Southend United U23s missed out on the opportunity to face top-flight clubs Everton and Leicester City in the group stages of the Premier League Cup following a 1-0 defeat against Portsmouth...
It is the second year in succession that Blues have been dumped out of the competition in the Qualifying Round stage by the south coast outfit, with Conor Chaplin again proving to be the tormentor-in-chief at Havant & Waterlooville’s Westleigh Park after his close-range seventh minute strike proved decisive.
Chaplin netted twice in a 2-1 Pompey victory over Southend last term, and he could have grabbed a second in stoppage time this season when he sent a penalty kick against the crossbar. That scoreline would have proved incredibly harsh on Kevin Maher's squad, who had earlier struck the woodwork themselves through substitute Harry Phillips.
Maher named a side that included goalkeeper Ted Smith and midfielder Dru Yearwood, both of whom have featured for the first-team this season. Full-backs Elvis Bwomono and Harry Kyprianou, as well as midfielder Michael Klass, have also warmed the bench for the senior squad in 2017/18.
Klass went close to giving Blues a second-minute lead when his 25-yard strike sent Pompey custodian Alex Bass scrambling to his left to save, but Southend soon trailed courtesy of a familiar foe. Theo Widdrington's left-wing corner dropped invitingly for Chaplin to stab home after Blues had failed to deal with the initial delivery, and he made no mistake from five yards out.
The visitors struggled to get going in the early stages of the match, and with the referee awarding a series of free-kicks, Widdrington - son of former Blues assistant manager Tommy - had plenty of opportunities to show off his dead-ball prowess.
Chaplin turned provider after a quarter-of-an-hour when he cushioned a Jez Bedford cross into the path of Mohamed-Labib Maouche, but the trialist curled narrowly wide of the right-hand post. Southend breathed a sigh of relief, and set about establishing a foothold in the game.
Yearwood was brought down just outside the penalty area in the 20th minute, but Kyprianou slammed the free-kick into the defensive wall and Pompey were indebted to further good play by their back-line when Norman Wabo saw an attempt deflected wide following Renei Batlokwa's incisive pass.
Nico Cotton then side-footed into the gloves of Bass after Yearwood found the winger in space on the right, but Blues were again fortunate when Dan Smith nodded across the face of goal from Joe Hancott's hanging left-wing cross. However, that acted as the precursor to Southend's best period of the first half.
On 28 minutes, the lively Wabo went agonisingly close to equalising when he held off Matt Casey to control Bwomono's throw. He rolled the defender and tried to slide his shot inside the far corner, but a vital deflection saw it roll the wrong side of the upright. Five minutes later Bass spread himself to block the striker's effort from a Batlokwa through-ball before racing off his line again to beat Wabo to a raking Sonny Coutts pass.
Southend also twice went close to levelling with just three minutes remaining in the opening period. First Klass went down under a heavy challenge in the penalty area, but the referee waved away appeals for a spot-kick, and then the midfielder was presented with a chance from a miscued Bass goal-kick, only for centre-back Nathan Thompson to block.
If Widdrington's free-kick sailing over the crossbar hinted at Pompey returning to the ascendancy in the second period, any revival was quickly quashed by the Shrimpers, with Hancott's back-pass to Bass under pressure from Cotton going unpunished in the 50th minute. Cotton was then picked out by Klass, but the flanker's shot was collected easily by Bass.
Maher introduced Harry Phillips in place of Joe Bedford as he sought more attacking options just before the hour mark, and in the 63rd minute only a superb Christian Oxlade-Chamberlain tackle prevented Batlokwa from slotting home Cotton's slide-rule pass. Three minutes later, skipper Dan Matsuzaka was inches away from meeting a Phillips cross as Blues ramped up the pressure.
With a quarter-of-an-hour remaining of the pulsating encounter, Phillips almost hauled Blues level. Even if his deflected left-wing delivery, spiralling over Bass and against the left-hand upright, could have been construed as a fortunate way to equalise, it would have been no less than the away team deserved.
However, only fine defensive work by Bwomono, clearing a dangerous right-wing centre out of the six-yard box, and Chaplin's profligacy, blazing over when well-placed ten yards out, kept Blues in touch as Portsmouth retained a threat on the break. Maher's response was to throw on another forward, Sewa Marah, in search of parity.
It almost had the desired effect when Marah found Cotton on the right-hand edge of the penalty area, but he curled his shot wide, and Wabo then eschewed the opportunity to shoot from the 'D' and over-hit his pass to the youth team forward. The best chance fell to Kyprianou, though, when he nodded Bwomono's swirling cross wide when unmarked at the back post.
It was a head-in-hands moment for the full-back, and Blues were further rocked when Yearwood was adjudged to have tripped Chaplin, but the diminutive striker smashed his penalty against the crossbar, and Wabo almost made it 1-1 in the fifth minute of stoppage time, only for his acrobatic bicycle kick to fly over. Southend's attention now turns to the beginning of the Central League campaign in September.
Southend United U23s: Ted Smith, Elvis Bwomono, Harry Kyprianou, Joe Bedford (Harry Phillips 59), Daniel Matsuzaka, Sonny Coutts, Renei Batlokwa (Sewa Marah, 80), Dru Yearwood, Norman Wabo, Michael Klass, Nico Cotton. Substitutes not used: Nathan Bishop, Tom Clifford, Alex Clark.
Cautioned: Cotton (25, foul tackle).