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.

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Preview: Accrington Stanley

In this reverse travellator of a promotion race in League Two, forward progress only serves to maintain your position while any stumble can send you back a long way. Two wins in a row had us one point away from an automatic promotion place, yet the defeat against Forest Green saw us slip outside the play-off positions.

This coming month though should begin to see things fall into a more definitive place for us and the rest of the division. This week sees us against 3rd and 10th before we take on Brighton in the FA Cup, then it’s 5th, 2nd and 9th, if we can average our current rate of two wins out of three, we should still be in the promotion race, anything less and we’ve not only dropped points, but handed them to direct promotion rivals. In three weeks time this could either be one of those seasons that promises much but fails to deliver, or we could be on track to end nearly half a century without a top six finish.

It feels like the first match of this run of six games will set the tone. With a bumper crowd at the Ricoh Arena, this is the opportunity to create some special memories that could boost the mood and atmosphere around the club for not just the rest of the season, but win over some lifelong fans experiencing their first day out at the football. However, the number of casual and very young fans in attendance could lead to a very strange atmosphere which could play drastically against us.

Possible Line-Up

The defensive injuries sustained in last week’s defeat to Forest Green could further increase that sense of tension. Tom Davies, Jack Grimmer and Chris Stokes are all reported to have picked up knocks of varying degrees of seriousness during the Forest Green game, which is further compounded by back-up right-back Dion Kelly-Evans also struggling with an injury. A back four of Jordan Willis, Dominic Hyam, Rod McDonald, and Ryan Haynes could very well pick itself, unless Robins switches to a back three or brings young right-back Jak Hickman or centre-back Jordon Thompson into the mix.

Elsewhere, I would imagine that Mark Robins will stick with the attacking line-up that played against Forest Green. The experience of Liam Kelly and Michael Doyle could well be important in protecting a makeshift back four, while Tom Bayliss and Josh Barrett look dangerous coming off either wing – despite the preference clearly being for Bayliss to operate in a more central position. Although Jonson Clarke-Harris scored for the under-23s this week, it still feels way too hasty for him to come in and break up the Biamou-McNulty strike partnership.

Last Time We Met

Accrington were the first team this season to comprehensively out-play us – something that has only happened on three or four occasions since. We were simply unprepared for the rapidity and slickness of Accrington’s attacking play, with Sean McConville scoring the only goal of the game early on after one of several attacking moves that left our defence at complete sixes and sevens was finally rounded off.

It only serves to make our cobbled together back-line for this game all the more ominous.

How Are They Doing?

Accrington are almost a boring team to write about because their style of play, key players and perennial overachiever status are so well-established. Forget the name ‘Accrington Stanley’, forget the journeyman careers of the likes of Billy Kee, Sean McConville and co, pay attention to their third-place position in the table and third-best attack. This is not an easy game for us in any way, shape or form.

John Coleman has this Accrington side perfectly drilled in their attacking play, they can sweep forward in fluent passing moves, creating overloads, before exploiting the gaping holes they leave in opposing defences. Star striker Billy Kee is absolutely pivotal in their system – no other player in League Two has been directly involved in as many goals as Kee has (that’s 18 goals and eight assists). There are two other players in Accrington’s squad – Kayden Jackson and Sean McConville – in double figures for combined goals and assists, only Marc McNulty from our ranks is on that level.

Possible Line-Up

While Accrington’s attacking play can be very eye-catching, they have some experienced campaigners further back that can make things awkward for opponents when Stanley take the lead. Seamus Conneely and Scott Brown a fierce, snarling defensive midfielders, while the veteran Mark Hughes at centre-back is not only a war-horse but someone who is a threat at the other end of the pitch on the end of set-pieces.

Accrington’s biggest weakness though is at the back, where they tend to leak goals, which should provide some hope that the game won’t necessarily be over should we fall behind. However, they are a side that tends to end games better than they start them – in first-halves of games this season they have a -1 goal difference, they are +17 in second-halves.

Prediction

Just how the bumper crowd for this game affects things remains to be seen, it could either be a really positive positive or a really negative negative. Regardless, this is a really tough game for us against one of the division’s best teams, and we’re having to make do with a makeshift back four – the signs already are fairly ominous.

The hope is that we can continue our ability to win out in big games – this run of six fixtures could potentially be an amazing run for us in that regard – but this game has for me too many negative omens going into it than positive ones. I think we’ll lose this 3-1, putting extra pressure on the next five games.

Preview: Forest Green Rovers

While it was a winnable game against Cambridge on Tuesday night, it would have been utterly predictable for a Coventry City side to fail to build on our FA Cup run and put in a half-hearted performance to lose the game. It is an indication of the confidence and fortitude of this side at the moment that we made fairly swift work of our opponents to keep ourselves right in the promotion mix.

