Portsmouth 0 Charlton 1 (Ajose 40).
Kevin Nolan reports from Fratton Park.
In Fratton Park's famous cauldron-like atmosphere, transformed by this result into a requiem for Portsmouth's promotion hopes, a stirring, one-for-all, all-for-one performance thrust Charlton into strong contention for the sixth-and last- play-off slot. This was a victory to which every player manfully contributed, none more so than outstanding goalkeeper Ben Amos.
A handful of fine saves, the pick of which was his quite astounding mid-air adjustment to conjure Brett Pitman's treacherously deflected 85th minute free kick over the bar, keynoted Charlton's defensive defiance but was greeted almost matter-of-factly by his colleagues. Inspired by the example of ultra-competitive skipper Jason Pearce, Amos had been protected by a resolute wall and was clearly expected to plug the holes on the rare occasions it was breached. In the heat of battle, emotional outbursts belong in the dressing room where it's safe to assume he was saluted more enthusiastically later.
There will be those among a raucous away following which silenced the local tribunes, who will find it impossible to relate this tight, purposeful side to the rabble which were bullied at Wimbledon and outsmarted four days later at home to Scunthorpe. With the Pompey Chimes degenerating into a poignant dirge, Portsmouth were ultimately broken. There was, admittedly, the odd uncomfortable moment for their visitors before the deed was done.
Clearly sent out by Lee Bowyer to take on the South Coasters, the Addicks dominated the first half, did largely as they pleased but retired for the break ominously only one goal to the good. Frankly dreadful for 45 minutes, the Blues should have been staring down the barrel of comprehensive defeat. Unable to pick out an accurate pass, second to every ball, overpowered and outclassed, Kenny Jackett's men struggled to survive. But survive they did and the second half became a backs-to-the-wall test of Charlton's character. It's a pleasure to report that they passed with flying all-red colours.
Provided stability by the insatiable workrate of Jake Forster-Caskey and Ben Reeve, the Londoners enjoyed effortless superiority without, as the interval approaching, threatening to score. Forster-Caskey came closest when he cut in from the right, beat Luke McGee with a low, left-footed drive but was foiled by Nathan Thompson's goalline clearance. Other than Tarique Fosu's sharply taken shot on the turn, which grazed a post, Pompey seemed likely to escape unscathed until Nicky Ajose's first goal of the season lowered the boom on them with five minutes first half minutes remaining.
An old-school exchange of goalkeeping clearances saw Amos collect McGee's free kick before returning it downfield with interest. An awkward handful throughout, Josh Magennis got the aerial better of Matt Clarke and nodded down for Ajose to spin into space before slotting past the advancing McGee. The goal was a nightmare for the tactical purists but it proved that the long ball still has a useful part to play in any team's arsenal.
Stirred out of their apathy, Portsmouth almost equalised immediately after Ahmed Kashi, returning from injury in time for the last surge, fouled Gareth Evans. His victim's free kick was headed goalwards by Clarke but smartly smothered by the first of Amos' crucial saves.
Prolific scorer Pitman (22 league goals this season) had been spending his time in Pearce's pocket, emerging from time to time to discuss referee Mark Heywood's officiating. He was always dangerous, though, and should have made more of another of Evans' free kicks than to head it lamely over the bar.
After Reeves volleyed narrowly wide, Amos preserved the lead by getting down smartly to save substitute Connor Ronan's raking low drive.
Charlton's compulsion to concede needless but dangerous free kicks was continued by Mark Marshall's thoughtless foul on Stuart O'Keefe in the juiciest of positions for Pitman to try his luck from 25 central yards. The veteran's effort was helped on its way to the top left corner by a wicked deflection until Amos twisted mid-dive to waft it over the bar. If it's true that catches win matches, the same can be said for saves of this exemplary quality.
Worrying injuries to hotshot Fosu and the steadily improving Lewis Page marred the Addicks' heartening performance, with Kashi's timely return offsetting the damage. The near top (Blackburn) and near bottom (Rochdale) of League One now stand in the way of their play-off ambitions, tricky Red Rose county opponents with differing agendas. Bring 'em on one at a time because Charlton have cast aside the crippling self-doubt that hampered most of this exhausting campaign. If they don't make it, they'll go down fighting.
Portsmouth: McGee, Thompson (O'Keefe 46), Clarke, Whatmough (Burgess 46), Haunstrup (Ronan 66), Close, Lowe, Evans, Donohue, Naismith, Pitman. Not used: Hawkins, Kennedy, Chaplin, Bass.
Charlton: Amos, Konsa, Bauer, Pearce, Page (Marshall 62), Reeves, Kashi, Forster-Caskey, Fosu (Dasilva 57), Ajose (Kaikai 90), Magennis. Not used: Phillips, Aibo, Lennon, Zyro
Referee: Mark Heywood. Att: 19,210 (2,448 visiting).