Portsmouth 2 Plymouth 2: Neil Allen's verdict - A deserved point at the death but mixed emotions from pulsating encounter
The Fratton faithful wanted goals, they craved entertainment, they desired constructive attacking football.
The outcome may have been a draw with Plymouth, nonetheless a dramatic finale capped a pulsating encounter which made riveting watching.
The Blues were reliant on two defenders to net in the 2-2 draw. Lee Brown opened the scoring and Sean Raggett ended the match.
Indeed, Raggett’s finish arrived deep into stoppage time, pouncing on substitute Ellis Harrison’s header for a dramatic leveller.
Up until that point, two counter-attacks and an improbable John Marquis miss appeared to define what was set to be a fourth straight league defeat for Pompey.
Pompey had even taken a fifth-minute lead through Lee Brown’s free-kick as they responded impressively to the introduction of a three-man back line.
Yet all the excellent work was undone by two breaks from the halfway line through Ryan Hardie, each finished superbly in front of the Pilgrims’ travelling support.
The first arrived 17 seconds following a Pompey corner, reminiscent of MK Dons, while the other emanated from an attack by the hosts.
Of course, the Blues could have retaken the league even before Hardie’s 80th minute second.
Ronan Curtis diverted the ball from the left, leaving Marquis to slide the ball into an empty net at the far post.
Unfortunately for Pompey, he prodded the ball the wrong side of the post in front of a disbelieving Fratton end.
How that miss was being cursed when Hardie made it 2-1 to seemingly put Plymouth on the way to victory and also League One’s top spot.
But, thankfully, Raggett saved the day, earning Cowley’s troops a deserved point at the death.
Marquis was one of three changes to the side which lost so disappointingly to Cambridge United on Saturday.
He replaced Ellis Harrison, who had started ahead of him in that 2-1 loss, while Joe Morrell and Kieron Freeman also came into the team.
The inclusion of Freeman allowed the Blues to employ a back three which also consisted of Shaun Williams and Sean Raggett.
That meant Mahlon Romeo and Brown – both conventional full-backs on Saturday – were now serving as wing-backs.
It was damning on Downing, who found himself dropped despite the requirement for three centre-halves. Although the inclusion of Williams gave genuine left-sided balance.
Joining Harrison and Downing on the bench was Miguel Azeez, who suffered a difficult debut against Cambridge.
Meanwhile, Gassan Ahadme and Michael Jacobs again missed out, with Clark Robertson and Connor Ogilvie once more absent through injury.
When the game got underway, within four minutes there were Pompey appeals for a penalty after Conor Grant bundled over Romeo having got the wrong side of him.
The Blues players felt the offence occurred in the box, yet instead it was ruled to have happened two yards out.
The resulting free-kick was taken by Brown, who drilled in a low left-footed shot through the jumping wall and into the net to take a 1-0 lead.
Moments later, Marquis escaped down the left to take up a promising crossing position, only to overhit his delivery and it came to nothing.
On 10 minutes, both sets of fans inside the stadium stopped to pay tribute to Sophie Fairall, applauding the Stubbington 10-year-old who died from cancer on Saturday.
Touchingly, the players on each side also took part with there being a natural break in play for a goal kick.
In the 15th minute, Romeo’s excellent low cross from the right byline was prodded out by a Plymouth leg to the lurking Tunnicliffe.
The midfielder produced a first-time left-footed shot which appeared goal-bound until keeper Mike Cooper turned it around the post.
Raggett collected the game’s first booking on 19 minutes after taking out Luke Jephcott over the halfway line.
He was soon followed into the book by Curtis for his part in a minor incident which originated from Morrell and Panutche Camara clashing.
A bit of niggle was creeping into the game, with several lusty challenges, leading to bookings for Harness and Joe Edwards following one incident.
Plymouth then tested Gavin Bazunu on the half-hour mark when Jephcott fired into a shot pushed around the post by the keeper.
The Blues would enter half-time with their 1-0 advantage, while a total of six players booked told its own story.
The second half started with Jephcott forcing a low save from Bazunu and then Marquis had a powerful shot blocked.
Then, on 48 minutes, Plymouth had their equaliser – counter-attacking from a Pompey corner.
Williams delivered a flag kick from the right which was crashed upfield and met with a clearing header from Freeman.
However, the ball was returned by Camara straight back, putting Hardie clean through to register with a classy finish,
Just 17 seconds had passed between Pompey’s corner and Plymouth’s goal, reminiscent of conceding at MK Dons.
The Blues’ response was encouraging and there was a wonderful moment on 68 minutes when Romeo volleyed Harness’ pass against the far post.
It was a magnificent angled strike from the right wing-back although, ultimately, the linesman’s flag had been raised for offside.
Then Marquis should have given the Blues the lead, but for an awful miss.
Harness’ ball from the right was diverted back across goal by Curtis and all Marquis had to do was slide it into an empty net, but put it wide.
At the other end, Raggett brilliantly blocked Hardie’s cross from the left with Jephcott shaping up to net.
It was a pulsating affair and when Bazunu instinctively saved during another Plymouth attack, thankfully the referee spotted the ball had then been kicked out of his hands.
Yet Pompey fell behind on 80 minutes – and again it was on the counter.
Emanating from a Blues attack, Camara pushed the ball forward from his own half, with Williams misjudging an attempted interception.
That sent Hardie racing away and once again he showed composure, rounding Bazunu’s dive and putting it into the net.
On 84 minutes, Reeco Hackett-Fairchild was sent on in place of Brown down the left flank.
With five minutes of time added on indicated, Pompey were finding no way back – then it happened.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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