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: Cambridge United

Although we’re hoping that this FA Cup run doesn’t provide the definitive memories of this season, it hasn’t half enlivened the feeling around the club. Casting our minds back to December, despite being within touch of the promotion spots, it still felt like there was something missing about this season. Those victories over Stoke and MK Dons have not only demonstrated there is genuine quality about this side, but a character and team spirit to go out there and battle for results.

Heading straight back into league action carries the risk of another ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’ that we saw against Exeter, but it’s also a chance to strike while the iron (the iron of momentum, that is) is still hot and grab a victory that puts us into automatic promotion contention. While Cambridge United are going to be very different opposition to MK Dons, we should be looking to attack this game with a similar sense of purpose and confidence.

The burgeoning form of Maxime Biamou and Marc McNulty up front is proving to be a real boon for us right now. The two have come a long way both individually and as a partnership since the start of the season, but they are currently looking like a major piece of the jigsaw that was missing earlier on.

Possible Line-Up

The next thing to fall in place now would be goals from midfield. Jordan Maguire-Drew and Josh Barrett both have looked like they might play a useful role for us in their minutes on the pitch thus far, while Jordan Shipley and Peter Vincenti are also capable of adding goals to their game. Hopefully this extra competition for places out wide leads to the respective players raising their games.

The wide player conundrum is added to after Tom Bayliss demonstrated on Saturday that he is more than capable of being effective while played on the right. The freedom from defensive responsibilities gave Bayliss further licence to push forward, while allowing Mark Robins to bring Liam Kelly back into the side. With Kelly being unable to last the 90 minutes on Saturday though, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Bayliss pushed back into a central position.

Last Time We Met

Our meeting with Cambridge back in September was typical of many of our defeats this season, where a lack of composure in front of goal saw us drop points. A slow start saw Cambridge take the lead via a deep cross to the far post nodded down by Jabo Ibehre. After several excellent chances to equalise, a raking cross-field pass from Peter Vincenti to Duckens Nazon was smashed emphatically by the Haitian into the near post.

The game seemed to have swung in our favour, with several opportunities spurned to take the lead. However, it was another cross into the box – this time headed home by Uche Ikpeazu – that undid all our good work.

How Are They Doing?

Having had promotion aspirations in each of the past two seasons under Shaun Derry, the manager’s inability to consistently get goals from his side has cast Cambridge United into mid-table also-rans. Although they are currently on a run of one defeat in their past six games – three of those six having been draws – both Cambridge and Derry seem to be operating on the understanding that the manager will be leaving in the summer.

With hopes of mounting a late season surge towards the play-offs starting to fade, the pressure is off Cambridge somewhat. While a recent 5-2 defeat to Forest Green showed how this can manifest itself in a negative manner, they drew 3-3 with Notts County last month, showing that they are still capable of making life difficult for their opponents.

Those two results notwithstanding, Cambridge have found goals hard to come by this season. This is fairly surprising given they have two bruising, powerhouse centre-forwards in Jabo Ibehre and Uche Ikpeazu to call upon, both of whom are capable of getting into double figures at this level. Furthermore, summer signing Jevani Brown – plucked from non-league St Neots Town – has been a revelation this season in an attacking midfield position, possessing an excellent eye for a pass and scoring some spectacular long-range goals.

Possible Line-Up

At the back, Cambridge are experienced and can be formidable when they have a lead to defend. The experience of centre-back pairing Greg Taylor and Leon Legge has been important for them, although academy graduate Harry Darling (amazing name, by the way) has stepped up ably in recent weeks after an injury to Legge. In goal, the veteran David Forde is capable of completely shutting up shop when the mood takes him – it was his heroics that were vital in Cambridge winning the last meeting between these two sides.

Moreover, Shaun Derry has built a reputation as a manager for being ultra pragmatic in trying to scrape out results. His pre-match interview suggested that he’s seeing this as a big game at a big stadium, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Cambridge set out to completely spoil the game from the off. Although he’s unlikely to achieve anything with Cambridge this season, he has a managerial reputation to salvage.

Prediction

I’m fairly confident heading into this game that we can build on the momentum from the MK Dons game. With the draw against Brighton a decent one without being overly distracting, the players must know that it’s all about putting a run together in the league. While this is a winnable home game, Cambridge are fully capable of exploiting any lapses in concentration and holding onto a 1-0 scoreline.

