Preview: Brighton & Hove Albion

A large part of doing this blog is about trying to apply rationality to what happens with this club, yet it often feels as if what happens with this club isn’t rational. The law of averages dictates that at some point we’re due a promotion season, but there seems to be some greater force which seems to completely derail us whenever things seem to be heading in the right direction.

This season seems to be another case in the mounting evidence that this club has been cursed, not only have we lost arguably our two best players to season-ending injuries, but just when we looked to be timing a run of form to plant ourselves in the automatic promotion race, a combination of injuries and illness decimated our squad for a key promotion game and we look now to be reeling from that psychological blow.

This FA Cup game against Brighton could be an opportunity to put those concerns on ice and return fresh next Saturday to kick-start our season, alternatively, it could further harm the confidence that seems to have seeped out of this side over the past week. Playing against Premier League opposition, it’s a chance for Mark Robins to re-instil the defensive organisation that seems to have abandoned us, or it could serve to make things worse.

In terms of team selection, Mark Robins remains hamstrung by the injuries in defence and central midfield. Playing Jordan Willis at right-back isn’t ideal, but it seems as if Dion Kelly-Evans has put himself out of favour after his performance against Accrington last week. We could also probably do with resting Tom Bayliss and Jordan Shipley with both having played a lot of football in their first professional seasons, but there is a dearth of alternatives, which means we’ll have to hope they can be the rare youngsters that avoid burn-out.

Finding that balance in the front four over the next few games could be critical to whether this season continues to implode or whether we can get back on track. Having Shipley and Vincenti out wide on Tuesday was probably overly cautious from Robins, as while they are our best defensive wingers, neither offers much on the counter. If Kyel Reid can be integrated into the side, it would give us the ability to carry the ball forward out wide that we’ve lacked since Jodi Jones’ injury, although he is cup-tied for this game. Additionally, if Jonson Clarke-Harris can harness his physicality and natural goalscoring ability, we have a striker on our books who is too good for League Two.

Last Time We Met

Coventry and Brighton are two clubs that have been on very different trajectories over the past decade – although Brighton’s recovery from homelessness offers some hope for us. Our last meeting came in the Championship during our relegation season under Andy Thorn. It came during the period around the turn of the year where survival started to look probable, Gary McSheffrey and Lukas Jutkiewicz scored the goals at the Ricoh to take us off the bottom of the table.

Interestingly, one player from the two sides on that day remains at their club – Lewis Dunk.

How Are They Doing?

Brighton have adapted to life in the Premier League this season fairly successfully, finding themselves in the relative comfort of mid-table – although only two points above the relegation zone. Chris Hughton has them set-up relatively solidly at the back, with just enough flair up front to eke out the results to currently keep them above water, although creativity remains an issue for them.

Brighton’s intelligent transfer policy has been a crucial element in their adaptation to Premier League life, with attacking midfielder Pascal Gross, goalkeeper Mat Ryan and winger Jose Izquierdo looking particularly excellent signings. Although discussion of their key players feels somewhat academic as Chris Hughton has already demonstrated that he will play a second-string side in the earlier rounds of the FA Cup, something unlikely to change against League Two opposition.

Possible Line-Up

This game looks an opportunity for Hughton to give a run-out to their big January signing Jurgen Locadia. A powerful and pacey striker, it remains to be seen how his form in the Eredivisie translates to the Premier League, but Brighton will be hoping we’ll provide a chance for him to get going. Our struggles in defending crosses this season could prove particularly helpful in that regard.

Elsewhere, Brighton’s second-string side is likely to include the midfield talents of Dale Stephens and Beram Kayal, both capable of taking hold and running a game of at least Championship standard, which means we’re especially likely to be on the end of long periods without the ball. Ex-Newcastle stalwart goalkeeper Tim Krul looks another set to be given minutes, while the mercurial Anthony Knockaeart could obliterate us floating in from a wide position if the mood takes him.

