Songo'o 21, Smith 89
Bennett 40, Rose 86
by Rob McNichol
PLYMOUTH v Portsmouth. It may or may not be a Battle. It may or may not be a Derby. It is, though, always a classic.
After to-and-fro league encounters and nail-biting play-off face-offs, the sides duked out another epic encounter, including great goals, all-or-nothing challenges, controversy and late drama.
Argyle took the lead through Yann Songo'o midway through the first period, only to be pegged back before the break by Kyle Bennett's equaliser.
After the break, both sides looked to have run their race and accepted a draw when substitute Danny Rose scored a pearler of a goal. However, any thoughts of Argyle rolling over and surrendering their 10-game unbeaten stretch lasted no more than three minutes, as their own replacement Connor Smith curled in an equaliser to send the majority of the bumper crowd home happy.
In truth, though both sides' passionate fanbases would have desired the win, anyone in attendance not satisfied by the match entertainment will likely never have their thirst satiated.
Derek Adams stayed loyal to the 11 that had started the previous week's 2-1 win at Stevenage. In fact, the only change the whole Argyle squad was on the substitutes' bench, where second year apprentice Jordan Bentley replaced Karleigh Osborne.
Portsmouth were without central defender Matt Clarke, and so asked Tom Davies to deputise at centre-back. Gareth Evans, who had played an advanced role for Pompey in last year's encounters, was at full-back.
Evans, who limped off in the Play-off semi-final second leg at Home Park, was one of seven Portsmouth players remaining from that game. Argyle, in contrast, fielded just three - Luke McCormick, Jake Jervis and Graham Carey.
Before the game had even begun, the atmosphere generated between the two sets of fans - numbering over 13,000 - was fizzing; this was not your typical Sky Bet League Two match. In fact, it is difficult to comprehend any fourth tier game in world football that could rival this one for its sheer scale...except for the reverse fixture, of course.
Portsmouth manager Paul Cook sauntered onto the pitch before the game, emulating Argyle boss Adams, who had done something similar prior to the play-off game in May. It sparked his side's large traveling support a little, but the vibe in the ground was already bubbling.
Over to the players, and a none-too-subtle Evans foul in the first two minutes gave a suggestion that the on-field action might be a little spicy. It did not boil over in the early stages, though. In fact, the first 15 minutes resembled the feeling out process in the opening two rounds of a heavyweight boxing encounter, with the pugilists sizing each other up before trying a big haymaker.
Pompey got a jab through the defences at one stage, when forward Conor Chaplin wove his way into the area. As he looked set to bury his chance, Songo'o's lunging challenge was perfectly timed, and McCormick's dive on top of a tangle of legs, beneath which lay the ball, brought an end to the danger.
About 100 yards away, and about 10 minutes later, Songo'o made an equally important intervention.
When Argyle won a free-kick, wide on the left flank, for Evans' trip on Jordan Slew, it was impossible to not watch Sonny Bradley's arrival in the penalty area. The big centre-back, a former Portsmouth player, had scored twice from similar situations at Stevenage, and was clearly a danger man here.
Carey's lofted centre looked destined for Bradley, but was just a little too high. How fortunate, then, that Songo'o had found space, and steered the ball home. It may well have struck a combination of forehead, nose and chest on the way in, but its destination was the important matter, not the journey.
Goals change games, they say. Aside from the blinding obviousness of the platitude, it is essentially true. Portsmouth had probably shaded the game until Songo'o's opener, but aside from one little flurry - Kyle Bennett curling plenty wide - Argyle were dominant in the period following the goal.
From a series of corners, Portsmouth were forced to repel a plethora of chances, most notably when Carl Baker cleared off the line following Slew's admittedly weak, but on-target, shot. They also had to block a Jimmy Spencer shot and head away several times inside their six-yard box. Argyle were well on top.
And so, in the nature of one of these games, it looked like counter intuitive actions would prevail. As Argyle looked set for a second, so Portsmouth broke with menace. The tricky Chaplin danced past a couple of challenges, and was met by Gary Miller. The Argyle right-back dangled a leg, and withdrew it just as quickly, as Chaplin went to ground. Portsmouth cried 'penalty', while Argyle suggested Chaplin had made the most of it.
The referee agreed with the latter, awarding Argyle a free-kick and cautioning Chaplin for simulation.
If the incident was a reminder of Portsmouth's potency, they rather forcefully signaled their intentions not long after. Chaplin again caused hassle, jinking past Nauris Bulvitis and cutting in towards goal. As defenders converged, he rolled squared to the unmarked Bennett, who drove past McCormick from 12 yards.