This coming month is likely to prove pivotal to our promotion hopes – with games against fellow promotion contenders Accrington, Colchester, Mansfield, Wycombe and Lincoln around the corner – which makes it especially important that we take the maximum number of points in this away trip to struggling Forest Green in order to keep the points and momentum ticking over.

Possible Line-Up

Mark Robins has generally having rotated the side through these runs of Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday games, which is why we can probably expect changes to Tuesday night’s winning team. There’s surely the temptation to through Jonson Clarke-Harris straight in, but I’m concerned that his style of play is too different from what we currently have to fit seamlessly into the side – also he’s played very few minutes this season.

Instead, I would expect the changes to be in wide areas – where Robins has been able to rotate over the past month or so without hindering our momentum. With Liam Kelly rested on Tuesday night, it seems to make sense to me that he’s restored to the centre of the park to give us more solidity in an away game with Tom Bayliss pushed on to the right-wing, where he was impactful against MK Dons. Although Jordan Shipley got onto the scoresheet against Cambridge, I can see Josh Barrett given another go on the left-wing after a promising debut last Saturday.

Last Time We Met

After a fairly underwhelming run of form in October – particularly in front of goal – we faced a struggling Forest Green side on a Tuesday evening at the Ricoh Arena with the expectation that they were the perfect opponents to easily kick ourselves out of our funk. Instead, we started the game both nervously and sloppily, with Forest Green winger Keanu Marsh-Brown able to take advantage of our frayed edges with a speculative shot that was dropped into goal by Lee Burge.

The rest of the game became exponentially more frustrating as the minutes passed, as we struggled to convert possession into meaningful chances to test an opposition happy to sit on a one-goal lead. This game then descended into farce when a fan managed to enter the pitch for slightly too long while the ball was in play – a slight over-reaction to a frustrating evening if you ask me, also, he was very close to being set upon by Michael Doyle.

How Are They Doing?

Forest Green have been absolutely terrible this season, and are in danger of being the first ever side promoted from the National League to be relegated in their first Football League season. The scariest thing about their season – from a Forest Green perspective – is that they’ve actually been lucky to even be within a chance of survival, creating the fewest chances, conceding the most, but somehow being the team with the most wins from losing positions.

Remarkably for a side that creates very little, they have one of the division’s top scorers in Christian Doidge. With 14 league goals to his name, Doidge has scored 45% of all the goals Forest Green have scored, while setting up a further four – they would be dead and buried without him. Doidge is a striker who can score all types of goals, strong, mobile, and an excellent finisher both inside and outside the box. If he has even a sniff of goal, he’ll probably score.

Forest Green have attempted to rectify their struggles this season by spending fairly big in the January transfer window, with Exeter’s Reuben Reid – someone who has been one of the best strikers at this level for a number of seasons, but has scored one goal since the middle of November – a notable addition. Strangely though for a side who look to build from the back, they went out and signed a number of physical but limited centre-backs, leaving them in a situation where they regularly end up playing four or five centre-backs in their starting XI.

Possible Line-Up

Of those limited centre-backs, Haydn Hollis and ex-Sky Blue Farrend Rawson are likely to line up as a pairing. As we saw with Rawson while on loan with us last year, he can be dominant in the air but struggles with the ball anywhere near his feet, Hollis is a similar sort of defender. At left-back is likely to be Gavin Gunning, an excellent defender at this level on his day, but with an erratic streak in his discipline. They are set to be protected in midfield by Lee Collins – another centre-back – and Isaiah (brother of Isaac) Osbourne, who is someone that requires a compass to navigate past.

While there are mistakes in Forest Green’s back-line that are there to be punished if we press high enough against them, they have the threat from out wide to punish us on the counter if we’re too gung-ho. Keanu Marsh-Brown’s pace, skill and eye for the spectacular make him someone with the ability to play higher than League Two if he was remotely consistent. On the other flank, Dayle Grubb – signed from non-league Weston-Super-Mare in January – has hit the ground running and is another winger capable of scoring goals.

Prediction

This is a game that we have to be confident in being able to win, and with the minimum of fuss. Forest Green’s ability to occasionally pull a big result out of the bag makes them a side that should never be written-off, but if we put in a professional performance and look to exploit their sloppiness at the back, this should be a comfortable win.

I think we’ll win this 2-1.

Preview: Stoke City

Having moved into the top three in the division with a routine win over Chesterfield on New Year’s Day, the attention turns to an FA Cup tie against Premier League opposition that has struggled to capture the imagination.

It’s not just that most Coventry City fans will remember Stoke being on a par/below our level of status as a football club, but that they are a club without a particularly captivating narrative or set of players worth going out of your way to see.

