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Notts County bounced back from the weekend’s defeat with a 2-0 win against npower League 1 strugglers Portsmouth. Jeff Hughes and the returning Francois Zoko were on the scoresheet, as Keith Curle’s side closed the gap on the Play-Off places.
The first 45 at Fratton Park saw very little in terms of serious goalmouth action but either side could have gone into the break ahead. With the best of the efforts, the hosts’ striker David Connolly was unlucky to see a low finish kept out by Gary Liddle’s crucial last-ditch clearance and, for the Magpies, Dean Leacock’s header came within inches of the net.
After the break, the game was much livelier and County should have taken the lead much earlier than they did, as several balls into the box called out for a final touch. The opener eventually arrived in the 81st minute, when Hughes found the net at close range.
Zoko doubled Notts’ lead two minutes from time with a nodded finish, following great aerial work by Hughes. A positive end to the match was marred by Neal Bishop’s red card for an off the ball incident.
At the expense of Enoch Showunmi, Zoko returned to the starting 11 in his first game back from suspension to partner Yoann Arquin attack. The Ivorian had missed two matches due to a needless red card in the Meadow Lane clash with Sheffield United 10 days prior.
Following an impressive showing off the bench against Leyton Orient, 18-year-old goalkeeper Fabian Spiess was handed his first ever start for the club. Regular custodian Bartosz Bialkowski was set to miss at least seven days of action, meaning the German had a great chance to show that his Matchroom Stadium performance was not just a one-off.
Spiess, who was watched from the stands by head of youth Mick Leonard and Academy goalkeeper coach Lee Broster, was called into action as early as the second minute, when Connolly prodded wideman Jed Wallace’s low centre towards goal. The youth team graduate reacted well low to his left to take the sting out of the effort, before Gary Liddle made a vital goal-line clearance.
Portsmouth had started well and appeared particularly dangerous down the right. Right-back Yassin Moutaouakil was next to threaten with a dangerous cross, which forced the Spiess to push the ball clear of the bottom-left corner and a number of onrushing Pompey players.
Beyond the early pressure, Notts dictated the majority of play, with Alan Judge and Zoko seeing plenty of the ball in opposition territory. Judge was the orchestrator of his side’s first chance in the eighth minute - an arrowed corner that Dean Leacock directed over the crossbar with a strong header.
Judge was involved again for the Magpies’ next effort, as he sent a free-kick into the box. The referee’s poorly timed whistle caused confusion over whether play had been brought back and Arquin was able to fire inches high of the top-left corner from just inside the box.
Moments later, County had the ball in the net, when Jamal-Campbell Ryce’s cross saw Ricardo Rocha send a header looping over his own goalkeeper, Simon Eastwood. However, the goal was disallowed, due to Neal Bishop’s blatant push on the defender.
Pompey could have moved in front, after another teasing cross from the right, this time by forward James Keene. Connolly came within a whisker of applying a diving header at the near post but, instead, Spiess was able to collect.
Both sides frustrated each other for large periods but the match heated up again as half time loomed. Zoko and Bishop had decent attempts blocked for the Magpies, whereas Keene saw a shot deflect off Alan Sheehan, into the arms of Spiess.
The second period began at a high tempo, as Pompey pressed high up the pitch. They could have taken an early lead, when Wallace’s centre skidded off the greasy surface and narrowly evaded Ashley Harris’ outstretched toe.
At the other end, Judge did manage to get a shot away, albeit from distance. The Irishman was given time to open up his body in front of the home backline but his stunning hit flew marginally wide of the left-hand post.
Although Portsmouth remained organised and tough to break down, the Magpies put a number of promising deliveries into dangerous areas, though the final touch was lacking. On 66, Sheehan, with a free-kick just inside the hosts’ half, did manage to pick out Jeff Hughes, whose firm header required Eastwood gather smartly on his line.
Five minutes later, Campbell-Ryce picked out Zoko at the near-post, where he was able to produce a prodded effort at full stretch. Bishop also gained a slight touch to deter Eastwood but the stopper was able to recover before a finish could be applied.
Campbell-Ryce made good use of the right flank again to pick out a man with a lofted back-post cross. Hughes then provided a driven centre, which led to both Arquin and Judge having goal-bound efforts superbly blocked.
Judge later picked out Bishop at the near post but the skipper’s improvised header was sent high and wide. In quick response, Wallace broke down the right to send in an excellent delivery, which Keene could only poke wide, as he stretched at the back post.
On 81, Notts finally moved in front, as a result of a moment of magic by Arquin on the wing that saw him get to the byline to send in an outstanding cross. Hughes was the receiver and touched the ball over the line inside the far post for his second goal in as many games.
Not long after the goal, Notts moved from a 3-4-1-2 formation to a 4-4-2 system, with Judge making way for Julian Kelly. Despite being more reserved, Zoko made it 2-0 in the 88th minute.
The goal came from Sheehan’s deep corner, which was nodded towards goal by Hughes. Zoko gained the finishing touch inside the six-yard box to divert the ball past Eastwood.
There was still time for more action before the final whistle, as Bishop was shown a straight red card, following an incident involving home captain Johnny Ertl. It was too late to have any real affect on the match and County climbed to eighth, five points adrift of sixth-placed Sheffield United.