Given the struggles in front of goal of both sides this season, this is unlikely to be a classic and it seems set to be a game decided by the first goalscorer. I’m going to be back us to be that team.

Preview: Port Vale

For the second game in a row, we were subjected to a heart-attack of a football game. While the win over Cheltenham was made interesting by our poor defending, the Wycombe win descended into chaos out of nowhere. It was a comfortable win made a nervous one thanks to two lapses in concentration and a referee who utterly lost control of the game.

As a result, there are more positives to take out of the Wycombe game than the Cheltenham one. Chiefly, our defending was much improved – Jordan Willis and Rod McDonald were mostly very comfortable against Akinfenwa, while Chris Stokes put in his best performance of the season at left-back. However, it was a game that we wouldn’t have won without Marc McNulty’s goals – which have come at a welcome time after the loss of Jodi Jones and now that we’re leaking more at the back.

Despite his excellent run of goalscoring – six in his last six appearances – it still feels like McNulty should be doing better than he currently is. Twice on Friday night, he was sent through one-on-one and failed to score. There’s still a sense of apprehension before he takes on shots, and his run of goals has been down more to hard work and good movement than pure killer instinct in front of goal.

Possible Line-Up

With three further fixtures to play over the festive period, there’s a chance now for us to establish ourselves as automatic promotion contenders. We have shown over the past two games that we can win without Jodi Jones, and Liam Kelly, which provides little for Mark Robins to consider in his team selection.

The only consideration appears to be surrounding Peter Vincenti – who has been improved in recent weeks – after he limped off with an injury in the first-half against Wycombe. Devon Kelly-Evans’ introduction appeared to change the game in a negative manner for us, which could see Duckens Nazon start and Marc McNulty moved onto the right of midfield, although that has the downside of losing the ability for Nazon to change the game from the bench.

Last Time We Met

Port Vale are the first opponents this season that we are playing for a second time, with the last meeting having happened back in September. It was hardly a classic performance against a Port Vale side in the midst of a poor run of form, but somehow saw us produce a 16-pass move for Jodi Jones to produce a superlative finish from outside the area (albeit with no-one closing him down) to win the game. It was only a late red card to Rod McDonald that gave Port Vale any hope of taking something out of the game.

It was the start of our best winning run of the season thus far (three games), and was also the game that saw us lose Tony Andreu for the season.

How Are They Doing?

The decision to stick with Michael Brown over the summer to rebuild Port Vale’s squad after dropping in to League Two put the Valiants in genuine danger of successive relegations. The squad was left massively unbalanced – far too many wingers, not enough central midfielders and an injury-prone first-choice keeper – while Brown’s motivational techniques amounted to screaming at his players and the referee on the touchline.

Since the appointment of Neil Aspin back in October – a popular former player for Vale during the 90’s – they have been much improved, although they’re not quite clear of danger. Aspin has tried as best as he can to make sense of the squad that was left to him – which has involved played several players out of position – and Port Vale really seem to be benefitting from Aspin’s organisational abilities.

Arguably the biggest factor behind Port Vale’s improvement under Aspin has been the form of talismanic target-man Tom Pope in front of goal. Pope has nine goals in the league this season, with eight of those having come since Aspin took over. Moreover, with the sheer number of wingers in the squad, Pope as a figurehead for their other, more mobile, attacking players to play off.

Of Vale’s other attacking options, David Worrall looks the biggest threat and is possibly someone who should be playing in League One. An energetic and hard-working player, Worrall also has a bit of wiliness to his game in the way he can win free-kicks in dangerous positions. Their other wide options include Burton loanee Marcus Harness has come into form in recent weeks, while Ben Whitfield and Cristian Montano can be match-winners on their day at this level.

Possible Line-Up

At the back, the experience of Gavin Gunning and Antony Kay have been another example of Neil Aspin’s organisational abilities. Both central defenders have been played out of position fairly often this season – Gunning at left-back and Kay in central midfield – but have helped improve Port Vale’s defensive record.

