ITEN Match Preview: Portsmouth (H)
140 years ago today, a football team put together by Albert Jenkins (depicted far left in the above photo, sporting a bowler hat) took to the field to take on Rawmarsh. The team was named Doncaster Rovers and has gone on to create a rich history in English football. The club's 141st year begins with a clash against Portsmouth, a side with which we have plenty of colourful recent history.
The return of John Marquis
A combative performance nearly yielded three impressive points against Coventry last time out, but a late equaliser meant Darren Moore’s side were forced to settle for a point. Late goals are becoming a regular feature of Rovers games this season, both for and against, and matches against upcoming opponents Portsmouth have become well known for them in recent years too.
There is no getting around the obvious subplot of this Saturday’s fixture as John Marquis returns to the Keepmoat Stadium for the first time since his seven-figure transfer to the South Coast in the summer. The divisive striker left his mark on the club by netting 67 goals in three years, spearheading the promotion campaign in 2016/17 and contributing a litany of important goals, the last of them coming in extra time of the Play Off Semi-Final with Charlton in May.
Marquis looks likely to start for Pompey against his former club but is yet to hit goalscoring form as part of a side struggling to meet expectations despite big spending in the summer. Expectations are high for manager Kenny Jackett but a run of only two wins from eight games in League One leaves them 19th in the table coming into the game, and a laboured 1-0 win over basement side Bolton last Saturday did nothing to alleviate the pressure mounting on Jackett’s shoulders.
Rovers’ squad stretched by injuries
One concern at the end of the transfer window was the lack of quality behind the first XI, and Darren Moore will be starting to feel that lack of depth now with injuries starting to creep in. Cameron John is the latest casualty, sidelined by an ankle injury picked up in training, but Donervon Daniels stepped in at Coventry and should keep his place despite the return to fitness of Joe Wright, who played in the reserve win over Rotherham in midweek.
Matty Blair remains sidelined by the groin injury suffered against Blackpool, and the attacking options may be drying up after Niall Ennis went off with a hamstring strain at Coventry, and although Moore was hopeful both he and Kazaiah Sterling would be alright by Saturday, Sterling is not yet available whilst Ennis will only be included if he returns to training tomorrow with no hiccups. Kieran Sadlier will in all likelihood have to deputise as the central striker again having scored in back-to-back games to start the season in that position, although he has begun to hit form recently playing on the wing as his preferred role.
Consistency in performance is beginning to come for this Rovers side, so keeping the personnel largely intact is important. While a lack of game-changers on the bench is disappointing, if enough of the regular starters keep up their levels then it may not make too much difference, with the likes of Sadlier, Tom Anderson and James Coppinger currently in superb form. The energy of the forwards will be crucial when trying to hit Portsmouth early so being able to call on Ennis would be a huge benefit.
Pompey searching for answers
A host of statement transfers in the summer have done nothing to enhance Portsmouth’s promotion hopes in the early months of the campaign as the South Coast side struggle to get to grips with a very competitive division. Although postponements have restricted them to just eight League One games to date, the performances and results have simply not been good enough for a side tipped for the title in pre-season by many observers.
Pompey struggled to break down a weak Bolton side last time out, edging a tight game 1-0 despite missing a penalty. Wide players Ryan Williams and Ronan Curtis were withdrawn early, with Curtis venting his frustration with fans on Twitter, so expect changes in this area on Saturday. John Marquis appears to have done enough in his short time at the club to earn the starting berth up front, but the team is not built around him like it was at Rovers and getting the best out of both him and several other high profile recruits is proving a frustrating task for Jackett.
The manager has gone back to the 4-2-3-1 in recent games, playing Brett Pitman off Marquis as an advanced #10. Finding the right combinations all over the pitch has proven difficult, with another former Rovers player in Paul Downing dropped from the side altogether against Bolton with Sean Raggett coming in, whilst striker Oli Hawkins has also been deployed as a centre half of late due to his considerably height. Midfield duo Tom Naylor and Ben Close are the most consistent unit in this side, meaning a prolonged battle with Ben Whiteman and Ben Sheaf awaits if Jackett chooses to match Rovers up in formation.
Rovers are unbeaten in seven outings against Portsmouth, including four wins, since the infamous 4-3 loss that relegated Dean Saunders’ side from the Championship in 2012. The exploits of referee Mick Russell that day still invoke anger among fans, as Rovers saw an early 2-0 lead evaporate thanks to two contentious penalties before a pair of injury time goals condemned Rovers to League One, the winner a goal from Dave Kitson that can be described as a slam dunk over Gary Woods more fitting to a basketball court than a football pitch.
Pompey followed Rovers through the trap door the following week, but the bitterness remains. Rovers won back-to-back games at home in 2017, including a 3-1 victory live on Sky when both sides were pushing for promotion from League Two, with Marquis netting twice. Rovers ultimately threw away the title that year, handing it to Portsmouth but all three games since our last win in the fixture have been drawn.
Portsmouth held on for 2-2 with nine men and no goalkeeper in 2018 after Stephen Henderson got injured late on, and bizarrely the scenario was reversed in the goalless draw at the Keepmoat Stadium last August. Marko Marosi was sent off for handball after Rovers had made all three substitutes, forcing Ben Whiteman to go in goal for the last ten minutes. He held on for a clean sheet that day, before the points were again split in a 1-1 draw at Fratton Park in February.
The referee who sent Marosi off and forced Whiteman into the goal that day? That would be Andy Haines, who takes charge once again on Saturday.