy and menace, led by Marcus Harness, who was their chief attacking threat through the entire match.

Ogilvie fired one over from six yards after Raggett headed down a Joe Morrell cross from the right when, in truth, it looked fair easier to score.

Curtis had a shot saved, Hirst nudged one past the post, while, on 18 minutes, Curtis produced neither a shot or a cross in an excellent position down the right, much to Hirst’s frustration.

Then, Reeco Hackett’s pass out of was intercepted by Matt O’Riley, who pushed through an excellent defence-splitting pass to Eisa.

The one-time Pompey target then produced a classy first-time left-footed finish into the far corner of the net to cap a rapid counter-attack of stunning quality.

It was sloppy from Hackettt, with the experiment of employing him at left wing-back once again unable to provide the desired results, particularly in attacking situations.

The 24-year-old looked far more effective in his natural wide role during 27 minutes off the bench in the successful late rally at Exeter in the Papa John’s Trophy.

However, when challenged to operate as a wing-back, Hackett’s delivery has been frustratingly off-key, as most recently witnessed against MK Dons on almost every occasion.

For all the ex-Bromley man’s undoubted progress this season courtesy of greater first-team opportunities, he cuts an erratic presence, particularly in this foreign role.

Still, having barely enjoyed a touch of the ball, MK Dons found themselves in front – and subsequently transformed their performance.

There were other Pompey chances in the first half, namely on 40 minutes when Curtis was put clean through, yet his opening two touches were woeful and the eventual angled shot comfortably tipped over.

However, on the stroke of half-time, when Ogilvie blocked Scott Twine’s shot, it fell into the path of Theo Corbeanu, who rifled a first-time left-footed effort from outside the box into the top corner of the net.

Heading in 2-0 at the break, the Fratton Park mood darkened substantially, with boos greeting the half-time whistle.

To their credit, however, Pompey’s players would re-emerge to demonstrate spirit and determination to at least go down fighting, even if the outcome was a 2-1 loss.

Hirst pulled one back with a smart first-time finish from inside the box after an excellent run and cross from right-sided central defender Freeman down the right.

However, despite throwing everything forward, debut keeper Jamie Cumming was not nearly tested enough, although did produce one finger-tip save to deny an Ogilvie header.

The supporter anger felt at half-time was at least tempered by the second-half showing, nonetheless the lack of quality final ball in the last third was once again obvious.

So defeat for Pompey – and back to looking longingly at the transfer window in hope of urgent striking reinforcements.

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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