In short…

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Prediction

The leveller for this game looked to be our greater sense of unity and cohesion against a second-string Brighton side trying to figure out each others’ games. However, it isn’t just our poor form that hinders our hopes for this game but the amount of players that have come into the side over the past couple of weeks which has robbed us of some vital cohesion. Brighton’s back-ups may still struggle to click in this game, we’ve got to hope that the sense of occasion snaps ourselves into a functioning team-unit.

Looking at it rationally though, it’s hard to see any other result here than a comfortable Brighton win. If we can keep it down to a couple of goals, then hopefully it won’t affect confidence any further than the past couple of results have done.

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Preview: Colchester United

The result and performance against Accrington on Saturday in such an important match and in front of a big crowd feels like it will go down in the pantheon of infamy that the Crewe JPT game and Burton match under Mowbray exist in. Just when we were starting to believe this team could achieve promotion, the season is in danger of spiralling out of control.

The injuries and illness that left Mark Robins suddenly without several key players has to be taken into mitigation, but it was the lack of a game plan – or even concentration on avoiding errors – that was disappointing regardless of the 11 players on the pitch in their various conditions.

With this game against Colchester United coming so quickly off the back of Saturday’s debacle, it makes Mark Robins’ task of instilling the basics into what will remain a makeshift and unfit side especially difficult. However, it’s a game that we have to get a result, preferably a win, in to prevent things spiralling further into a full-on crisis.

There will be the temptation for Robins to change things up for this game but that could only serve to further the disjointedness of the past couple of performances. A lot of players have been introduced – or re-introduced – into the side over the past month, which has unsettled the balance we once had. Any changes Robins makes have to be necessary and with a specific game-plan in mind, rather than just throwing another collection of players together to see what works.

The injuries at the back mean that Mark Robins can only really drop Dion Kelly-Evans from the side, and that would only be to play Jordan Willis at his weaker right-back position. It’s 50-50 to me whether Kelly-Evans is given a chance to redeem himself after what can charitably be described as a rusty performance on Saturday.

Further forward, Saturday’s midfield duo of Liam Kelly and Tom Bayliss both showed signs of rustiness. The problem is that with Doyle’s injury and Ben Stevenson’s sale, the alternatives are playing Jordan Shipley in the centre – which leads to further changes out wide – or bringing in the inexperienced Callum Maycock for his first league start of the season. Kelly in particular needs to get back to the level he’s capable of otherwise Doyle’s injury could be especially costly.

Possible Line-Up

Jordan Shipley’s move into a central position would allow Robins to bring pantomime villain Kyel Reid back into the side on the left-wing – which is the only position he can really play. Bringing Peter Vincenti into the side on the other wing should offer whoever plays at right-back extra protection and the team in general some much-needed experience at this time.

Up front, unless Marc McNulty is unfit, it would be too disruptive to bring Jonson Clarke-Harris in to start. Purely because his style of play is so different from McNulty and Biamou, it’s going to take time to figure out how to bring the best out of him. Clarke-Harris looks like he has something to offer, but this is a game we need to get a result out of, not one to experiment in.

Last Time We Met

Our game against Colchester earlier in the season was an utterly unremarkable game during a period where we were low on confidence. The only notable thing to come from the game was Colchester’s Tom Lapslie picking up a bizarre second yellow card for hand-ball while appealing for a free-kick just minutes after receiving his first yellow.

How Are They Doing?

Colchester are having a slightly frustrating season, struggling to maintain consistency despite showing the quality at times to be in the top seven. Like us, they’ve had good patches of form, but have consistently stumbled whenever they’ve had the chance to secure a place in the play-offs.

Attacking midfielder Sammie Szmodics was in excellent form in November and December, a technically-gifted player who finally added goals and assists to his game, however he has tailed-off in recent weeks and manager John McGreal has dropped him to the bench. That’s because young winger Courtney Senior has really come to the fore, in his six league appearances this season, he has three goals and three assists. A tricky and skilful winger with the determination to create and score goals, he’s the man we’ll have to nullify.

The presence of the powerful Mikael Mandron up front is another key element of this Colchester side. Mandron is fairly similar in style to Maxime Biamou, and while he is more of a goalscorer than Biamou, there is a sense that Colchester would be doing a lot better this season if Mandron was more clinical.

