|League 2 Play Off|
|Portsmouth||2 – 2||Plymouth Argyle|
McNulty and Roberts on target
Pompey and Plymouth could not be separated in an absorbing first leg play-off contest at a packed Fratton Park.
Marc McNulty’s early strike got the Blues off to a dream opening, only for Jamille Matt’s brace to turn the game on its head.
Argyle’s forward escaped a red card following a tussle with Michael Doyle in between those two goals.
But the hosts grabbed an equaliser in the second half, courtesy of Gary Roberts’ confidently-taken spot-kick.
Paul Cook made seven changes from the side that narrowly lost to champions Northampton at the weekend.
One of them took everyone by surprise, with a goalkeeping injury crisis seeing Ryan Allsop signed on loan from Bournemouth and thrown straight into the team.
There were also returns for Christian Burgess and Enda Stevens at the back, Danny Hollands and skipper Doyle in midfield, and Kyle Bennett and McNulty in attack.
The game began at a frenetic pace and there was plenty of controversy to spice up the first half on the south coast.
But the Blues made an excellent start by breaking the deadlock after just three minutes.
Doyle stole possession from Curtis Nelson and the ball feel kindly for McNULTY to drive into the net.
The hosts set about trying to double their advantage, but Luke McCormick did well to claim a dangerous cross from Stevens.
Instead Plymouth found soon themselves level, with Gregg Wylde sending the ball into the mix and Matt beating Allsop to head home from close range.
The Argyle striker was arguably fortunate to stay on the pitch moments later, after appearing to headbutt Doyle following a scuffle between the pair.
Cook was livid on the sidelines and his reaction saw him sent to the stands by referee Oliver Langford, quickly followed by Plymouth first team coach Paul Wotton.
And Matt soon added salt to the wound by firing the visitors ahead, controlling Kelvin Mellor’s long throw and sending an acrobatic over-head effort looping into the net.
There were then half-chances at both ends as the game continued at a breathless pace, with Hollands firing wide before Graham Carey’s effort fizzed narrowly off target.
Pompey were pushing for a leveller and it took a fine challenge by Peter Hartley to dispossess Gareth Evans in the box as the winger prepared to shoot.
McNulty was next to go close, but his fierce effort flew narrowly wide following good link-up play between Burgess and Roberts.
Both sides certainly looked capable of adding to the scoring and some Pilgrims fans thought their side had when Carey’s free-kick hit the side netting.
Half Time: Pompey 1 Plymouth 2
Pompey went straight on the attack after the interval and Evans hit one effort over before Bennett saw his shot blocked.
And the hosts were level on 51 minutes after Langford pointed to the spot for a foul on McNulty by Hartley.
The Plymouth defender was shown a yellow card before ROBERTS stepped up to emphatically fire home the penalty.
McCormick then had to make sure he held Evans’ cross from the right, with Roberts waiting to pounce at the far post.
And the Argyle keeper also made a decent stop to deny McNulty following a quick Blues break, although an unmarked Bennett was screaming for the ball to his left.
The hosts made their first switch just past the hour mark and it was Bennett who was withdrawn for Kal Naismith.
He was soon involved in the action, but could not quite get on the end of Evans’ teasing cross from the right.
Pompey were dominating possession by this point and forcing their opponents to sit deeper, but the Pilgrims defence were holding firm.
McNulty was withdrawn on 81 minutes, with Adam McGurk given a chance to impress up front.
It was Ben Davies who had a chance to fire them in front soon after, however, with McCormick forced to save at his near post.
But, with the game ending 2-2, the outcome was still very much up in the air as the sides prepare to do battle once more at Home Park on Sunday.
Pompey (4-2-3-1): Allsop; Davies, Burgess, Barton, Stevens; Hollands, Doyle (c); Evans, Roberts, Bennett (Naismith 62); McNulty (McGurk 81)
Goals: McNulty 3, Roberts 51 (pen)
Booked: Hollands, Barton
Subs not used: Whatmough, Haunstrup, Close, Tollitt, Wilkinson
Plymouth (4-2-3-1): McCormick; Mellor, Nelson (c), Hartley, Sawyer; McHugh, Boateng (Purrington 80); Jervis, Carey, Wylde; Matt (Tanner 90+1)
Goals: Matt 9, 19
Booked: Carey, Hartley, Sawyer, Purrington
Subs not used: Dorel, Forster, Harvey, Rooney, Reid
Referee: Oliver Langford
Attendance: 17,622 (1,902 away fans)