Preview: Swindon Town

The cold hard return to reality after being Premier League Stoke couldn’t have been starker than losing away 1-0 to a shocking goalkeeping error and slipping from 3rd in the division to 8th in the division. It seemed to sum up how our season has gone thus far, every opportunity we’ve had to make things assert our status as promotion contenders has been allowed to slip. We now head into a home game against the team with the best away record in the division with every chance now that we could find ourselves in mid-table and three points away from the play-offs.

We’re at the stage of the season where results start to define our end-of-season hopes, there has been no greater pressure to win – or at least, avoid defeat – than this Swindon game. While we have tended to come up trumps this season when the pressure has been ratcheted up, the goalscoring situation at the moment challenges our ability to continue to do so.

Possible Line-Up

While Marc McNulty’s recent run of form has been hugely welcome, one player cannot be expected to carry the entire goalscoring burden of a side challenging for promotion. We’re reaching a stage with Maxime Biamou where his function in the side as someone who facilitates attacking play has to be counterbalanced by his utter inability to put the ball in the back of the net. It’s reached the point where bringing Stuart Beavon back into the side isn’t completely out of the question.

Getting goals from midfield has to be seen as an area of priority for Mark Robins, with our two January signings – Josh Barrett and Jordan Maguire-Drew – under pressure to integrate quickly in to the side. The early signs seem positive, Maguire-Drew has caught the eye in his two appearances thus far, while Josh Barrett scored a hat-trick for the under-23s on Monday from a left-midfield position. Barrett could well have played himself into a starting position ahead of Jordan Shipley, provided he feels fully-fit.

Elsewhere, it will be interesting to see whether Rod McDonald comes back into central defence alongside Jordan Willis, despite Tom Davies having been fairly solid (albeit not with the ball anywhere near his feet) over the past few games. With Swindon Town posing more of a threat with pace than physicality, that could give McDonald the edge.

Last Time We Met

After so many points dropped away at Swindon over recent years, winning at the County Ground felt like a landmark moment for us this season. Not only did we beat Swindon at the County Ground, but we did so after falling behind early on to an expertly-taken strike from Luke Norris.

Step up, Michael Doyle. The captain enjoyed an interesting September evening, first equalising during an uncharacteristic raid in the opposing penalty area, and then, characteristically, finding himself caught in the middle of an incident – that looked very much like a bite on the bum – that saw Swindon’s James Dunne sent-off. Duckens Nazon stepped up soon after, curling in a typically audacious long-ranger, to secure the win.

I would imagine that James Dunne won’t have forgotten about that evening, expect this game to be round two.

How Are They Doing?

Swindon have been a perplexing team this season, their home form has been atrocious, while their away form has been near-immaculate. As one of the better-resourced sides in the division, they should have been among the automatic promotion challengers, but inconsistency has dogged their season. Currently though, they are on a run of four wins in five and could move into third-place – and with a game in hand over much of the division – with a win in this game.

Top-scorer Luke Norris has kind of summed up this current iteration of Swindon Town under David Flitcroft. Despite an impressive tally of 11 goals this season, with some wonderful strikes among them, Norris has frustrated Swindon fans with a lack of reliability in front of goal and his tendency to flit in and out of games.

Norris is supported by a cavalcade of nippy forwards in David Flitcroft’s counter-attacking strategy. Keshi Anderson, Paul Mullin and Kaiyne Woolery are all fairly quick players who are probably more suited to playing as central strikers, but have been shoe-horned into playing as a three behind Norris, to varying degrees of effectiveness. Swindon have added to their attacking threat by signing proven League Two goal poacher Marc Richards from Northampton Town.

Possible Line-Up

With two defensive-minded midfielders in James Dunne and Amine Linganzi, getting the ball forward on the counter or hitting teams from set-pieces is an important element of Swindon Town’s threat. Former Premier League free-kick wizard Matthew Taylor has supplied nine assists this season, despite being clearly lacking in mobility. Taylor is one of several set-piece experts in Swindon’s squad, with Ollie Banks, Ellis Iandolo, and the likely to miss this game ex-Sky Blues fans’ favourite Chris Hussey all on the books too.