Possible Line-Up

Tom Lapslie and Sean Murray in central midfield offer Colchester composure on the ball, with Lapslie playing a deep role and Murray offering forward drive. Wolves’ move to send Ben Stevenson straight into this Colchester side probably had in mind that they are one of few League Two side that would give a young ball-playing midfielder the platform to express himself. Stevenson scored within minutes of making his debut for Colchester, seemingly having been given more licence to roam forward than he had with us.

Colchester generally like to play a back three, with the powerful Tom Eastman an important presence for them in dominating the back-line. With the vastly experienced Luke Prosser having returned from a long-term injury recently, there is further determination at the back from Colchester to cope with the physical side of the game. However, a lack of pace could well be an area we should be looking to exploit.

Prediction

We’re going to have to produce a performance of some kind here. It’s probably too early still to be talking about make-or-break games, the defeat on Saturday feels like it could be really damaging psychologically unless we harness that frustration quickly in a galvanising manner. It doesn’t help that at the moment our away form is poor, but the way this season has gone for us, it feels like you can’t read into these things too heavily.

I think Mark Robins will set the team up to get a draw here – which would be our first draw in 12 league games. Unless a Marc McNulty or a Jonson Clarke-Harris or a Kyel Reid produces something inspired out of nowhere, I think we might be able to eke out a turgid 0-0.

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: Milton Keynes Dons

In an awful season, Tuesday night’s performance against Southend did well to stand out as probably the worst performance of them all. It wasn’t just the half-hearted defending that allowed Southend to saunter to a comfortable two-goal lead, it was the complete lack of attacking ambition or anyone even looking like they were playing for pride.

We all know what the situation is, we’re going down and we’ll probably finish bottom too. Mark Robins is here to build for next season, but it’s hard to see right now whether it will actually make any difference that he was appointed last Sunday rather than at the end of this season. Most of this squad won’t be here next season and I’m not sure whether you can lay meaningful foundations when both you and the players know that there’s neither no chance of salvaging the season or of the group staying together come August.

A Combination Of Players That We Have

As a fan though, it still hurts to see us lose as meekly as we did on Tuesday night. The criticism of Russell Slade was that it was boring football that wasn’t working and we were going backwards. Tuesday was probably as bad, if not worse, than some of the tripe we saw under Slade. There’s nothing to lose by throwing caution to the wind now, and it would probably help if Robins attempted to get the fans back onside with some entertaining performances between now and the end of the season.

A big issue contributing to our lack of attacking threat I think has been the exclusion of players who actually create chances, such as Jodi Jones and Ruben Lameiras, and to a lesser extent Kyel Reid. We have too many strikers in the squad, but none of them offer pace, creativity, physical threat, or are a reliable enough threat in front of goal to get away with lacking those qualities. Attempting to shoehorn as many strikers in has made us into a team with no obvious threat. Jones, Lameiras and Reid should at least be given a go to remedy this situation, I also think Devon Kelly-Evans has been harshly overlooked given his performances for the under-23s.

Last Time We Met

Heading into our last meeting with MK Dons, we were looking to get back to winning ways after back-to-back league defeats for the first time under Mark Venus. It was a fairly even contest between two teams looking to build their confidence, however, our achilles heel in preventing and defending crosses into the box allowed MK Dons to take the lead via Ed Upson heading in a centre from Dean Lewington.

Ben Stevenson levelled the game with a typical Ben Stevenson goal, returning a poor clearance from MK Dons’ keeper David Martin into the top corner. However, it was Stevenson’s reckless tackle that earned him a red card that proved the game’s decisive moment, with Ed Upson once again benefiting from poor defending in our penalty area to score the winner just four minutes after Stevenson’s dismissal.

How Are They Doing?

It’s been what might be described as a ‘transitional season’ for Milton Keynes Dons following relegation from the Championship last season. The long-serving Karl Robinson left the club in November after a poor start to the campaign which saw them struggling at the wrong end of the division thanks to a series of poor displays at home. Robinson was eventually replaced in December by ex-Hearts manager Robbie Neilson, who is a friend of Steven Pressley’s and trained with the Sky Blues back in the summer of 2013.

