A series of COVID postponements has kept Pompey out of action since December 11th. Finally, as calendars are replaced with those with 2022 printed on the front, the Blues are back playing football, taking on a side that has suffered its own pandemic setbacks.
The hosts for the clash in CB5 are halfway through a mostly indifferent season. Sitting 17th in the table with a points total of 26 and a goal difference of -6, they haven’t been mentioned too much in either the relegation scrap nor the playoff push, with the side out of action since December 18th. That said, considering their promotion from League Two last time out, mixed with some key departures, indifference and quietly getting on with their business may be more than enough for the Aztecs (see their home kit).
While they haven’t yet been dragged into the relegation conversation, a recent run of one win in seven league games, conceding 14 goals in that stretch, has left them four points ahead of the dotted line markers, Lincoln. It’s not something to immediately trigger the panic klaxon at the Abbey Stadium, especially when factoring in that following the Portsmouth game, their next three games are against sides below them in the table (Lincoln, Crewe, Fleetwood). On that basis, the end of January might paint a clearer picture as to whether or not The Yellows will need to buckle up for a real survival fight.
For the present, Mark Bonner’s side haven’t been much of a surprise package in the third tier. The departure of 32-goal Paul Mullin among others created a sense of uncertainty as to the side’s attacking threat. Stepping up to answer that call was Mullin’s sidekick last season, Joe Ironside. Now the focal point, his 11 goals to date (including one at Fratton Park in their 2-1 win) sees him among the division’s top scorers. This combined with the 15 assists split between George Williams, Shilow Tracey, and veteran Wes Hoolahan, means that semi-consistent creativity can be found across this side. Outside of those in the Top Six, only three sides have scored more than the hosts.
Ironside’s capacity to find the net on a regular basis is made more impressive when factoring in that Cambridge rank 23rd in both shots, and shots on target. They don’t aim for goal often, nor do they get near the goal often, yet their ability to eat heartily despite being fed only scraps (their shots-to-goal conversion rate is good enough for 7th in the division) is likely the reason they’re not currently in the thick of the drop zone scramble. Like Morecambe with Cole Stockton, Cambridge need to hold out hope that their efficiency in front of goal remains, as an average of 43% possession to this point doesn’t highlight much in the way of “Joga Bonito” occurring in the university town.
The defeat to Cambridge several months ago was at the top end of their dive-bomb down the table. It’s fair to say that the side that spluttered around for 90 minutes on that day at Fratton Park is a fair distance from the side that has resurrected itself back into quasi-relevance now. The lack of football played by the Blues means that their unbeaten run remains intact at nine games.
With 22 games played (leaving one or two games in hand on most of the teams around them), Pompey sit 9th with 36 points, and a goal difference of 6. On the outside looking in so they are, the trip represents an opportunity to distance themselves a little from the mid-table pack, and nestle in-between MK Dons and Sheffield Wednesday as playoff outsiders.
COVID cases and injury cases are both starting to become rear-view mirror realities for the PO4 outfit, with boss Danny Cowley reporting that nearly everybody is back in full training, including Ryan Tunnicliffe, Louis Thompson, and Clark Robertson. With the backlog of games created by their December of Discontent, the timing of their respective returns is fortuitous, with Saturday/Tuesday gameweeks set to become a consistent reality. While they may not all feature in CB5, heavy rotation is likely to be in effect from here on out.
When Pompey travelled to Rotherham, Sean Raggett curiously didn’t seem to be on man-marking duties for Michael Smith. The absence of putting one of the division’s most aerially-dominant defenders up against one of the division’s most aerially-dominant forwards step for step backfired in a big way.
Cambridge aren’t a side for heavily populating the box, and if the Blues are to employ a back three, it shouldn’t be too much of a risk to ask Raggett to stick with Ironside every step of the way, and let his off-shoulder partners marshal any gaps that open up. American sports would term this as “taking away the opponent’s biggest weapon”, and it’s something that Raggett should have the capacity to fulfil.
Outside of that, if the wing-backs can exert reasonable pressure on the balls into the box from out wide, the potential for a quiet afternoon is there, but beware of Cambridge’s option to move the ball north and south quickly. Portsmouth are one of the only two top half sides (Burton the other) that Cambridge have beaten all season. Don’t rule anything out just yet.
Boasting their own more direct style also, the Blues are far less pedestrian than the last time these two sides faced off. Pushing quickly through the middle third and into the final third may be the chief objective for both of these sides.
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Photo: Cambridge United FC