A more fondly-remembered ex-City player in Reice Charles-Cook has been in excellent form in goal for Swindon after first-choice keeper Lawrence Vigouroux was dropped for disciplinary reasons. Given Mark Robins barely gave Charles-Cook a look-in, he may be turning up to prove a point to an ex-manager.

Prediction

Far be it for me to be pessimistic, but I’ve got the heebie-jeebies heading into this game. Swindon’s away form cannot be ignored and they are a team in good form in general, while our lack of luck/ability in front of goal is in danger of puncturing our hopes this season at this most crucial phase.

If we can’t win this game, we need to develop a tougher streak in at least avoiding defeat than we have in a lot of tight games this season. The minimum we need to take from this game is a clean-sheet, I’m hoping that can see out a 0-0 draw but I’m fearful we could lose this 2-0.

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Preview: Exeter City

The result against Stoke was something that only happens once every six or seven years and deserves to live long in the memory. However, it should be apparent to everyone around the club that it should only be the second-biggest achievement this season if everything goes to plan, starting with three points away this weekend at our direct promotion rivals, Exeter City.

For Mark Robins, the task is to ensure that we can take the momentum that comes with beating a Premier League side but avoid the ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’ that can happen in the game after a big result. Inconsistency has prevented us from establishing ourselves more firmly in the promotion race and now that we’ve played ourselves back into a prime position, it has to be avoided at all costs.

Possible Line-Up

Since the win over Cheltenham in the middle of December, the team has settled into a nice balance. Chris Stokes and Tom Davies have stepped into the defence ably at left-back and centre-back respectively, Tom Bayliss has been a revelation in midfield, adding the drive and dynamism we lacked with the Michael Doyle-Liam Kelly partnership, while Marc McNulty’s form has ultimately been the biggest factor in our run of three league wins out of four.

Aside from restoring Lee Burge in goal, Mark Robins should have little temptation to change what is a functioning side. It’s only the additions to the squad of Jordan Maguire-Drew and Josh Barrett that change the equation somewhat, but Maguire-Drew put in a strong performance as a Jodi Jones replacement on his debut, while there’s a need to have at least one game-changer on the bench now that Duckens Nazon has left, which time will prove whether Josh Barrett can fit the bill.

Last Time We Met

Our last meeting with Exeter saw us produce our best performance of the season at that point. With our opponents the then-league leaders having started the season in scintillating form, we managed to completely nullify almost all attacking threat they posed. A pre-game injury to Stuart Beavon and an in-game one suffered by Peter Vincenti forced Mark Robins into a makeshift front four of Jodi Jones, Devon Kelly-Evans, Duckens Nazon and Maxime Biamou, who clicked almost immediately.

We went ahead early in the second-half after Exeter’s Troy Brown diverted a Jodi Jones cross into his own net. Jones then carried the ball forward on the counter later in the second-half before setting Devon Kelly-Evans up for his first and, thus far, only goal for the club.

How Are They Doing?

While Exeter remain around the play-off places – and with a game in hand – there’s been the sense that things have not been quite the same since that game back in September against us. It coincided with a long-term injury to key centre-back Jordan Moore-Taylor and star striker Reuben Reid losing his goalscoring form – he has since been sold to Forest Green Rovers.

Of the two factors, the loss of Moore-Taylor has been more keenly felt as the defender gave Exeter better defensive stability and composure, currently, the less-mobile pairing of Danny Seaborne and Troy Archibald-Henville have come unstuck at times. Reid’s loss of form though has been absorbed by that of Jayden Stockley in attack, a striker who provides more of an all-round threat with his physicality and hold-up play than Reid did.

Paul Tisdale though will still have to adjust to losing Reuben Reid as a forward option will be key over the coming weeks and months. Against West Brom in the cup, he went for a 4-1-4-1 which left Jayden Stockley isolated, but switched to a 4-4-2 diamond, which gave them more attacking threat but left space in the middle of the park.

