Once again, we face Portsmouth. The first time we played each other this season it was our biggest game of the campaign. The second time we met up it was for a grand Wembley occasion. This third match, though, is the biggest one yet.
I decided against saying “third and final match” there because we could easily end up playing Pompey in the play offs. However, a win for either side at the Stadium of Light gives the victor a huge chance of automatic promotion. A draw might not be too bad a result for the visitors but for Sunderland this is must win after dropping points on Easter Monday.
So while we have stuttered somewhat in recent weeks, Portsmouth have barely faltered. With seven consecutive league wins, it’s fair to say that Kenny Jackett’s men have plenty of momentum as they ride into Wearside.
Understandably, their fans will be confident underneath any pre-match nerves but we thought we best find out just exactly how they’re feeling. Hugh Bunce of PompeyNewsNow and PO4cast is back to complete his hattrick of Roker Report appearances this season to give us the opposition low down.
RR: When we spoke ahead of the Checkatrade final you said automatic promotion would be “unlikely” for Portsmouth but refused to rule it out. Annoyingly for us, it looks like you were correct not to write it off! With three games left, how do you feel about the promotion picture?
HB: The promotion race for League One is closer than any other I can remember across all four divisions. Constantly evolving, it has been difficult to pin down a clear two to be promoted automatically and tip a team to prevail in the play-offs.
Pompey like to make things difficult for the fans, whether it is coming from behind at Wembley or in the League against Coventry on Monday. I am feeling incredibly nervous about the last three games of the season, but quietly confident that Pompey can pull this off.
I fancy Bristol Rovers to get a point at home to Barnsley and Burton to get a win at home to Luton. There are still twists and turns left in this story before the end of the season!
RR: Your form just before Wembley and in the aftermath has been fantastic and if you win on Saturday, that would really cement it. It’s been an impressive turnaround but what did Kenny Jackett change to get you firing again?
HB: Kenny Jackett has a team that has finally settled and managed to win back the midfield battle. During the losing run, the team was deep, stuck in our own end and unable to retain possession.
Pompey looked lost without Ben Thompson who was recalled by Millwall, needing a new talisman in the heart of midfield. The turnaround in Pompey’s form directly correlates with a few key factors. Ben Close has developed into the central midfielder the team desperately needed. His rise to greatness was something I discussed with Pompey CEO Mark Catlin who just signed Close to a new contract. Mark highlighted how Close had brought his game together becoming stronger on the ball and improved his positioning in attacking areas. Close’s goal against Burton Albion showed how deadly he is on the edge of the box with a brilliantly placed curved shot. Sunderland will have to make sure Close is not left with space around the box or he will punish you.
Kenny Jackett converting Brett Pitman to the Number 10 role behind Oliver Hawkins has been a stroke of managerial genius. Pitman looked lost up front this season, but he looks reborn behind the striker. Pitman now comes deep and demands the ball from midfield, ready to distribute it to our attacking players such as Evans, Lowe and Curtis. If the pass is not on, Pitman can shoot, in case you were not aware of this already.
RR: Do you feel like Portsmouth have the psychological advantage going into this game, given the victory at Wembley and in the league? Will Kenny Jackett will use this as a motivator?
HB: Kenny Jackett is a very focused manager who lives and dies by the cliché of one game at a time. While this is useful when chasing teams ahead of you in the league, it means he is unlikely to use previous games as a primary motivator. I am sure it is something the team in the dressing room would have discussed, as it is human nature to relate positive experiences to provide confidence.
In this situation, the team who is on the losing side of previous games tends to be more focused on those results than victorious team. I am sure the Pompey players will have some swagger coming into this game on the back of seven league wins in a row and eight including the Checkatrade Trophy Final.
RR: Who are you picking out as the ones to watch in this game, for both sides? I must say that I’m worried about the pace of Jamal Lowe but I’m hoping Charlie Wyke will make an impact similar to his one in the Checkatrade final.
HB: I have already mentioned Ben Close and Brett Pitman earlier in the article so I will highlight Oliver Hawkins for the player to watch.
Hawkins has caused havoc against Sunderland both times we have played each other this season. It will be fascinating to see if Hawkins continues to dominate Sunderland’s defenders after Jack Ross has changed both centre backs. Hawkins made a massive impact coming off the bench at Wembley and allowed Pompey to set up in the attacking third of the pitch. Hopefully, for Pompey fans, this continues.
In addition to Hawkins, Matt Clarke will be vital in stopping Charlie Wyke up top for Sunderland. Wyke seems to have remembered he is a footballer and added another dimension to the Sunderland attack. I am sure Aiden McGeady will be running the show with his head up ready to set up a beautiful pass for Wyke.
RR: What starting line up do you think Jackett will go for and will we see a similar approach as we have in our previous meetings this season?
HB: I expect Kenny Jackett to play a very similar side to when we last played in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
The goalkeeper, defence and holding midfield will remain the same. Hawkins will probably get the nod over “Sunderland legend” James Vaughan, who made a decent impact from the bench over the injured Omar Bogle.
Jamal Lowe will play in the right, Pitman behind Hawkins and either Gareth Evans or Ronan Curtis on the left.
RR: And to finish off, can we have a score prediction for the game and a prediction for the three teams you think will go up?
HB: An extremely close game with Pompey coming out victorious.
Portsmouth, Luton and Barnsley if you put a gun to my head but, it could easily be Sunderland or Charlton.