Preview: Colchester United

There seems fine margins at times between a good performance and a terrible one. On the opening day, we could barely string three passes together for long periods of the game but were apparently set to walk the league. While it’s a stretch to say we played well on Tuesday, there was a pretty determined reaction to falling behind which, on another day, might have precipitated a stirring comeback.

There is no defending the opening 20 minutes of the performance against Tuesday night, easy passes were going astray, poor decisions were made in attack, and then Lee Burge crystallised it all by dropping the ball into his own net. Against a team struggling for confidence and leaking goals, we should never had found ourselves in the situation we did, but we really should have scored at least one of the several opportunities we laboured to create.

We’re getting to that stage of the season though (and especially after the two scoreless games beforehand) where creating good chances and not taking them is less encouraging. A month or so ago, you could perhaps relax in the hope that there will be games to come when the ball hits the back of the net rather than the post or keeper’s hands, there isn’t that patience now that games are starting to matter that little bit more.

Possible Line-Up

For this upcoming game against Colchester, Mark Robins faces the decision of sticking with what threatened to be a dangerous front four of Maxime Biamou, Jodi Jones, Duckens Nazon and Marc McNulty or twist on a Peter Vincenti or Jordan Ponticelli and hope that something clicks. Personally, I saw enough on Tuesday to give the same front four another go in the hope that more match experience together will lead to more fluency, but there is a desperation for an immediate solution to our goal-scoring woes that could lead to Robins changing things up yet again.

There isn’t really much cause for making other changes without risking further disruption to the dynamic of the side. Lee Burge’s error – at a time when he was starting to gain some trust – could lead to calls for his dropping, but it would be in favour of another goalkeeper who we we’ve seen is prone to sloppy errors too. As I’ve argued before, dropping a goalkeeper after just one error will do more harm than good.

Last Time We Met

Our last meeting against Colchester was another frustrating midweek game at the Ricoh Arena. Colchester, who at the time were all but condemned to relegation to League Two, were up against an out-of-form Tony Mowbray Coventry City but one that still had a shot at making the play-offs. An early goal for Colchester winger Gavin Massey set the tone for a laboured performance for the Sky Blues, with Jacob Murphy missing a penalty and Jodi Jones the only real bright spot from the performance.

How Are They Doing?

I had high hopes for Colchester heading into this season. They had narrowly missed out on the play-offs last year, mainly due to a nightmare run of injuries over the course of the campaign, and had a young and improving squad. However, following the loss of experienced centre-forward Chris Porter to Crewe over the summer, Colchester lost that momentum from last season and have been incredibly inconsistent thus far.

Manager John McGreal has probably displayed some of his inexperience as a manager – with last year his first managerial campaign – with formations and line-ups fairly inconsistent thus far, as well as splurging out on a series of loan signings on the final day of the transfer window that appear to have disrupted the side more than they’ve added quality.

Nonetheless, Colchester have some exciting young players in their squad and could be well-set to cause us some serious problems in this game. In particular, they have pace and quality on the break in the form of wingers Drey Wright and Sammie Szmodics. Wright is a direct and skilful winger who has been a reliable attacking threat this season and could well earn a move to a higher level over the next 12 months. Szmodics also has that potential, although he operates more centrally and has more goals in his game. Both though are doubts for this game through injury.

Striker Mikael Mandron has been key for Colchester this season as Chris Porter’s replacement. Mandron’s greater level of mobility as a target-man in theory makes him a more talented player than Porter, but as a much less-experienced player and being less of a goalscorer, Colchester have still felt the impact of Mandron’s loss.

Possible Line-Up

In midfield, Colchester have a level of quality and control that few other League Two sides have. The diminutive Tom Lapslie can really dictate games from deep in midfield, with ex-Watford prospect Sean Murray playing more of a box-to-box role. Murray in particular has been in good form this season, while Colchester also have Craig Slater – who had a superb last season – and the experienced Doug Loft to call upon.

In defence, Colchester are relatively inexperienced with academy products Frankie Kent and Kane Vincent-Young fairly key players. Ryan Jackson at right-back has more experience and was recently a key player for Gillingham when they were challenging for promotion from League One. Jackson is not only incredibly quick (like, really quick) but also possesses a powerful long throw which we’ll have to contain.

Prediction

A fast start to this game could well be imperative in easing some of the tension that has descended at the Ricoh Arena at this moment in time. Rightly or wrongly, the crowd were very quick to turn on the players on Tuesday night, and anything less than a win here (no matter what level of performance) will only serve to make the pressure more suffocating for future games.

