Eastern Road Debrief: Cambridge United 2-1 Portsmouth – Blues Stumble Out

By Ryan Stillwell

The warning signs of an earlier-than-usual exit in the EFL Trophy beckoned on several occasions for this Portsmouth side. Two defeats in the group stage against AFC Wimbledon and Sutton United were offset by a 3-0 victory over Crystal Palace. Even in that game, Pompey weren’t heading through the group until George Hirst scored an all-important third goal in stoppage time.

In the knockout phases, Exeter City looked to have sent Danny Cowley’s outfit packing, until Ronan Curtis overturned a 2-1 deficit with just one minute remaining. Eventually, Pompey’s ability to somehow slog their unimpressive wat through this tournament ran dry, as a return to Abbey Stadium yielded more misery. In the end, with a trip to Rotherham United in the Quarter-Final on the line, a 2-1 defeat was the best the Blues could muster, and their involvement in this season’s cup competitions overall, is over.

Overview

Their second trip to Abbey Stadium within the first two weeks of the year saw some unfamiliar faces back in the squad. Clark Robertson started in defence, with Ryan Tunnicliffe coming on in the second half, both following long-term injuries.

A frantic opening was the course in CB5, Cambridge having the more frequent opportunities. Mahlon Romeo and Reeco Hackett had neglected their defensive duties entirely, as wave after wave of Cambridge advance started with sprayed diagonal balls into the spaces outside the three centre-backs. Alex Bass was called into action twice early on, tipping a Sam Smith header, and then comfortably gathering a Harvey Knibbs effort.

Ronan Curtis fired a second-attempt effort wide from the edge of the box, and George Hirst failed to corral in a through ball that would have left him in one-on-one. Rather like the league game in the same stadium a week earlier, the first half petered out into nothing, both sides guilty of sloppy losses in possession, and running themselves into trouble and traffic.

Where the first half was messy and uneven, the Aztecs cleaned up their efforts to take control of the second half, and when a Sean Raggett interception deflected off Knibbs, then back off Raggett, then back to Knibbs, the Cambridge man wasted no time in lashing an effort across goal and into the far corner. He would double their lead nine minutes later when a Wes Hoolahan dinked ball in was headed home from point-black range.

Bass single-handedly kept the score at 2-0 for as long as possible, adding three more saves to his growing tally on the evening, until Pompey undeservedly pulled themselves back into the game. Lee Brown’s whipped corner was met by a downward cross-goal header courtesy of Michael Jacobs, leaving only one goal in it.

John Marquis, brought on alongside Jacobs, Brown, and Ryan Tunnicliffe, passed up on a glaring opportunity with time running out as he steered an unmarked header wide from close range; and for Portsmouth’s late huffing and puffing, they couldn’t find that second goal.

What We Learned

This Was Coming

While Pompey have been busy resuscitating their league season, their EFL Trophy exploits have been flatlining since day one. Ultimately, of the five games the Blues have put in during this season’s competition, they have lost three. Of the two wins they have, those who went to or watched the Exeter game will willingly acknowledge its freakish smash-and-grab.

Discombobulated, half-hearted performances have been a feature of this season’s tournament, and the miraculous Exeter turnaround merely prolonged the inevitable exit by a few days. With a backlog of league games to clear however, this may work in Pompey’s favour. From now until season’s end, only the league remains in play, and should Cowley’s side maintain playoff ambitions, they now have a singular focus to that end.

The Time For Rust Is Over

Pompey’s last three games, two in the Trophy, one in the league, have been a case study in unrefined, and rusty. This is perhaps acceptable considering the three weeks they went without a game at all, and a series of illnesses sidelining most of the squad.

The product of this has been three dire games of football to begin 2022, and a solitary victory. The boon for the Blues right now is that both their ten-game unbeaten and five-game clean sheet runs in the league are intact, heading into a tough slate of games, beginning with MK Dons at home on Saturday. Trips to both Sunderland and Oxford follow within the next 30 days, and while those runs are likely to be pushed to breaking point, the performances in general will need to sharpen up akin to those prior to Christmas if they want to continue with their Renaissance. 

Player Ratings

Alex Bass – 7 – A string of saves in both halves was not enough to keep Pompey alive.

Kieron Freeman – 4 – A shaky evening that looked flawed from the first minute.

Clark Robertson – 6 – A fairly assured 45 minutes following a long absence.

Connor Ogilvie – 6 – Quiet, but not error-prone.

Mahlon Romeo – 5 – Defensively unaware, not enough at the other end to offset this.

Joe Morrell – 5 – Very much half a performance.

Louis Thompson – 5 – Same as the above.

Reeco Hackett – 6 – Made up for some lapses with the odd important interception/block.

Michael Jacobs – 7 – Continuing to fight for a future, wherever it may be.

Ronan Curtis – 5 – A flurry of indecision followed by haste.

George Hirst – 5 – Poor touches and a yard shy every time.

SUBSTITUTES 

Ryan Tunnicliffe (on in 60th) – 5 – Understandably rusty.

Lee Brown (on in 60th) – 6 – A good corner in helped Pompey make a fight out of it.

John Marquis (on in 60th) – 5 – Worked hard but missed a great chance to save the game.

Marcus Harness (on in 60th) – 6 – Working away, kept the ball flowing at times.

To keep up to date with Eastern Road Debrief content, follow @PompeyViking62 on Twitter.

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