Port Vale have had issues in goal this season, with their first-choice keeper Rob Lainton being injury prone, while the second-choice, Sam Hornby, has also been injured for long spells. After having to dip into the loan market a few times, the relatively inexperienced Ryan Boot has been made de facto first-choice. While he has been okay since coming in, there is a nervousness to his game that could be exploited by us here.

Prediction

Although Port Vale have improved over the past couple of months, their home form still ranks as the worst in this division, making this a game we really should be winning if we have promotion aspirations. Games over the festive period though have a tendency to defy the form book somewhat, and there’s likely to be a larger than usual crowd to get behind Vale for this fixture given that it’s Boxing Day.

This is going to be a tough game and if we’re not at the races, Port Vale will only be too happy for a win that could set them apart from the relegation battlers. I can see this being a 1-1 draw.

Preview: Maidenhead United

After an unexpectedly brilliant win away at the then league leaders Luton, a looming crisis of confidence has been averted. However, this FA Cup tie in what could be an especially soulless Ricoh Arena against non-league opposition could quickly render McNulty’s header, Shipley’s free-kick and Nazon’s late coup de grace at Kenilworth Road into distant memories.

After humbling exits in each of the past three years – Cambridge last year, Northampton the year before, and notably, Worcester the year before that – it should be abundantly clear that a tie against a supposedly lesser club in the FA Cup is far from straightforward. Mark Robins hasn’t treated the cup competitions seriously thus far this season but given the tradition of the FA Cup, as well as the revenue a good run would generate, it would be negligent for him to disregard this competition.

Moreover, the squad has had a week’s rest heading into this game and there’s only a Checkatrade Trophy tie to play the following midweek. There are no excuses for not naming our strongest line-up here and treating it as we would a normal league game, albeit one that takes us a step closer to a potential trip to a big Premier League side.

Possible Line-Up

Just what our full-strength team at the moment is something of a debate, despite the performance against Luton. While the back six or seven players looks to be fairly settled, the make-up of our strongest attacking line-up is yet to be resolved. While there is the temptation for Robins to stick with a winning team, Maidenhead United are going to be vastly different opponents to Luton Town, and he may consider adjusting the personnel accordingly.

In an ideal world, this is probably a game to bring Ben Stevenson into the midfield in place of either Michael Doyle or Liam Kelly so that we have someone who can get their foot on the ball and orchestrate extended periods of possession more comfortably – that’s not going to happen though. I would expect Maxime Biamou to come in for Jordan Ponticelli in order to give the side a focal point to aim crosses into the box. A more dynamic wide option than Peter Vincenti is another must, but that could mean shunting Duckens Nazon or Marc McNulty onto the wing.

Last Time We Met

We’ve never played Maidenhead United in a competitive fixture, not once.

How Are They Doing?

A town most famous for its Isambard Kingdom Brunel-built bridge and for being the constituency of the legendary UK Prime Minister Theresa May, its local football club are on the up. Promoted into the National League last season as National League South champions, Maidenhead stormed the opening month of the National League campaign thanks to the goals of Dave Tarpey.

Tarpey, reportedly offered the chance to sign for us over the summer, scored a suspiciously impressive 44 goals in 41 appearances for Maidenhead in the National League South last season. After seven goals in six appearances at the start of the season, Tarpey took the decision to sign for Barnet, before picking up a serious injury in his second appearance for the club.

Maidenhead manager and former West Ham legend Alan Devonshire is a wily operator in non-league, having turned part-time Braintree into a competitive outfit in the National League in his previous managerial posting. Devonshire has struggled at times to adjust his side to the loss of their goal machine, although midfielder Adrian Clifton has helped ease the burden with six goals from the centre of the park this season.

Possible Line-Up

Clifton looks the biggest danger-man among Maidenhead’s ranks, an attack-minded central player with skill and pace with the ball. In a counter-attacking unit, Clifton is important in not only carrying the ball forward but in supplying an end product in and around the penalty area. Winger Harry Pritchard is another key element of Maidenhead’s counter-attacking play, while the pacey Moses Emmanuel out wide has been a reliable National League goalscorer in recent years.