Colchester’s pace on the counter scares me, particularly as we’ve shown at times this season that we labour when allowed time on the ball against a team sitting back against us. I’m desperate for us to win this game just to allow the atmosphere around the club to calm down, however, I think this may be a frustrating 1-1 draw.

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Preview: Swindon Town

A comfortable victory over the league leaders looks a real shot in the arm for our season. While it has been far from a terrible start to the campaign, that win over Exeter was probably our most complete performance thus far – and there was still room for improvement.

Praise has to go to Mark Robins for just how well-drilled the team looked with each player seeming to have clear idea of what was expected from them in their position. Rod McDonald and Jordan Willis excelled against one of the division’s best strikers, Michael Doyle and Liam Kelly not only provided their usual midfield sturdiness but looked miles more comfortable in possession than they had been at the start of the season. All of which gave a platform for Jodi Jones torment another opposing back-line, supported by the committed performance of Devon Kelly-Evans and the occasional flashes of inspiration Duckens Nazon provided.

Possible Line-Up

The challenge now is to build on Saturday’s win, to ensure that a victory over the league leaders is not just one-off display but one that cements our status as promotion candidates. Standing in our way, are Swindon Town – a club who have inflicted some frustrating afternoons upon better Coventry City vintages than this current one.

The starting XI against Exeter was one thrown together at, almost literally, the last minute due to the amount of injuries we’re carrying at the moment. Mark Robins will almost be forced to stick with a winning team for this game, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the lack of cover in certain areas of this squad could be troubling if we pick up one or two more injuries over the next few games.

Last Time We Met

2012: 2-0 up with 13 minutes left, draw 2-2.

2013: 1-0 up with four minutes left, lose 2-1.

2013 (again): 1-0 up with 13 minutes left, lose 2-1.

2014: 1-0 up with 18 minutes left, draw 1-1.

2015: 2-0 up with five minutes left, draw 2-2.

What else is there to really say about our past encounters against Swindon Town other than they’ve been utterly miserable for us?

Last season we were so abject that we didn’t even get the opportunity to throw away a seemingly comfortable lead against them in either encounter. First off, it was a drab opening day defeat at the County Ground that seemed to set the tone for the first half of our season. Then it was an even more dismal defeat at the Ricoh Arena that effectively ended our survival hopes and was almost certainly the final straw for Russell Slade, even if he did continue for a few more games afterwards.

How Are They Doing?

That win back in February did Swindon little good as they went on to join us in relegation from League One. Like us, it has been a near complete overhaul of the playing squad over the summer, like us, it has also been a bit of an inconsistent start to the season, but also like us, they are showing signs of clicking into gear.

Manager David Flitcroft (once a contender to take over at Coventry City last year following Tony Mowbray’s departure) has a something of a reputation for producing inconsistent sides. A bit like Mowbray, Flitcroft has a tendency to tinker with his line-up when it isn’t particularly required, although he’s more in the Chris Coleman mode of unnecessarily playing players out of position.

Nonetheless, Flitcroft seems to have stumbled across an attacking formula over the past few weeks that has proven effective. The frustrating but surprisingly technically adept front-man Luke Norris is currently being supported in attack by a mobile and nippy trio of Kellan Gordon, Keshi Anderson and Paul Mullin. Norris in particular has been in strong form this season – only Reuben Reid has either scored or assisted as many goals (8) as he has in League Two thus far.

Possible Line-Up

The tigerish James Dunne and the more creative Derby loanee Timi Elsnik have also seemed to have settled into a good partnership for Swindon in recent weeks. While Flitcroft has another useful card to play from the bench in former West Ham and Portsmouth man Matthew Taylor – while his legs seems to have gone, his set-piece deliveries are still Premier League quality and could cause us big problems in the closing stages of this game.

Swindon also have another player with great delivery to watch out for – none other than former Coventry City fans’ favourite Chris Hussey. Hussey though makes up a back-line that hasn’t been particularly convincing this season due to a lack of pace with three fairly old and slow defenders in the form of Ben Purkiss, Chris Robertson and Olly Lancashire – although all three are a threat from either Hussey’s or Taylor’s set-pieces.

Finally, Swindon brought in Reice Charles-Cook from us over the summer, however, he’s had to play second-fiddle to former Spurs and Liverpool youngster Lawrence Vigouroux in goal. A Chile youth international, Vigouroux is a similar sort of keeper to Charles-Cook in that he can be an excellent shot-stopper with great distribution of the ball, but can be slightly over-eccentric at times – although he has been pretty good thus far this season.

