Sunderland 1-1 Portsmouth
POMPEY were forced to settle for just a point in a pulsating clash in front of more than 41,000 fans at the Stadium of Light.
The draw means Portsmouth now need help from either Oxford United or Bristol Rovers who play Luton and Barnsley in the top two sides’ last games of the season.
Kenny Jackett’s side went one down in the first half on Wearside but fought back to level before the interval through Jamal Lowe. The second half failed to match the first half’s intensity with Portsmouth grateful for Craig MacGillivray’s agility to prevent the home side claiming all three points.
There were unsavoury scenes at the end of the game as the two sides’ players and backroom staff were involved in a melee on the pitch, the draw ending Sunderland’s hopes of automatic promotion.
Pompey must win their final two games at home to Peterborough and Accrington and hope either Barnsley or Luton slip up next weekend.
Both Portsmouth and Sunderland would have gone into the game under the impression that Barnsley would win their two remaining fixtures with Luton just too far ahead despite their recent dip in form.
Kenny Jackett pulled off a surprise with James Vaughan coming into the starting XI for his first start since he arrived on loan in January. The striker made a difference in the second half against Coventry but the move may have had more to do with the 30-year-old enduring a difficult six-month spell at the Stadium of Light and how eager he would have been to show the Sunderland fans just how good a player he really was.
Unfortunately, before Vaughan could have any impact on the game, Sunderland’s Lewis Morgan showed what he was capable of, MacGillivray pulling off an excellent save from his acrobatic effort on goal.
Pompey knew they were in for a tough afternoon and it became a whole lot tougher in the ninth minute when Tom Flanagan headed an opener for the home side – the defender easily holding off Nathan Thompson before burying an effort past MacGillivray from Max Power’s free-kick.
The atmosphere in the stadium matched the enormity of the clash, with some tasty challenges meted out early on; Sunderland’s Aiden McGeady and George Honeyman, along with Pompey’s Thompson, all earning yellow cards with a little more than 15 minutes played.
An intense game was expected and the appointment of Premier League referee Craig Pawson for the encounter was no surprise. But having played in front of more than 85,000 against the same side at Wembley, the Pompey players held no fears about a high-pressure clash, and responded to going behind impressively midway through the first half – Lowe registering number 17 of the season.
Brett Pitman sent the ball back across goal for Lee Brown, whose header came back off the crossbar with Lowe on hand to volley home from four yards out.
Spirits then got the better of at least one Pompey fan and a four-minute delay followed the goal after a smoke bomb was thrown from the away end, the fumes engulfing an area of the ground – police later confirming they had located and arrested a suspect.
The majority of the 3,000 away support were, however, both noisy and law-abiding, and they thought they had even more to cheer when Ronan Curtis fired into the back of the net shortly after. Unfortunately, referee Pawson had already blown for a foul on keeper Jon McLaughlin.
A frenetic encounter then saw Sunderland go up the other end only for Lee Cattermole to horribly blaze over before Thompson again showed just what a good defender he is – blocking from both McGeady and Luke O’Nien.
The half ended with good chances for both sides as MacGillivray expertly saved at point black range from Charlie Wyke before a Curtis cross saw the ball fizzing round the Sunderland box only for the home defence to clear.
The intensity of the game dropped at the start of the second half, both sides seemingly more concerned about losing the game than going out and winning it.
Vaughan made way for Hawkins near the hour mark, the substitute looking to break Sunderland hearts again after he scored the winning penalty in the Checkatrade Trophy Final.
With 20 minutes left Sunderland threw Will Grigg on to play two up front, knowing a draw would effectively end their automatic promotion hopes.
Pompey were hoping the home side’s switch would open up their chances of a winner, the decision-making process on the away bench sure to be dictated by the scorelines at the games involving Barnsley and Luton.
With chances a rarity after the break, Portsmouth were thankful for MacGillivray’s agility late on – the keeper pulling off two crucial saves from Max Power and then substitute Grigg.
Sunderland (4-2-3-1): McLaughlin; O’Nien (Matthews 90mins), Flanagan, Ozturk, Oviedo; Cattermole, Power; Morgan (Grigg 69), Honeyman (Maguire 60), McGeady; Wyke. Subs (not used): Ruiter (gk), Dunne, Leadbitter, Gooch.
Portsmouth (4-2-3-1): MacGillivray; Thompson, Burgess, Clarke, Brown; Naylor, Close; Lowe, Pitman, Curtis (Evans 66mins); Vaughan (Hawkins 57). Subs (not used): Bass (gk), Walkes, Haunstrup, Morris, Solomon-Otabor.
Referee: Craig Pawson