Exeter City’s Under-18s maintained their forward momentum with a goalless draw away at Portsmouth U18s in the Youth Alliance South West division last weekend.
Both teams enjoyed a fairly even first half, with the Grecians posing more of a threat from their aggressive press and quick transitions, while the opposition caused trouble through some menacing crosses.
City dominated for large periods after half-time, and they came closest to a breakthrough courtesy of chances for Pedro Borges, Ed James and Alfie Cunningham.
Borges narrowly missed a header in the final stages, but the point apiece has now seen the Devonians stretch their unbeaten run across all competitions to four matches.
Exeter’s youngsters came into Saturday's contest learning who their third-round opponents would be in the FA Youth Cup. Following a 3-1 victory for Oxford United’s U18s over Horndean at Court Place on Thursday, it was confirmed that Brad Miller’s men would face their old adversaries once again.
But while that tie has been confirmed for mid-December, all focus was on league matters at the weekend, as Miller took his youth team eastwards for a rematch with Pompey, just five weeks after their tight contest at the Cliff Hill Training Ground which ended in a 2-0 victory for the Hampshire club.
But, despite a difficult journey to the south coast, it was the visitors who started brightly and got on the front foot, taking the game to the opposition defence despite only half an hour of pre-match preparation.
The Grecians' high press caused Portsmouth some real problems as they were able to steal the ball in dangerous positions, however forwards Cunningham and Joe Wragg were unable to take full advantage of those promising moments.
After that opening period, the match settled and the home team started to create some chances for themselves. Off the back of some territory, a flurry of corners gave Pompey the upper hand, but the City defence stood up well to the challenge, and Harry Lee, in truth, only had one real save to make.
The Devon club came back into the contest once again with another commanding spell just before half-time. As a result of some lovely build-up play, Exeter managed to produce several threatening crosses on the break, however, they were unable to make the most of their promising attacks.
Miller’s message to his players at the break was to be braver in possession and to take advantage of the spaces in certain areas of the pitch. The ECFC coach also made some tactical tweaks to deal with the home side’s press, while Portsmouth also switched things up as they sat a little deeper for the second period.
Thanks to those changes, the away team had better opportunities to play through their opponents to really dominate the second 45. The Grecians were able to sustain long periods of attacking pressure, which produced plenty of sights at goal, with both Aamir Daniels and Max Edgecombe providing the ammunition from the wider channels. Daniels located Borges for the second half's first decent chance, however, the midfielder’s effort was wonderfully kept out by a save from the home goalkeeper.
Moments later, James, up from the back, was next to try his luck. The tall defender though was only able to divert his shot onto the woodwork to keep the scores tied.
Throughout the half, that bombardment on the Portsmouth goal continued, and later on, as the Devonians really cranked up the pressure, Cunningham forced the goalie into another good save.
Up the other end, the home side's chances came on the counter-attack, but all eyes were on the Grecians, who had rather pinned their counterparts back. With Pompey playing with 10-men due to an injury, Miller turned to his bench to freshen things up, and introduced Jacca Cavendish, Alfie Clark and Tom Dean in the hope they could inject more spark into their team’s attack.
With time running out, Exeter’s youngsters carved open one final chance in the dying embers to snatch all three points. Daniels was once again the provider, and the full-back crossed for Borges in a resemblance to their previous combination. In this instance though, Borges’ header fizzed millimetres past the post, breaking the hearts of everyone in red and white, meaning both sides had to settle for a draw when the referee blew for full-time moments later.
Exeter City's Head of Coaching, Brad-Lee Miller: “We created some excellent opportunities, but we just needed to be clinical and ruthless. But overall it was a really good performance from the boys.
“We dominated possession and saw more of the ball, which is good because we want this group to play like that. I am really pleased with their desire and the way they kept going. Portsmouth went down to 10-men, and then started time wasting, but we didn’t get frustrated with all of that, and we stuck to the game plan right until the end.
“George Spencer, unfortunately, fell ill late on Friday and was too unwell to travel, which was disappointing for him. I’m sure he would have thrived on some of those balls into the box. We ended up playing without a natural striker, as Alfie Cunningham is more of a midfielder, and Joe Wragg usually plays off one side. Both were gravitating towards their usual positions, particularly in the first half, so we spoke about that at half-time and that all changed.
“The boys are working hard every day. Across some of the games we have been asking for something different which has caused them a bit of stress and led to us conceding. But, like all things, you have to suffer a dip before you become better, and the players have been working hard defensively. Nicky Ajose and Arran Pugh have been working with the group and they are getting their rewards now.
“These forward steps are just another part of the players’ journeys. Getting these recent results is pleasing for them, and their performances have been excellent too. I’m really pleased we have been able to put this unbeaten run together, and this part of their journey is vital for where they want, and need, to get to in order to gain professional contracts.
“We have no game this weekend, so we are going to give the boys the Saturday off, alongside the Sunday. We will look to work them harder this week in training, and load them up differently, before we have a social event on Friday. They will have the weekend off, before they are ready to go again the following week.”
Exeter City Under-18s: Harry Lee, Sam Joce, Scott Simmons, Ed James, Aamir Daniels, Max Edgecombe, Gabriel Billington, Joe O’Connor, Pedro Borges, Alfie Cunningham, Joe Wragg
Subs: Jacca Cavendish, Tom Dean, Alfie Clark
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