Portsmouth 2 Cobblers 0 - Jeremy Casey's review, player ratings and highlights

Matt Crooks, Dave Buchanan and Lewis McGugan weigh up the Cobblers' options at a free-kick in the 2-0 loss at Portsmouth (Pictures: Kirsty Edmonds)
Matt Crooks, Dave Buchanan and Lewis McGugan weigh up the Cobblers' options at a free-kick in the 2-0 loss at Portsmouth (Pictures: Kirsty Edmonds)
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In isolation, a 2-0 defeat at an in-form Portsmouth team in a Checkatrade Trophy nobody seems to care about wouldn't be any cause for too much concern for Cobblers boss Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, his players or the club's supporters.

The trouble is, this defeat at a near-deserted Fratton Park means it is now five games without a win for Town, with four of those games ending in defeat.

The other saw the Cobblers draw 0-0 with bottom-of-the-table Bury.

Town have also now gone more than five and a half games without scoring a goal, a grand total of 495 minutes since Chris Long fired the winner in the 2-1 victory at Oxford United, way back on November 11.

It all makes for pretty grim reading, and means the loss against Pompey has set the alarm bells ringing a little louder among those of the Cobblers faithful who are yet to be convinced this squad of players, and the manager, are up to the job in hand, which is keeping the team in Sky Bet League One this season.

Whether they are or not, only time is going to tell, but at the moment the team is still unbalanced, with injuries and suspension robbing Hasselbaink of the services of Matt Grimes, John-Joe O'Toole, Shaun McWilliams and Daniel Powell at the weekend.

Aside of the obvious disadvantage of talisman O'Toole being out, Town are simply a different beast when he plays, the absence of Powell is also proving to be sorely felt.

After a quiet start to the season, the former MK Dons man had started to make the left midfield role his own with a string of strong performances, and without him the Cobblers have struggled.

Indeed, they haven't won since he was injured at Oxford.

Using Matt Crooks out on the left is an experiment that simply hasn't worked.

Regan Poole battles for possession

Regan Poole battles for possession

It is a move by Hasselbaink that goes against what he did when he first came to the club, and utilised left-footers George Smith and Raheem Hanley down the left in a round pegs for round holes move.

They both now find themselves down the selection pecking order, as Hasselbaink strives to get the best out of the players he has at his disposal.

But I'm afraid when it comes to playing on the left, Crooks is very much a square peg in a round hole.

There's no doubting Crooks' commitment and willingness to do the job being asked of him, and you also can understand Hasselbaink wanting to get his best players out on the pitch. even if they are out of position.

Ash Taylor battles with Pompey striker Curtis Main

Ash Taylor battles with Pompey striker Curtis Main

But the former Rangers man doesn't look comfortable or happy on the left of midfield.

Once Crooks was switched to a central attacking position at the start of the second half on Saturday following Long's injury, his and the team's performance improved markedly.

Crooks needs to be on the ball as much as possible, linking play. He is a talent and needs to be in the thick of the action. He isn't when he is playing on the left of midfield.

As for the rest of it on Saturday, the Cobblers were a match for Pompey for large parts of what was a pretty poor game, but the home side just had that little edge, that little bit of extra quality, and in former Cobblers man Danny Rose, they had the best player on the pitch.

He sat in he hole in front of his back four, pulling strings and pinging passes with his left foot, and dictating much of the home side's play.

Town had nobody to match his influence, and perhaps just as importantly, nobody who could stop him shining, certainly in the first half when he pretty much had the freedom of the park.

Dave Buchanan sends a pass down the line

Dave Buchanan sends a pass down the line

Portsmouth's cutting edge was also sharper than Town's, and their attacking movement and creativity better, with clinical finishes a few minutes either side of half-time from Gareth Evans and Stuart O'Keefe giving them their 2-0 lead.

But it shouldn't be forgotten home goalkeeper Luke McGee produced a good stop to deny Long with the score at 0-0, and then a superb save low to his right to keep out Ash Taylor's header with the score at 1-0.