While Neilson has steadied the ship somewhat at MK Dons, it has seemingly been on the assumption that he’ll be able to put together a more concerted bid for promotion next season with more of his own players in place. There have been some decent performances in the four months he’s been in charge, but not on a consistent basis – probably down to a squad rotation policy – and they still need three or four wins to ensure League One status next season, making this game must-win for them.

The team is still transitioning away from the possession-based, and sometimes naive, approach under Robinson towards a slightly more robust approach under Neilson. There are still the intricate attacking midfielders in place such as Ben Reeves, as well as ball-playing defenders such as Joe Walsh and Paul Downing, but Neilson has brought in more physical players such as the towering strikers Robbie Muirhead and Maecky Ngombo and the industrious Stuart O’Keefe in midfield, but has made a nod towards the previous era in signing the talented Leicester attacking midfielder Harvey Barnes on loan.

Possible Line-Up

MK Dons are likely to dominate this game with extended spells of possession, but with more of an attacking impetus than before. Neilson has tended to play either a 4-4-2 or a 4-4-2 diamond formation with more of a physical presence in attack, which means they can move more quickly from defence to attack than they have done before. However, retaining some of those ball-players means they’re capable of holding onto possession and dragging us out of position.

Having quality attacking full-backs also helps MK Dons mix things up, offering support in possession, as well as the ability to put in telling deliveries into the box. At right-back, it’s a choice between George Baldock, who could well play at a higher-level in the next couple of season, and George Williams. At left-back, there’s the reliable Dean Lewington and the promising youngster Ben Tilney to pick from.

If MK Dons play to their potential, they’ll beat us comfortably, however, they’ve struggled in recent weeks due to the loss of the inspirational maverick Chuks Aneke. Yet, they do have Kieran Agard who is a proven striker at this level and has 11 goals to his name this season, so I’m sure they’ll find some way to deal with our robust defensive block.

Prediction

This is a game that MK Dons should win and win with ease. I find it odd that they have struggled to pull away from danger given the strength they have in their squad and that they have a good mix between creative players and physical players. Perhaps it will help us that they’ll look to control the game, which should offer us space on the counter, this is the exact type of games Robins’ previous Coventry City side would have relished.

However, we don’t have David McGoldrick, Franck Moussa and Carl Baker, we don’t even have Steven Jennings or Billy Edge. I’d be surprised if they were taking bets on this win. 4-0 MK Dons win.

Preview: Bristol Rovers

A Christmas changing of the guards at Coventry City has seen Mark Venus shuffle back upstairs to make way for Russell Slade. Appointing an experienced manager who tends to focus on the defence is either going to be just this inexperienced, team that can’t defend needs, or the exact opposite.

With Slade tending to prefer hard-working and committed players over the fleet-footed creative types that Tony Mowbray attempted to build this squad around, expect to see some former favourites marginalised. Ruben Lameiras in particular looks like he’ll need to impress the new manager over the next couple of games to ensure his continued stay at the club, although Jodi Jones and maybe even someone like Gael Bigirimana could find surprisingly find themselves struggling to get into the team.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

However, the arrival of a new manager also tends to provide an opportunity for some of the fringe players in the squad to jump up the pecking order. It’s hard to tell who exactly that might be but I can see Slade giving Marcus Tudgay and Kyel Reid more regular football over the next couple of months and this could maybe be the time that the likes of George Thomas and Ryan Haynes finally establish themselves in the starting 11.

In terms of team selection for this game, there is only so much that Russell Slade can change right now. The biggest decision is probably which keeper he sees as his number one, there isn’t a great deal to pick between either Lee Burge or Reice Charles-Cook. Aside from that, he can’t really change the defence, Ben Stevenson is available again in midfield and it’s a complete guess what kind of attacking line-up he goes for.

