Preview: Stevenage

A win over Lincoln on Saturday came at a welcome time with our promotion bid in danger of going off the rails. It continues a habit we seem to have this season of picking up wins just before a crisis of confidence sets in, but it would be nice now if we can take the cue to put together a more concerted run of form and establish ourselves as one of the serious automatic promotion contenders.

As has continued to be our problem this season, resolving our creative issues is going to go a long way towards us putting together a run of wins. Even in victory against Lincoln on Saturday, we peppered the opposition goal with a large number of shots, but only a handful were of sufficient quality to test the keeper – fortunately, Jodi Jones scored from a ridiculous angle and Duckens Nazon was in the right place to turn a rebound home.

Nazon being out for this upcoming trip to Stevenage, it limits the attacking potential of the side. Most of our strikers are hard-working players prepared to put a shift in for the side, however, they are predictable players who are fairly easy to contain on most days, Nazon is almost the exact opposite of that. Nazon being out inevitably puts more pressure on Jodi Jones to be our creative lynchpin, although this might be a chance for Ryan Haynes to step up and make an impact in the final third.

Possible Line-Up

As for our striking options, Nazon’s suspension seems like good news for Marc McNulty, who is getting closer to the point where we can expect automatic opportunities to play himself into goalscoring form. McNulty’s work-rate is commendable, however, he rarely gets into positions where he can score from and when he does, you can sense the pressure to be the team’s main goalscorer causing him to second-guess himself.

Unless Jack Grimmer returns to fitness, the starting XI is likely to be similar to the one that started against Lincoln. Jordan Willis being at right-back reduces our options in attack further, but it does allow us to have the physical presence of Tom Davies in defence, making us less prone to long balls forward from the opposition.

Last Time We Met

Overall, we have a strong record against Stevenage in the two previous seasons where we’ve been in the same division as them. Memorably, we came from behind in a game on Boxing Day in 2012, with David McGoldrick scoring an absurd 35-yard chip to seal the win. More recently, a Danny Seaborne goal at Sixfields secured an important win for Steven Pressley’s Sky Blues who had been nosediving down the division at the time.

But let’s watch that McGoldrick beauty again!

How Are They Doing?

It’s been an inconsistent season for Stevenage, all the more so as they had been considered strong candidates for the play-offs after an impressive previous campaign that had them on the fringes of the automatic promotion spots in March before an end-of-season collapse. Under Darren Sarll, Stevenage look to play quick, attacking football and can be devastating on their day, but have been slightly too open at times.

Unsurprisingly then, Stevenage’s forward players are the ones we’ll need to be wary of. Matt Godden scored 20 goals last season, and has been complemented this time out by Danny Newton, who has seven goals to his name already. A penalty area striker, Godden had been overshadowed in the opening weeks of the season by the pacier Newton, but has been improving over the past couple of months.

Possible Line-Up

Northern Irish playmaker Ben Kennedy will be out of this game with an injury, but the  presence of Tom Pett out wide still provides Stevenage with creativity. Transfer-listed over the summer after failing to agree a new contract, Pett was a key part of Stevenage’s excellent run towards the end of last season and has three goals an two assists this time out. Harry Beautyman is another creative player for Stevenage who can make the difference on his day.

In defence, Stevenage boast experienced campaigners in the form of Jack King, Luke Wilkinson and Ronnie Henry. King and Henry are over 30 and made their careers by working their way up from non-league, so they’ll be more than prepared for a physical battle, although they do leave Stevenage a little short of pace at the back.

Prediction

With Duckens Nazon out, I’m pessimistic about our ability to create and take chances for this game. Stevenage are a dangerous side to play when they’re on form, but I’m hopeful that the experience and physicality we have in our side can take the potential sting out of this game somewhat.

I can see this being a 0-0 draw, which would be a decent result to take off the back of the win over Lincoln and the Crawley game on Saturday.

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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: Newport County

Two wins on the board without playing particularly well or even facing a shot on target yet. This League Two malarkey is looking easy.

It would be a complacent attitude to take following a perfect start to the season that we already know the quality of the division and only have to maintain our current level of performance to ensure promotion. While both of our wins thus far have been comfortable, we have been fortunate to an extent to have taken leads while struggling to create many clear-cut opportunities and that our opponents didn’t commit numbers going forward.

Nonetheless, it’s a wonderful position to be in to have six points on the board, transfer business effectively over, and there being plenty of scope for improvement. The focus now is solely on Mark Robins working with the squad available and making those improvements as a team.