Prediction

Our terrible record against Swindon shouldn’t really matter, after all, these are two very different squads from even the ones that faced each other last season. Somehow though it does seem to matter because a number of very different Coventry and Swindon squads have faced each other over down the years and produced similar results.

With the more experienced and savvy squad that Mark Robins has assembled this season, I would imagine that this is a Coventry City side least likely to care about a silly hoodoo. However, due to my superstitious and pessimistic nature I can see this being a 2-1 loss, and possibly a game where we take somehow manage to lose despite taking the leading in the sixth minute of stoppage time.

Preview: Exeter City

There are some defeats that linger in the mind for days on end, there are some that are easier to move on from, last week’s loss against Cambridge was the latter. This team had been criticised for not creating enough, we certainly did that against Cambridge, the opposition just so happened to have scored more goals than we did.

While we should have taken at least a point last week, there has to be some concern that we conceded two fairly soft goals that saw us defeated. The danger now is that one unfortunate result last week could easily, and quickly, be the start of a poor run of form given our run of fixtures over the next week – the league leaders, followed by a trip to Swindon where we never win, and then a fairly strong Crewe side, who also happen to be a bit of a bogey team for us as well.

I would imagine that over the next week we’ll get a truer sense over whether our strong defensive record thus far has been down to good play on our part, or the result of having played some of the weaker teams at this level. While we’ve conceded few goals, we haven’t been put under the cosh for extended periods in games thus far. If we can continue to avoid the issue as we have been this season over the next week, we’ll stand in good stead, however, this could be where the cracks start to appear.

Possible Line-Up

On the positive side, it is encouraging that we seem to have become more fluent in attack over the past few weeks. The inclusion of Duckens Nazon into the side, and in a central position, has added something to the team – not least the sense that he draws some of the attention away from Jodi Jones, who has been excellent of late. Additionally, Liam Kelly seems to have taken the handbrake off in recent weeks, adding some dynamism to the centre of the park, and Peter Vincenti has been getting in better positions too.

Not only because of the attacking improvements we’ve made in recent weeks, but also because of our injury list, Mark Robins is unlikely to change the side at all. Stuart Beavon is probably the only player in that starting XI who is underperforming, however, his work-rate could prove an asset against an Exeter side who’ll look to get on the ball against us.

Last Time We Met

Although you have to go back some time for our last league meeting with Exeter City, we did face them a few years ago in the then Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. It was during our first season back at the Ricoh Arena where we were in the midst of a run of defeats when Steven Pressley gave run-outs to some of our most promising young talents – James Maddison, George Thomas and Jack Finch – and an Aaron Phillips brace saw us run-out comfortable victors.

The game was also notable for seeing Ollie Watkins – Exeter’s star player of last season and now a regular in the Championship with Brentford – score his first goal for the club.

How Are They Doing?

Exeter’s run to the play-off final last season was seen by many (well, at least me) as something of an outlier, a case of a club on limited resources stumbling across some stand-out talents and riding the crest of that wave for all it was worth. Despite losing in disappointing fashion to Blackpool, Exeter have gone from strength-to-strength this season and are not only currently top of the division but are on an ominous run of six league wins in a row.

That is despite losing their two star attacking players from last season in Ollie Watkins and David Wheeler, and, to a lesser extent, the inconsistent winger Joel Grant and wunderkind Ethan Ampadu – who made his debut for Chelsea this week. A club of Exeter’s resources is always going to find it hard to rebuild, but Paul Tisdale deserves immense credit for having done it almost seamlessly this season.

Despite signing target-man Jayden Stockley for a club record fee, along with the talented ex-Crystal Palace defensive midfielder Hiram Boateng, on the final day of the transfer window, Paul Tisdale has kept the starting line-up fairly similar to last season. Crucially, League Two goal machine Reuben Reid has been kept fit despite his reputation for being injury-prone – he now leads the league with seven goals already this season. In addition, wide men Jake Taylor and Lee Holmes provide Exeter with two direct wingers on either side of the pitch who are capable of chipping in with the odd goal.

Possible Line-Up

In defence, Exeter have the excellent Jordan Moore-Taylor who is one of the most adept defenders at this level in passing out from the back. Behind him, there is Christy Pym in goal who has won caps at youth-level for England and is developing into one of the best goalkeepers at this level of football. Exeter also have the sturdiness and experience of the likes of Troy Brown and Craig Woodman, as well as the experienced Dean Moxey – who is yet to feature this season.

