By Gerry PrewettIn a low key Checkatrade Trophy encounter Bristol Rovers travel down to the south coast of Hampshire to face a Portsmouth team in a poor frame of mind.
Sitting in 5th place in the SkyBet League Two table, Pompey got off to a solid start to the season, but hit the bumpers somewhat since the end of September when they have won 1 drawn 1 and lost 6 games in total.
To compound the misery they have failed to win any of their last 5 home games.
That latest game was at home to Wycombe on Saturday. After an uneventful opening, on 16 minutes, the Chairboys Matt Bloomfield cleverly allowed the ball to run across his body and created space to crack a left-footed shot against the post from 20 yards and four minutes later Paris Cowan-Hall broke clear on the left and his angled shot was kept out by keeper David Forde's legs.
But Forde was found wanting on 26 minutes when he miscued his punch as a free-kick was fired into a crowded goalmouth and the ball broke to Cowan-Hall, who nodded into the unguarded net against the club where he began his career.
Pompey failed to get a shot on target in a lukewarm first-half performance and Chairboys keeper Jamal Blackman was only called into action to dive at Noel Hunt's feet as he chased a through ball from Milan Lalkovic.
Within two minutes of the restart Pompey were level when Enda Stevens broke down the left and his inviting cross was met with a crisp first-time finish by Gareth Evans.
Pompey pressed to settle the tie at the first time of asking and substitute Carl Baker's powerful effort produced a stunning save from Blackman, while at the other end Forde arched up to tip Wycombe sub Myles Weston's chip over the bar. Adebayo Akinfenwa struck seven minutes from time with a looping late header to give the Buckinghamshire team a place in the Second Round of the Cup.
Pompey Boss Paul Cook said after the game, “You are playing a game in which I felt Wycombe had run out of ideas in terms of whether they were going to win the game, but unfortunately we have a habit of still conceding a goal. It’s not a nice habit, we have problems at both ends of the pitch at the minute, for me it’s complacency and different stuff, but the players know, they are the first to know.”
“‘We have got to be better than that, for our fans we have to be better than that, we cannot keep taking them to the levels of Orient, Plymouth and Cambridge and then to that first-half performance, that is not right. Some players had the opportunity to show supporters they should be in the team. People will always go on about formations and personnel, I don’t buy into that, I buy into work ethic and desire and I think they were two qualities we were sadly lacking.”
Looking at the history of games between the clubs, in total there have been 38, with Pompey dominating, with 20 victories to Rovers 10. The very first meeting was an FA Cup tie at Fratton park on 13 January 1912 and Rovers won 2-1. The first time the teams met in the League was on 12 February 1921 when Portsmouth won their home game 1-0, one week later the teams fought out a 2-2 draw at Eastville.
A most remarkable game took place on 6 February 1960 at Fratton Park in a Second Division game. Two goals by Ron Saunders and others by Harry Harris and Reg Cutler gave the home team 4 goals. However doubles by Peter Hooper and Dai Ward along with an own goal by Ron Howells led to a 5-4 away win, their first.
Rovers last victory at Fratton Park took place on Tuesday 21 October 1975, Bruce Bannister and Gordon Staniforth scored for Rovers and Peter Marinello for Pompey. Last season Pompey took all six points from the Gas.
There is no doubt that Paul Cook is fully focused on trying to collect three league points against Mansfield on Saturday and it will be reflected by the side he selects for the game. A number of players will be given an opportunity to impress in the final group stage fixture.
Cook insists that the hosts will still be doing all they can to secure victory and keep alive their hopes of reaching the knockout stages. The Blues boss said: “Our fans know how we’re going to approach it and that our most important game this week is against Mansfield on Saturday.But we’ll treat the Bristol Rovers match in a professional manner and do everything we can to win it.”
“If we do that then we might still go through and if that’s the case, then great. But our big challenge is to be better than we were last season in the league. I’m aware we’ve lost three home games on the bounce, but that won’t change the fact that Saturday is at the forefront of our minds.
“We feel that the teams we’ve put out in the competition could perhaps have achieved better results. The game at Yeovil was an entertaining one and it was littered with chances at both ends of the pitch. I also enjoyed the match against an excellent Reading side and they’ve both provided an excellent opportunity for other lads to play. But the Trophy's had some bad publicity and I think everyone has to come together and agree what the benefits are.”
Cook will maintain his rotation policy having made wholesale changes for previous fixtures Liam O’Brien, Jack Whatmough, Tom Davies and Kal Naismith are all in the running to feature. Amine Linganzi is definitely in Cook’s starting line-up, despite being suspended. The Checkatrade Trophy allows the participation of those players on bans. Adam Buxton and Milan Lalkovic could keep their places after featuring in the FA Cup.