A battling second-half display from AFC Wimbledon was just not enough to secure a point at Fratton Park today.
The Dons produced an impressive fightback against the League One leaders and equalised through a cracking goal from Kwesi Appiah, but a header from Ronan Curtis earned a 2-1 win for Portsmouth.
Despite that late setback, Wimbledon produced a performance that offered encouragement in pursuit of survival in 2019.
Wally Downes made one change to his starting line-up after the draw against Blackpool and that meant a big moment in the fledgling career of Paul Kalambayi. The 19-year-old Dons academy product was handed his full league debut at the heart of defence, Jake Jervis having to settle for a place on the bench. Kalambayi partnered Terell Thomas with Will Nightingale playing just in front of them to offer extra protection for the defence. It was certainly a baptism of fire for Kalambayi as he lined up against a Portsmouth side on course to win the League One title after a 5-2 win at Fleetwood. However, Kalambayi certainly acquitted himself well on the big stage.
The challenge for Wimbledon was made even harder when Portsmouth made the breakthrough in the eighth minute. Ronan Curtis found space outside the area for a shot at goal and though Tom King saved it, the ball fell nicely for Jamal Lowe, who slotted the ball home from close-range. Wimbledon had offered little as an attacking force by the half hour mark. The only hint of a chance came when a cross was half cleared and it fell for Thomas, who completely missed his kick. At the other end, Tom Naylor forced a save from Tom King, but it was academic as the flag was up for offside.
Since the early goal, Portsmouth had been content to let Wimbledon have the ball for long spells, offering a tough unit to break down. When they did hit Wimbledon on the break, it was incisive and Ben Thompson showed good skills on the right to find space and set-up Lowe, but his shot was held by King. Thompson also headed over the crossbar after good work on the left from Curtis.
Wimbledon had a real chance to create something in the 40th minute after a quick breakaway, but Andy Barcham failed to choose the correct option. Barcham showed good pace to lead the charge through the middle, but he decided to go himself rather than pick out Tennai Watson, who would have been clean through, and the chance was gone. The half-time score of 1-0 meant that Wimbledon were still in the game, but much more was needed in an attacking sense if the Dons were to get anything out of this game.
The second-half started with Wimbledon at least showing a bit more attacking ambition. Barcham swung over a deep cross that Mitch Pinnock attempted to head towards goal, but his effort took a deflection and Pompey keeper Craig MacGillivray gathered easily. Then Will Nightingale tried his luck from distance, but his shot was high and wide. With Wimbledon committing more men forward now, it offered an opportunity for Pompey to exploit space at the other end and it should have been 2-0 in the 53rd minute. Lowe showed lovely skill to turn and pick out Ronan Curtis, who was clean through, but he dragged his shot wide.
As we approached the hour mark, Wimbledon had played so much better, offering a real commitment to the cause that unsettled the hosts and got the travelling Dons behind their team. Terell Thomas summed up the renewed spirit with a brilliant challenge in the centre of the park and there was plenty more appetite for the battle in the second-half. Anthony Hartigan started to see a lot of the ball in the second-half, acting as a platform for Dons attacks, and he twice had good shooting opportunities himself. First, he shot over the crossbar after a long throw-in from Mitch Pinnock was only half cleared. Hartigan's second attempt was a cracking effort from 25 yards, but his powerful drive was straight at MacGillivray.
Wimbledon's second-half pressure paid off in the 76th minute and it was a goal of real quality too. Kwesi Appiah struck a brilliant effort from outside the box that left MacGillivray with absolutely no chance of saving it. That sent the 634 travelling Dons behind the goal into raptures, but it also woke up Portsmouth after a passive second-half from the title favourites. Terell Thomas was forced to clear off his line, as Portsmouth threatened a quick response. The hosts did go back in front when Thompson broke down the right and his cross picked out Ronan Curtis, who headed home from close range.
Though Wimbledon pursued another equaliser, Portsmouth held firm at the back and that meant a gallant defeat for the Dons. Certainly, the squad can take heart though from pushing promotion-chasers Pompey all the way.
AFC Wimbledon: Tom King, Tennai Watson, Ben Purrington (Tyler Garratt), Will Nightingale, Terell Thomas, Anthony Hartigan (Alfie Egan), Kwesi Appiah, Mitch Pinnock, Andy Barcham (Jake Jervis), Paul Kalambayi, Anthony Wordsworth.
Pic credit: Graham Hunt, Pro Sports Images.