What has raised the interest in this FA Cup tie has been the increasing pressure on Stoke manager Mark Hughes. While it makes it a more winnable game in the sense that Stoke are in dreadful form at this moment in time, it also makes it less winnable in that Mark Hughes has to play his strongest team in order to avoid an embarrassing cup exit that would not only see him sacked, but possibly end his career as a top-flight manager for the time being.

 

While the players will still be recovering from the hectic festive fixture schedule, the prospect of causing a cup upset will surely have raised the energy levels in training this week. For Mark Robins, he is up two players following the arrivals of young attacking loanees Josh Barrett and Jordan Maguire-Drew, but down one enigmatic, one-of-a-kind maverick in the form of Duckens Nazon.

Possible Line-Up

With Josh Barrett reportedly struggling with an injury niggle, Jordan Maguire-Drew is likely to be the only new signing involved in this game. The Brighton loanee winger has a strong chance of starting this game given that Mark Robins doesn’t seem to trust Devon Kelly-Evans as a first-choice starter.

Elsewhere, possible returns to fitness of Rod McDonald and Liam Kelly should further enhance the options available to Mark Robins. I would expect Rod McDonald to start – against the club he started his career at – ahead of Tom Davies in central defence, while it’s not certain that a fully-fit Liam Kelly would get into the side given the form that Tom Bayliss is in, although maybe he isn’t suited to a game where we’re going to be out of possession for extended spells.

Last Time We Met

Our last meeting with Stoke came back in 2008 when they were closing in on promotion to the Premier League and we were scrapping for survival during Chris Coleman’s first season in charge. An Elliott Ward penalty saw us take a surprising lead against Tony Pulis’ Stoke, only for us to concede a penalty – converted by Ricardo Fuller – and then for Liam Lawrence to score a late winner.

Stoke were on an upward trajectory and have remained in the Premier League in the decade since, the same season marked for us the arrival of SISU and a continued downward trajectory. Michael Doyle is the only player for either side in that game who will line up in this one.

How Are They Doing?

It feels somewhat redundant to write a detailed preview for a Premier League club, given that there is far more coverage of them than say, Chesterfield. As mentioned earlier though, Stoke are in a bit of a tailspin at the moment and are seemingly on the verge of sacking Mark Hughes as their manager.

As with many non top-six, long-serving Premier League clubs, it’s been a case of steadily losing a sense of identity and purpose as they’ve looked to maintain top-flight status. Mark Hughes had been brought in to freshen Stoke’s style of football away from Tony Pulis’ ultra-pragmatic, physical style, but things now look to have gone stale for Hughes as well.

After injecting the squad with flair and quality from the continent – picking up the ‘Stoke-alona’ moniker – this season in particular has seen Stoke lose even that identity. The sale of Marko Arnautovic to fellow mid-table side West Ham this summer – as well as the failures of big signings Giannelli Imbula and Saido Berahino – seemed to sum up the sense of directionlessness that has gradually descended over the club under Mark Hughes.

Possible Line-Up

When the draw came, this looked to be a game where Stoke would field an almost entirely second-choice XI, but the likes of Saido Berahino – on a 36-game goalscoring drought – and Stephen Ireland – recovering from a double leg fracture – are unlikely to be given the chance to play themselves into form. The likes of Xherdan Shaqiri, Joe Allen, and possibly even first-choice goalkeeper Jack Butland are likely to be used as Mark Hughes looks to not take chances in this game.

Even if Stoke play a second-string side, they not only have the likes of Peter Crouch who could easily have a field day against us, but they do have a few fairly promising youngsters who haven’t looked out-of-place in the top-flight. Right-back Tom Edwards has started several Premier League games this season, while left-back Josh Tymon is an incredibly gifted youngster who made his debut with Hull against Arsenal at the age of 16. Another to watch is Belgian winger Julien Ngoy who caught the eye towards the end of last season.

Prediction

While a lot is being made on what impact the pressure on Mark Hughes’ position will have on this game, it should be patently obvious that a League Two side has very little chance against even a struggling Premier League club – the gulf in quality will be more than the 50-odd league places that separate us and Stoke. We saw earlier in the season against Blackburn that there’s a significant gulf between the top of League Two and the top of League One.

It will be little surprise then that I’m expecting us to lose this game, 3-0. Nonetheless, there is still a small part of me thinking, maybe we have a chance here, that’s the FA Cup for you.

Preview: Cheltenham Town

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

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

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

Possible Line-Up

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

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

Last Time We Met

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

Here’s an image to prove it.

Embed from Getty Images

How Are They Doing?

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

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

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

Possible Line-Up

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

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

Prediction

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

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

Preview: Morecambe

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

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

Possible Line-Up

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

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

Last Time We Met

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

How Are They Doing?