While Exeter are in incredible form at the moment, they have been fairly open in their style of play. It’s one of those games where if we can grab the early goal, there will be chances to hit our opponents repeatedly on the break. If Exeter score first though, you’d wonder whether we’d have the ability to get back into the game.

Prediction

Exeter are ominous opposition for us, they’re riding the crest of the wave and a victory at the Ricoh Arena for them would be a coup de grace to crystallise the good feeling around the club. However, I wonder whether Robins’ pragmatism, his ability to instill a good defensive shape and set a counter-attacking game-plan could prove to be an asset for us here. This is one of few games this season against an opponent at the Ricoh Arena who’ll set out to bring the game to us.

Nonetheless I am fairly tentative about our chances for this game, I have this down as a 2-1 loss.

Preview: Blackburn Rovers

A fairly disjointed opening day performance was to be expected, however, an explosive and clinical showing from Jodi Jones was a pleasant surprise and ensured that we hit the ground running results-wise.

It’s too early to tell how much we’ll need to improve to win promotion. However, we should aspire to be able to retain possession better than we did in the second-half where we went too direct and allowed Notts County to build some attacking momentum, which they made little of. By that same token, the defence seemed fortunate too that the opposition lacked ideas in attack.

Having got the win on Saturday, it would have been nice to either have a week’s rest or be able to build some momentum in the league. Mark Robins stated after the game on Saturday that he will rest players for this game against Blackburn, so this game will be a bit of a free-hit against opposition from a higher division.

With a slightly imbalanced squad at this moment in time, Robins only has so much wiggle room in which to make changes. Liam O’Brien is likely to retain his place in goal, with Rod McDonald and Dominic Hyam also looking certain to start too. Chris Stokes reportedly played through an injury on Saturday, which could see Chris Camwell or Darragh Leahy handed a chance at left-back. Robins could also be tempted to see what Dion Kelly-Evans can do at right-back after a nervy performance from Jack Grimmer against Notts County.

Possible Line-Up

In midfield, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ben Stevenson step in to allow either Liam Kelly or Michael Doyle a rest. Devon Kelly-Evans seems likely to make his first start for the club, although it’s hard to tell who out of Jodi Jones and Peter Vincenti Robins would want to rest, one of those two will have to start given our lack of wide options.

Finally, Stuart Beavon and Marc McNulty both look set for a rest too after finding themselves in the wars on Saturday. Duckens Nazon and Maxime Biamou each made excellent contributions from the bench against Notts County which should see them get the chance to start this game. However, Kwame Thomas and possibly even Jordan Ponticelli could find themselves involved in this game at some point.

Last Time We Met

When we last met Blackburn, back in 2009, we were a Championship side and they were an established Premier League team, how times change. After a 2-2 draw at Ewood Park, Sam Allardyce’s Blackburn Rovers were on the wrong end of an FA Cup upset at the Ricoh Arena. Leon Best scored the winning goal for Chris Coleman’s Coventry City, back in the days when we were still fairly happy about our new owners SISU, how times change.

How Are They Doing?

In case you weren’t aware, Blackburn’s current manager is Tony Mowbray. Mowbray’s reign at Ewood Park thus far has drawn uncanny parallels with this time here, except for a few important differences. Firstly, Mowbray was unable to save Blackburn from the drop despite providing an initial lift upon his arrival in the second half of the season. Secondly, Mowbray has attempted to quickly re-model the team, only he’s had much better backing to do so than he had at Coventry City.

Mowbray’s recruitment at Blackburn over the summer could easily be confused for the signings he would have made at Coventry City had he the funds. Dominic Samuel is a player he managed while with us, and had seemingly tried hard to bring back to the club, while, Ben Gladwin was someone we were linked with back in January 2016, before it all fell apart. In addition, Middlesbrough winger Harry Chapman seems to fit in with the profile of young, exciting, England youth international that saw Ryan Kent, Adam Armstrong and Jacob Murphy signed by Mowbray for the Sky Blues, while Bradley Dack was someone who had his best season for Gillingham in the same year that Mowbray’s Coventry City were challenging for promotion with the Gills.

However, unlike in Mowbray’s first full season with us, his side lost on opening day and were seemingly fairly insipid in doing so. Mowbray could well see this game as an opportunity to bed his new-look side together, however, they appear to be carrying a few injuries which will necessitate making a number of changes to the line-up.

Possible Line-Up

After playing 3-4-3 for much of last season, Mowbray has seemingly built this Blackburn side to play the 4-2-3-1 that has been fairly typical of his career. On Saturday, things didn’t quite click into gear in attack, with Dominic Samuel used out wide, where he’s much less effective. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Samuel moved into the lone striker role, with an energetic and creative trio of Liam Feeney, Ben Gladwin and Harry Chapman just behind him.