Possible Line-Up

Pace has been a key missing ingredient in this Exeter side this season, which probably helps explain why their away form has been so poor (15th in the division) versus their home form (3rd in the division). Wingers Jake Taylor and Lee Holmes are no slouches, but lack a level of explosiveness to their games. Exeter other forward options such as Ryan Harley, Hiram Boateng and Liam McAlinden look to be useful players but can lack an end product at times.

In goal, Exeter have two very good options for this level in young academy product Christy Pym and the more experienced Paul Jones who has just returned to the club on loan from Norwich. Tisdale was known to rotate his goalkeepers last season depending on who he saw as more suited to each game, and it wouldn’t be a surprise for current first-choice Pym to drop out of the side.

Prediction

It has been a characteristic of us this season to produce our best performances against the better teams, which I suppose has been evidenced by the win over Stoke. Despite Exeter’s impressive home form this season, this is a game that doesn’t hold as much fear for us as it would a lot of other teams in this division.

However, it would be typical of us this season too to produce a dull, spluttering performance now that we’ve given ourselves a chance to assert our position in the automatic promotion race.

Against my pessimistic instincts, I think we’ll win this game, 1-0.

Preview: Stoke City

Having moved into the top three in the division with a routine win over Chesterfield on New Year’s Day, the attention turns to an FA Cup tie against Premier League opposition that has struggled to capture the imagination.

It’s not just that most Coventry City fans will remember Stoke being on a par/below our level of status as a football club, but that they are a club without a particularly captivating narrative or set of players worth going out of your way to see.

What has raised the interest in this FA Cup tie has been the increasing pressure on Stoke manager Mark Hughes. While it makes it a more winnable game in the sense that Stoke are in dreadful form at this moment in time, it also makes it less winnable in that Mark Hughes has to play his strongest team in order to avoid an embarrassing cup exit that would not only see him sacked, but possibly end his career as a top-flight manager for the time being.

 

While the players will still be recovering from the hectic festive fixture schedule, the prospect of causing a cup upset will surely have raised the energy levels in training this week. For Mark Robins, he is up two players following the arrivals of young attacking loanees Josh Barrett and Jordan Maguire-Drew, but down one enigmatic, one-of-a-kind maverick in the form of Duckens Nazon.

Possible Line-Up

With Josh Barrett reportedly struggling with an injury niggle, Jordan Maguire-Drew is likely to be the only new signing involved in this game. The Brighton loanee winger has a strong chance of starting this game given that Mark Robins doesn’t seem to trust Devon Kelly-Evans as a first-choice starter.

Elsewhere, possible returns to fitness of Rod McDonald and Liam Kelly should further enhance the options available to Mark Robins. I would expect Rod McDonald to start – against the club he started his career at – ahead of Tom Davies in central defence, while it’s not certain that a fully-fit Liam Kelly would get into the side given the form that Tom Bayliss is in, although maybe he isn’t suited to a game where we’re going to be out of possession for extended spells.

Last Time We Met

Our last meeting with Stoke came back in 2008 when they were closing in on promotion to the Premier League and we were scrapping for survival during Chris Coleman’s first season in charge. An Elliott Ward penalty saw us take a surprising lead against Tony Pulis’ Stoke, only for us to concede a penalty – converted by Ricardo Fuller – and then for Liam Lawrence to score a late winner.

Stoke were on an upward trajectory and have remained in the Premier League in the decade since, the same season marked for us the arrival of SISU and a continued downward trajectory. Michael Doyle is the only player for either side in that game who will line up in this one.

How Are They Doing?

It feels somewhat redundant to write a detailed preview for a Premier League club, given that there is far more coverage of them than say, Chesterfield. As mentioned earlier though, Stoke are in a bit of a tailspin at the moment and are seemingly on the verge of sacking Mark Hughes as their manager.