Possible Line-Up (Click to Enlarge)

It seems unlikely that Mark Robins will change a winning team for this home game against Newport. While Lee Burge is fit again, Liam O’Brien, while yet to flex his shot-stopping skills in the league, has done nothing to warrant the upheaval that comes with changing your goalkeeper. The back four looks settled now that Jordan Willis is fit, despite coming off with cramp against Grimsby. Liam Kelly and Michael Doyle are the heart of the team in central midfield, Jodi Jones is our skilful wide player, Peter Vincenti is our tall one. Stuart Beavon and Marc McNulty are yet to develop an understanding as a strike duo, however, their work-rate in the second-half against Grimsby was an important element of the victory.

While Duckens Nazon and Tony Andreu offer the promise of guile and creativity which could well be the missing element from this side at the moment, neither seems to slot straight into the starting XI without having to both drop someone rather harshly and alter the style of play. Whether our current starting XI is the strongest one remains to be seen, however, there is no reason to changes this up at this moment in time.

Last Time We Met

Our last competitive meeting with Newport County came in 1961 in the old third division (League One). A brace for Mike Dixon at Somerton Park in Newport gave Jimmy Hill’s Coventry City a win early into his reign. The game was so long ago that we weren’t even the Sky Blues back then.

We did play Newport more recently in a friendly before the start of last season, with George Thomas and Jordan Willis scoring to hand Tony Mowbray’s Sky Blues a comfortable win, back when we still thought that another Adam Armstrong was on their way and Vladimir Gadzhev was the new John Fleck.

How Are They Doing?

Newport County pulled off a remarkable act of survival last season, with current manager Mike Flynn arriving as a caretaker on 9th March with relegation looking inevitable. However, Flynn won seven of the 12 remaining games of last season to ensure survival on the final day of the season.

Seeking to avoid another close shave, Mike Flynn has attempted to avoid the excessive player turnover which has been the club’s demise over recent years. The core of last season’s survivalists has remained in place, while some of the dead wood has been cleared out and improvements have been added to the squad in key areas.

In particular, Flynn looks to have upgraded his attack via the signings of ex-Coventry City and Nei Mongol Zhongyu striker Frank Nouble, and Bristol City loanee Shawn McCoulsky. Nouble has scored in both league games thus far for Newport, while McCoulsky scored in their opening game and a notched brace in a League Cup win over League One Southend. Nouble will be the focal point in attack, attempting to use his physicality, while McCoulsky will look to run in behind.

Possible Line-Up (Click to Enlarge)

While the addition of former Yeovil midfielder Matt Dolan over the summer has signalled an attempt to play a more progressive and passing style of play, Newport are very much about getting numbers forward, putting the ball into the penalty area at every opportunity, and attacking second and third balls. They are a team aware that they’re not the best defensively, so will likely attempt to be the more proactive side, not only in taking an attacking mentality, but attempting to impose themselves physically upon us.

Flynn is likely to set Newport up in the 5-3-2 system that proved so effective towards the end of last season. Not only will it mean that the centre of the pitch will be tight and congested, but that their wing-backs – Robbie Willmott and Dan Butler – will have licence to press forward and pepper our penalty area with crosses. That will leave space in behind the wing-backs for Jodi Jones to exploit, but it will also mean that Jordan Willis and Rod McDonald will have to dominate in the air, while Liam O’Brien’s ability to command his area will be put under examination more than it has in recent games.

Prediction

In each of the past two weeks, I’ve warned of the threat of a physical and direct side looking to provide us with a first warning that League Two isn’t going to be a cake-walk – in each of the past two weeks, I’ve been wrong. While Newport are perhaps the most capable of the three teams we’ve faced thus far of handing us a bloody nose, we should be feeling fairly confident that elements of this team are capable of standing up to the test.

It will be an interesting game were Newport to take the lead, forcing Mark Robins to chase a game for the first time this season. Nonetheless, with Newport’s weaknesses at the back, along with their ability to score goals, I can see this being a game where both sides score. I’m going to lean towards positivity and have us down as winning 2-1.

Preview: Grimsby Town

Any illusions that we might make a game of it against Blackburn on Tuesday night were quickly dispelled when the line-ups revealed Mark Robins had opted for a weakened team. While the performance of Duckens Nazon in attack threatened to things interesting, the sad reality was that we were easily beaten by a (top-drawer) League One side playing in second-gear.

Blackburn are clearly going to be far better than any side we’re going to face in League Two this season, but what was close to a first-choice defence will maybe feel like they could have avoided at least two of Blackburn’s three goals. Whether that was because the midfield struggled to impose themselves on the game is a debate to be had, but I left that game feeling like there was a clear need for a leader in that back four.

