Last Saturday came and went without a match for Bury (and AFC Wimbledon) thanks to a controversial, late postponement by the appointed referee. That is now in the past and the wait for new manager Chris Lucketti’s ‘second debut’ will now take place on Boxing Day. In the meantime, the Shakers travel to two long-haul destinations, both of which are clubs that only seem to win or lose and struggle for consistency.
Portsmouth have probably been about on par with my pre-season prediction of them. I felt that the bookies making them second or third favourites were a touch on the optimistic side but they currently sit a single place outside the play-off, three points closer to Charlton Athletic in sixth after an impressive 1-0 victory over the Addicks last time out (although the London outfit do have a game in hand). Kenny Jackett has attempted to guard against any complacency ahead of tomorrow’s encounter; he is too experienced to treat any opposition lightly, even though Plymouth Arygle’s triumph against relegation rivals Gillingham meant Lucketti’s men fell back to bottom of the pile through no fault of their own.
Pompey have conceded just over a goal per game, which is more than respectable given the need to adjust back to the third tier. Luke McGee has in front of him an enviable centre-back pairing: neither are incredibly quick but they are titans in defence. Matt Clarke has great composure on the ball and controlled aggression in the tackle; Christian Burgess possesses brutish strength and can be a menace in the other box, too. They are flanked by Brandon Haunstrap on the left (who is decent in the air despite his short stature) and Nathan Thompson on the right (another force to be reckoned with and he will eat any punts up to Michael Smith with relish).
Ahead of them is a central midfield that tends to start reasonably apart from the defensive line but that will sit in to protect a lead, which they have done with no small measure of success in 2017/2018. Danny Rose is one of the best in his role in the division and his selfless play and copious amounts of stamina mean he is a peerless pivot in Jackett’s setup. Stuart O’Keefe is almost a carbon copy and they will control the game given any opportunity.
On the wings, Gareth Evans will shuttle between the thirds and provide defensive support to Thompson whilst Jamal Lowe will stay the furthest forward. His tremendous agility and skill whilst dribbling can stretch the other team to breaking point and helps create plenty of space for Conor Chaplin in particular. The latter has been utilised more from the bench thus far but with Kal Naismith perhaps a week away from fitness, I’d expect to see him patrolling between the lines behind the lethal Brett Pitman. Another pacey player in an XI with not much shortage of it, he can swap roles with the former Ipswich Town striker in a combination rarely seen at this level. Pitman will be hoping to add to his tally of a dozen in League One and I believe his positioning is the chief reason why he has so many to his name.
Although Jermaine Beckford is probably knocking on the door to be thrust back into the thick of it, I think it would be a mistake to throw him back in from the off, especially after a couple of bounce games were called off both this and last week. The same XI that started away at Walsall in the EFL Trophy on the 2nd of December will probably be named once more. Lucketti is not one to make sweeping changes but he must avoid instructing his team to play too directly (and aerially) to Smith because it simply won’t work. He needs Nicky Ajose to stick close to him again and for the loanee to peel off from his markers so the runners from midfield might profit.
As for a prediction, I think a 1-1 draw could be on the cards. Yes, the hosts will enjoy a vociferous, sizeable crowd at Fratton Park but that’s always been the case on the Hampshire coast and what will be key is not allowing the men in blue to dominate proceedings from the off. The improvements made in midfield might just allow Bury to leave with a point.