As with many non top-six, long-serving Premier League clubs, it’s been a case of steadily losing a sense of identity and purpose as they’ve looked to maintain top-flight status. Mark Hughes had been brought in to freshen Stoke’s style of football away from Tony Pulis’ ultra-pragmatic, physical style, but things now look to have gone stale for Hughes as well.

After injecting the squad with flair and quality from the continent – picking up the ‘Stoke-alona’ moniker – this season in particular has seen Stoke lose even that identity. The sale of Marko Arnautovic to fellow mid-table side West Ham this summer – as well as the failures of big signings Giannelli Imbula and Saido Berahino – seemed to sum up the sense of directionlessness that has gradually descended over the club under Mark Hughes.

Possible Line-Up

When the draw came, this looked to be a game where Stoke would field an almost entirely second-choice XI, but the likes of Saido Berahino – on a 36-game goalscoring drought – and Stephen Ireland – recovering from a double leg fracture – are unlikely to be given the chance to play themselves into form. The likes of Xherdan Shaqiri, Joe Allen, and possibly even first-choice goalkeeper Jack Butland are likely to be used as Mark Hughes looks to not take chances in this game.

Even if Stoke play a second-string side, they not only have the likes of Peter Crouch who could easily have a field day against us, but they do have a few fairly promising youngsters who haven’t looked out-of-place in the top-flight. Right-back Tom Edwards has started several Premier League games this season, while left-back Josh Tymon is an incredibly gifted youngster who made his debut with Hull against Arsenal at the age of 16. Another to watch is Belgian winger Julien Ngoy who caught the eye towards the end of last season.

Prediction

While a lot is being made on what impact the pressure on Mark Hughes’ position will have on this game, it should be patently obvious that a League Two side has very little chance against even a struggling Premier League club – the gulf in quality will be more than the 50-odd league places that separate us and Stoke. We saw earlier in the season against Blackburn that there’s a significant gulf between the top of League Two and the top of League One.

It will be little surprise then that I’m expecting us to lose this game, 3-0. Nonetheless, there is still a small part of me thinking, maybe we have a chance here, that’s the FA Cup for you.

Preview: Chesterfield

It was hardly a classic performance at Carlisle on Saturday, but we held onto the win after scoring a goal out of nowhere. It was a vital three points to keep us in the top seven and we have a chance now in this upcoming game against Chesterfield to push towards the automatic promotion places.

It was a game won via sharp finish from Marc McNulty, who’s run of form has been perfectly timed to mitigate the loss of Jodi Jones. Still though, as his penalty miss demonstrated, you wouldn’t back him to score at any opportunity. Whether this run of form for McNulty continues or not, it’s crucial that we start seeing goals from midfield and our other forwards.

As for this upcoming game against Chesterfield, it’s a case of Mark Robins playing squad Tetris to piece together a cogent starting XI from the remaining fit players available. In addition to the injuries to Jodi Jones, Liam Kelly (although there are rumours he could be back fit imminently) and Tony Andreu, Peter Vincenti is out for at least two months, Rod McDonald missed the Carlisle game through illness and the birth of his child, Jordan Willis limped off in the Carlisle game, along with Stuart Beavon and Duckens Nazon, while Devon Kelly-Evans picked up cramp in the final minutes of the game.

Possible Line-Up

While it may be wise to hand the young bodies of Jordan Shipley and Tom Bayliss a rest, Robins doesn’t really have the luxury of being able to rest players who are still capable of ambulatory movement.

Maxime Biamou is almost certain to start after coming off the bench against Carlisle, he is likely to be partnered by Marc McNulty, although Robins has stated that Jordan Ponticelli is likely to get a look-in during this run of festive fixtures. That could see McNulty deployed on the right, given the lack of other fit wide options at the moment. The midfield is likely to be similar to the one that started against Carlisle, while the back-up central defensive pairing of Tom Davies and Dominic Hyam could be set to continue into this game.

Last Time We Met

There’s not much to say about our last meeting against Chesterfield, a boring 0-0 draw early in the season, other than it was a game where Marc McNulty had several great chances to give us the win – he may have scored one of those had the game been played now.

