Pompey 2 Plymouth 2: Neil Allen's match report
Apulsating Fratton Park evening teed up an intriguing play-off second leg for Pompey and their rivals Plymouth.
Neither side could be separated last night after a thrilling – and occasionally controversial – 2-2 draw.
Played at breakneck speed and amid a truly special Fratton atmosphere, the fixture possessed everything for football fans to relish.
Yet, crucially, neither team could emerge from the first leg with an advantage to take into Sunday’s decider at Home Park.
Perhaps Pompey deserved more, they were comfortably the better side in the second half and certainly at the end of the first, dominating possession and applying plenty of pressure.
They will also feel deprived of witnessing a red card for Jamille Matt, who delivered an unmistakable first-half headbutt into the back of Michael Doyle’s head.
Matt was not so much as cautioned, while Paul Cook and Argyle first-team coach Paul Wotton were instead sent to the stands by referee Oliver Langford as they argued over the incident.
It was the Blues who took a third-minute lead through Marc McNulty before Matt had levelled only six minutes later past new Pompey keeper Ryan Allsop.
The emergency loan arrival from Bournemouth was thrust straight into the side following injuries to Brian Murphy and Paul Jones – and conceded twice in the opening 19 minutes.
That second was again netted by Matt, this time an overhead-kick following Kelvin Mellor’s long throw.
Kyle Bennett hit the post and McNulty went close before Gary Roberts’ 51st-minute penalty restored parity.
Pompey seized control, roared on by a packed Fratton Park, but the visitors defended admirably and there was no winner.
Now they must do battle again on Sunday, the tie finely balanced in the hunt for a Wembley final.
Allsop headed seven changes to the Pompey side which saw out the League Two season with defeat to Northampton last weekend.
Joining the Bournemouth keeper in the team were Michael Doyle, Danny Hollands, Enda Stevens and Christian Burgess, who were all rested against the Cobblers.
There was also the welcome sight of Bennett and McNulty back in action for the Blues.
Bennett had missed the previous four matches with ankle ligament damage and replaced Kal Naismith on the left flank.
Joint-top scorer McNulty had been out for three games with a hamstring problem and took the spot of Adam McGurk as the lone striker.
However, Conor Chaplin and Adam Webster were absent from the squad through injury, while Kieron Freeman served the first of his three-match ban.
Meanwhile, such is Pompey’s chronic goalkeeping problem, there was no keeper on the bench, instead the spots taken up by seven outfield players.
Plymouth kicked off the first leg, yet found themselves behind after three minutes.
Curtis Nelson tried to bring the ball upfield but was met with a crunching Doyle tackle to dispossess him.
The ball fell to McNulty who, 20 yards from goal, unleashed a right-foot shot past Luke McCormick to give the Blues an early lead.
Nelson immediately held up his hand to apologise, yet the damage was done and Fratton Park was in full voice.
It was all square on nine minutes, however, after Allsop struggled to deal with Graham Carey’s cross from the left.
Gregg Wylde headed the ball back across goal and Matt beat Pompey’s debutant to head home.
Moments later the game erupted after Matt had held down Hollands following a clearance from the Blues midfielder.
Doyle dragged the striker off his team-mate and as he walked away Matt appeared to headbutt the skipper in the back of the head.
Both benches were on their feet and, in the aftermath, Cook and Argyle’s Wootton were both sent to the stands.
As for Matt, there was no punishment with the referee and his officials appearing to miss the incident.
The game had become a full-blooded affair and, on 14 minutes, Carey was booked for a foul on Bennett down the left.
The visitors took the lead on 19 minutes following a long throw from the right by Mellor.
As the ball bounced up, Matt launched into an overhead-kick to smartly strike the ball past Allsop for his second goal of the match.
The encounter was proving to be a breathless affair and on 26 minutes Carey fired a 30-yard right-foot effort just past the far post.
Evans had a great chance to level on 32 minutes when Burgess cushioned a header into his path in a crowded penalty area.
Yet the midfielder failed to get a shot off quick enough and Peter Hartley came across to produce a timely clearance.
Then Burgess’ ball down the right was controlled by Roberts, with McNulty appearing from nowhere to pick it up with a first-time right-foot shot narrowly past the far post.
Pompey were on top and on 38 minutes Bennett struck the right-hand post with a shot from inside the box after Ben Davies had slid the ball across.
Hollands became the first Pompey player to be booked following a foul on Carl McHugh 20 yards from goal.
The fourth official indicated four minutes of time added on before a breathless half would end. Barton became the latest player to be booked, after a foul on Jake Jervis before the half ended 2-1 to the visitors.
Within a minute of the restart, Evans drove a right-foot shot narrowly over the crossbar.
The score was level on 51 minutes, though, after McNulty was brought down inside the box by Peter Hartley, who appeared to be the last man and in danger of a sending off.
The Plymouth central defender was booked, while Roberts stepped up with a left-foot finish to make it 2-2.
On 57 minutes, McNulty drew a save from McCormick with a shot from long range during a lightning counter-attack.
However, Bennett was furious the striker hadn’t instead put him through down the left when completely unmarked on goal.
At the other end, Gary Sawyer was shown a yellow card – a fourth booking of the fixture – for a lunge on Hollands.
On 62 minutes Pompey made their first substitution with Bennett replaced by Naismith, clearly with one eye on the fact it was his first game back. Cook’s side were dominating possession and pegging the visitors into their half, yet still the scores remained level.
A wonderful crossfield pass from Barton saw Stevens win a free-kick down the left but the delivery came to nothing as the Pilgrims scrambled the ball clear.
As the match entered the final 10 minutes, McGurk was brought on for McNulty in the Blues’ second substitution.
Pompey pushed on and Davies saw his angled drive saved by McCormick from close range on 87 minutes.
But the occasion finished 2-2 and now the return at Home Park on Sunday will decide who reaches Wembley.