MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) analyses the first leg of League Two’s play-off semi-final between Portsmouth and Plymouth on Thursday night.
Portsmouth v Plymouth | Thursday 19.45 | Sky Sports 2
The League Two play-offs get underway on Thursday night as Portsmouth welcome Plymouth to Fratton Park for the first leg of their semi-final clash.
Pompey flopped as ante-post favourites for the third successive season and despite a well-stocked squad – the division’s strongest in terms of personnel and strength in depth – Paul Cook’s men have faltered under the weight of expectancy.
Finishing sixth in League Two is traditionally ‘unlucky’ with only four teams in 27 years gaining promotion via the play-offs from sixth and the hosts must also overcome a string of injuries for Thursday night.
In fact, the situation is so apparently dire in Hampshire, Cook said he may even have to take risks with his half-fit stars, such is the magnitude of the match.
Kyle Bennett, Marc McNulty and Matt Clarke have all returned to training to boost Pompey’s options and the home boss will also recall Danny Hollands, Michael Doyle, Enda Stevens and Christian Burgess to his team after they were rested against Northampton.
Portsmouth were beaten 2-1 by champions Northampton at the weekend with a weakened team but a red card in that fixture for on-loan Kieron Freeman has also ruled him out of play-off contention.
Pre-match Cook suggested there was no necessity to win, no requirement to gamble, no reason to be caught out with the Fratton Park outfit often struggling to make their dominance pay when welcoming League Two opposition.
Pompey’s W5-D0-L6 results in their last 11 outings as hosts leaves a lot to be desired and whilst the League Two giants took 16 points from a possible 18 on their travels at top-seven teams, Cook’s charges managed just five in the same fixtures at Fratton Park.
Only champions Northampton spent more time at the top of the table than Plymouth this season but after leading the way until Christmas, the Pilgrims nosedived in 2016, picking up W9-D5-L8 – a points tally bettered by 11 fourth-tier rivals in that time.
Like their hosts, Plymouth have proven more profitable on their travels (W12-D6-L5), which included W3-D1-L2 at top-seven teams. Just last month the Green Army returned maximum points at Portsmouth but two goals in the final five minutes flattered Argyle in a 2-1 victory.
Nevertheless, Derek Adams’ troops signed off their season with a 5-0 splattering of Hartlepool and head into the play-offs determined to right the wrongs of last year’s semi-final defeats to Wycombe. With Peter Hartley, Carl McHugh and Reuben Reid expected to return, the visitors should be in decent nick.
Jake Jervis, Ryan Brunt, Graham Carey and Gregg Wylde have all played an integral part in Plymouth’s strong season and Adams made a point in his pre-match dealings with the press to suggest he’d be sending his side out to play on the front foot in both ties.
Goals have been in regular supply during Argyle’s recent outings – the visitors have notched 21 in their last nine games, with eight of those producing at least three goals in total and seven banking in the Both Teams To Score column. Indeed, the guests have netted at least once in 20 of their 24 away matches across all competitions in 2015/16.
The last five head-to-head duels have delivered Over 2.5 Goals winners and with Portsmouth striking in 14 of their most recent 15 fixtures – with their last three Fratton Park excursions involving BTTS winners – neutrals will be expecting the goals to flow on Thursday.
However, the added tension of the encounter may lead to a cagey opening and so it may pay to oppose goals in the first-half here.
Portsmouth have seen 11 of their 23 home games go into half-time goalless and they tend to come alive in the second-half, scoring 26 of their 38 goals at home in the second period.
The hosts have notched just four of their last 17 goals before the half-time oranges are dished out and it’s a similar story for Plymouth as the visitors have scored 21 of their 33 goals on the road in the second 45 minutes.
It’s a tough encounter to call but at the odds, I’d personally want Plymouth onside despite Pompey losing just five of their 22 matches against fellow top-half clubs. With goals and statistics onside, I’ll complete the piece with a wee interest in the 1-1 correct score at 6/1 (William Hill).
Portsmouth v Plymouth – 0-0 half-time correct score (17/10 Coral)
Portsmouth v Plymouth – Both Teams To Score in the second-half (16/5 Coral)
Portsmouth v Plymouth – 1-1 correct score (6/1 William Hill)