Portsmouth 2 Rochdale 1: Neil Allen's verdict - Ronan Curtis impressively answers SOS as Cowleys march on towards play-offs
Ronan Curtis produced a finish befitting any quality centre-forward as the honeymoon continues for the Cowley brothers.
With no available striker in the building, the Irishman was today thrust into a lone role for the Blues against Rochdale.
Indeed, Danny Cowley even joked in the build-up about his father rolling back the years to fulfil duties, despite approaching the age of 70.
Still, Curtis is no stranger to the position, featuring there three times towards the end of Kenny Jackett’s reign.
And he demonstrated his ability to lead the line in devastating fashion as the Blues made it three successive victories under the new head coach and his brother.
Marcus Harness had already orchestrated a tap in for Ryan Williams after five minutes to swiftly draw blood against League One’s bottom club.
Then, on 36 minutes, Curtis accepted Michael Jacob’s pass to break into the box and fire a left-footed shot into the far corner of the net.
It was a touch of class from the Irishman, despite the familiarity in the role in a Pompey shirt.
Not that the Fratton faithful should be surprised, Curtis’ finishing talents have been in abundance since his arrival in the summer of 2018.
Yet the 25-year-old demonstrated another string to his bow as a central striker against the Dale to leave the Blues feeling a little more comfortable in coping without more conventional options.
With John Marquis still to serve another two matches as part of his suspension following his Shrewsbury dismissal, Curtis will continue to deputise.
As a team, though, it was another solid performance, despite a stoppage-time consolation from Rochdale to give the scoreline a closer look at 2-1.
The damage was done in the first half for the Blues, deservedly heading into the interval with a 2-0 lead which proved unassailable.
After the break, they dropped gears, becoming functional rather than particularly threatening, allowing the visitors to remain in the match.
Nonetheless, a third straight 2-1 outcome maintains this remarkable entrance by the Cowleys which has reinvigorated Pompey’s season.
And with nine games remaining, they remain well on track to claim a play-off spot for a third successive campaign.
Curtis was the choice to resolve Pompey’s striking issues upon his return from Republic of Ireland duty.
Although he didn’t actually appear in any of his country’s three matches during that time, he was back on the south coast on Wednesday.
The 25-year-old came in for the suspended John Marquis to feature as the lone striker in the Blues’ starting XI.
With Ellis Harrison out for the season (knee) and Jordy Hiwula (ankle) missing for the remaining league games, Curtis was entrusted with that centre-forward role.
His inclusion against League One’s bottom side represented the sole change to the team which triumphed 2-1 at Shrewsbury last weekend, albeit obviously enforced.
Elsewhere, the bench was unaltered from the Shrews, with no place for young striker Alfie Stanley.
Cowley had mentioned his training ground presence, yet, despite being a conventional striker, he was not selected among the substitutes.
When the match got underway, Rochdale won the first corner on four minutes, after Ben Close had miscontrolled the ball inside the penalty area.
That was comfortably cleared and launched a Blues attack which would yield the opener.
Harness drove in a cross from the right and there was Williams to finish from close range on five minutes to break the deadlock.
Harness was embraced by his team-mates, acknowledging his excellent delivery rather than the tap-in applied by the Australian to make it 1-0.
Moments later, Harness broke down the right and cut infield for another promising attack, but his ball inside towards Curtis was underhit and intercepted.
The former Burton man was causing problems with every attack and, on 15 minutes, saw a burst towards the box stopped by Gabriel Osho.
The Blues should have increased their lead on 18 minutes when Curtis intercepted Ollie Rathbone’s pass.
The Irishman pushed an excellent ball through to Michael Jacobs, who had just the keeper to beat, yet put it the wrong side of the post.
It was a poor miss from the left-sided player, although another example of the threat Pompey were continuing to offer.
Jimmy Keohane picked up the game’s first booking on 23 minutes when he cynically took out Curtis after the forward flicked the ball down the line to get past him.
The hosts, however, were sloppy on occasions, giving the ball away cheaply, and when Williams surrendered possession, Rochdale earned a 33rd-minute free-kick 25-yards out.
Rathbone’s delivery was driven straight into the Blues’ wall and comfortably cleared as a rare opportunity to threaten went begging.
It was 2-0 to Pompey on 36 minutes, through a lovely Curtis finish.
Jacobs picked out the Irishman deep in Rochdale’s half and he surged into the box before producing an angled left-footed shot into the far corner.
Curtis made it look simple, yet it was classy play from the 25-year-old, dispatched with the minimum of fuss.
On 42 minutes, Williams popped up on the left and fed Harness in a central position, who spun and attempted to find Curtis.
However, his through ball was slightly overhit and keeper Gavin Bazunu got there first to gather.
At the other end, Kwadwo Baah’s shot deflected off Tom Naylor and fizzed just past the post, earning the visitors a corner.
Then Jake Beesley found himself clean through, only for Craig MacGillivray to race off his line to partially block, then Raggett hooking the ball clear of the empty net.
Rochdale made a double substitution on 52 minutes, with Paul McShane and Conor Grant replaced by Haydon Roberts and Aaron Morley.
A good exchange of passes between Lee Brown and Curtis down the left then saw the former’s cross put behind for a corner.
Pompey made their first change on 65 minutes, with Harvey White coming on for Michael Jacobs on the left-hand side of midfield.
The hosts had yet to recapture their first-team form, although Eoghan O’Connell did turn Williams’ right-wing cross behind for a corner - and dangerously close to his own net.
Rathbone then fired a shot straight at MacGillivray after Williams failed to retain possession, with the Blues keeper dealing with it comfortably.
At the other end, Harness blocked a pass from O’Connell and slid it through to Curtis for a run on goal, but Osho came across to snuff out the danger.
Rochdale pulled one back in stoppage time when substitute Alex Newby’s cross from the right was finished at close range by Beesley.
But Pompey retained their advantage to make it three wins out of three at the start of this Cowley era.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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