Blackburn are fairly short in numbers in defence, which could well see free-kick expert and centre-back Charlie Mulgrew, who has been strongly linked with a move away from the club, used in this League Cup tie.  Right-back Ryan Nyambe is another to look out for, he’ll provide energy and a physical presence from full-back, although he was seemingly targeted fairly successfully by Southend on Saturday.

Prediction

Given the number of changes both managers are likely to make, this is a tough game to predict. The onus will be on the players selected by either side to view the game as an opportunity to impress, rather than go through the notions in the knowledge they’ll return to the bench on Saturday.

The depth of quality in Blackburn’s squad should make them heavy favourites for this game, however, they are in the early stages of coming together as a team and this should be viewed as an opportunity to cause a bit of an upset. Whether Mark Robins sees this game the same way remains to be seen until he names his side. I think we’ll win this game 1-0.

Preview: Notts County

The re-appointment of Mark Robins as manager back in March was all about how ready we would be for the start of this season. Getting those few wins towards the back end of last season, and especially that wonderful afternoon at Wembley, was important in re-energising the fan-base, but the hard work of winning promotion back to League One at the first attempt begins now.

It has been an almost complete overhaul of the squad over the summer, with just four of the starting XI at Wembley likely to start this forthcoming game against Notts County – three, depending on whether Lee Burge is fit. Instead of relying on a relatively young squad packed with a number of homegrown talents, Robins has decided to employ a different model leaning towards more experienced and proven performers, with a veteran Michael Doyle being the poster ‘child’ of this new side.

It means that we are starting from square one as a team this season, although, having had the majority of the squad in place for the entirety of pre-season may hasten the gelling process. They key areas of the squad are whether Rod McDonald and Jordan Willis can form an effective central defensive partnership, Michael Doyle and Liam Kelly can provide dynamism in addition to their sturdiness in central midfield, and whether Marc McNulty is capable of scoring the goals to get us out of this division.

Possible Line-Up

We already have a strong idea of what team Mark Robins is going to pick for this game, based on his team selections in pre-season. The aforementioned five players will provide the spine of the side, along with the experienced Peter Vincenti on the right wing and Stuart Beavon playing slightly ahead of McNulty in attack. Jack Grimmer at right-back is also almost certain to start and, thanks to an injury picked up by Ryan Haynes, Chris Stokes will make up the back four.

After some reasonable performances in pre-season without being overly tested, Liam O’Brien may get a chance to stake a claim for the starting spot in goal if Lee Burge doesn’t prove his fitness in time. The decision to sign O’Brien over a more experienced keeper was a big call from Mark Robins this summer, and it could seriously hamstring us if both he and Burge don’t cut the mustard.

Finally, Jodi Jones’ performance in the final pre-season friendly against Nuneaton where he scored and provided an assist for Stuart Beavon should win him a start on the left wing ahead of Devon Kelly-Evans. This is a big season for Jones after failing to provide a consistent final product last season, he could prove to be one of those players who really benefits from dropping down a level to become a central player for the club.

Last Time We Met

Our last meeting with Notts County was a drab 0-0 draw at Meadow Lane during Tony Mowbray’s attempts to keep us in League One following his arrival back in 2015. Our attacking threat had been stunted by the recent loss of Dominic Samuel to injury, leaving a toothless strike force of Frank Nouble and Simeon Jackson to labour in vain against a Notts County side soon to be doomed to relegation.

Notts County’s last trip to the Ricoh Arena was another drab affair on the face of it, however, it was a game memorable for some of absolutely top notch time-wasting and gamesmanship on the part of a Notts County side then flying in the top six of League One under Shaun Derry. With the Sky Blues in a torpor at the time under Steven Pressley, an error for Andy Webster was ruthlessly punished late in the second-half to hand Shaun Derry, Roy Carroll and the merry men of Notts County all three points.

How Are They Doing?

Notts County are attempting to build something more stable after a soap opera of a past decade which has seen a revolving door of players and managers fail to sustain the occasional promising run of form. Back in January, the club were in a transfer embargo and in danger of dropping into the relegation battle in League Two, however, a takeover by local businessman Alan Hardy and the appointment of Kevin Nolan as manager has seemingly put the club back in right direction.