How Are They Doing?

Chesterfield’s poor season thus far serves to highlight how well Mark Robins has done for us this season in avoiding a hangover from relegation. Similar to us, Chesterfield’s squad was almost entirely reconstructed over the summer and there were some very good players signed, however, they started the season in disastrous form and have struggled to recover from it.

For a while, Jack Lester’s arrival as manager seemed to engender an improvement in performances, but they have only won one of their past five games – including a 5-1 defeat to an out-of-form Stevenage side. Despite his club legend status, it was a bold move to appoint an inexperienced manager with the club in a tailspin after relegation, Lester may be fortunate that there are at least two worse sides than Chesterfield in the division this season.

The only positive to come from Chesterfield’s season thus far has been the form of Kristian Dennis in front of goal. An out-and-out goalscorer, Dennis can get in behind defences and really comes alive in the penalty area. With 12 goals to his name this season, Dennis is the joint-fourth highest scorer in the division.

One of the main negatives though has been the form of their, literally, big summer signing Chris O’Grady. The vastly experienced target-man has looked like his best years are quite a way behind him, which has massively thrown off Chesterfield’s plans for this season. O’Grady was brought in, taking up a sizeable chunk of their wage budget, to play the figurehead role in attack for their younger, more mobile forwards and midfielders to play around, it simply hasn’t worked out.

Possible Line-Up

Of those mobile forwards and midfielders, few have been in particularly good form this season, although youngster Joe Rowley looks to have a bright future ahead of him. A technically skilful forward with a fair degree of pace, Rowley was reportedly being looked at by Premier League clubs over the summer.

In goal, Chesterfield have had to contend with an injury to first-choice keeper Joe Anyon and the retirement of stalwart Tommy Lee. Sheffield United youngster Jake Eastwood has been brought in and done fairly well since his arrival though. They have also lost key centre-back Ian Evatt to injury in recent weeks, forcing full-back Scott Wiseman to fill in.

Prediction

Leaving aside the excuses of the long away trip to Carlisle that we’ve had to do so soon before this game, as well as the lack of fit players currently available, this is a massive opportunity to record back-to-back wins and assert our position among the automatic promotion contenders. Chesterfield are in poor form, and have only won once away from home all season. The only thing to be concerned about heading into this game is our terrible record against bottom half sides this season.

Nonetheless, I can see us squeezing to the win here, by a 1-0 scoreline.

Preview: Carlisle United

It feels pointless at the moment writing about how things stand with this side and using it to predict what’s going to happen next. We put a run of a couple of wins together, before producing just one shot on target in a game where we had the chance to move into the top three. We were really good defensively, but have now conceded in each of our past nine league games.

It renders it useless to read too much into the Port Vale result and performance. It feels like we could just as easily go to Carlisle and produce our best display of the season, as we could go down to a dreary defeat. It seems that it’s not quality that separates the best and worst sides at this level, but consistency. We’ve managed to keep ourselves around the promotion race based on just a couple of good runs of form.

Possible Line-Up

Given the attacking performance against Port Vale though, I would expect that Mark Robins won’t choose to play Jack Grimmer on the wing any time soon. It seems like it was a decision made in aversion to either playing Devon Kelly-Evans – who was poor against Wycombe – or shoehorning Marc McNulty or Duckens Nazon on the wing. Instead, Robins ended up opting for an even worse decision that left us blunt going forward. Unless Robins goes for a change in formation, I would expect McNulty or Nazon to be played out wide.

It’s hard to see much room for changes elsewhere, although with the Chesterfield home game coming so soon after a long trip back from Carlisle, squad rotation may be influence team selection. That possibly leaves opportunities for the likes of Ben Stevenson, Stuart Beavon and Jordan Ponticelli to stake a claim for regular first-team football before Robins changes things up again in the January transfer window.

