United's participation in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy ended in the second round as goals in the second half from Patrick Agyemang and John Marquis gave Portsmouth passage into the next round despite James Constable's late strike. The result was a little harsh on a United line-up who played very well for an hour without taking their chances.
The U’s took the opportunity to give midfielder Josh Ruffels a full debut alongside Scott Davies while Ryan Williams and Callum O’Dowda provided the width. With the established back four of David Hunt, Michael Raynes, Johnny Mullins and Tom Newey behind them that youthful midfield had license to get forward and support Alfie Potter and Constable, as shown in the fifth minute when a fine through ball from Ruffels allowed Newey to cross the first dangerous ball into the Portsmouth box.
It was the familiar figure of Constable who had the first clear opening on 15 minutes when a superb ball from the impressive Davies allowed Williams to whip in a cross which the striker hammered at goal from six yards. Keeper Trevor Carson parried instinctively but a yard either side and he was beaten.
The visitors, backed by an excellent away following, were forced into an early change when Marcus Painter limped off after just 16 minutes and in the opening half hour seemed content to sit deep and play in front of United but Raynes might easily have given his side the lead twice in the 27th minute. Only a last-second touch off the head of Sonny Bradley took the ball off his head as he homed in on a free kick, and then the centre half planted a firm downwards header just wide of the mark from the resulting corner.
United continued to make all the running and on 32 Williams nicked the ball from a complacent Pompey defender to start a good move that ended with Ruffels driving a shot over the bar from the edge of the area. The only downside from an encouraging first half was Potter having to go off just before the break in what looked like a precautionary move after he felt his back after a challenge.
Deane Smalley replaced him but rather than play the top scorer through the middle he was deployed on the right wing to allow Williams to play just behind the hard-working Constable. A moment of sublime skill where Williams dragged down a high ball, turned sharply and almost set Constable free was typical of the young Fulham loanee’s eye-catching performance.
The 1,132 away fans in the away end burst into a huge cheer on 54 minutes as Romain Padovani had their team’s first effort of the night, a tame effort that the otherwise untroubled Clarke gathered easily but United still couldn't find a way through at the other end. Davies sent two efforts flying over the bar while Constable's header on the hour forced Carson into another good save on a busy night.
The arrival of Agyemang changed the game and gave the visitors a different option up front and on 65 minutes the sub found the way through with Portsmouth's only real effort on goal until that moment. Powering in on goal down the right channel the striker struck a fine shot with the outside of his right boot which flashed past Clarke and into the far corner to make it 1-0. It was a good goal but very hard on The U's who had been the better side in the first hour.
Suddenly Portsmouth looked dangerous and it took a great double save from Clarke on 72 to deny first Holmes and then Agyemang inside the six yard box. On 81 they sealed their progress as a cross from the right travelled across the six-yard box and picked out Marquis to nod a simple header into the net, giving Clarke no chance.
The second half had been such a sharp contrast to the first. but United deserved a goal and with two minutes to go Constable grabbed a lifeline as the Pompey defence opened wide and Constable sneaked in behind two defenders for a simple finish past the horribly exposed Carson to make it 2-1. He closes in on his century of goals and will be another to benefit from a full 90 minutes after a foot injury.
That set up a storming finish but The U's ran out of time and so go out of the competition. Ruffels, voted man of the match, can be pleased with his debut, O'Dowda looked neat on the left wing while Williams looked sharp on the other flank, so the chance to throw in three youngsters was not wasted. It will be interesting to see the teamsheet as United take on Northampton in Sky Bet league 2 on Saturday. Captain Jake Wright and midfielder Andy Whing will be back for that game, Dave Kitson will presumably be involved again and United will be looking to get back to winning ways.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures Steve Daniels, stats by OPTA
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