Even in the National League, Maidenhead look to defend deep and try and nick something either on the break or from set-pieces – with centre-backs Jake Goodman and Alan Massey someone we’ll need to make sure to mark. It was already apparent from the respective statures of the sides that this game would be about us looking to break-down a dogged and determined part-time side, but we are up against one with plenty of practice doing so this season.

Prediction

Not to be patronising towards Maidenhead, but this game, and certainly the stadium, will be their biggest in a long time. While they are a part-time side, they are only in the division below us so the gulf in quality between the two sides isn’t going to be as large as the respective histories of the clubs would suggest. This is a dangerous game for us if we show up expecting to stroll to victory.

Even if we do show the right attitude, this game presents the challenge of breaking down an organised defence at the Ricoh, which we’ve struggled on multiple occasions already this season. If we can get an early goal to settle the nerves, this game should be more straightforward than I fear it will be.

This is a game we should win, and I’m going to back us to get the job done with a 1-0 scoreline.

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.

Preview: Forest Green Rovers

If confirmation was still needed that we are in League Two this season, then Saturday’s defeat to Accrington – if only for the reputation of the opposition – was provided it. It was also a rare occasion this season where we deserved to lose – we not only struggled to score, but it was a game where our defence looked shaky too.

The chief concern at the moment though is those struggles in front of goal. Whether it’s a lack of creativity or a lack of a killer instinct in front of goal that’s the specific reason why we’re struggling in front of goal, improving either will resolve our problems. As we appear to lack a cold-hearted goal poacher, we either need someone to step up and become that kind of player or we simply need to improve the quantity and quality of chances we’re creating.

This upcoming game against the league’s worst defence would appear the perfect opportunity to build some confidence in front of goal. For Mark Robins, it’s a case of either hoping the front four that seemed to work during our recent run of three straight wins will click back into gear or twisting and trying to integrate someone like Marc McNulty or Peter Vincenti into the starting line-up.

Possible Line-Up

With Devon Kelly-Evans having a quiet game against Accrington, he seems the likeliest candidate to be taken out of the side. Marc McNulty has shown he can operate out wide to a reasonable level of effectiveness, which would have the benefit of adding an extra striker to the dynamic and also keeping Duckens Nazon in a central position where he’s more effective. However, playing Peter Vincenti out wide could Robins to pair McNulty and Nazon together without losing a physical presence in attack.

Liam Kelly’s absence from the side was a blow on Saturday and his potential return for this game would be welcome. While Ben Stevenson clearly has something to offer this team, the defensive protection Kelly offers via his physical strength and ability to win first and second balls makes us a more composed team-unit, and there isn’t really a debate to be had over whether he should return.

Last Time We Met

For the third game in a row (or two in three depending on your opinion on the reformation of Accrington Stanley) we’re up against a club that we’ll be facing in the league for the first time ever.

How Are They Doing?

When Forest Green won promotion from the National League last season, their chairman declared that ‘reaching League One will be easy’, however, it’s been a disaster of a campaign thus far on a multitude of levels (second-bottom, league’s worst defence, and having recently released their captain) putting paid to such ambitions, at least in the short-term.

Despite a blitzing play-off final victory last season, the cracks that have been exposed at a higher-level this season were apparent during that promotion-winning campaign. Manager Mark Cooper seemed to develop a habit of turfing out some of his more expensive signings at any sign of poor form but was able to turn to the emergency loan window to bail himself out. Without that luxury – and the club having to abide by financial fair play regulations – it seems to be a very unhappy camp at the club.

Possible Line-Up

As mentioned earlier, club captain Liam Noble was recently released by the club. Not only did Forest Green turn down £100,000 for him from Notts County (who he’s recently signed for on a free) but he was one of their most pivotal players in their promotion-winning campaign as a driving force from midfield. Of the dynamic front four of Christian Doidge, Kaiyne Woolery, Keanu Marsh-Brown and Liam Noble that blew Tranmere away back in May, only the excellent all-round centre-forward Doidge is likely to line-up in this game.

The rest of Forest Green’s side is even harder to predict after Mark Cooper reportedly vowed to play some of the club’s younger players, following a 4-0 defeat to Newport County at the weekend. It’s the indication of a manager clearly feeling the pressure and is rapidly running out of things he can say and do to the side in order to get a reaction. However, the one thing Cooper is sticking with is a passing style of football – which has been another major contributing factor to the club’s terrible season thus far.