Last Time We Met

It was a typical kind of performance and win for us earlier in the season against Carlisle. After a dour first-half, we improved enough to put our opponents to the sword. An excellent pass from Liam Kelly sent Duckens Nazon through for the opening goal, before Peter Vincenti scrambled in a second to seal the win.

How Are They Doing?

Carlisle are another side where you don’t really know what you’re going to get from them. Away from home, they have the third-best record in the division, but have only won three of their 12 home games, which has left them moored to mid-table. However, they have won their past two games, which will given them confidence heading into this game.

Carlisle are currently coping with the loss of their best attacking player, Nicky Adams, who picked up a season-ending injury back in November. Without an out-and-out star player, Carlisle manager Keith Curle has gotten good use out of a number of other attacking players in the form of the pacey winger Reggie Lambe, set-piece expert Jamie Devitt, and box-to-box midfielder Mike Jones.

The goals in the side have been fairly evenly distributed across the strikers Shaun Miller, Richie Bennett, and Hallam Hope. Furthermore, left-back Danny Grainger has scored an incredible eight goals this season, although this is mainly because he takes free-kicks and penalties (which is still really impressive).

Possible Line-Up

Keith Curle has been a manager who has struggled to organise defences, particularly since taking over at Carlisle, but the signing of the vastly-experienced Clint Hill has made a difference. Another difference since we last played them has been that goalkeeper Jack Bonham has established himself as first-choice after overcoming a number of high-profile errors in the opening weeks of the season.

Nonetheless, Carlisle are a team that have errors in them at the back – whether that’s the goalkeeper struggling to claim crosses, or getting caught trying to play the ball out from defence – that we should be looking to exploit. Given their relatively poor home record, we should be looking to come out and attack this game, hopefully preying on the nerves of the home crowd.

Prediction

As mentioned earlier in this post, it’s the sheer inconsistency of this side that makes attempting to predict what’s going to happen next so difficult to do. That being said, our away form is becoming a concern again and with Mark Robins looking to rotate the squad with the game on New Year’s Day in mind, this might be a game at the wrong time for the manager to sort out what went wrong against Port Vale.

My inclination is that we will lose this game 1-0.

Preview: Port Vale

For the second game in a row, we were subjected to a heart-attack of a football game. While the win over Cheltenham was made interesting by our poor defending, the Wycombe win descended into chaos out of nowhere. It was a comfortable win made a nervous one thanks to two lapses in concentration and a referee who utterly lost control of the game.

As a result, there are more positives to take out of the Wycombe game than the Cheltenham one. Chiefly, our defending was much improved – Jordan Willis and Rod McDonald were mostly very comfortable against Akinfenwa, while Chris Stokes put in his best performance of the season at left-back. However, it was a game that we wouldn’t have won without Marc McNulty’s goals – which have come at a welcome time after the loss of Jodi Jones and now that we’re leaking more at the back.

Despite his excellent run of goalscoring – six in his last six appearances – it still feels like McNulty should be doing better than he currently is. Twice on Friday night, he was sent through one-on-one and failed to score. There’s still a sense of apprehension before he takes on shots, and his run of goals has been down more to hard work and good movement than pure killer instinct in front of goal.

Possible Line-Up

With three further fixtures to play over the festive period, there’s a chance now for us to establish ourselves as automatic promotion contenders. We have shown over the past two games that we can win without Jodi Jones, and Liam Kelly, which provides little for Mark Robins to consider in his team selection.

The only consideration appears to be surrounding Peter Vincenti – who has been improved in recent weeks – after he limped off with an injury in the first-half against Wycombe. Devon Kelly-Evans’ introduction appeared to change the game in a negative manner for us, which could see Duckens Nazon start and Marc McNulty moved onto the right of midfield, although that has the downside of losing the ability for Nazon to change the game from the bench.

Last Time We Met

Port Vale are the first opponents this season that we are playing for a second time, with the last meeting having happened back in September. It was hardly a classic performance against a Port Vale side in the midst of a poor run of form, but somehow saw us produce a 16-pass move for Jodi Jones to produce a superlative finish from outside the area (albeit with no-one closing him down) to win the game. It was only a late red card to Rod McDonald that gave Port Vale any hope of taking something out of the game.

