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.

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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: Cheltenham Town

A defeat at Morecambe has really put our season thus far into sharper focus. Whereas we have spent much of the season waiting for this side to really click into gear, the nature of the performance last Saturday suggested that things might actually be set to go the other way.

Since Jodi Jones’ injury there has been a lot of focus on how Mark Robins sets about replacing the creativity and penetration that our star player offers, however, the loss of defensive solidity over the past month might actually be a far bigger concern. We have conceded in every league game since the start of November, and in a side that struggles to score goals, that could be terminal for our season if it continues.

The loss of Liam Kelly in recent weeks has probably played a big role in that loss of sturdiness at the back. Most weeks we’re up against teams that look to sit deep, having Kelly alongside Doyle as that midfield axis meant that we could break up counter-attacks much more effectively. Although Kelly made us a ponderous side in the centre of the park, having his steel in midfield meant that we only needed a few good attacking moves per game to win.

Possible Line-Up

Worryingly, losing Kelly and bringing in Ben Stevenson hasn’t had the benefit of improving our attacking play either. Duckens Nazon is pretty much the only player at the moment who looks like providing the team with a much-needed attacking spark, but Mark Robins not only substituted him at half-time against Morecambe but bizarrely singled him out for criticism. Without Jodi Jones in the side, we don’t have anyone else except from Nazon who can sow doubt in opposition defences.

This could well be a team selection with a few surprises as Mark Robins looks to scrabble around for a solution to the two big issues we’re facing at the moment. The main hope heading into this game is that last week’s defeat sparks a big enough reaction from the side to lift us out of the torpor we’re in.

Last Time We Met

While we haven’t yet met Cheltenham Town in a competitive fixture, we did play against them in a pre-season friendly ahead of the 2013/14 -a.k.a. Sixfields – season. A Sky Blues side featuring Lee Burge in goal, Jack Finch and Jordan Clarke in defence, Leon Lobjoit and Billy Daniels in midfield and a strike pairing of Leon Clarke and Callum Wilson triumphed 2-0 at Whaddon Road, with Leon Clarke and Cyrus Christie scoring the goals.

Here’s an image to prove it.

Embed from Getty Images

How Are They Doing?

On the face of it, Cheltenham are enjoying a fairly reasonable season thus far, having been tipped by many to be among the lower echelon of teams in League Two this season, to be in a fairly comfortable mid-table position represents a decent start to the campaign for Gary Johnson’s side. However, only Luton have created more chances this season in this division which has engendered a sense that they Cheltenham could be performing a lot better than they are.

Despite that wastefulness in front of goal, Cheltenham’s strikers will be the key players for us to contain. Mohamed Eisa – signed this summer from non-league Greenwich Borough – started the season in electric form, and has started to re-gather that momentum after a lean spell. His pace and unpredictability will make him a big threat on the counter-attack.

Gary Johnson has opted to rotate between two target-men strikers as Eisa’s partner in attack, Danny Wright and Brian Graham. Both are fairly rudimental tall strikers, but do tend to win a lot in the air and have been able to chip in with the odd goal, primarily from set-pieces.

Possible Line-Up

It is from dead ball situations that Cheltenham will look to supplement their counter-attacking threat. The loan signing of Joe Morrell – from Bristol City, managed by Gary Johnson’s son, Lee – has proved to be a bit of a revelation in that regard, with his set-piece deliveries and box-to-box play supplying Cheltenham with more of an attacking end product than they’d otherwise have. There is further energy from midfield in the form of Kevin Dawson and Harry Pell, while right-back Carl Winchester has a good motor on him too.

With a fairly slow back-line, it will be of little surprise to see Cheltenham look to sit fairly deep against us. It’s likely to be an occasion reminiscent of Mark Robins’ final game of his first spell in charge – against Gary Johnson’s Yeovil – where he came unstuck against a side capable of repelling the crosses into the box that were central to Robins’ attacking plan at the time. Robins is likely going to have to show more flexibility in his preferred game-plan on this occasion.

Prediction

Given the way we’ve played for much of this season against bottom half teams at the Ricoh Arena, the script for this game already looks to have been written. We’ll be ponderous and slow on the ball, our opponents will hit us on the counter-attack, have something to defend, making us even slower and more ponderous. Mark Robins has demonstrated in his two spells with the club that he can organise a defence, now he’s got to show that he can do the same in attack, or the remaining life in this campaign will seep away.

Without any cause at the moment to believe that we are about to turn a corner, I can see us losing this game 1-0.