The returns of Liam Kelly and Michael Doyle to the midfield should hopefully mitigate for some of those defensive wobbles for this trip to Grimsby. Jordan Willis could well return too, and although it feels like he’s still to show he can be a top-class centre-back in a back four, he would be an improvement on Dominic Hyam who’s done to stake a more regular spot in the side. Additionally, on what could be a difficult away day, Peter Vincenti’s height could prove a useful asset in giving us a reliable out-ball if we’re struggling to keep the ball.

The main selection debate will be which strike partnership to pick from the options of Stuart Beavon, Duckens Nazon, Maxime Biamou, and Marc McNulty (if available for selection after dental surgery). Nazon really should be the first-choice out of those four – not only is he clearly our most skilful player, but he has a drive and awareness to his game which marks him out as something more than just a fancy-Dan. McNulty doesn’t seem a natural partner for Nazon, but could benefit from the space he opens up, Biamou struggled to make an impression against Blackburn, which probably means Beavon is the likeliest strike partner for Le Duck.

The signing this week of goalscoring midfielder Tony Andreu adds something different to the mix, although it’s hard to see him being played with Nazon just ahead of him through the middle, in an away game especially. Unless Robins moves Nazon out wide, as he did later on during Tuesday’s game, where he seems less effective, Andreu may have to start his Coventry City career on the bench.

Last Time We Met

Grimsby will probably be best remembered as an opponent for us in recent-ish times as having handed us a 1-0 defeat at Highfield Road in the first season after relegation from the Premiership in the final days of Gordon Strachan’s reign at the club.

Grimsby hung around in the second-tier for one more season after 2001-02, but were twice beaten by Gary McAllister’s Sky Blues as they suffered a relegation from a level to which they haven’t returned to since.

How Are They Doing?

Grimsby steadily dropped through the divisions and into non-league after 2002-03, before winning promotion back to the Football League two seasons ago via the play-offs. Last season was an odd one for them, where they lost the manager and goalscorer that won them promotion but then sacked their next manager for not picking up results in what was clearly a transitional year, and then appointing Russell Slade.

Slade’s appointment seemed to suggest a degree of ambition at Blundell Park to put together a side capable of challenging for the play-offs, however, the summer transfer activity has only really seen incredibly old veterans and incredibly raw youngsters brought into the club on loans and free transfers. Unless Slade can summon up a strong team-spirit, it’s hard not to conclude that Grimsby have a fairly uninspiring squad that could well see them in danger of the drop.

The main exciting talent at Grimsby this season is winger Siriki Dembele – brother of Celtic wunderkind Karamoko Dembele. Siriki has caught the eye over pre-season having not played professional football until joining Grimsby, and carried that form over into the opening day of the season with a wonderful half-the-length-of-the-pitch assist to help Grimsby to a win over Chesterfield. Dembele’s ability to carry the ball on the counter and deliver a final product makes him a major danger-man.

Possible Line-Up

Sam Jones, brought in by Russell Slade’s predecessor, Marcus Bignot, is another attacking talent to watch. The midfielder scored seven in 18 appearances after signing in January and has been deployed as more of a striker by Slade thus far this season. A bit of a physical presence and an excellent finisher, Jones will have to be well-marshalled.

With a slow and old defence – with Nathan Clarke at 33 years-old likely to partner Danny Collins at 37 in central defence – and a target-man to lump it up to in Scott Vernon, Grimsby are likely to defend deep, play direct and try and hurt us on set-pieces. Knowing what we do about Russell Slade’s tactical approach, they will only sit deeper and deeper should they take the lead, so we’re going to have to ensure we start strongly and try to force them to chase the game.

Prediction

Although Grimsby should be the kind of team we should be beating as a matter of routine if we have serious aspirations of promotion, we are still gelling as a team and this game could prove an early lesson in how to deal with a robust and physical League Two team keen to claim our scalp. I’m still far from convinced by our defence based on the opening two games of the season and they could be found wanting against a direct side if they continue to show poor positional discipline and aggression in their play.

Since returning to the club, Mark Robins is yet to win an away game for us – although away wins were the main feature of his first spell at the club. Getting that first away win of the season before it comes a thing is important. However, I can see this being a frustrating 1-1 draw.

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: 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.

Preview: Bradford City

It’s March and we’re nearly already relegated to League Two, however, the re-appointment of Mark Robins as manager has us heading into back-to-back home games against play-off contenders with something approaching optimism. And who knows? Maybe if we won both of these games the situation wouldn’t like quite as hopeless as it currently does.

With that the remote possibility of survival in mind, it will be interesting to see how Robins approaches his first few games in charge. Does he persist with those on loan and short-term contracts order to get results? Will he use these games to lay the foundations for League Two football next season? There is no pressure on Robins to keep us up, but equally, he must be aware that there need to be signs of improvement as a result of his return as manager.

