The stakes are significantly higher with both sides well aware that their seasons will be considered failures if they do not manage promotion, and the play-offs represent the last chance of this season to do that. If Sunderland can conjure up a similar performance to that of last time out against Pompey then surely they’ll be carrying the advantage into the second leg at Fratton Park.
The Story So Far
Sunderland sort of rolled over the finishing line of the season rather than roaring into the play-offs. Two draws and two extremely disappointing losses to Fleetwood and Southend respectively mean Sunderland’s form is rather underwhelming as they head into the do-or-die stages of the play-offs.
Despite Southend having their League One status to preserve, Sunderland still made it easy for The Shrimpers to create the opportunities which cost Jon McLaughlin yet another clean sheet. Tom Flanagan in particular just cannot seem to put two good performances together, one week his praises are sung and the next he’s an absolute liability. He is not the only player in red and white to suffer from inconsistency and the play-offs are a direct result from this.
Portsmouth have had similarly poor form, finishing the season with a draw to Accrington Stanley which was preceded by a loss to play-off chasing Peterborough. Pompey’s first half performance was particularly abject, with Accrington striker Sean McConville causing Pompey keeper Craig MacGillivray all kinds of problems. Ben Close managed to find an equaliser in the second half but neither side could find the winning goal, playing out a pretty timid final quarter of the match.
Whether or not this is a good or bad omen depends on how you look at things. Two teams in poor form to play out a poor game? Or will one team take the initiative, throw the form book out the window and turn up to win promotion? Let’s hope it’s our boys in red and white.
Sunderland boss Jack Ross is hoping that everyone involved with the club can pull together to achieve the season’s ultimate goal of promotion. He is also pleased that his players have had a week off to recharge and shrug off the disappointment of the Southend result.
“I think we’ve seen first-hand the significance of support within the stadium and the good thing is they (Sunderland’s players) have responded to the bigger crowds,
“Some of the games at home – Charlton the first game of the season, off the top of my head, the recent match against Doncaster, and even the recent match against Portsmouth - the atmosphere has been terrific and the players and opposition have commented on it after the game.
“It’s absolutely terrific when it’s like that, but you can’t take that for granted and expect that to be the case.
“It’s not just people associated with Sunderland, but opposition players and coaches comment on the noise that can be created within our stadium.
“Ideally you would like as many of our fans to turn out as possible, but the team have got a duty for the ones that turn out to make sure they perform the way they have done for large parts of the season and give them a victory.
“The numbers that turn up in the stadium shouldn’t determine how well we play.
“It can always be a benefit, but there’s a duty on us to go out and perform regardless.”
He continued with more focus on how Sunderland have arrived in the play offs and their approach to the up coming two or (preferably) three games;
“Do you sit and feel sorry for yourself, or do you embrace the next two or three games and get excited by them? They’re big games to be involved in and there’s a big prize at stake which is only three games away.
“Because we’ve had the week in between (the defeat at Southend United and Portsmouth’s visit) it’s given us the chance to regroup and stress that it comes down to a two-three game season.”
Kenny Jackett, the man in the Portsmouth hot seat is hoping his players can focus their minds and play what’s in front of them following missing out on an automatic promotion place.
“We’re pleased to be in there with a shot and every player here knows we have to attack what’s ahead of us.
"You can only say what a good result is after 180 minutes, but of course you want to be in a good position after the first game."
“We pushed the top two, but the reality is we hadn’t been in those spaces for a few months – we were always chasing Luton and Barnsley in the latter half of the season.
“Getting over that disappointment and trying to seize the opportunity is something I’ve been stressing this week.
“Teams aren’t short on information about each other at this stage of the season, although that’s not something I’m really concerned about.
“You need to make sure your own team are at their best – mentally, physically and tactically. You have to be prepared.
“Whoever does that better will win and it’s not really important who knows the most about the opposition.
“We’ve got a lot of respect for Sunderland, who are a big club. It’s an exciting tie and everyone’s enthusiastic about what’s ahead.
“We really appreciate all the fans who are making the long trip up there and want to put on a performance for them.”
What could go down?
If I’m totally honest with you there isn’t a lot separating these teams on paper. The fact a red card separated the sides at Fratton Park and at Wembley it was penalties has already been discussed and debated. Pompey keeper MacGillivray put it one of his performances of the season to take a point back home when the sides last met and I can’t see him doing the same.
If Sunderland can shut down Pompey’s wing play and more specifically dangerous winger Jamal Lowe then the Black Cats should have every chance of making life difficult for the opposing forwards. Likewise, if we can get the ball to our own wingers in McGeady and Morgan then I expect us to cause them problems.
A lot will come down to how Ozturk marshals the back four, how Cattermole controls the midfield and how Wyke puts himself about to stretch the Pompey defence, as this tends to create space for Sunderland’s very own magic man McGeady. Manage this and find some confidence in front of goal to finish clinically and Portsmouth could well have a lot to do in the return fixture down their end next Thursday.
Is it going to be fourth time lucky for Sunderland? I hope so, I felt that defeat was a little inevitable when we played Walsall three times in quick succession back in November and December. I feel like the same could happen with Portsmouth but with the result reversed and the lads coming out on top. My head says 2-1 but my heart craves a 2-0.
Who even listens to their head over their hearts, logic is for the weak! So let’s go with 2-0! Ha’way the Lads!