Carlisle United 0 Portsmouth 1: This was akin to a boxing match where the honest but limited pro is picked off by the champ after a few rounds, as was always likely to happen, however much discipline, sweat and effort came first.

Portsmouth’s winning goal was, it must be said, the mark of a strong puncher knowing when and how to make his move. First there was the swooping on some faulty play from United, then a blocking move from Joe Rafferty, preventing Dan Butterworth getting anywhere near Abu Kamara.

Then there was the laser-eyed diagonal pass from the substitute. Then there was Paddy Lane, running like the wind, finishing swiftly past Harry Lewis. Pompey chimed; United sagged against the ropes. Thanks for coming and goodnight.

Fair play to Portsmouth – not at their best at Brunton Park, but also, in some ways, at their best. The way they drew Carlisle and then downed them with such a canny move was of a standard United simply cannot reach, not at this level.

News and Star: Portsmouth celebrate their winnerPortsmouth celebrate their winner (Image: Ben Holmes)

Before Lane’s goal, there had not been such a chasm between the teams. After it, the canyon opened up. John Mousinho’s side defended their lead without any discomfort, United’s haymakers didn’t even connect with shadows. First place looked down on 24th place with the air of superiority that space implies.

Another game down, then, and 15 to go. That is just less than a third of the season but Carlisle’s campaign is now about the next two or three, tops. Stay on this losing run, or at the very least fail to pick up a couple of wins urgently, and what’s looking highly likely is going to be certain, all bar the maths totting up for good.

 A series of games against teams from the middle to lower rump of League One is the last idea Carlisle can cling to. Even then, it is a matter of hope over evidence, faith against reality. One-goal defeats to the best teams in the league are not why United are pointing south. The general low bar of their performance, when set against the rest of the third division, unarguably is.

News and Star: Owen Moxon signs autographs for Carlisle fans after getting off the Portsmouth team coachOwen Moxon signs autographs for Carlisle fans after getting off the Portsmouth team coach (Image: Ben Holmes)

This was not a day to castigate that performance level in particular. In the first half especially it was as dogged and disciplined as United have been for a while. It was possible to look upon it kindly and thinking that sort of endeavour might set up opportunities against weaker sides than Portsmouth.

Taking those opportunities, though…well, that’s another matter. Who, individually, is going to disprove the pattern at this late stage – and how, collectively, are Carlisle going to turn deadly when 31 games say they aren’t?

It’s not easy to keep hold of the flame in this situation, six defeats off the reel now (the worst such run since 2003) and the Blues becoming sadly accustomed to losing, albeit in different ways.

News and Star: Jordan Gibson on the attackJordan Gibson on the attack (Image: Ben Holmes)

This latest one came in stages. Brunton Park was poised and picture perfect beforehand: a calm, crisp afternoon of fading sunlight, 1,800 away fans making a racket in the Andrew Jenkins Stand, plenty more Cumbrians more circumspect in mood, but ensuring Owen Moxon, a substitute on his return with Pompey, got a good and decent reception.

When the pleasantries were packed away, Carlisle unfurled a new system with a back four and Jon Mellish in advanced midfield. It led to a first 45 minutes of good industry and decent shape against visitors who never fully found their range.

It certainly needed some of the former to inhibit Pompey’s opening attacks, Harrison Neal making the first important interception of several when Callum Lang lurked in the fifth minute. Lewis then had to pluck a Lane cross from the air but it was certainly not a case of table-topping dominance, given the way Jack Diamond looked to carry the ball for United, and jink against his man, with Josh Vela adding some vocal organisation to his running.

News and Star: Jack Diamond is fouledJack Diamond is fouled (Image: Ben Holmes)

For a long while it was a case of waiting for someone to get their eye in. Pompey's Marlon Pack clipped a dismal 35-yard free-kick into the Warwick Road End before Jordan Gibson, for Carlisle, chanced a volley which went closer but not close enough.

United’s hungriest attacking spell yielded a Gibson free-kick, which dipped over, and another left-footed shot from the number seven that spun wide. As ever, Carlisle failed to find that flourish of quality. In between Colby Bishop had failed to snaffle a Myles Peart-Harris header, and then Vela’s deflected cross almost fed Luke Armstrong at the near post.

Portsmouth then found a more fluent range but it is to Carlisle’s credit that this did not produce much of deadly note even as their own possession faded. Conor Shaughnessy, at the back, often prompted good things for Mousinho’s men and they did hit the post through Tom Lowery, but only the outside of it – and nothing further got them in from the fringes.

News and Star: Luke Armstrong competes in the airLuke Armstrong competes in the air (Image: Ben Holmes)

That Sean Raggett’s 40-yard shot, which looped narrowly over the bar, was the next best of things for Pompey told a certain tale about Carlisle’s organised resilience. Yet this was only at the halfway point, and from there, higher quality imposed itself. Fifteen minutes into the second period, Rafferty almost fashioned something, a couple more Portsmouth raids came very close, Carlisle lost Diamond to a knock and the idea of United unsettling their guests was torpedoed when Rafferty and Kamara finally combined for Lane to sweep them ahead.

And the truth is, it ended here, just after the hour mark. Portsmouth were tactically adept and easily assured in the face of some sterile Carlisle work, which saw a quartet of substitutions in the 75th minute but no particular upskilling in their efforts. Moxon came on to more applause, Shaughnessy hit the post, the closing stages were blissfully uneventful for the leaders and United ran themselves dry.

News and Star: Owen Moxon applauds Carlisle's fans at the end of the gameOwen Moxon applauds Carlisle's fans at the end of the game (Image: Ben Holmes)

“We have to keep going, keep driving ourselves on,” said Simpson afterwards. He did not seem like a man who’s lost faith. This does, though, feel like an ever-evolving exercise in standing still, and standing still in 24th place will only lead to one thing: the canvas, soon.