The inside track on Sunderland's main rival Portsmouth and whether they're capable of maintaining the promotion pace
By now Sunderland supporters have a decent measure of their League One opponents.
Peterborough United came to the Stadium of Light in October and proved to largely to be the opponents expected. Pacy, talented attackers capable of hurting teams on the break, but susceptible at the back.
Inconsistent results since then have underlined that, even if their credentials remain strong.
Barnsley twice conquered the Black Cats last season with a youthful side that they have kept together for the current campaign.
Their form has been patchy but fans know not to underestimate them.
Then there is the best of the rest, teams Sunderland have faced and had to fight hard to get a result from.
Luton Town were organised and impressive at Kenilworth Road, while Doncaster Rovers were arguably Sunderland’s most challenging opponent yet.
The team at the top, however, remain something of an unknown quantity.
Sunderland have not faced Portsmouth since February 2010, a very different era when Papa Bouba Diop, Nwankwo Kanu and Ricardo Rocha featured for the Blues.
Since then they have been a difficult journey to rebuild their club but this season they have set the pace from day one.
So what’s the secret to their success and crucially, can they last the pace?
Neil Allen, who covers Pompey home and away for Portsmouth News, helped give us the comprehensive low-down.
THE KEY FIGURES AND THE STORY SO FAR
Portsmouth’s defensive record is impressive and key to their success.
Sunderland now have the best record in the league but they have played one game less.
Crucial to Pompey has been defender Matt Clarke.
Clarke joined Portsmouth in a swap deal with Ipswich Town; Adam Webster going in the opposite direction.
The 22-year-old has since established himself as one of the best defenders in the League and has been attracting interest from the top tiers for the best part of a year.
That defence has set the platform for a collection of sharp forwards, who have helped Portsmouth set their best ever away record in the Football League. Allen says.
“Quite simply, they’re an excellent counter-attacking side,” Allen says.
“They’re unbeaten in ten away games, winning eight of those. They have two fantasic, pacy wingers in Jamal Lowe and Ronan Curtis.
“Defensively they have been excellent. Matt Clarke is an unbelievable defender and won player of the year last season.
“Generally, they’ve not always played wonderfully well. They’ve been grinding out results, often winning by the odd goal. They’re not really playing with a swagger yet and they’ve got a lot of gears still to go through. I think they would say that themselves.”
Sunderland supporters wll recognise that assessment well, with the Black Cats still sensing that even better displays could be around the corner.
Curtis and Lowe have been two of the best players in the league this year.
Curtis has six assists and six goals, while Lowe has six goals and three assists.
It has been a rapid rise for the pair, signed from Derry City and Hampton & Richmond Borough respectively.
Alongside striker Oliver Hawkins, they have been responsible for much of the attacking output, while five goals from Gareth Evans in midfield have also been vital.
CAN THEY LAST THE PACE?
One of Portsmouth’s biggest attributes is the experience of Kenny Jackett.
He has won three promotions in the Football League, two of them from League One.
His knowledge of the lower leagues is proving vital in the transfer market, with Tom Naylor, a target for Sunderland under the previous regime, proving one of many savvy additions.
“Kenny Jackett has won three promotions so he has the pedigree,” Allen says.
“He took over in the summer of 2017 after Paul Cook left for Wigan.
“He took over a side that had just won League Two but it was an ageing squad. Paul Cook recognised he needed more experience to get out of that league but Jackett knew had to bring the average age down.
“No one was expecting them to finish 8th last season and they actually went into the New Year in the play-off positions. They were affected badly by a horrendous injury crisis and collapsed. The signings this summer have been really good, the majority of those are in the starting XI pretty much every week.”
Some promising talent waiting in the wings gives Allen confidence that they can mantain their promotion push.
“They’ve got a really good squad,” he says.
“A lot of the loan players the brought in have barely played. You’ve got Joe Mason, on loan from Premier League Wolves, who has only made three appearances. It’s a similar story with David Wheeler from QPR and then there’s Andre Green, on loan from Aston Villa and only now coming back from an injury.
“Then you’ve got Brett Pitman, who scored 25 goals last season and is finding it hard to get in the team at the moment. So the squad is good.”
WHAT WILL HAPPEN IN JANUARY?
Keeping hold of their top talent in January will be te key for Portsmouth, particularly as a raft of clubs have been linked with a swoop for Curtis.
Allen says fans will expect strengthening.
“January will be an interesting one as they weren’t particularly active last year and it probably cost them,” he says.
“Midfielder Danny Rose, who is a key player, broke his leg in a drop-ball scenario and wasn’t replaced. That came to be seen as a key mistake.”
Like Sunderland, the hierarchy at Portsmouth have hinted that January additions will not be extravagant.
But both clubs look well poised to strengthen and their form shows no sign of slowing.