The January transfer deadline day signings of Shola Ameobi and Jorge Grant – along with left-back Marc Bola who has since joined Bristol Rovers – provided the team with an injection of quality required to make Kevin Nolan’s organisation of the team effective. Ameobi in particular played a crucial role as the figurehead in attack, holding the ball up due to his physical presence and technical skill to bring others into play – he’ll be partnered in attack by the equally experienced Jon Stead, who provides a lot less outside the area for his team.

Possible Line-Up

The aforementioned Grant was a big beneficiary of Ameobi’s hold-up play, coming in off the wing and scoring some excellent goals over the course of the second-half of last season.  Notts County have done well to re-sign the Nottingham Forest youngster on loan, and he’ll be a big danger man for this game. That threat coming in off wide positions has been further bolstered by the arrivals of Lewis Alessandra and Gibraltar international Liam Walker over the summer, who are both potential match-winners at this level on their day.

Notts County’s main area of weakness is in defence, where they lack pace and composure on the ball. The agricultural ex-Sky Blues loanees Carl Dickinson and Richard Duffy could well start this game, and it seems like a sensible game plan to try and press high in order to force errors at the back for Notts rather than try and break them down with a slower style of play. Furthermore, goalkeeper Adam Collin had a difficult previous season and we should be looking to keep him as busy as possible.

Prediction

With Notts County an experienced and physical side, this will be early acid test of our League Two credentials. My main area of concern is in defence, where I’m not sure Rod McDonald and Jordan Willis are capable of standing up to a physical battering from both Shola Ameobi and set-piece situations. If we’re slow and ponderous on the ball too, this has all the makings of a classic Ricoh Arena away team smash and grab, only this time it will be in League Two.

Overall, I’m expecting this to be a real ‘welcome to League Two’ experience for us – similar to the game we played against a recently-relegated Wigan side in League One two seasons ago. If we can show we’re capable of controlling games and creating enough chances, that would be the least I want to see from us in this game. If not, it may be an indication that this could be a harder season than anticipated.

I think Notts County will win this game 2-0.

Preview: Charlton Athletic

Last Saturday’s win over Peterborough was perhaps the most enjoyable home game of the season. The game itself was a fairly mediocre one that we slightly edged, however, it was the atmosphere brought on by the good weather, legend’s day, and the chance to congratulate our Wembley heroes that made it such a wonderful afternoon.

Already, that’s feeling like a distant memory following the announcement of the season ticket prices this week. Personally, I don’t feel like they’re as scandalous as it’s being made out, but I also appreciate that people making a decision with their own money may feel differently. Regardless of the actual pricing of the tickets, the announcement has seen the battle lines drawn for what’s inevitably going to be a summer of mud-slinging and what could be a really difficult next season ahead.

Possible Line-Up

While the Peterborough game was an opportunity to bask in the sunshine and forget about the reality of the situation we’re in, this Charlton game where they’ll be protests and relegation could be confirmed looks set to serve as a cold, hard dose of reality. For Mark Robins and the players, it’s about displaying that they can cope in a less advantageous atmosphere, potentially having to deal with disruptions to the game, which could be a truer mark of their ability to produce the goods next year.

After a hectic list of fixtures in recent weeks, Robins should benefit from having a better rested squad than the past few games. Hopefully, the likes of Jordan Willis, Kwame Thomas and others dealing with minor knocks will be fit enough to enter contention for selection, potentially offering the manager some difficult decisions to make.

With Ruben Lameiras in good form over the past few games, it’s hard seeing even a fit Kwame Thomas taking his berth just behind Beavon in the starting line-up. The main selection quandary could well be whether to hand Jodi Jones a rare start ahead of Kyel Reid, even though the latter has been much-improved under Robins.

Last Time We Met

As I tried to locate the away end at The Valley back in October I heard a mysterious cockney voice utter “beware of flying pigs” darkly into the South London air. Thinking nothing of it other than that Londoners are weird, I took my seat for a game of football that I hoped would kick-start a season that hadn’t exactly gone to plan yet.

That cockney wisdom soon came to make sense when the referee blew his whistle to start the game and pigs did indeed fly (well, fall in style). Point made, the game resumed after a lengthy period where rubber pigs were removed from the pitch by the players and we proceeded to lose 3-0 to a team managed by Russell Slade. In fairness, it wasn’t actually a terrible performance, but we were too weak at the back and lacked the ability to convert possession into goals, however, it was a display that screamed relegation.

How Are They Doing?

Charlton have been beguiling this season, at times they have been one of the best teams in the division but they’ve so often been sub-par and appearing to be lacking in motivation that they now find themselves in mid-table with nothing to play for. A high level of squad turnover this season hasn’t helped, first in Russell Slade clearing out the mess of a squad he’d been left after relegation from the Championship, and then Karl Robinson making sweeping changes after replacing Slade in November.