Last Time We Met

As tends to happen every season, we come up against a team that we haven’t met in a competitive match in a few generations. Our last meeting against Bristol Rovers came in 1964 in the old Third Division (League One nowadays) at Bristol Rovers’ old Eastville Stadium. A single goal from Ken Hale decided the contest which came during the run-in for our Third Division title-winning campaign under Jimmy Hill.

How Are They Doing?

It’s been an eventful past few seasons for Bristol Rovers, especially for their manager Darrell Clarke. When he stepped into the job towards the end of the 2013/14 season, Bristol Rovers had looked to have done enough to survive in League Two for another season only for a final-day defeat to Mansfield Town and a victory for Wycombe Wanderers to send Rovers to non-league. The then-inexperienced manager Darrell Clarke was seen crying on the pitch, probably contemplating whether he was cut-out for this management business.

A slow start to their National League campaign the following season didn’t augur well for Clarke, only for his side to develop a defensive resilience to mount a long unbeaten-run that took the title race against Barnet to the final day. Although Rovers lost out on automatic promotion by one point, they triumphed on penalties in the play-offs to secure an immediate return to the Football League. The momentum from that promotion carried over into last season which saw Bristol Rovers finally come out on top in a final-day dog-fight to win promotion from League Two.

Darrell Clarke’s man management and tactical skills have been key for the past few years for Bristol Rovers as he’s developed an amazing team spirit at the club while also making them one of the toughest teams to suss out due to his tendency to make big personnel and tactical alterations from game to game. It was a formula that had seen Rovers start this season in the third-tier in form good enough to challenge the play-offs, but they have hit the buffers slightly over the past month or so, with Clarke admitting that some of the stalwarts from their National League days are probably not quite good enough for this level of football.

The biggest issue Bristol Rovers have at the moment is in goal, where former PSV and Nuneaton goalkeeper (yes, you read that right) Kelle Roos, on loan from Derby, has made some really costly errors at times this season and his replacement, Will Puddy, is even worse. Trying to put whoever Darrell Clarke opts for in goal under the slightest modicum of pressure looks like being a good approach here.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

It’s tough to predict what shape or personnel Bristol Rovers will use, however star striker Matty Taylor is probably the only certain pick in the side. After an okay season with Rovers in the National League, Taylor caught fire in front of goal in League Two last season and is currently the division’s second top-scorer. Taylor is nippy striker with plenty of pace to his game who comes to life in the penalty area.

Chris Lines in midfield the other main crucial player, due to his set-piece delivery and leadership in the centre of the park. Chelsea loanee Charlie Colkett has caught the eye as an attacking-midfielder at times this season but has perhaps lacked consistency. While centre-back, Peter Hartley, has proved a useful source of goals from set-pieces this season.

Prediction

It’s hard to see how much difference Russell Slade could possibly make without the opportunity of the transfer window, or even that much time on the training pitch. I imagine that he’ll attempt to play for a clean sheet and hope that we nick something on the counter-attack as he looks to put the building blocks in place for the survival battle ahead. This game will be all about our defence can be trusted to keep a clean sheet, which seems doubtful.

I can see this being a 2-0 defeat and a fairly turgid performance, Merry Christmas everyone.

Preview: Oxford United

In a continued trend of late, we managed to win another game that we started slowly in on Tuesday night. While it’s encouraging that we’ve managed to win a game after falling behind, there is a worrying tendency towards sloppiness in our play at times which leads to the concern that this revival may not be sustainable.

The next three games are going to set the benchmark for the rest of the season. Starting with an Oxford side in desperate need of a win in this upcoming fixture, we then face a daunting away trip to promotion-chasing Bolton before playing MK ‘Dons’ at home in what will either be a relegation six-pointer or a chance to put ourselves in the play-off picture. This week will either completely transform our prospects this season or could put us back in a relegation battle we thought we’d left behind.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Mark Venus settling on an attacking line-up that works is looking like it will be the crucial element. We’ve struggled for cohesiveness in attack over the past few games, which is hardly surprising given that Venus has fiddled with the front three for each game. Good attacking play is not only about great individuals but it’s about having an understanding of what your teammates are going to do, that understanding is tough to develop without consistency of selection.