Preview: Morecambe

Having emphatically avoided a potentially embarrassing cup exit to Boreham Wood last week, attention turns back on the league, and finally mounting the kind of run to put ourselves into genuine promotion contention.

Like many of our wins this season, the performance against Boreham Wood was hardly a complete one, but we clicked at the right moments in order to ensure victory. Given our strength at the back, we don’t need to control games and pummel the opposition with shots, however, that lack of consistent attacking fluency has often left us struggling for ideas when our opponents are capable of nullifying our plan A.

Possible Line-Up

Mark Robins will be hoping that the line-up of the attack deployed against Boreham Wood is one that can solve the problem of what to do without Jodi Jones. Maxime Biamou as the focal point in attack played an important role in allowing Duckens Nazon and the, now in-form, Marc McNulty to get into the game, while Jordan Shipley on the left-wing looks to be further staking his claim for a regular spot in the starting XI. However, it is an attacking solution that involves playing either Nazon or McNulty on the wing, which could run into issues.

Fitness issues surrounding Liam Kelly and Rod McDonald are the main selection issues for the rest of the side. While Ben Stevenson has shown in the past couple of games that he has a role to play as a ball-playing central midfielder, Kelly’s experience and solidity could prove invaluable in this potentially bruising upcoming game against Morecambe. As far as McDonald’s concerned, Tom Davies’ recent performances have shown that we can get by without him for the odd game.

Last Time We Met

Our most recent meeting with Morecambe came in the FA Cup last season, back in the days when we were still muddling through with Mark Venus. We were probably lucky to come away from the Globe Arena with a replay, with Jamie Sterry scoring a late equaliser, but made relatively light work of Morecambe at the Ricoh Arena, despite falling behind early on, with Marvin Sordell (remember him?) scoring twice.

How Are They Doing?

Morecambe are famed at this level for starting the season strongly before falling off the rails over the course of the campaign. This season, they’ve failed to start the season in anything resembling decent form and the worry is that they’ve lost an important cushion to avoid relegation that they’ve usually been able to depend upon.

They are also a club in a dire financial situation, following a ‘takeover’ by a mysterious Brazilian businessman last summer which turned out to be too good to be true. While things looked to have settled down from the parlous state they were in last season, Morecambe’s manager, Jim Bentley, recently revealed that the club has been struggling to find a regular venue for training.

Bentley though is a manager well-accustomed to working with meagre financial resources, and has generally turned to a core of veterans to keep his side going. Target-man/winger Kevin Ellison sums up this Morecambe side, now at the age of 38, Ellison continues to produce the goods and is their leading goalscorer this season.

There is further experience in attack in the form of Garry Thompson (not the one that played for us in the 80s) while the talented but inconsistent Adam McGurk offers some spark to an otherwise functional team unit. However, Morecambe have struggled badly for goals this season – they are the division’s lowest scorers – which is another worrying sign for the club as under Jim Bentley, they have had a reputation for scoring loads and struggling to keep it tight at the back.

Possible Line-Up

However, that trend has brought the benefit that Morecambe have been better than usual in defence this season, regularly deploying a back three/five – although injuries and suspensions mean they may lack the personnel to utilise it for this fixture. Summer signings Sam Lavelle – suspended by the FA for this game for ‘deceiving a match official – and Steven Old have added defensive steel to an experienced unit with their 35 year-old goalkeeper, Barry Roche, enjoying a good season as well.

Elsewhere, former Cardiff City youngster Aaron Wildig has consistently been a class act in midfield for Morecambe over the past few years. A box-to-box midfielder with a bit of quality on the ball, he is probably one of the few players in this side who could do something at a higher level.

Prediction

I’m not particularly worried about this side this season not being able to deal with a physical tussle on a difficult away day, we have typical thrived in these kind of fixtures this season. It’s all about whether we can put away the chances we’ll inevitably get in this game, but it appears that Duckens Nazon and Marc McNulty have come into decent form over the past few weeks, so I’m confident about us in that regard too.

Put simply, I expect us to win this game. I doubt it will be a classic, but I think we’ll get the job done, by a 1-0 scoreline.

Preview: Boreham Wood

A point at home against Crawley continued an encouraging streak this season of (occasionally) winning points from losing positions. However, a tepid first half wherein the team struggled to adapt to a new system has done little to convince that we can absorb the blow of losing Jodi Jones for the season.

This FA Cup game is another opportunity for Mark Robins to experiment with the line-up and formation to find the solution of how to cope without Jones. However, the sense of occasion of this FA Cup Second Round tie – for our opponents at least – makes this far from a pressure-free environment to try some things out. If we do find ourselves behind, it will be a team playing for their biggest ever result against one struggling for a sense of purpose and ideas in attack.