While Karl Robinson has the excuse of not working with a squad entirely of his own choosing, Charlton’s performances under him at times have questioned the concept of him being a good up-and-coming young English manager. He’s got a very strong squad to work with, possibly one of the best at this level, yet he’s only picked up 20 points from the 21 games he’s had in charge – 10 fewer than Slade managed with the same number of games.

The quality in Charlton’s squad comes mainly comes from midfield/attack, where Ricky Holmes has been the star player this season. Remarkably for a player who’s never played as high as this level before, Holmes has looked a cut above in his wing play and end product. Former Swindon winger Nathan Byrne provides further quality out wide, while the attack boasts the physical prowess of Josh Magennis and Lee Novak, as well as the enigmatic former Celtic striker Tony Watt.

Karl Robinson’s big signing Jake Forster-Caskey has been a class act in a deeper midfield position, supplying creativity alongside academy product Joe Aribo who was rather exuberantly likened to Dele Alli early in the season by Robinson. The experienced Andrew Crofts provides a physical platform at the base of midfield to build from, while there’s also club captain and hero Johnnie Jackson to call upon despite his advancing age.

Possible Line-Up

At the back, Charlton have an array of high-calibre centre-backs who could all really be playing at a higher-level. Patrick Bauer and Jorge Teixeira are domineering presences in central defence and the only random foreign players to last Russell Slade’s summer cull. There’s also Jason Pearce who has excelled in the past at Championship level, while Ezri Konsa has emerged as a big prospect this season after playing in a number of positions in defence and midfield.

There’s also the reliable Chris Solly to call upon at right-back, who has stayed loyal over the years despite previous links to Premier League clubs, and Declan Rudd in goal, who made several appearances last season in goal for Norwich in the top-flight. All in all, this is a time that shouldn’t be languishing in mid-table in League One.

Prediction

There are similarities between this Charlton side and the Peterborough one we faced last week. Both have aspirations of playing pretty, passing football and have a number of dangerous attacking players, but both have appeared to lack a cutting edge to their play and have a soft underbelly that can be exposed with proper organisation and the right mentality.

I would be confident predicting a win in this game, however the potential protests present an unknown factor both in how they may happen and whether it will have any effect on the team. Given that it is an unknown factor, I’m going to stick to my guns and tip us to win this game 2-1.

Preview: EFL Trophy Final

When we went two goals ahead against Wycombe back in February, it didn’t feel real. When the final whistle blew in that game, it didn’t feel real. When I ran on the pitch afterwards, it didn’t feel real. When the tickets went on sale, it didn’t feel real. It won’t be until I take my seat for this game that it will actually feel real, that Coventry City have made it Wembley.

For so long at this football club, it’s been about this quest to make it to the national stadium. We’ve come close on several occasions – those years getting close to making the play-offs, that game against Crewe – but it’s always felt out of our reach, no matter how close we actually were. This is Coventry City, the club that hasn’t made the top six of any division for 47 years, we just don’t do success.

For many, making it to Wembley is a prize, regardless of the result in this game. As someone who, through other sports, has been to big finals and seen my team lose, I’m telling you that is the most sickening experience you can have as a fan of your team. It’s not only that so much went into getting there and you didn’t win, but you’re made to watch the opposition have that amazing moment that you were expecting to have.

Mark Robins’ arrival as manager has been almost perfectly timed to provide us with the shot in the arm required to stand a chance against a strong Oxford side. He’s taken time to assess the options available to him and has now found a way to make us look like a proper team. Players appear to know their roles in their side and we’re playing with a level of intensity that has been lacking for the majority of the campaign.

Possible Line-Up

However, some of that continuity and momentum from the past couple of performances is going to be lost due to the ineligible players for this competition. Significantly, Nathan Clarke and Farrend Rawson looked to have formed a robust central defensive partnership but will both be unavailable. On the one hand, that will likely see Jordan Willis and Jordan Turnbull re-form a defensive partnership that was the root of our problems for much of the season, on the other, they’re both mobile defenders who have a degree of comfort on the ball, against a less direct team than our previous two opponents, that could even prove a blessing in disguise.

Elsewhere, Ruben Lameiras’ impact from the bench last week may have made a case for handing him a start in this game to supply genuine creativity in the final third, but I sense that it’s a choice between Kwame Thomas (if fit) and Jodi Jones for that place alongside Beavon in attack. I would imagine that the rest of the midfield four will remain in place given that they are both functioning as a unit and available for selection for this game.

