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: Cambridge United

This time last week there was a danger that the bottom could have fallen out of our season. Without a win, or even a goal, in three league games, things could easily have taken a turn for the worse had that form continued into back-to-back home games. Two wins later, and the confidence that this is a team that can win promotion has returned.

There have been two important elements in our last two wins. The first has been the return of Lee Burge in goal – or perhaps, a lack of a goalkeeping error to have handed the opposition a lead to defend. The second has been, quite simply, the taking of chances at the other end of the pitch.

Possible Line-Up

It’s still too early to say with confidence that our strong defensive record this season has been solely down to the players and manager and not, at least in part, been helped by playing some of the more toothless sides at this level thus far. However, if we can keep this up, it’s only going to take one moment of brilliance, or luck, to decide most games in our favour – which is what we saw against both Port Vale and Carlisle, where we didn’t particularly sustain an attacking threat, but took our chances when they came.

With Duckens Nazon having only suffered cramp against Carlisle on Tuesday, Mark Robins only really has to pick between Rod McDonald and Tom Davies in central defence. While Davies won man of the match on Tuesday night, his lack of mobility and composure on the ball still looked a weakness that could have led to mistakes against better opponents. There may be an argument for pairing Davies with McDonald, but that would be harsh on Jordan Willis who has been quietly solid this season, so I could see McDonald making an immediate return to the starting line-up.

Last Time We Met

It was one of the most scarring games of last season when we travelled to Cambridge United in the FA Cup. The initial bounce that had come with Mark Venus’ caretaker spell had died out, with the manager quickly entering the phase of random tactical and personnel changes that characterises a the final days of a managerial reign. Cambridge, and Luke Berry in particular, were there to punish that lack of continuity and confidence, running out comfortable 4-0 winners, despite being in the league below.

How Are They Doing?

Despite running out comfortable winners back in December, Cambridge endured a frustrating and inconsistent campaign under Shaun Derry. Although it’s early days still, this season has begun in a similar vein and if Derry continues to struggle to string together a run of results to get the U’s into the top seven, he could find himself out of a job before the end of the campaign.

Derry’s task this season has been made more difficult by the sale of, by far, the star player of last season, Luke Berry, to Luton Town. Berry scored an incredible 17 league goals from midfield last year, and leaves this Cambridge United side looking much less dynamic, even though there was a sense that Shaun Derry didn’t quite know the best position in which to use Berry.

However, the addition of ex-Carlisle United talisman Jabo Ibehre in attack means that Cambridge won’t be lacking in attacking threat. Ibehre has mainly had to content himself with a role as an impact sub, with the even bigger and stronger Uche Ikpeazu playing more of a central role as the focal point up front in the opening weeks of the season. However, since Berry’s departure in the final days of the transfer window, Shaun Derry has looked to partner the two powerful strikers together.

As for other attacking threats, winger Piero Mingoia is one of the better wide players at this level. An industrious player with good delivery and capable of chipping in with the odd goal, he could be someone to give either Jack Grimmer or Chris Stokes a bit of a headache. Attacking midfielder Jevani Brown has stepped up from non-league comfortably since signing this summer. Additionally, the rapid Harrison Dunk will be a threat from left-back.

Primarily though, Cambridge are a side that looks to keep clean sheets before nicking something at the other end – similar to us. Both as a player and now as a manager, Shaun Derry has a reputation for cynical play – time-wasting, niggly fouls, all the dark arts in the book – which can make his side incredibly tough to break down once they take the lead, however, it has led to frustrations from Cambridge fans that Derry is overly negative in the way he sets his teams up.

The battle of the midfield bastards – Gary Deegan and Michael Doyle – is going to be an interesting feature of the game. While in defence, Cambridge have one of the best right-backs in the division in Brad Halliday, along with two experienced centre-backs in Greg Taylor and Leon Legge, with the even more experienced David Forde in goal.

Prediction

This is another game for us that is unlikely to be a spectacle of high-quality football. Both teams are fairly similar in their defensive focus and both are coming into this game off the back of wins in midweek. Unlike Port Vale and Carlisle, Cambridge will look to stifle the likes of Jodi Jones and Duckens Nazon, which is likely to make it even more difficult for us to create chances.

Unless there is a glaring error in either defence, this game has 0-0 written all over it.