Argyle had the last chance of an absorbing half. Evans and Davies dithered, allowing Carey to sneak away down the left. His early, low cross was superb, and it took an equally high-quality piece of defending by Enda Stevens to prevent Jervis from arriving at the far post and giving Argyle the lead at the break.
The interval arrived with parity in the scores, and no shortage of feistiness on the park. Songo'o, Purrington and Slew were all booked for Argyle, with Chaplin and Evans in the book for the visitors. None of the cautions were for anything particularly vicious, but one always felt something was bubbling away a little under the surface.
Portsmouth's start to the second half was swift, to say the least. Baker's 25-yarder, on target, was well dealt with by McCormick, before Bennett shot wide from a good position. The same player nearly got on the end of a sharp Baker cross, before Chaplin headed over when finding space at the near post.
Not every minor incident can be detailed within these words, but suffice to say that punctuating the game were numerous tiny flashpoints. A run that was checked, a throw-in each side thought should be theirs: all contested, and all adding fuel to a very well-stoked fire.
Adams was the first manager to make a personnel change, bringing on Connor Smith for Jervis on the hour. The slight tactical switch saw the game revert to a stalemate for a short time, before bursting suddenly into life.
Fox passed forcefully into the feet of Carey, who received the ball, back to goal, around thirty yards out. His first touch was exquisite, and gave the Irishman the platform to wriggle free, set himself and crash a shot against the bar from beyond the penalty area. In fairness to Portsmouth goalkeeper David Forde, he may well have got a feather touch on the effort, keeping the dipping ball out of his goal.
Slew was next to demonstrate exceptional individual skill. He brought down a difficult pass, used strength to hold off challenges, then flew past two defenders. It was, then, quite a shame when his shot was rather sliced wide, following the quite brilliant build-up.
Portsmouth, in quick succession, made three subs, bringing on Danny Rose, Curtis Main and Milan Lalkovic for Linganzi, Chaplin and Bennett, as the game was set for its expected, climactic final 15 minutes.
Portsmouth sent a shot across the Pilgrims' bows - well, a ball across the area - when Baker's ball in was mishit by Lalkovic, and Miller had to scramble very swiftly to steer the ball out for a corner. It did, though, cause a heartstopping moment for those in the Grandstand, as the ball had to head across the goalmouth in order to go out.
Adams introduced Ryan Donaldson and Craig Tanner in the game's final stages, but it was a Portsmouth substitute that seemed to have given the game the finale it always promised.
The headbanded Main looked set to be the hero, but McCormick's magnificent save repelled his effort. Seconds later, though, Rose came onto the ball 25 yards out, and hit a stunning shot. It cannoned off of the crossbar, and down onto the ground. The assistant referee signaled it had crossed - it did look like it had - and the visitors were in raptures. It was a superb goal, which deserved to win any game.
Except that, on this occasion, it did not.
Enter Argyle's own supersub, Smith, who received a beautifully weighted pass along the edge of the area from Purrington, who had made a telling advance down the left wing. Smith met the ball, left-footed and first time, oh-so-sweetly, and Forde could only watch the ball sail into the net.
The whistle sounded after five minutes of nervy injury time, and in the end it felt like all inside Home Park shared a mixture of elation and frustration.
Without wanting to wish away what could be a wonderful season, the rematch on Good Friday cannot come quick enough.
Argyle (4-2-3-1): 23 Luke McCormick (capt); 2 Gary Miller, 5 Nauris Bulvitis, 15 Sonny Bradley, 16 Ben Purrington; 4 Yann Songo’o, 24 David Fox; 14 Jake Jervis (6 Connor Smith 60), 10 Graham Carey, 8 Jordan Slew (11 Ryan Donaldson 81); Jimmy Spencer (27 Craig Tanner 84). Substitutes (not used): 7 David Goodwillie, 21 Vincent Dorel (gk), 22 David Ijaha, 28 Jordan Bentley.
Booked: Songo'o 21, Purrington 34, Slew 43.
Portsmouth (4-2-3-1): 1 David Forde; 26 Gareth Evans, 2 Tom Davies, 6 Christian Burgess, 3 Enda Stevens; 24 Amine Linganzi (4 Danny Rose 69), 8 Michael Doyle (capt); 7 Carl Baker, 11 Gary Roberts, 23 Kyle Bennett (10 Milan Lalkovic 74); 19 Conor Chaplin (14 Curtis Main 72). Substitutes (not used): 9 Michael Smith, 13 Liam O'Brien (gk), 16 Jack Whatmough, 22 Kal Naismith.
Booked: Chaplin 27, Evans 45.
Referee: Darren Handley.
Attendance: 13,508 (1,592 away).