Marvin Sordell displayed on Tuesday night that he’s our best option through the middle and there should be no reason to tinker there. Kyel Reid provided a wonderful assist for Sordell’s first goal and should probably stay in the side too. Although Jodi Jones didn’t deliver a final product against Morecambe, he did provide a goal threat and should be given at least this game to prove he’s worth a regular starting spot. Without any great other options, sticking with Tuesday night’s attacking line-up makes the most sense.

Last Time We Met

Thanks to some rather odd fixture scheduling, Oxford are the first team we’ll have played twice in the league this season, having played them barely a month ago. It was a game where we needed a win to stay in touch at the bottom of the league and we ended up producing our best, most composed, performances of the season. Ben Stevenson scored a jaw-dropping 25-yard effort to set us on our way, before Marvin Sordell capitalised on a defensive howler to make it 2-0 before half-time. Although Oxford managed a goal back late in the second-half, the poise and control we exerted on the proceedings made sure it was merely a blot on our copybook for an excellent night’s work.

How Are They Doing?

Back in October, Oxford were in good form and looking to get into the play-off picture. Manager Michael Appleton looked to have navigated both a step up in quality from League Two and the loss of last season’s stars Kemar Roofe and Callum O’Dowda with some shrewd additions in the transfer market that had given the U’s quality, as well as strength in depth. That defeat at the Ricoh Arena has augured an awful run of form which now sees Oxford just two points above the relegation zone.

That early season form possibly papered over some of the difficulties in replacing Roofe and O’Dowda, as well as the more experienced, less flashy, Danny Hylton and Jake Wright. Michael Appleton has struggled to find a way to get the best out of what is still clearly a talented squad, with big tactical and personnel changes from game to game clearly not helping.

The one player who has managed to maintain a high level of performance has been Chris Maguire, but it still feels like Appleton doesn’t quite know the best place to utilise his talents. It’s a problem that has plagued Maguire throughout his career, despite his very obvious talents, he’s not quite a striker, not quite a winger and not quite a number 10. Because Oxford have so many other good options in attack, out wide and attacking midfield, Michael Appleton has moved Maguire and his other players around in the hope that something will eventually click.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

It really is a cavalcade of attacking options for Oxford, Dan Crowley and Liam Sercombe offer quality on the ball and runs into the box from midfield, Marvin Johnson is a tall, pacey and direct winger, while Kane Hemmings and Wes Thomas are quick, strong strikers who have shown they can score goals at this level with other clubs. Maybe it’s because Maguire is such an attack-minded player as well, that the problem has been a lack of player to link it all together rather than a lack of quality.

Defensive injuries haven’t helped Oxford this season either with their two big summer central defensive signings, Curtis Nelson and Aaron Martin, spending much of this season on the sidelines. While Chey Dunkley and Charlie Raglan have done a decent job while Nelson and Martin have been out, the constant changes at the back have led to the kind of errors of communication that allowed Marvin Sordell an open goal at the Ricoh Arena last month.

Prediction

We should be wary of Oxford, despite their poor recent form, this is still a team that plays good football and has dangerous attacking players, they will turn things round and this game could be that turning point for them. As for us, not getting a good result from this game cranks up the pressure on the next two games and could see this upturn in form start to unravel.

I’m not feeling positive about this game at all and I can see us losing this one 2-1.

Preview: Bury

Can a performance where you had chances but didn’t take them be described as good? While we certainly created more chances over the 90 minutes than Shrewsbury, our opponents may also be considering whether they put in a good performance after they had chances themselves to take all three points. I feel I’m going to write this a lot over the next few weeks, but it’s too early in the season to tell whether that performance on Saturday was good or bad, or unlucky or lucky.

The positives on Saturday were some bright individual performances, the fluidity of our front three and the sense that we’re closer to being an effective team than many had imagined. Add a decent striker to the team that played on Saturday and we probably would have won that. The negatives were the failure to score after some promising chances and the worrying lack of physical strength in this side which allowed a limited Shrewsbury side to create some glorious opportunities.