It was the start of our best winning run of the season thus far (three games), and was also the game that saw us lose Tony Andreu for the season.

How Are They Doing?

The decision to stick with Michael Brown over the summer to rebuild Port Vale’s squad after dropping in to League Two put the Valiants in genuine danger of successive relegations. The squad was left massively unbalanced – far too many wingers, not enough central midfielders and an injury-prone first-choice keeper – while Brown’s motivational techniques amounted to screaming at his players and the referee on the touchline.

Since the appointment of Neil Aspin back in October – a popular former player for Vale during the 90’s – they have been much improved, although they’re not quite clear of danger. Aspin has tried as best as he can to make sense of the squad that was left to him – which has involved played several players out of position – and Port Vale really seem to be benefitting from Aspin’s organisational abilities.

Arguably the biggest factor behind Port Vale’s improvement under Aspin has been the form of talismanic target-man Tom Pope in front of goal. Pope has nine goals in the league this season, with eight of those having come since Aspin took over. Moreover, with the sheer number of wingers in the squad, Pope as a figurehead for their other, more mobile, attacking players to play off.

Of Vale’s other attacking options, David Worrall looks the biggest threat and is possibly someone who should be playing in League One. An energetic and hard-working player, Worrall also has a bit of wiliness to his game in the way he can win free-kicks in dangerous positions. Their other wide options include Burton loanee Marcus Harness has come into form in recent weeks, while Ben Whitfield and Cristian Montano can be match-winners on their day at this level.

Possible Line-Up

At the back, the experience of Gavin Gunning and Antony Kay have been another example of Neil Aspin’s organisational abilities. Both central defenders have been played out of position fairly often this season – Gunning at left-back and Kay in central midfield – but have helped improve Port Vale’s defensive record.

Port Vale have had issues in goal this season, with their first-choice keeper Rob Lainton being injury prone, while the second-choice, Sam Hornby, has also been injured for long spells. After having to dip into the loan market a few times, the relatively inexperienced Ryan Boot has been made de facto first-choice. While he has been okay since coming in, there is a nervousness to his game that could be exploited by us here.

Prediction

Although Port Vale have improved over the past couple of months, their home form still ranks as the worst in this division, making this a game we really should be winning if we have promotion aspirations. Games over the festive period though have a tendency to defy the form book somewhat, and there’s likely to be a larger than usual crowd to get behind Vale for this fixture given that it’s Boxing Day.

This is going to be a tough game and if we’re not at the races, Port Vale will only be too happy for a win that could set them apart from the relegation battlers. I can see this being a 1-1 draw.

Preview: Wycombe Wanderers

It was a win last Saturday, but it was by a hair’s breadth margin against a fairly mediocre Cheltenham Town side. It will have done little to quell the sense of decline since the injuries to Jodi Jones and Liam Kelly, but it at least kept us in the top seven and gives us something to build upon.

The two main positives to take from last Saturday was the performance of Tom Bayliss in midfield on his league debut and the movement of Maxime Biamou and Marc McNulty in attack. Bayliss looks the next in succession of highly-comfortable ball-playing midfielders this club is producing by the spadeload at the moment. As for Biamou and McNulty, while their finishing left plenty to be desired, they consistently put themselves in positions to get lucky with the kind of finish that McNulty eventually produced for the winning goal – that has to be seen as encouraging.

Possible Line-Up

However, the defensive performance against Cheltenham was nothing less than shambolic. There was little sense of defensive organisation or discipline in the display, with the goal that we eventually conceded summing it all up – leaving gaping holes , losing headers, making rash challenges. It didn’t help that there was a lack of protection from midfield – Cheltenham often found themselves with time and space on the ball – but it only served to emphasise how important Liam Kelly’s presence in the centre of the park has been this season in making the likes of Rod McDonald, Jordan Willis and Jack Grimmer look good.