As discussed last week, the creativity of Duckens Nazon and Ryan Haynes is especially important at the moment – underlined by how they combined for McNulty’s equaliser against Crawley. Ben Stevenson though was almost glossed over by myself, an encouraging second-half cameo shows how useful a ball-playing midfielder such as Stevenson can be for a team playing against a deep and organised opposition defence. A year ago we wouldn’t have accepted £1 million for him, now he’s in need of some big performances to get into a League Two side, individual footballing fortunes can change incredibly quickly.

The biggest selection decision is likely to be whether Mark Robins sticks with a back three that didn’t really work in the first-half against Crawley, or reverts to a back four. While there are different ways to play back threes that don’t require ball-playing centre-backs, the Crawley game demonstrated how difficult it can be to play out with a back three against a side sitting off you. Given that this Boreham Wood game is likely to be more of the same, Mark Robins will surely ditch the back three experiment, for now at least.

The make-up of our attack, particularly in the wide positions, will be intriguing. Mark Robins appears resistant to deploy Ryan Haynes as an out-and-out winger, while it also seems as if he’s aware that he can’t really shoe-horn in Duckens Nazon or Marc McNulty to a wide berth. That could hand Devon Kelly-Evans an opportunity to be our dynamic wide player in the set-up, particularly if Jordan Shipley or Peter Vincenti are played on the other flank.

Last Time We Met

It may surprise you to know that we haven’t played Boreham Wood in a competitive fixture, and it seems we haven’t even come up against them in a friendly game.

Weirdly though, we have played and won at their ground, in a friendly victory over Watford in the post-Callum Wilson phase of Steven Pressley’s reign. It was a showing that offered hope that we could make a 3-5-2 system work, hope that proved to be entirely false.

How Are They Doing?

After a few fairly underwhelming years in the National League, Boreham Wood have really come to the fore this season. The Hertfordshire side sit seventh in the table, are 11 games unbeaten, and came from behind to dump Blackpool out of the FA Cup in the earlier rounds.

They are a team packed with quick players who had shown promise in their early careers with much bigger clubs, only to lose their way a little. Ex-QPR winger Bruno Andrade had led the way for the Wood this season with nine goals, while they have depth in wide positions in the form of ex-Sky Blues winger Blair Turgott and another former QPR youth-teamer Angelo Balanta.

Given the career trajectories of some of their more talented players, it’s likely that several Boreham Wood players will be looking to prove a point in this game that they can make it in the Football League. The three aforementioned wingers have shown earlier in their careers during Football League loan spells that they can be match-winners on their day, and a big performance from anyone of those three could provide their careers an immediate shot in the arm.

Possible Line-Up

Someone else likely to be setting out to prove a point is ex-Sky Blues youth-teamer Shaun Jeffers – at one point rated higher than Callum Wilson in the academy pecking order. Jeffers has taken time to adapt to senior football, but earned a move to Boreham Wood over the summer after an impressive 21 goals in 42 appearances in the division below with Chelmsford City. He has however, struggled to get on the scoresheet consistently since his summer move.

Additionally, their right-back, Kane Smith, was on trial with us last summer when Tony Mowbray was still manager, but was not offered a contract.

With pace in attack, Boreham Wood have some experienced campaigners further back, with Dean Wells in central defence and defensive midfielder Tom Champion proven performers over several years at National League level. Given the balance of the side, it’s highly likely that Boreham Wood will look to sit deep before hitting us on the counter, which is likely to be a further indication that Mark Robins cannot play a back three of fairly slow (except Jordan Willis) centre-backs who aren’t the best on the ball.

Prediction

Our ongoing creative issues – inexorably exacerbated by Jodi Jones’ injury – makes it hard to be confident heading into what is, in theory at least, a relatively kind FA Cup draw. As mentioned earlier, if we concede the first goal in this game, we could find ourselves in a Ricoh Arena bear-pit fighting to avoid a cup elimination and the pressure starting to mount on our wider season.

I can’t tell whether I think we can come through this test or whether I’m simply hoping we do. Regardless, I can see this being a dull and edgy 1-0 win, which is all that really matters in these kind of cup ties.

Preview: Crawley Town

Tuesday night’s game against Stevenage feels like more of an afterthought following the news this week that Jodi Jones – directly involved in 45% of our league goals this season – has been ruled out for the season. That his exit from affairs against Stevenage coincided with the concession of a late goal to see us drop two points served as an omen of what might be to come over the coming weeks and months.