Preview: Chesterfield

It was an odd game against Shrewsbury on Tuesday night. The first-half performance was bad, but not bad enough to deserve being two goals down. The second-half performance was better, but not better enough to deserve scoring two goals. Then the game was won by Shrewsbury with a brilliant free-kick.

What was apparent against Shrewsbury, as has been apparent in our past few games, has been a lack of intensity in our attacking play. While Doyle and Kelly protect the defence well, they slow the play down too much, allowing opposing defences to re-set and mark our forwards out of the game. The improvement against Shrewsbury came when the composed Callum Maycock and the forward-thinking Tony Andreu were paired together. It seems unlikely Robins will allow that partnership to develop heading into this upcoming league game against Chesterfield.

If Robins isn’t going to pick a dynamic midfield, finding the right combination in the front four positions becomes vital. A creative wide player was probably the main missing ingredient from our transfer business, but Robins now has to find a way in which our best attacking players – Jodi Jones, Tony Andreu, Marc McNulty and Duckens Nazon – can function as an effective unit.

Possible Line-Up

In defence, Rod McDonald’s return would be welcome, after two defensive performances from the side lacking in authority. While McDonald is hardly a Ben Turner-style dominant centre-back, he is the closest to that type of player we have at the moment – without having seen what new signing Tom Davies can offer. Although, the addition of Davies may well suggest McDonald is out for longer than expected.

The big decision for this game though is whether Lee Burge continues in goal. Despite conceding three against Shrewsbury, Burge came out of the game pretty much unscathed and currently seems less of a risk than Liam O’Brien, given the latter’s recent high-profile errors. It would be a surprise should Robins restore O’Brien to the side.

Last Time We Met

There was hope heading into our previous meeting with Chesterfield that Russell Slade was the right man to keep us in League One. After being unlucky to take three points against Bolton in the previous game, with Stuart Beavon catching the eye, a managerless and struggling Chesterfield side seemed the perfect opportunity to jump out of the relegation zone and really get our survival bid going.

In the event, we saw a depressing sign of what was to come under Slade with the team making little attempt to pass the ball, instead hoofing it up to an ineffectual Marcus Tudgay and a fatigued Stuart Beavon. A late goal decided the game and, less than a month after arriving at the club, signalled the beginning of the end for Russell Slade.

How Are They Doing?

Despite earning a confidence-boosting win in that relegation six-pointer back in January, Chesterfield somehow managed to not only be relegated, but finish below us in the table. Credit for that achievement has to go to manager Gary Caldwell, who was appointed in the week after that game and won just two of the remaining 18 games of the season.

In spite of some poor moves in the transfer market and even more questionable tactical decisions, Chesterfield’s board stuck by Caldwell and entrusted him to build the team that would get them out of League Two at the first attempt. Thus far though, that faith looks to have been somewhat misplaced, with the Spireites winning just one of their opening four league games to leave the club bottom of the division and leaving many fans completely disillusioned with the running of the club (there are also bigger issues relating to current owner Dave Allen that don’t fit into the scope of this preview).

However, there are signs that Chesterfield are in a slightly false position despite this poor start to the campaign and questions over the acumen of their manager. In sticking to Caldwell’s ethos of passing football, Chesterfield have created a lot of chances over their opening few games and have been unlucky to an extent not to have scored more goals and taken more points.

Experienced target-man Chris O’Grady in attack looks a high-calibre signing at this level of football, given that he’s spent much of the past four or five years in the Championship. His role is as the focal point of an attack to allow younger, more dynamic players space to hurt the opposition.

In that regard, box-to-box midfielder Jordan Sinnott has really caught the eye thus far this season. After spending last year at then-National League North side Halifax Town, Sinnott has stepped effortlessly up to Football League standard, with his drive from the centre of the park already a key part of Chesterfield’s play.

Possible Line-Up

Two young creative players with links to Sheffield United also will need to be kept quiet. Both Louis Reed and Diego de Girolamo were tipped for big things at Bramall Lane before struggling to establish themselves as regulars. Reed is a jaw-droppingly gifted central midfield schemer who was being linked with the likes of Tottenham before picking up a few injuries. De Girolamo is more of a forward with an end product than Reed and has impressed in loan spells at this level in previous years before being snaffled up by Bristol City’s development squad.

