Tony Gillan: Sunderland have a slight advantage over Portsmouth but no one is getting carried away
The mood is best described as cautiously optimistic.
Sunderland have a slight advantage over Portsmouth and, including Saturday’s first leg, they have scored in 46 out of 47 Championship games so far this season.
This would suggest that Pompey, who have failed to win in 11 of their 23 home games, will have to score at least twice just to draw the tie (God, Allah, Buddha, Yahweh, Brahma, Krishna: PLEASE not penalties).
Let’s hope that Mr Bankes, in charge tomorrow, isn’t yet another dud referee; because that could upend everything. Portsmouth will try every trick in the book – and probably a few that aren’t.
For example, four days ago a preposterous and correctly rescinded red card (the third this season) was shown to Alim Öztürk. It wasn’t a goal scoring opportunity. In fact it wasn’t even a foul. It was a great tackle.
However, seconds before, Tom Flanagan had his shirt blatantly pulled by Oliver Hawkins yards before the linesman, who can’t possibly have failed to see it but ignored it anyway.
Meanwhile, the other linesman’s interest was simultaneously not aroused by an equally blatant lunge on George Honeyman by the continually fouling Anton Walkes.
Mindful that Sunderland had every reason to successfully appeal Öztürk’s dismissal and suspension for tomorrow night, Portsmouth manager Kenny Jackett claimed afterwards, with a straight face, that the red card was correct.
Incredibly, no Portsmouth player was booked on Saturday.
Rescission is all well and good. But it doesn’t enable Sunderland to go back in time and play the whole of the first leg with 11 players. What might have been? They were well on top when Öztürk walked.
What else have Pompey been up to? Well for some reason it took until late on Friday afternoon for Sunderland’s measly allocation of 2,000 tickets for Fratton Park to finally arrive, leaving fans with little time to make arrangements for a 700-mile round trip.
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Of course, only a grubby cynic would suggest that this was done to reduce the number of visitors and increase Portsmouth’s own classy, highly-regarded support.
Incidentally, Portsmouth’s biggest home attendance this season was against Sunderland, naturally enough.
There was, I kid ye not, a tantrum in Hampshire last week when Portsmouth were “only” given 2,000 tickets themselves for the Stadium of Light leg, with mutterings about SAFC’s “gamesmanship”. Odd considering that Pompey, as expected, failed miserably to sell out even that paltry number (only 1,288 actually turned up). At least the ones who did attend behaved this time; as far as I know. In fact they were barely heard.
So much for off-field jollity. What about on it? In effect, it’s half-time and Sunderland are leading 1-0. So far, so good.
They showed impressive resolve when wrongly reduced to 10 men; after which their opponents did very little apart from one shot at the crossbar. Indeed, Portsmouth barely managed a shot on target at all.
But it would be insanity if Sunderland’s game plan tomorrow is to secure a draw in the away leg.
The main reason for the failure to secure automatic promotion is their regular inability to take a two-goal lead.
Last week I wrote: “It’s almost as if a one-goal lead is no lead at all.” I haven’t changed my mind: the competence shown in the first leg notwithstanding.
Portsmouth will attack from the kick-off as they don’t have much choice. So unconvinced is anyone by the possibility of a Sunderland clean sheet (Saturday’s was only the eighth from their 47 games), that surely the best form of defence is attack.
They have to keep the ball at the right end of the field – and be wary of all the three-card tricks.