Sunderland 1 Portsmouth 0: Neil Allen’s verdict – The second-half team now challenged to perform their greatest comeback

So this Pompey side, blessed with favourable second-half tendencies, are challenged once again.

Monday, 13th May 2019, 12:05 pm
Gareth Evans hits the crossbar from a free-kick, representing Pompey's best chance during their play-off semi-final first leg at Sunderland. Picture: Joe Pepler

Trailling 1-0 at the interval of the League One play-off semi-finals, Kenny Jackett’s men must dredge up another positive reaction.

They’ve been here before, of course. This group’s penchant for substantially lifting performances during the second period of games has established itself as an idiosyncrasy.

Perhaps such frequent occurrences are inspired through inspirational team talks, tactical switches or pivotal substitutions. Certainly it is driven by resilience and unflagging fitness.

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Jackett, such a deep thinker, possesses no enlightening explanation behind the obvious trait, although acknowledges others harbour such a theory.

Nonetheless, this second-half team require another considerably-improved display to save themselves from a promotion-destroying outcome.

Following failure to reach the Championship automatically 13 days ago, the play-offs represent a second chance.

Now it’s back to Fratton Park on Thursday for the second leg against Sunderland – requiring the overhauling of their adversary’s one-goal advantage.

It can be achieved, such is the admirable make-up of Jackett’s gutsy squad and their refusal to crumble when matters are not falling their way.

A sold-out Fratton Park under the midweek lights can sprinkle magical evenings. The home finale reward for claiming fourth spot can now demonstrate its effectiveness.

With the away-goal rule bearing no relevance, Pompey’s task is emphatically clear – defeat the Black Cats by two clear goals - or penalties.

Yet it will require a display significantly raised from that mustered up by Jackett’s men at the Stadium of Light amid an awful football spectacle served by both sides.

A flash of genuine quality settled it, courtesy of Sunderland substitute Chris Maguire, while Pompey’s sole moment of inspiration saw Gareth Evans’ free-kick strike the bar.

Other than such fleeting instances, it represented an unremarkable showcase for League One and no doubt tough watching for those neutrals who doggedly persisted.

Certainly the tie failed to capture the imagination of the home fans even before kick-off, with 26,610 present – Sunderland’s lowest crowd for a league encounter this season.

That’s an alarming drop of 14,519 from the 41,129 in attendance a mere fortnight earlier, reflecting their followers’ apathy after previously one win in seven outings at the tail-end of the campaign.

The Blues’ travelling support, which in mitigation was asked to handle a 666-mile round trip for a Saturday evening kick-off, was similarly depleted, weighing in at 1,288.

It mattered not that Sunderland had reduced the allocation to around 2,000 as a consequence of the pyrotechnic issue which occurred during the previous occasion. Upon Pompey’s return, thankfully there a repeat.

Still, those home fans present were handed the semi-final’s first-half advantage through a stunning strike. While, tellingly, keeper Jon McLaughlin did not have a save to make.

David Norris wasn’t the only glorious contributor in the April 2012 match which took his name, there was also Maguire.

The Scot was a loanee from Derby when he crashed a wonderful right-footed shot past Kelvin Davies in that 2-2 St Mary’s derby.

A temporary Fratton Park stay which totalled three goals and 11 appearances, his input against that Southampton that day is understandably overlooked considering Norris’ moment.

Yet, some seven years later, he climbed off the bench to net the first leg’s decisive goal within five minutes of his entry.

On 63 minutes, Lynden Gooch left Nathan Thompson sprawling before delivering a cross from the left which Matt Clarke met with a clearing header.

However, it fell to Maguire who, from 10-yards out, crashed a sublime right-foot volley into the net, giving Craig MacGillivray no chance.

A moment completely out of context in a scrappy fixture irritatingly not let flow by referee Andy Woolmer, nonetheless one which could be crucial in this match-up.

Then, on 66 minutes, Clarke, who had maintained his presence past the halfway line following a characteristic surge upfield, pushed a pass through to Evans.

The covering Alim Ozturk came across and mistimed his tackle on Pompey’s skipper outside the box – and referee Woolmer brandished the red card.

Undeniably a foul, yet appeared a harsh dismissal, although Evans later claimed it was ‘blatant’. Unsurprisingly Sunderland will appeal.

From the resulting free-kick, Evans curled the ball right-footed against the bar.

Despite possessing the numerical advantage for the final 23 minutes plus five minutes stoppage time, Pompey criminally failed to create sufficient pressure on the 10-men.

There was a goalmouth scramble which saw Christian Burgess’ shot blocked, but that was it, with the Black Cats allowed to be far too comfortable inside their penalty area.

Jackett’s men had previously ruthlessly demolished Sunderland at Fratton Park and at Fleetwood when presented with such a scenario, yet were disappointingly lacklustre at the Stadium of Light.

Of course, Pompey’s toothless display was influenced by anonymous showings by three of their four attacking players, namely Oli Hawkins, Jamal Lowe and Ronan Curtis.

Yet the injury absences of Brett Pitman and Lee Brown, both days before the match, impacted significantly on the side.

Brandon Haunstrup, a potential left-back replacement for Brown, was also missing after damaging ligaments in his left knee on Thursday, while Dion Donohue remains out with a groin issue.

That prompted Anton Walkes asked to switch to left-back, thereby dictating no natural left-footer on the left flank, with right-footed pair Curtis and Lowe swapping wide positions during proceedings.

It was a noticeable imbalance to Jackett’s team, although Brown, who failed a late fitness test on his Achilles injury on the morning of the match, is expected to be back in contention for the second leg.

With Pitman’s hamstring problem creating a vacancy in the number 10 role, Evans retained his place from the Accrington match.

Meanwhile, the flurry of injuries opened up opportunity on the bench for a string of fringe players, with Louis Dennis, Andy Cannon and Adam May introduced into the 18-man squad.

Not that they featured on the night, with Omar Bogle and Viv Solomon-Otabor introduced in the second half, admittedly with little effect.

There certainly’s a debate for both starting against Sunderland on Thursday, especially considering Hawkins and Curtis’ plummeting form.

Substitutions at the interval for a second-half team who so often have risen to the challenge. They’ll need to on this occasion, promotion is at stake.