Chesterfield’s style of play will mean that they’ll take risks and leave gaps at the back, which is a sea change from previous opponents. However, in Ian Evatt and Tommy Lee, they do have a defender and a goalkeeper of proven quality at this level and higher who could prove stubborn customers should Chesterfield take the lead.

Prediction

Like Newport and Yeovil in recent weeks, Chesterfield are a side that hasn’t had too much problem scoring goals, but have struggled to keep them out. What we’ve seen is that despite our defensive solidity, our more free-flowing opponents have had the edge as a result of their belief that they can score goals.

Unlike Yeovil and Newport though, Chesterfield are likely to be much more open. Hopefully too, the goals we scored against Shrewsbury on Tuesday night will give us that belief in our attacking play that we’ve needed – especially after falling behind.

However, I think Chesterfield may well end up getting that win they’re in desperate need of, by 2-1.

Preview: Shrewsbury Town

After slipping to back-to-back defeats in League Two, we return to a competition that delivered the club one of its greatest days in recent history. However, given the farcical nature of the Checkatrade Trophy, this game feels more important for the opportunities it gives Mark Robins to change things up than it does the beginning of a defence of silverware.

Following another high-profile gaffe from Liam O’Brien in goal at the weekend, this game comes at a good time to drop the keeper without the same level of significance that it would have for a league game. If Lee Burge can came through this game without having made any major errors of his own, he’s quietly back in the side. If Burge doesn’t pass the test, it doesn’t cost us league points and O’Brien stays in the side.

Possible Line-Up (Click to Enlarge)

Arguably the more pressing concern for Mark Robins than the goalkeeping situation though is our attacking play. While goalkeeping mistakes turned the past two games against us, our inability to create and take chances was the reason why those mistakes cost us points.

Despite the calls from some fans for Robins to sign Carl Baker and another striker before the window closes, we really do have plenty of options in attack. By my reckoning, we have nine first-team players to fill the four attacking slots in the side. The likes of Tony Andreu, Jodi Jones, Duckens Nazon and Marc McNulty have demonstrated both for us and at other clubs that they should be too good for League Two, it’s about Mark Robins figuring out the best combinations and right shape to play them in.

Last Time We Met

A goalless draw at Shrewsbury back in March was notable mainly because it was Russell Slade’s final game in charge of the club. Ironically, it was that it was a better standard of performance than we had seen throughout much of Slade’s reign that was the final nail in the coffin for him. Injuries had forced Slade to utilise Ben Stevenson and Gael Bigirimana in midfield, and the gulf in quality between those two and Slade’s preferred options of Kevin Foley, Andy Rose and Callum Reilly demonstrated just how poor our soon-to-be former manager’s judgement of what was required to win games of football.

How Are They Doing?

After struggling for much of last season, Shrewsbury Town have started the new season in League One in fine form. Unlike Russell Slade, Shrewsbury boss Paul Hurst very much knows a good player when he sees one, and what it takes to get the best out of them. Despite making the majority of his signings from non-league, League Two and some very raw Championship youngsters in the loan market, Hurst can not only exploit gaps in the market, but seems to be able to figure out specific roles for his players in order to maximise their strengths and minimise their limitations.

Shrewsbury have won three out of their opening four league games – drawing 1-1 with Oxford on Saturday – with their six goals coming from five different players, demonstrating their lack of star players and the emphasis Hurst places on the overall team effort. Ahead of this Checkatrade Trophy tie, the former Grimsby manager, is likely to ring the changes and allow some of his fringe players an opportunity to stake a claim for a more regular place.

Possible Line-Up (Click to Enlarge)

That makes my task of picking out Shrewsbury players to keep an eye on difficult. Nonetheless, Jon Nolan, if selected, in midfield has really caught the eye this season since arriving from Chesterfield. Having played under Hurst at Grimsby, the Shrewsbury boss clearly knew what he was getting from Nolan, a creative, driving presence in midfield with the quality to perhaps even play in the Championship in the coming seasons.

With a surfeit of attacking options, Shrewsbury are likely to give the likes of Wolves youngster Niall Ennis, former Kidderminster winger Arthur Gnahoua, and Swansea winger Daniel James a run-out. Shrewsbury look weakest in defence, where the inconsistent Aristote Nsiala and full-back Mat Sadler have often been used as a central defensive partnership.