Finally, there is a choice to be made whether to reward Reice Charles-Cook for his performances in this competition with a start in goal in the final, or to stick with the current first-choice of Lee Burge. My inkling is that Lee Burge will start, although it wouldn’t be shocking were Charles-Cook to get the nod.

Last Time We Met

Our two meetings with Oxford this season have curiously been both our best and worst performances of the league campaign. Back at the Ricoh Arena in October, we produced a remarkably composed and controlling performance with Ben Stevenson smashing in a screamer and Marvin Sordell chasing down a weak back-pass to hand us a comfortable win. However, barely a month later, Oxford eviscerated us at the Kassam Stadium in a game that signalled the beginning of the end for Mark Venus as manager.

How Are They Doing?

Nothing can illustrate the feeling towards this game on Oxford United’s end other than they’ve actually required a marketing campaign to sell tickets for this game. They made the final last year, so they’re not as desperate for the day out at Wembley that we are, they also have a realistic prospect of making the play-offs this season, so this game may not even define their season in the same way that it does ours.

A 5-1 win over Bury on Tuesday night emphasised how Oxford have been moving through the gears over the course of the campaign. They looked disjointed for much of the first half of the season, having lost key players from last year’s promotion-winning side from League Two in Kemar Roofe and Callum O’Dowda to Championship clubs and letting go the experience of defenders Jake Wright and Johnny Mullins, as well as striker Danny Hylton. However, the club made some excellent additions in the transfer market both in the summer and then in January, and that quality is really shining through at the moment.

The two key moves in the summer window were firstly securing set-piece maestro and wind-up merchant Chris Maguire on a permanent deal – any free-kick from him closer than 30 yards from goal is almost a penalty – and bringing in winger Marvin Johnson from Motherwell and then converting him into a marauding left-back. Additionally, they managed to bring in Everton youngster Ryan Ledson on a permanent deal and he has been a class apart in the centre of the park for much of the campaign.

Oxford also added firepower to their attack in January through bringing in Toni Martinez and Conor McAleny on loan from West Ham and Everton respectively. However, we don’t have to worry about them as they have both already featured in this competition for their parent clubs, which is just as well as Toni Martinez scored against us at the Ricoh Arena for West Ham PL2 and Conor McAleny has eight goals in 13 appearances.

Losing those two is likely to see Kane Hemmings step up into a central attacking role, a player who has played very well in patches this season, with Maguire operating just behind him. However, Oxford will still have Rob Hall to utilise going forwards, he’s a pacey and skilful winger with excellent delivery who has five goals and five assists to his name despite spending the first few months of the season out injured.

Captain John Lundstram will play in midfield alongside Ryan Ledson, another former Everton youngster, Lundstram plays in a deep role and is important in providing a defensive platform as well as playing the ball out of defence. Michael Appleton could also pick either Joe Rothwell – a former Manchester United youngster – or Josh Ruffels – a former Coventry City youngster – should he wish to operate with a three-man midfield.

Possible Line-Up

In defence, the big Chey Dunkley has been an ever-present at centre-back this season but former Plymouth captain Curtis Nelson has looked a class act alongside him having returned to fitness following injury struggles in the first few months of the campaign. The previously mentioned Marvin Johnson is a real force of nature from left-back and is being tracked by Championship clubs, Appleton could decide to pick Joe Skarz at left-back and push Johnson further forward should he be feeling cautious about the big occasion.

In goal, Oxford have Simon Eastwood, who was yet another great summer signing they made. The former Blackburn man is one of those keepers who can really shut up shop if they’re in the mood, and has done so on several occasions at a higher-level before dropping down to League One for more regular football.

Overall, Oxford are a similar club right now to how Barnsley were last season (coincidentally, the team that beat them in this final last year) and have maybe just been held back from being a top six side already by the relative lack of experience in their squad. They are very much the favourites for this game and we’ll likely spend extended spells of the 90 minutes without the ball.

Prediction

I was more fearful for this game a couple of weeks ago when we were playing without confidence than I am now even though Oxford are in good form themselves and are a much better side than we are. The key areas for the game for us will be whether we can adapt to the change in personnel in defence and how consistent a threat we can be on the counter-attack. For Oxford, it’s about converting the dominance they’re likely to have into goals, which could be affected by losing their form striker for this game.

Oxford are favourites for this game and it could be a really humiliating defeat on the big stage for us. I can envision scenarios of this game in which we win, but my instinct is that Oxford will beat us, probably 2-0.