As with any change of manager, predicting the starting line-up for their first game in charge is a difficult task as they are looking at the squad with fresh eyes and a different approach. However, we do have the benefit of knowing Robins’ approach more intimately than we would a normal new manager, so I think there are certain things we can expect to see from a Robins Coventry City side.

In general, the approach during Robins’ first spell in charge was either to defend well and hurt teams on the counter-attack, or to work the ball out wide and create overlaps leading to crosses into the box. The former will favour pacey players like Jodi Jones and Kyel Reid, while the latter should be good news for our attacking full-backs Ryan Haynes and Dion Kelly-Evans. Given that this is a tough game to start with, it’s likely that we’ll look pack the midfield and play a counter-attacking game.

Elsewhere, it will be interesting to see whether Robins makes a break from the brief Slade-era in utilising both Ben Stevenson and Gael Bigirimana in midfield. Stevenson is the kind of intelligent and tactically aware player I think Robins will get a tune out of, Bigirimana is less of a disciplined player who will either make improvements under Robins or struggle to get into the team.

In defence, almost all of the places are up for grabs, with the possible exception of Ryan Haynes at left-back due to lack of competition. I would imagine that Robins will initially place trust Nathan Clarke, so it will be a competition between Jordan Willis, Farrend Rawson and Jordan Turnbull for the remaining spot in central defence. I’ll be intrigued to see whether trusts Dion Kelly-Evans at right-back over Kevin Foley or Jordan Willis.

Last Time We Met

Our last meeting with Bradford almost injected life into our woeful start to the season. Dan Agyei had been signed a few days before as our number nine for the season and he displayed plenty of promise in opening the scoring early in the game and being a general menace in disrupting Bradford from playing out from the back on their home turf. However, we struggled to maintain that level of performance into the second-half and Jordan Turnbull conceded a penalty and got himself sent off in the game’s decisive moment.

Tony McMahon, a player Tony Mowbray had tried to sign for us the year before, emphatically converted the penalty. Almost straight from the kick-off, Mark Marshall (a former player of course) scored a worldie from 25-yards out. McMahon then had another chance to score from the spot to seal the win, which he took and then rubbed salt into the wound by becoming the world’s oldest and most northern player to dab by way of celebration.

How Are They Doing?

In general, it’s been a good season for Bradford. Stuart McCall, something of a club legend from his time at the club as a player before a less successful spell as manager, returned to the club for a second bite of the managerial cherry and had helped the team evolve from the fairly route one stuff of the Phil Parkinson-era into a more entertaining, aesthetically pleasing team to watch. However, they have failed to really threaten the automatic promotion spots due to a number of drawn games and there is a sense at times that they haven’t quite been playing to their potential.

Probably the biggest issue has been the lack of a prolific goalscorer in attack for the Bantams. Huddersfield loanee Jordy Hiwula is blessed with plenty of pace but seems to lack a truly killer instinct to make the most of the good positions his speed lets him get into. The January signings of former Port Vale man (and former Coventry City trialist) Alex Jones and ex-Carlisle striker Charlie Wyke have looked to address this, with some success thus far. Wyke is a real presence in attack, not only being someone capable of getting on the end of crosses, but also linking play very well. Jones is a fairly typical goal poacher in that he doesn’t offer a great deal outside of the box.

In midfield, the creativity of Nicky Law and Mark Marshall out wide has been a major success story of the season for Bradford. Law had been signed over the summer following a fairly unsuccessful spell at Rangers in the Scottish lower divisions but he has offered real drive and energy to Bradford’s midfield. Marshall was overlooked last season by Phil Parkinson in favour of Kyel Reid, but has been involved in more goals than any other Bradford player this season, with four goals and six assists to his name.

Possible Line-Up

Elsewhere, Josh Cullen in the centre of the pitch is another key player to look out for. The West Ham loanee had a successful loan spell last season and has picked up where he left off this season, another player who carries the ball forward from midfield really effectively. It would be remiss of me not to mention Romain Vincelot, one of the heroes for us last season, who is the captain of this Bradford side and has been key when played in either central defence of midfield.

At full-back, Tony McMahon and James Meredith are great attacking outlets to have, further heightening Bradford’s all-round threat. While, Nathaniel Knight-Percival is a composed presence in central defence, operating in front of the experienced and reliable Colin Doyle in goal.

Prediction

The optimism that comes with the arrival of not only a new manager, but the statistically best manager we’ve ever had, has to be tempered by our poor form and the quality of the opposition that we’re up against. A win in this game would be the perfect way to mark the beginning of a new era at the club, but these remaining games of the season could well be about making gradual improvements and figuring out who to keep next year rather than going out to get those seven or eight wins that could keep us up.

I can see us losing this game 1-0.