Pompey Send Black Cats Packing

Pompey made an emphatic statement to their League One promotion rivals yesterday after defeating Sunderland 3-1 in front of a sold out crowd at Fratton Park.

The atmosphere inside the ground made it obvious just how big this match was at the halfway point of the season and it added to an energetic contest in the first half despite the lack of clear chances.

Nathan Thompson deflected a Luke O'Nien shot with his face early on whilst Sunderland had to hack a couple of dangerous crosses clear but the intensity of the game was felt after Lee Brown and Lee Cattermole received a talking to from referee Peter Bankes following some hefty challenges.

The best chance of the half fell to the visitors as some sloppy play fron Nathan Thompson allowed Duncan Whatmore to steal the ball from him and square it only for Craig MacGillivray to make an excellent close range block to prevent Lynden Gooch from scoring.

The Black Cats were certainly in the ascendency as the first half ended but the entire complexion of the game changed just minutes into the second half.

Oli Hawkins got on the end of an excellent through-ball by Ronan Curtis and Glenn Loovens, who some Pompey fans may remember for scoring a disallowed goal for Cardiff in the 2008 F.A. Cup Final, tripped the Pompey striker in the box.

The result was a penalty for Pompey and a red card for Loovens as the man in charge didn't believe that the Dutchman had made a genuine attempt for the ball, so no double jeopardy rule applied in this case.

Gareth Evans smashed the spot kick into the top corner to give the hosts a vital lead and the situation got even better just minutes later as Hawkins flicked the ball on for Curtis and he ran into the box before squeezing the ball into the far corner from a tight angle, beating three Sunderland players and the goalkeeper in the process.

That goal was met by jubilation from the home supporters but that soon turned to nervousness after Reece James crossed the ball to an unmarked O'Nien at the far post to reduce the deficit.

However, the two goal cushion was restored when Hawkins' header from Evans' corner was saved by Jon McLaughlin but the ball fell to Ben Thompson who belted the ball into the net with the help of a deflection to effectively end the game as a contest.

From then on it was simply a case of how many more goals Pompey would score as Hawkins narrowly missed the target from Curtis' cross.

Substitute Ben Close made an impact when he came on for Evans as his shot was turned in by fellow sub Brett Pitman only for the goal to be ruled out for offside, whilst a later effort inside the box was well saved by McLaughlin.

There was a claim for a late penalty too for handball in the box but by the time Max Power had blasted a free kick into the dissipating crowd of Sunderland fans in the Milton End, the final whistle blew to confirm Pompey's biggest result of the season.

Who knows what would have happened if the match stayed at 11 vs 11? Unfortunately for Sunderland they paid the price for Loovens' ridiculous decision to foul Hawkins after he somehow outpaced the centre back and that was the game changer in Pompey's favour.

Many fans (myself included) were calling for Hawkins to make way at half-time and were made to eat humble pie as he not only won the penalty for the opening goal but also played a part in the second and third goals too.

The only criticism would be that he didn't score himself when Curtis laid it on a plate for him but the decision to keep him on the pitch was a smart one from Kenny Jackett and proves why he is a successful football manager and thousands of fans in the Fratton Park crowd are not.

Speaking of Curtis, his failure to mark O'Nien for Sunderland's goal aside, he produced a barnstorming performance and terrorised his full back during the entire second half. The man is class and was one of two candidates for the man-of-the-match award yesterday.

The official award went to Ben Thompson and what more can be said of him that hasn't been said already? The Millwall loanee has been a key piece of the Pompey puzzle and should he be recalled then it be a significant blow to the club as he will be a difficult player to replace.

Despite that, if Close can reproduce the quality of his cameo performance yesterday on a consistent basis, then perhaps the blow would be softened. He got stuck in and caused problems for Sunderland when he came on and looks a much tougher prospect than he did last season.

If not, then the imminent arrival of Rochdale midfielder Andy Cannon (for a reported £150,000) in January could replace the possibly outgoing Thompson? Let's not forget Danny Rose could still be brought back into the frame, too.

What will be, will be, but the whole team deserve so much credit for what they've achieved so far this season. To be top of League One at the halfway stage with a whopping 51 points is a superb achievement considering that they only had 35 points at this stage last campaign.

The aim may have been to finish in the top six at the start of the season but surely it's now automatic promotion at least with the title on the agenda too.

It won't be easy as Luton refuse to relent, Sunderland will strengthen in January and will come again whilst the likes of Peterborough, Charlton and Barnsley are capable of putting runs together during the second half of the season.

But Pompey are rightly favourites to become champions now and Kenny Jackett isn't a man who lets his team lose focus. Yesterday's victory over Sunderland was massive but the Boxing Day trip to Gillingham is just as important with 2019 approaching.

Pompey Player Ratings

Craig MacGillivray: 7 - A great save in the first half but had little to do otherwise.

Nathan Thompson: 7 - Should trademark the "Thompson tumble" as he once again bought cheap free kicks.

Matt Clarke: 7 - Was given a tough test by the Sunderland attack but stood tall in the end.

Jack Whatmough: 7 - Dealt with most the danger that came in his direction in his usual no-nonsense way.

Lee Brown: 7 - Got stuck in and was never backing down from a challenge.

Tom Naylor: 7 - An effective shield but passing must improve.

Ben Thompson: 8 - A class above and hopefully won't be recalled.

Jamal Lowe: 6 - Full of running.

Gareth Evans: 7 - Did the dirty work in midfield and cool as a cucumber from the spot.

Ronan Curtis: 8 - Sunderland defence couldn't handle him.

Oli Hawkins: 7 - Made a huge impact in the second half after a quiet first period.

Substitutes

Alex Bass

Anton Walkes

Christian Burgess

Ben Close (Evans 72): N/A - Bossed it when he came on.

Andre Green (Curtis 87): N/A - On for the injured Curtis, hopefully won't keep him out for the rest of the Christmas run-in.

David Wheeler

Brett Pitman (Hawkins 81): N/A - Only on to ensure Hawkins didn't receive a second yellow card.