Portsmouth 0 Wycombe 0: Neil Allen's verdict - Sorry, Blues are a good team but crucial attacking weaknesses dictate this is no play-off team

Danny Cowley’s Apple Watch indicated the passing of 36 minutes, thereby opening the door for another frank exchange with the villain of the piece.

Sunday, 20th March 2022, 9:00 am

Pompey have felt aggrieved over a number of refereeing decisions in recent months, with Benjamin Speedie emerging as the latest culprit.

The Blues’ inability to break down the more talented sides in League One has been glaring in the past three fixtures against play-off chasing trio Ipswich, Plymouth and now Wycombe.

On each occasion, blanks been fired, a concerning attacking output exacerbated by the little matter of totalling just two shots on target during that eight-day period.

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Therefore when a rare, yet legitimate, goal-scoring opportunity is destroyed through a match official’s outrageous error, Cowley is entitled to seethe, particularly on Saturday.

With managers mandated by the decree that a referee cannot be approached until at least 30 minutes following the final whistle – and must be addressed in the presence of his assistants – the Blues head coach’s stopwatch kicked into action.

Certainly sufficient time to fulfil post-match media duties before dashing off seeking an audience with Speedie.

George Hirst protests to referee Benjamin Speedie after the final whistle following Pompey's goalless draw with Wycombe. Picture: Joe Pepler

Hirst appeared to have seized pole position, only for the centre-half to grasp his opponent’s shirt and neck in an overly-physical tussle for the ball.

It was sufficient to impede the Pompey striker’s progress, allowing the pursuing Anthony Stewart and goalkeeper David Stockdale to reach the ball first and snuff out the danger.

Video footage and photographic evidence of that flashpoint were damning, not that most present at Fratton Park required a second look, such was the obvious foul they had witnessed.

Nonetheless, Speedie declined to act. Move along, nothing to see here, folks.

Amid the inevitable touchline protests, both Danny and assistant Nicky Cowley received yellow cards from the Merseyside official, who has largely been stationed in League Two this season.

Hirst escaped similar punishment, despite strong on-pitch protests to Speedie following the final whistle in an otherwise instantly forgettable 0-0 draw.

Not that the referee’s aberration should be permitted to distract from a poor Pompey display in which Cowley’s troops once again barely threatened top-10 opponents.

Granted, the Blues are ruthless flat-track bullies against relegation certainties such as Crewe and Doncaster, handsome outcomes which may have artificially raised play-off aspirations among some.

Yet with fixtures escalating significantly in difficulty during the last week or so, it is apparent they don’t display the same destructive tendencies against a higher calibre of team.

Granted, Pompey’s defensive might has seen them breached just once during the last three matches, namely Plymouth last Tuesday evening at Home Park.

That deserves to be applauded. League One continues to find the Blues hard to break down, albeit with man-of-the-match Gavin Bazunu an imperious presence in goal once again.

Wycombe themselves created few opportunities, yet on three occasions the Manchester City loanee came to the hosts’ rescue to establish himself as the difference between the sides.

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Bazunu has now surely joined Sean Raggett in the two-horse race to become The News/Sports Mail’s Player Of The Year, with Connor Ogilvie a decent outside bet.

The trio’s consistency has been remarkable, reflecting where the strength lies within this Blues side – and highlighting the weaknesses elsewhere in the process.

Bazunu, of course, will be heading back to the Premier League at the season’s end, along with the ever-impressive Blackburn defender Hayden Carter, signifying huge holes to fill.

Throw in Mahlon Romeo’s loan also finishing and Raggett being out of contract and even Cowley’s greatest asset faces a summer overhaul, perhaps a concern to analyse another day.

In the meantime, Pompey’s issues lie at the other end of the pitch when challenged with the better sides in this division, the yin to their defensive yang.

Admittedly, they have netted five times against fifth-placed Oxford United this season, most recently a 3-2 success at the start of this month, while put four past Sunderland in October’s rain-wrecked encounter.

They also claimed a 1-0 triumph at Adams Park in November’s corresponding fixture, with Marcus Harness grabbing the only goal of the game.

However, for a side which has evolved so encouragingly since the January transfer window, the last three matches have conclusively highlighted attacking failings in stark contrast to defensive brilliance.

There should have been a red card, with the Chairboys condemned to see out the final 26 minutes of Saturday with 10 men, while Cowley remains adamant the on-loan striker deserved a penalty at Plymouth when felled by the keeper.

Had both decisions gone in the Blues’ favour, the conclusion to each game may well have been turned in their favour, a play-off challenge a little more realistic.

Yet they didn’t and instead have produced two efforts on target in the last 270 minutes of football against teams above them in the League One table, albeit none are remotely automatic promotion candidates.

That is the brutal truth at present.

Cowley was typically honest with his post-match appraisal, pinpointing his side’s tiredness against Wycombe, branding them ‘flat’, lacking ‘spark’, missing ‘energy and intensity’.

The goalless draw, no matter its frustrating nature, also signified a run of one defeat in 10 matches, which contains head-to-heads with four clubs currently occupying the top-nine spots.

Cowley’s assessment that he now possesses a ‘good side’ is spot on, for that’s entirely what Pompey are at present, as shown by results and performances.

Inevitably, expectations will render the last three results and the manner of their outcomes as disappointing, perhaps overlooking that the Blues remain in a fine run, with only Plymouth able to conquer them in a tight game.

There are positives there, unquestionably, while the team still lie eight points short of the top six with eight matches remaining, plus a game in hand on some of their rivals.

Nonetheless, this good side continue to looked ill-equipped in offensive terms to haul themselves to the next level – actual, fully-fledged play-off candidates.