Prediction

This is as close to an open goal kind of game as it’s possible to get. If we can get an early goal, the floodgates could really open and allow us to build some confidence in front of goal. Although, Forest Green did recently take a point that was nearly all three away to Notts County recently, indicating that they do have a decent performance up their sleeve under the right conditions.

Overall though, this is a game that we have to be confident of winning. I’m going for a 2-0 scoreline.

Preview: Barnet

After a win that was not technically a win against Walsall in the Checkatrade Trophy, we return to league action with the benefit of most of our first-choice XI having had a rest after a hectic couple of weeks.

Importantly too, Tuesday night’s penalty shoot-out win allowed players returning from injury minutes to gain match fitness, while some of the younger fringe players demonstrated that they can make an impact if called upon. Cult hero Jordan Ponticelli’s first goal for the club obviously caught the attention, but for the short-term at least, McNulty making a decisive impact in the game could help ease the burden of Duckens Nazon’s absence for this upcoming game.

Possible Line-Up

Nazon’s absence is probably the biggest variable between us stretching this good run of form further or not. Not only have his goals been vital over the past few weeks, but his mercurial presence in attack has given Jodi Jones, Maxime Biamou and Devon Kelly-Evans room to really come into their own. There is extra pressure on Jones then to be even more important than he already is to our creative play, but it would help if McNulty and/or Biamou make a step-up in this game as well.

Elsewhere, it’s hard to see any reason for Mark Robins to change the rest of a team that has won three league games in a row. The one big call that could be made may be to restore Peter Vincenti to the starting XI over Devon Kelly-Evans. It would seem an absurd one to make for a multitude of reasons, but I wonder whether Robins’ pragmatism may see him opt for experience over youth.

Last Time We Met

We have never played Barnet in a competitive fixture in either cup or the league. However, I did find evidence that we played the Bees in a pre-season friendly back in 1990 – if that isn’t thorough research, then I don’t know what is.

How Are They Doing?

Barnet are looking to put their days of perennial struggle at the foot of League Two to an end and are going through a bit of a transitional period at the moment. Since moving into their new facilities at The Hive four years ago, the club have been going through a modernisation process as a result of having additional revenue streams and a productive youth academy.

Last season they went through four different managerial spells before return to their second manager – Rossi Eames – who had them challenging for the play-offs around the mid-phase of the season and playing some pretty decent stuff. While there weren’t lofty expectations heading into this season, there were hopes that a full season under Eames would have Barnet putting together a more concerted bid for promotion. However, a poor run over the past month has tempered that optimism.

One of the biggest reasons behind Barnet’s slow start has been two successive injuries to John Akinde, that have reduced one of the most lethal strikers at this level to just two appearances thus far. While the pacey front-pairing of Shaq Coulthirst and Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro have had their moments this season, neither are particularly consistent finishers in the manner that Akinde is.

Possible Line-Up

Playing just behind that front two this season has been veteran winger Jamal Campbell-Ryce – a consistent thorn in our sides over the years. While he’s lost the pace he once had, he has been fairly successfully converted into a central player who can on occasion drive at defenders still with his dribbling ability. Mauro Vilhete is another quick midfield player who can pop up with goals and assists.

Pace and power are key tenets of this Barnet side, although a criticism of them this season is that they’ve perhaps been slightly too cautious in their set-up in an attempt to hit teams on the break. Without Akinde in attack, they’ve lacked a presence up front who can hold the ball up and relieve pressure on the side, while an injury to first-choice keeper Jamie Stephens has also undermined their defensive efforts.

Prediction

All the signs point to an away win here – mainly, the simple mathematics of us being in good form and Barnet being on a bad run – however, football doesn’t always work like that, and we can’t start getting complacent now that we have a chance to assert ourselves in the automatic promotion places. Having already beaten Luton this season, Barnet have shown they have the capability to beat some of the better teams at this level.

Duckens Nazon’s absence is another reason to doubt things going to plan for us, however, Marc McNulty – a player who has shown he can be lethal at this level – is not a bad replacement to have. Despite the potential for this to be something of a banana skin for us, I’m going to err on the side of caution and go for a 1-0 win.