Prediction

The nature of this competition and the likelihood that both sides will be massively changed makes it difficult to predict. While Shrewsbury, as the higher division side, our favourites, I don’t think there’ll be too much to pick between two teams likely to be going through the motions.

I’ll put this down as a 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: Southend United

After one of the least convincing wins possible over a team in the division below us on Wednesday night, we head into this upcoming league match against Southend not quite in a full nosedive towards oblivion but at a 179-degree angle.

There’s probably not much that can be seriously read into from Wednesday night’s win over Crawley. Mark Venus named a random assortment of players into a rough 4-4-2 shape and we, as a crappy League One team, beat Crawley, a crappy League Two team. If this is the start of another good run of form, it certainly was an inauspicious one.

Marvin Sordell, Jack McBean, Jodi Jones and George Thomas played as a front four against Wednesday and there’s maybe some promise there. Thomas is a very hardworking player who we could probably do with right now, McBean tends to do a decent job bringing others into play, Sordell’s our one proper ‘number 9’ and Jodi Jones is potentially someone who can create something out of nothing. However, a lack of experience and physicality in the front-line will probably see someone like Kyel Reid or Marcus Tudgay come into the team for this game.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Elsewhere, the return of Chris McCann to fitness on Wednesday night is a huge boost for a side lacking presence and experience. There is a conundrum of how you play him in the same midfield as Andy Rose, but with Jamie Sterry currently injured and the alternative at right-back being the energetic but short and defensively-suspect Dion Kelly-Evans, it might be worth sticking with Rose at right-back for his height against a physical Southend side. However, Ben Stevenson’s suspension may make the need for Rose greater in midfield.

Reice Charles-Cook played in goal against Crawley on Wednesday, as he did in the previous EFL Trophy game under Mark Venus. My own opinion is Charles-Cook is the better all-round goalkeeper than Lee Burge, but it seems like the latter is Venus’ number one and I would expect Burge to return in goal for this game.

Last Time We Met

We headed into our last meeting with Southend fresh off the back of a 2-0 loss to Burton, but still hopeful we could overcome a slight speed-bump along our path to promotion. Speed-bump it was not, Southend completely outplayed us at Roots Hall, taking a 2-0 lead before half-time and then mocking us even further by spending much of the rest of the second-half with ten-men but still managing to be the better side and going on to score a third goal. Also, Stephen Hunt played in this game.

How Are They Doing?

When Southend lost their two star players from last season – Jack Payne and Daniel Bentley – in the summer and manager Phil Brown desperately tried to jump ship to Bolton, it looked like the Shrimpers were set for a season of struggle. However, Brown failed to land the job at Bolton and has done an effective job at rebuilding the squad to probably make them a better team this time around.

Brown’s best summer signings were Simon Cox and Nile Ranger in attack, both players presenting different kinds of risks. Cox was on a downwards career trajectory and hadn’t really had a decent season in six or seven years, but had a high enough reputation still to demand a significant salary. Ranger’s off-the-field problems are well-documented and probably obscure the fact that he’s a very good striker at League One level, having proven it with Swindon a few years ago. Neither have been particularly prolific this season but Ranger has been an excellent focal point in attack, while Cox has provided energy and creativity.

Stephen McLaughlin is Southend’s current top-scorer, although he plays as a winger. McLaughlin is an inconsistent performer but has scored some absolute screamers this season and can be a great player on his day. Anthony Wordsworth has also been a strong contributor of goals this season from midfield, he offers drive and excellent set-piece delivery. Finally, Will Atkinson is of a similar ilk to McLaughlin in that he can be anonymous at times but then all-of-a-sudden pop up with a goal or an assist.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Southend probably possess the best full-back pairing in the division in the form of Jason Demetriou and Ben Coker. Both are very attacking full-backs with great delivery, Demetriou also has a great long-range shot on him and should really have gotten a move to a bigger club than Southend after his exploits for Walsall last season.

With Phil Brown in charge, Southend are a difficult team to predict just who they’re going to play and in what formation with their manager preferring to chop and change depending on the opposition. Just like last season though, Southend are going to be a very physical, tenacious and hard-working team and thus well set-up to punish us if we’re not up for the challenge.

Prediction

Southend are in great form, we are not. Southend have experience and physicality in their side, we do not. Throw our awful away form into the mix and it’s a no-contest really. Southend to win 3-0.