Getting a first win of the league season in this Tuesday night game against Bury will probably dictate the emotions about the Shrewsbury result. A win would ease the tension around the club, possibly giving way to the hope that we can grow into the season once the transfer window closes. A defeat, or a draw, just adds to the fear that this could be a very difficult season for us.

With the physical threat that Bury are going to offer in this game, I doubt that Tony Mowbray is going to hesitate that much over replacing Ben Stevenson with the now-available Chris McCann in central midfield. Stevenson certainly has the technical ability and attitude to become a great player at this level, but we need to ease him into first-team football carefully.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

The only way Stevenson isn’t replaced by McCann in the side is if either Ricketts or Willis are deemed unfit for this game. With Jordan Turnbull having not been signed in time for this game, we’re asking a lot of a back three that is a combination of not 100% fit and inexperienced to make it through this game. You feel that we’re going to have to score more than one goal against a physical Bury side to come out with the win.

With a front three of Kyel Reid, Ruben Lameiras and Jodi Jones likely to start in this game, they are going to need to add cutting edge to their promising approach play. Marcus Tudgay looks to be the only fit, alternative option up front and he could be a useful focal point in attack but I’m not sure who out of Saturday’s front three should be taken out of the side in favour of him.

Last Time We Met

Our last meeting with Bury offered hope that we could move back up the gears after stalling last winter. On Legend’s Day and on the same weekend as the Jimmy Hill memorial service at the cathedral, there was a special atmosphere heading into the game despite having failed to win the previous five games.

It was a near-perfect performance from the Sky Blues with two early goals scored from set-pieces via Chris Stokes and Baily Cargill. James Maddison scored a classic James Maddison goal, drifting past a few defenders and curling the ball accurately into the corner of the net from outside the box. There was time for Leon Clarke to fluff some excellent chances before John Fleck made it four with a long-range effort. The second-half was played at near-walking pace with Adam Armstrong bagging a brace with two identikit goals on the counter-attack.

How Are They Doing?

Bury have been paying the price over the summer for failing to achieve promotion after big splurge in the transfer market last year. The spending on players such as Leon Clarke, Peter Clarke and Tom Pope was reportedly funded by high interest loans secured against the club’s ground and most of the big-earners (barring Tom Pope) have been off-loaded over the past few months.

However, the cloth cutting hasn’t been as dramatic as had been expected, with the proven League One/Championship-level performers in the form of Neil Danns, Ben Williams and Leon Barnett brought into the club to replace the quality they’ve lost. While it’s hard to say that Bury are stronger than they were last season, they certainly aren’t as weak as many thought they would be.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

The biggest question mark against this Bury side is not the strength of the squad, but the ability of manager David Flitcroft. Flitcroft is a bit like Chris Coleman, in that his teams can be dire for months on end but occasionally flicker into life over a period of 10 or so games. Bury started last season well only for Flitcroft to fail to arrest a slump that nearly saw them involved in the relegation battle.

As mentioned earlier in this preview, Bury are a team packed with big, physically strong players. Nathan Cameron in central defence, along with a midfield of Tom Soares, Jacob Mellis, Neil Danns and Kelvin Etuhu, with Tom Pope up front will look to impose themselves on the game with physical strength over technical ability.

In comparison to Shrewsbury though, Bury have a little more dynamism and pace to their team via wingers Danny Mayor and Zeli Ismail – both of whom tend to lack in end product – and Greg Leigh at left-back, possibly at the cost of being less secure defensively. We’re going to need to score in this game, but if we can get one early, more should come.

Prediction

Having Chris McCann available to call on for this game is a massive boost given the general lack of physical presence in the side on Saturday. However, we’re still lacking an attacking and defensive physical presence which makes will make this game tougher than it might otherwise be. Bury will be looking to bully us and live off Tom Pope’s knock-downs, we’ve got to stand up to the test and make sure we put the ball into the net when we’re on top.

I’m really struggling to decide on a prediction here. I feel like it’s a game where an early goal for us could lead to an easy win but the longer it stays goalless, Bury are more likely to score. I’m going to sit on the fence and go for a 1-1 draw.