If either of those presentable chances had gone in, then it could have been a different story, but as it was David Cornell kept the score at 2-0 with a string of decent saves as the home side eventually dominated proceedings in the final 15 minutes.

So, what of the positives? Indeed, are there any positives?

Well, yes.

Although the team's form is desperately poor, and the Cobblers seem to have forgotten where the goal is, there were a couple of pluses amidst the negative of another defeat.

For one, the attacking performance in the opening stages of the second half was encouraging, as Town gave Pompey's defence genuine problems.

It didn't go on for long enough, and didn't result in a precious goal, but for a spell Town looked bright and inventive, with Crooks at the hub of most of that, and with a bit of luck could have got their equaliser.

The other big plus, and the main one from the weekend, was the return of Sam Hoskins who, with one blistering run to set up a chance for Long in the first half, showed exactly why he is so cherished by his manager, who handed him a new two-and-a-half year contract last week.

Hoskins looked sharp despite not having played for almost a month, and he gives the team something they sorely lack when he is not involved, and that is an injection of pace.

Keeping him fit is going to be key in the coming weeks for Hasselbaink, as is getting Powell, O'Toole and Shaun McWilliams, who missed out at the weekend with a groin strain, back out on the pitch.

Grimes will also be available again next week after suspension, and those four being available again certainly gives the match day squad a more healthy look.

If Hasselbaink has those players at his disposal, then things might start to look a little brighter, and the team can take on the relegation battle they find themselves in with a little more confidence.

Although, to get themselves up and running, they are going to have start scoring some goals... perhaps they can break their duck against an Oldham side that has conceded 38 times in 20 league games this season?

That is the worst defensive record in the division, so let's hope so!

Player ratings

David Cornell - no chance with either goal, and made four or five good stops. Handling was assured as well. Strong performance - 7 CHRON STAR MAN

Brendan Moloney - faced a testing afternoon as Portsmouth probed down their left flank, but as always he stood his ground. Offered attacking threat as always - 6

Leon Barnett - in the main, Barnett did well, but there were times when Pompey breached the centre of the Town defence with their movement, and found too much space - 5.5

Ash Taylor - has been one of the Cobblers' best players this season, and although he had a couple of shaky moments, was decent again. Denied a goal by excellent Luke McGee save - 5.5

Dave Buchanan - like Moloney, Buchanan was kept busy as Pompey used the full width of the pitch, and, as always, he stuck to his task - 6

Sam Hoskins - a real bright spark for Hasselbaink and the Cobblers, Looked sharp despite having not played for almost a monthm, and offered welcome pace down the right flank - 6.5

Lewis McGugan - no doubting McGugan's effort as he definitely covered the hard yards, but his influence on the game, aside from dead-ball situations, was below par for a player of his undoubted ability - 5

Regan Poole - has a knack for being in the right place at the right time when it comes to breaking up play in the cenre of midfield, and again did plenty of the dirty work on Saturday. Close to scoring too with a fizzing 25-yard strike - 5

Matt Crooks - looked unhappy out on the left of midfield in the first half, but came to life in the second when he was utilised as a central attacker alongside Marc Richards. Town have to get him on the ball more often - 5.5

Chris Long - saw one decent effort saved by Portsmouth goalkeeper Luke McGee, before a sprained his ankle sustained just before half-time ended his afternoon. The injury is not serious and he should be fine for the trip to Oldham next weekend - 5

Marc Richards - didn't have a chance of any kind over the entire 90 minutes, but kept the Pompey defenders honest, and did a lot of good work in holding the ball up and linking play - 5.5

Substitutes

Sam Foley (for Long, 46m) - 5

Dean Bowditch (for Hoskins, 64m) - 5

Billy Waters (for Poole, 78m) - 5

Regan Poole in possession

Regan Poole in possession

Sam Hoskins challenges Portsmouth's Jamal Lowe

Sam Hoskins challenges Portsmouth's Jamal Lowe

Some of the 128 Cobblers fans who made the trip to Fratton Park

Some of the 128 Cobblers fans who made the trip to Fratton Park