Portsmouth 1 Burton 2: Neil Allen's verdict - The carriage has turned back into a pumpkin as Blues' automatic promotion fairy tale officially over
What a wonderful distraction it has been – now welcome back to reality.
Burton thundered into Fratton Park and rudely roused the Blues from delicious dreams, forcing them to readjust their eyesight and end gazing at false ambition.
Danny Cowley’s glorious honeymoon period had enchanted the Fratton faithful, persuading them to forget about Pompey deficiencies.
Nonetheless, Saturday delivered a sobering reminder that squad weaknesses remain, despite the fine wallpapering job applied by the new management team.
Most startling of all, the breathless fantasy of automatic promotion has been demolished. Romance is dead, folks.
A 2-1 defeat has brought soaring expectations crashing back to terra firma and hopefully ending delusional notions that this is anything more than a play-off campaign.
With seven matches remaining, Cowley’s men are 12 points adrift of second-placed Peterborough, albeit possessing one game in hand.
Should either the Posh or leaders Hull falter during the run-in, Sunderland are ominously well-placed to capitalise, in terms of form, points and squad quality.
Effectively, for Pompey to stand any hope of reaching the two promotion positions, two of Peterborough, Hull and the Black Cats must dramatically implode.
Yet even that may not be enough for a Blues side presently seven points short of Sunderland and nursing a vastly inferior goal difference, while having played the same amount of fixtures.
Sorry to sound like a curmudgeonly killjoy, but it’s really not going to happen.
Naturally, four successive victories upon the Cowleys’ entrance invoked infectious optimism they could miraculously elevate this side into the top two. However, the final whistle on Saturday signified the golden carriage turning back into a pumpkin.
Alas, there’s no Fairy Godmother to be found in these parts.
Another factor contributing towards the reality check, of course, is mounting injury problems which could hardly have been foreseen, yet is proving decisive.
The pre-match absence of Michael Jacobs was later explained as season-ending medial knee ligament damage, summing up a frustratingly injury-ravaged maiden campaign.
In total, the talented winger has featured 22 times since arriving in mid-September, scoring twice, and been absent from duty for three periods.
It further weakens an attacking pool also deprived of Ellis Harrison and Jordy Hiwula for the remainder of the League One season. At least John Marquis has now served the last of his three-match ban, yet recently had an injection into a lingering ankle issue.
On Saturday, teenage striker Alfie Stanley was drafted onto the bench, representing the Blues’ sole conventional centre-forward.
Incidentally, he made nine appearances for the Rocks in the Isthmian Premier Division earlier in the season, scoring twice. In truth, the highly-regarded youngster is a little undercooked to lead Pompey’s line in a League One promotion push.
As if the ravaging of Cowley’s attacking options wasn’t painful enough, the hamstring injury Lee Brown sustained on 26 minutes now condemns him to the sidelines for several weeks.
His replacement, Charlie Daniels, did proceed to net a late consolation against Burton, yet looked alarmingly rusty, despite a marked improvement as the game wore on.
The former Bournemouth man has struggled to convince since his January arrival, twice being taken off at half time. Now, he’s first-choice left back – for a while at least.
The injuries are piling up for the head coach, who, perhaps understandably, lacked a little of his usual positivity during post-match media duties following his first defeat.
Certainly anybody watching Saturday’s fixture would glean that, although Pompey basked in 77 per cent possession, their diminishing pool of attacking talent dictated that they barely threatened in the final third.
It seems the Football League £2.5m wage cap and 22-man squad restrictions implemented for the 2020-21 season continues to choke Pompey, one of its arch critics.
The trio of last-men standing – Marcus Harness, Ronan Curtis and Ryan Williams – are being asked to occupy the four striking positions in Cowley’s 4-2-3-1 system.
On Saturday, he initially experimented by recalling Andy Cannon and pushing him into a number 10 role, the only change to the side which won at Wigan courtesy of Cannon’s goal as a substitute.
The head coach later admitted the switch failed to come off, with Cannon drifting deeper to fulfil his natural midfield instincts rather than threatening higher up the pitch.
As for Curtis, despite mobility, work-rate, plus a goal in his previous Fratton Park outing, it is clear he is not suited as a lone striker in this current Blues formation.
Still, just like Cannon, needs must as Cowley strives to mix and match in the absence of Marquis, who himself has struggled for form this season, despite a 16-goal haul.
How need they him back on the pitch, though. As soon as suspension and injury permits.
Cowley confessed there were aspects of Pompey’s game which were better than Wigan and, undoubtedly, his side dictated play and dominated possession over the full duration of the match.
However, critically, they never suggested they were capable of breaking down a well-organised Burton team which defended their penalty area with frustrating ease.
Pompey lacked the imagination to pick their way through, with no evidence of the quick football of recent weeks, while there was barely a decent delivery into the box.
When the Blues finally did prise them apart, it was in the 88th minute, through Close’s prodded pass into the box which deflected up into the air, allowing Daniels to apply a headed finish.
Unfortunately, they were already two goals adrift by that time.
Burton’s first arrived on the stroke of half-time when Tom Hamer’s long throw was met with a half-volley from Hayden Carter, which was saved by Craig MacGillivray.
John Brayford’s headed follow-up was then blocked on the line by Callum Johnson, but the grounded Mike Fondop applied an overhead kick to finally send the ball into the net.
Then, 68 seconds into the second half, Sean Clare touched a free-kick back to Joe Powell and his first-time left-footed shot from 25-yards swerved out of MacGillivray’s reach and into the far corner.
In pursuit of a point, Cowley utilised all five of his substitutes, yet continued to fall well short when challenged to threaten inside the Brewers’ penalty area.
Still, now we know, the reality is this is a play-off bid. Let others concern themselves with automatic promotion.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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