League One Play-Off 1st Legs: Portsmouth To Win Clash Of The Giants?6 min read
League One A: Sunderland v Portsmouth
It is tempting to draw parallels between Sunderland and Portsmouth.
Two of the biggest clubs in League One, two clubs competing for promotion after playing out the EFL Trophy Final in March, two clubs who have been financially mismanaged at various points and are hoping to work their way back into the top two divisions of English football under the current regimes.
And yet, there are also fundamental differences.
Sunderland came into this division off the back of successive relegations, while Portsmouth were promoted from the division below in 2017.
Pompey do not have the financial wherewithal of their opponents – they have had to develop non-league stars such as Jamal Lowe and Oli Hawkins rather than recruit ready-made second-tier performers like Grant Leadbitter and Will Grigg, for example.
However, the fact they have already established year-on-year progress for half-a-decade gives them a different kind of advantage: they have a clearer sense of their own playing identity.
Portsmouth on the up
Kenny Jackett, in his second season in charge, has turned Portsmouth from the possession-based outfit we saw under Paul Cook into a streetwise, counter-attacking outlet.
Portsmouth are effective at weathering pressure and they go back-to-front very quickly, via the pace of right-sided forward Jamal Lowe – who was rested for Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Accrington.
🏆 @JamzLowe has been nominated for April's #PFAFansAward and you can help the #Pompey star win for the third time this season ⬇️https://t.co/ALkhrcJB1r
— Portsmouth FC (@Pompey) May 8, 2019
The Solent outfit are set up well for tough away games: they have conceded just two first half goals in their last eight on the road.
Holding midfielder Tom Naylor, a pillar of consistency with 43 league starts, protects the defence superbly with complete centre-back Matt Clarke enjoying another excellent campaign.
Disjointed Black Cats
Jack Ross deserves credit for consistently field 11 hungry players who are proud to wear the Sunderland shirt – he has lifted the standards in terms of work ethic and already, that is an improvement on the preceding two campaigns.
Equally, though, Ross is still trying to work out whether his side are best with £3 million striker Will Grigg starting in a 4-4-2 – or with Charlie Wyke leading the line in a 4-2-3-1.
They remain reliant on supremely skilful wide man Aiden McGeady, who has sat out the previous two games as the club works on his fractured foot.
IF Ross manages to stay on next season, he needs to completely overhaul the squad regardless of leagues. Slow, passive, weak and devoid of ideas. Maja and Mcgeady have papered over the cracks over the season. #safc
— Rich (@SafcMod) May 4, 2019
Influential battler Lee Cattermole has also been rested with a few knocks, tireless captain George Honeyman has an ongoing knee complaint, while winger Lewis Morgan has struggled with concussion.
Although we can expect Sunderland to play with the aggression fit for the occasion, therefore, it remains to be seen how quickly they can not only compile a coherent plan of action, but also execute it with the required synergy.
In nine of Portsmouth’s 23 league away games, they have won a match that has seen fewer than four goals scored – on average a 39.1