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

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

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

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

Possible Line-Up

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

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

Prediction

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

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

Preview: Mansfield Town

That’s three wins in a row now after victories in the FA Cup and Checkatrade Trophy over the past week, although it doesn’t quite feel that way. The Maidenhead game was about simply avoiding an upset, while Tuesday’s Checkatrade Trophy clash with West Brom’s under-21s was essentially a glorified reserve match.

Nonetheless, we’ve gone from being on the verge of a month without either a win or a goal to three wins in a row and seven goals in three games. This season though won’t be judged on how we do in the FA Cup or whether we got knocked out of the Checkatrade Trophy in the group phase, it’s about promotion but hopefully this gives us a sense of momentum heading into a tricky fixture against Mansfield Town – one of the pre-season promotion favourites.

Possible Line-Up

Probably the biggest thing to come out of the past week was Jordan Ponticelli’s goals against Maidenhead. His inclusion against Luton seemed almost a last throw of the dice by Mark Robins to find a goalscorer, and yet his two finishes against Maidenhead justified that gamble, demonstrating both excellent technique and movement. It’s way too early to be expecting him now to shoulder the burden of being our main goalscorer, but Ponticelli has shown that he can at least be another weapon in our arsenal.

Liam Kelly’s fitness permitting, it’s hard to see the line-up for this Mansfield game being all too different from the Luton game. While Jordan Shipley and Tom Davies impressed in the FA Cup, they unfortunately occupy the positions of some of our most reliable performers this season in Liam Kelly and Jordan Willis. With Ryan Haynes and Jack Grimmer looking threatening from full-back in recent games, our attacking threat has diversified from just giving the ball to Jodi Jones.

Last Time We Met

You have to go back a long way to find our last competitive meeting with Mansfield Town, with the most recent clash between us and them coming in the League Cup in 1975. Gordon Milne’s Sky Blues were the victims of a cup upset against then-Division Three (League One in today’s money) Mansfield Town at Field Mill.

The last league meeting between the two sides came in the 1963-64 season, this season is only the fourth season that we’ve been in the same division as Mansfield Town.

How Are They Doing?

Mansfield were, justifiably, one of the heavy favourites for promotion heading into this season. Having ended last year fairly strongly, manager and serial promotion-winner Steve Evans made some big early moves in the summer transfer window to further strengthen his squad. Only Luton looked to be on a par with Mansfield heading into this campaign.

However, Mansfield have struggled to get going this season, despite occasionally showing signs that they can be a force to be reckoned with at this level. Evans’ overhaul of the squad over the summer arguably brought in quantity over quality, in particular, failing to add the proven goalscorer to the ranks that Evans clearly sought after.

While Mansfield have a lot of physical and powerful players at the back in the form of Zander Diamond, David Mirfin, Rhys Bennett and Krystian Pearce, keeping goals out has been a particular problem for the Stags this season. Evans has tended to chop and change his back-line on a fairly consistent basis, which hasn’t helped matters – for example playing winger Paul Anderson at right-back.

There also has seemingly not been adequate protection from midfield, with Mansfield looking the same level of physical presence in the centre of the pitch as they do at the back. With the more creative Jacob Mellis suspended for this game, Mansfield are likely to operate with two box-to-box midfielders in the centre of the park, Calum Butcher – who scored for Burton in a win over us a few seasons ago – and Joel Byrom – who has been a key creator of chances for Mansfield since signing in January.

Possible Line-Up

The pace and industry of winger Alex MacDonald will have to be contained, while there are further pacey wide options in the form of CJ Hamilton and ex-Solihull Moors star Omari Sterling-James. While summer signings Kane Hemmings and Lee Angol haven’t clicked yet up front for Mansfield, the former was absolutely lethal during spells in Scotland and the latter was Peterborough’s top-scorer in League One only two seasons ago, so shouldn’t be written-off.

Mansfield’s most reliable forward this season though has undoubtedly been Danny Rose. A hard-working striker and surprisingly good in the air for his size, Rose has eight league goals in 14 games this season. Interestingly, he was linked this week with a move to either us or Notts County, which seems unlikely to happen given the investment Mansfield have made in attaining promotion this season.

Prediction

Despite an underwhelming start to the season, Mansfield cannot be treated lightly and are a side that should finish in at least the top seven this season once they get going. They are a physically powerful side and with Steve Evans in charge, they will undoubtedly be incredibly tough and frustrating to break down should they take the lead in this game. Additionally, they are one of the few teams at this level who have the firepower to really put us to the sword if they can hit their stride.

While I think the character of our squad means we’ll be up for the battle of this game, my main concern is whether a front two of Marc McNulty and Jordan Ponticelli will be able to get into the game against the physicality of Mansfield’s back-line. If we don’t get the first goal, this could be an immensely frustrating afternoon for us.

I predict that this will be a 0-0 draw.