MARCUS Browne’s solo effort ensured Oxford United will head into Monday’s play-off semi-final second leg on level terms with Portsmouth.

Both managers predicted a tight game between the sides, who were only separated by goal difference when the Sky Bet League One season was suspended in March.

Four months later there was still nothing to choose between the sides at an empty Fratton Park.

Despite lacking their regular home advantage, Pompey were the better side in the opening half-hour.

Ronan Curtis, who hit the woodwork with a shot early on, put them in front from an acute angle.

But just as they did in the league game eight months ago, United hit back to level.

Browne did the damage, bursting forward from near the halfway line before finding the net from 20 yards.

Neither side were able to really gain the upper hand in a cagey second half, but Simon Eastwood made a big save late on to ensure the second leg is perfectly poised.

There were no late hiccups in the build-up, so Robinson named the XI he had been hoping to play.

It saw the more defensive-minded Sam Long preferred to Anthony Forde at right back, Elliott Moore was in ahead of John Mousinho and Ben Woodburn made his first appearance since October.

Under normal circumstances Fratton Park should have been rocking before kick-off, but the coronavirus pandemic meant the two sides wandered out from different empty stands for a low-key entrance to the field.

The home side got away to a stronger start and came within inches of opening the scoring on six minutes.

Marcus Harness and Andy Cannon combined to feed the dangerous Curtis, whose low shot from 20 yards rattled Eastwood’s right-hand post and rebounded to safety.

United had trouble hanging on to the ball, as a mixture of nerves and ring-rustiness stalled their progress.

Rob Dickie survived a couple of penalty shouts at set pieces – the first of which for a handball looked fortunate – while Moore was needed to make a block on Marcus Harness in the box.

United did not have an effort on Alex Bass’s goal until after the drinks break, when Josh Ruffels’s header from a James Henry corner was kept out by Lee Brown.

The visitors were still finding their feet when a quick break caught them out just after the half-hour mark.

Bass began a slick move which came through Cannon to find Curtis. United might have thought the Irishman was contained as he was forced wide, but from a tight angle he beat Eastwood at the near post.

As it turned out, the goal settled the visitors.

Henry, who had been largely anonymous, suddenly came into the game as he switched places with Woodburn.

Browne fired wide from range, while he then smashed in a low cross which beat everyone after a flash of skill from Brannagan took two defenders out of the game.

United had momentum – and they were level on 11 minutes after falling behind.

Browne was given room to drive forward down the left and the Middlesbrough loanee took full advantage, cutting inside. While he did not catch the shot sweetly, it was precise enough to beat Bass.

The interval came at a bad time for United, as the second half started scrappily.

Ellis Harrison went down in the area off the ball but again referee Gavin Ward said no. It came in front of the Fratton End, whose fans ordinarily might have swayed the decision.

Mark Sykes looked bright after replacing the rusty Woodburn, cutting one cross back to the edge of the box where Browne had a shot deflected wide.

The Northern Irishman was the first of several changes as both sides looked to their benches.

It broke up a game where clear chances were at a premium.

Bass saved Henry’s speculative 30-yard effort, but as the game entered the latter stages Eastwood did well to turn Christian Burgess’s header round the post.

United survived one last penalty appeal in stoppage time after Dan Agyei appeared to accidentally catch Curtis's heels, but the referee said no to ensure the first leg finished all square.

Portsmouth (4-2-3-1): Bass, McCrorie (Williams 62), Burgess, Raggett, Brown, McGeehan, Morris, Harness, Cannon (Bolton 62), Curtis, Harrison (Marquis 73).

Unused subs: MacGillivray, Downing, Seddon, Naylor, Evans, Hawkins.

Booked: McGeehan.

Oxford Utd (4-3-3): Eastwood, Long, Dickie, Moore, Ruffels, Gorrin, Woodburn (Sykes 55), Brannagan (Forde 81), Henry, Taylor (Mackie 73), Browne (Agyei 81).

Unused subs: Stevens, Mousinho, Atkinson, Kelly, Hanson.

Booked: Brannagan, Gorrin.

Referee: Gavin Ward (Surrey).