However, the season is far from over and the task for Mark Robins and the rest of the squad is to step up to the extra burden that comes from losing our best player. The two players who seem most capable of taking on Jones’ mantle are Duckens Nazon and Ryan Haynes, who are the only other players in the squad who appear capable of beating their man and carrying the ball into dangerous positions.

This may be the time now for Ryan Haynes to be pushed further forward, which would hopefully negate the temptation for Robins to shoehorn Nazon into a wide position where he’s less effective. There is also a need for the likes of Peter Vincenti, Marc McNulty and Maxime Biamou in attack to start providing a more tangible impact in the final third, while Jones’ injury should allow the likes of Jordan Shipley and Devon Kelly-Evans further opportunities to nail down a first-team place.

Possible Line-Up

There are still plenty of options for Robins, it’s just about how he can mould them into a cohesive and effective attacking unit – of which we’ve arguably lacked despite having had Jones for most of the season until now.

Elsewhere, with the extent of the injuries to Liam Kelly and Jack Grimmer not fully known either, the tight defensive unit that we’ve built up is in danger of being broken up. Should Haynes be played further forward, it leaves us with a rather prosaic back four of three centre-backs and Chris Stokes, while Jordan Shipley, Ben Stevenson, or even Callum Maycock, aren’t exactly the experienced, calming presence in midfield that Kelly provides, although possibly offer more dynamism going on the ball.

All in all, it’s going to be an interesting starting XI.

Last Time We Met

The most recent meeting between the two sides came in a dull 1-0 Checkatrade Trophy win for us at the Ricoh last December with Marvin Sordell on the scoresheet during a rare occasion he was played as a striker rather than a winger.

Crawley though might have the meeting beforehand still on their minds, when goals from Frank Nouble and James Maddison turned around a 1-0 deficit on the final day of Tony Mowbray’s first season in charge, which kept us up and sent them down in the process.

Although, they have had a heavy squad turnover since that date, which may render any grievances moot.

How Are They Doing?

Crawley made the bold decision this summer to appoint Harry Kewell as manager. It wasn’t just the Australian international’s high profile playing career versus Crawley’s stature in the game that was odd about the appointment, Kewell’s only managerial experience had been a pretty disastrous spell with Watford’s reserve side which featured two defeats by seven goals.

A poor start to the season, featuring several heavy defeats, set expectations further lower, but Crawley have improved as the season has progressed, although they have been incredibly inconsistent over the past month or so. To sum things up for Kewell thus far, his side were thrashed 4-0 by Wycombe on Saturday, before improving to beat Exeter 3-1 on Tuesday.

Crawley’s main threat is based on the pace throughout the side, with wingers Enzio Boldewijn and Jordan Roberts their chief attacking players. Boldewijn is a rare example of a fancy Dan foreign player who has thrived at this level, although fairly inconsistent, he is up there with one of the best attackers at this level when he’s on form. Jordan Roberts was reportedly lined up by Peterborough as a replacement for their star player Marcus Maddison, who had been linked with a move away over the summer, and is versatile enough to play as both a winger and auxiliary forward. Attacking full-back Cedric Evina further adds to the pace in Crawley’s ranks.

While Crawley can be a fairly flighty and flaky side at times, they do possess a level of grit in their ranks in the form of Jimmy Smith and Dannie Bulman in midfield and defender Mark Connolly. Smith is enjoying a particularly productive season having been given more attacking responsibilities by Kewell, he has four goals and three assists to his name already – although he has been out with injury recently. Dannie Bulman is a vastly experienced campaigner in central midfield, while Connolly is a determined and versatile centre-back who can also fill in at right-back.

Possible Line-Up

A potential joker in Harry Kewell’s pack is Dutch centre-forward Thomas Verheydt. Standing at over six foot three and weighing in at around 14 and a half stone, Verheydt has the attributes to be a real nightmare for our defence to contain, although he has struggled to get into Crawley’s starting XI on a consistent basis.

They also have former Leyton Orient star Dean Cox in their ranks, although he has confusingly been frozen out of the mix over the past couple of months – something that’s happened rather too often for him over the past few seasons.

Prediction

It’s worth noting heading into this game that Crawley’s away form – although hardly the most impressive in the division – has been where they’ve been stronger this season. If they can stick to a game-plan, they have the pace on the counter to really put our often ponderous style of football to the sword.

While we need collective improvements to overcome the loss of Jodi Jones, someone coming out in this game and accepting the responsibility to be our main man could be a real shot in the arm given the anxiety losing Jones will inevitably cause. Starting this game with intent and getting on the scoresheet could go a long way here.

Given what I’ve seen from this team this season, even with Jones in the side, I can see this being a 0-0 draw.