The first part of this triple-header of difficult games is out of the way with a creditable point against Sunderland in the bag. The relentlessness of league football is such though that a poor result in this upcoming game against Portsmouth would leave us three games without a win heading into Saturday’s trip to Charlton Athletic.
It’s going to be difficult to replicate the levels of energy and intensity that we saw against Sunderland with such a short turnaround, but we’ll have to find a way. It’s a challenge made more difficult by the injury to Junior Brown, leaving us without a fit senior left-back, key attacking cog Conor Chaplin’s ineligibility, as well as the freak Ice Hockey incident that seems likely to leave us without Lee Burge for this game.
Unless Mark Robins is tempted to keep Dujon Sterling in the left-back position he filled in at admirably against Sunderland, this game could be a chance for Chris Camwell to make his first league appearance since the final day of the 2016/17 season. From a promising debut, the youngster has struggled to challenge for a first-team spot, but showed in the recent Checkatrade Trophy tie against Arsenal’s reserves that he can be a genuine outlet from left-back with pinpoint delivery from his crossing.
As for who comes in for Chaplin, the likeliest option seems to be Tony Andreu coming into the side, shifting the shape from a 4-4-2 to something closer to a 4-2-3-1. Andreu’s creative presence in the final third is likely to mean Jonson Clarke-Harris will be tasked with making runs in behind the Portsmouth defence, rather than playing with his back to goal. Alternatively, this game is a chance for either Jordy Hiwula or Amadou Bakayoko to stake a claim for more regular involvement as a strike partner for Clarke-Harris.
Last Time We Met
Our last clash with Portsmouth came during that interminable start to our previous League One campaign where Tony Mowbray lost the plot, signed Andre Wright, and failed to win the 10 league games he oversaw to start the season. Portsmouth, then a League Two side, travelled to the Ricoh Arena for a League Cup tie and took the lead in the first-half from the penalty spot. With things pretty gloomy at half-time, Ryan Haynes lifted matters with a side-footed equaliser, before Vladimir Gadzhev looked to have won the tie late-on.
A fantastic free-kick from Portsmouth’s Kal Naismith took the game into extra-time, but Andy Rose scored for the Sky Blues to secure passage to the next round, where Norwich’s second-string walloped us. The sheer amount of false promise on show that night was perhaps most aptly summed up by Ben Stevenson catching the eye on his debut, nowadays he’s one of nine Wolves reserve players on loan to Spanish third-tier side FC Jumilla.
How Are They Doing?
After establishing themselves back at this level last year, Kenny Jackett’s Portsmouth now lead the division. Having seemingly used last year to put in place a solid defensive foundation to the side, Jackett has added the quality further forward over the summer to take Pompey to the next level.
Having been incredibly reliant on the goalscoring feats of the veteran forward Brett Pitman last year, Pompey’s attacking threat has been more varied, with wide-men Ronan Curtis and Jamal Lowe among the two most dangerous players in the division – both having either scored or assisted 10 goals already this season. Lowe is an explosive pace and skill merchant who has added consistency to his game after impressing in patches last year, Curtis, a summer signing from the League of Ireland, is more of a crafty operator who has seemingly made a habit of winding up opposing defenders and fans thus far this year.
The form of target-man Oli Hawkins in leading the line earlier in the season saw Brett Pitman lose his place in the side, however, the former Bournemouth and Ipswich man has reclaimed a starting role in recent weeks and not only offers goals in attack but can operate as a focal point, although he can be criticised at times for being overly selfish (not necessarily a bad thing for a striker). On the bench, Portsmouth can call upon some high-calibre loan players in Joe Mason and David Wheeler who have yet to break into the side since joining over the summer.
Further back, Portsmouth have physicality in central midfield and in defence, often deploying two defensive midfielders in the belief that their front three or four players have the individual quality to win games. Former Burton Albion man Tom Naylor has instantly slotted into the side in central midfield, even though he has played a lot of his football at centre-back. He’ll either be partnered by academy graduate Ben Close or by Millwall loanee Ben Thompson, who can be a hard-tackling and highly energetic presence in the centre of the park.
Jack Whatmough and Matt Clarke in central defence are arguably the best pairing currently operating at this level. Whatmough, another academy graduate, has struggled with injuries in his career but offers a level of composure both with and without the ball that few other League One centre-backs possess. Similarly, Matt Clarke is not only a strong defender, but isn’t scared to have the ball at his feet. Beside them at full-back are the experienced Nathan Thompson and Lee Brown, adding to the solidity and reliability of this Portsmouth side.
Portsmouth look to be one of the better-balanced sides operating at this level this season, with a solid defensive core and the ability to really put teams to the sword with their attacking play. Furthermore, they can afford to rotate players for this game without too much of a drop-off, whereas any changes Mark Robins makes for this game risks throwing in players who are possibly not quite at the standard of League One football or altering the balance significantly of what has been a functioning side in recent weeks.
I can see Mark Robins targeting a clean sheet in this game, whether we can hold firm against one of the best attacking line-ups in the division will be the story of the game. I’m backing Portsmouth to win this 2-0.