With a Wycombe side likely to be far less charitable in their finishing in this upcoming game, Mark Robins has to ensure that the defence is both better organised and protected. The physical presence of Tom Davies is likely to be helpful against the bombardment Wycombe are likely to throw at us, although it leaves a tough decision over whether to drop Jordan Willis or Rod McDonald. In midfield, it seems a choice between sticking with a very raw talent in Tom Bayliss who could find himself out of his depth in this kind of game so early into his career, or opting for a Ben Stevenson or Callum Maycock who boast slightly more experience/physical strength than Bayliss (which, admittedly, isn’t saying a lot).

Last Time We Met

Our last game against Wycombe Wanderers was probably the most momentous win we’ve had at the Ricoh Arena – it was certainly one of the most unexpectedly joyful. While Wycombe were in the division below us, not only were we on a dismal run of form under Russell Slade, but we’d been in this kind of situation too many times before for much of the fanbase to truly believe that we could actually secure a place at Wembley.

In the event, we came racing out of the blocks via goals from George Thomas and Stuart Beavon in a comfortable first-half performance. The two-goal cushion was just what we needed to weather the onslaught that Adebayo Akinfenwa’s introduction for Wycombe in the second-half subject us to. The hulking striker bulldozed his way through a youthful Coventry City backline to introduce a familiar sinking feeling throughout much of the crowd. Yet we somehow managed to hold-out, even Jack Finch came on to play an important cameo role, and send the Ricoh Arena into an unprecedented level of delirium – we were on our way to Wembley.

How Are They Doing?

I have to admit that I called it completely wrong with Wycombe heading into the season. The club looked to have run out of momentum and had become incredibly reliant on an ageing Adebayo Akinfenwa in attack, with manager Gareth Ainsworth showing little inclination to change his tactics. Instead, Akinfenwa has been as good as ever – only Notts County’s Jorge Grant has scored or assisted as many goals as him – while Ainsworth has diversified Wycombe’s threats somewhat.

While coping with Akinfenwa’s sheer physical strength – he’s capable of playing a highly effective target-man role despite being under six-foot – will be the primary challenge for our defence, we’ll also have to be wary of not becoming too focused on stopping just one player as Wycombe have several attacking players who are arguably worthy of playing at a higher level.

Former Peterborough talisman Craig Mackail-Smith has proved a useful signing this summer for Wycombe, playing just off the wing, Mackail-Smith has seven goals to his name this season. The ludicrously talented Eberechi Eze, on loan from QPR, can either play out wide or through the middle and has scored some absolute beauties this season. Paris Cowan-Hall is a pacey winger who has probably just lacked the consistency in his career to make it at a higher level, while Sam Saunders is a set-piece expert and another in the Wycombe ranks capable of scoring wonder goals from nowhere.

That’s not to mention that they’ve been without Scott Kashket – scorer of 15 goals last season – for much of the campaign.

Possible Line-Up

Wycombe’s attacking threat is also supplemented in the form of left-back Joe Jacobson – another set-piece expert – who has an incredible four goals and four assists to his name this season. To put it another way, he’s only one goal/assist behind Jodi Jones.

Wycombe’s willingness to get the ball forward to their attacking players at any and every opportunity – they will launch free-kicks from inside their own half into the box – can leave them exposed somewhat at the back, although Adam El-Abd and Anthony Stewart are a highly competent defensive pairing that we’ll have to navigate. El-Abd can only be described as an utter bastard, the kind of player who’ll tackle the player rather than the ball, while Stewart is a tall and mobile centre-back who can be effective in both boxes.

Prediction

I’m really worried about us heading into this game. Our defence looked so poor last week against a fairly mediocre Cheltenham side, and Wycombe are likely to pose an even bigger threat and are more likely to take the chances that fall their way. Even worse, we don’t have the attacking threat to go toe-to-toe with Wycombe should our defence let us down. We’re going to have to produce a much higher standard of performance than we’ve managed in recent weeks to take anything out of this game.

I can see this being a rather chastening defeat – 3-1 to Wycombe.