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.

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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: Swindon Town

The cold hard return to reality after being Premier League Stoke couldn’t have been starker than losing away 1-0 to a shocking goalkeeping error and slipping from 3rd in the division to 8th in the division. It seemed to sum up how our season has gone thus far, every opportunity we’ve had to make things assert our status as promotion contenders has been allowed to slip. We now head into a home game against the team with the best away record in the division with every chance now that we could find ourselves in mid-table and three points away from the play-offs.

We’re at the stage of the season where results start to define our end-of-season hopes, there has been no greater pressure to win – or at least, avoid defeat – than this Swindon game. While we have tended to come up trumps this season when the pressure has been ratcheted up, the goalscoring situation at the moment challenges our ability to continue to do so.

Possible Line-Up

While Marc McNulty’s recent run of form has been hugely welcome, one player cannot be expected to carry the entire goalscoring burden of a side challenging for promotion. We’re reaching a stage with Maxime Biamou where his function in the side as someone who facilitates attacking play has to be counterbalanced by his utter inability to put the ball in the back of the net. It’s reached the point where bringing Stuart Beavon back into the side isn’t completely out of the question.

Getting goals from midfield has to be seen as an area of priority for Mark Robins, with our two January signings – Josh Barrett and Jordan Maguire-Drew – under pressure to integrate quickly in to the side. The early signs seem positive, Maguire-Drew has caught the eye in his two appearances thus far, while Josh Barrett scored a hat-trick for the under-23s on Monday from a left-midfield position. Barrett could well have played himself into a starting position ahead of Jordan Shipley, provided he feels fully-fit.

Elsewhere, it will be interesting to see whether Rod McDonald comes back into central defence alongside Jordan Willis, despite Tom Davies having been fairly solid (albeit not with the ball anywhere near his feet) over the past few games. With Swindon Town posing more of a threat with pace than physicality, that could give McDonald the edge.

Last Time We Met

After so many points dropped away at Swindon over recent years, winning at the County Ground felt like a landmark moment for us this season. Not only did we beat Swindon at the County Ground, but we did so after falling behind early on to an expertly-taken strike from Luke Norris.

Step up, Michael Doyle. The captain enjoyed an interesting September evening, first equalising during an uncharacteristic raid in the opposing penalty area, and then, characteristically, finding himself caught in the middle of an incident – that looked very much like a bite on the bum – that saw Swindon’s James Dunne sent-off. Duckens Nazon stepped up soon after, curling in a typically audacious long-ranger, to secure the win.

I would imagine that James Dunne won’t have forgotten about that evening, expect this game to be round two.

How Are They Doing?

Swindon have been a perplexing team this season, their home form has been atrocious, while their away form has been near-immaculate. As one of the better-resourced sides in the division, they should have been among the automatic promotion challengers, but inconsistency has dogged their season. Currently though, they are on a run of four wins in five and could move into third-place – and with a game in hand over much of the division – with a win in this game.

Top-scorer Luke Norris has kind of summed up this current iteration of Swindon Town under David Flitcroft. Despite an impressive tally of 11 goals this season, with some wonderful strikes among them, Norris has frustrated Swindon fans with a lack of reliability in front of goal and his tendency to flit in and out of games.

Norris is supported by a cavalcade of nippy forwards in David Flitcroft’s counter-attacking strategy. Keshi Anderson, Paul Mullin and Kaiyne Woolery are all fairly quick players who are probably more suited to playing as central strikers, but have been shoe-horned into playing as a three behind Norris, to varying degrees of effectiveness. Swindon have added to their attacking threat by signing proven League Two goal poacher Marc Richards from Northampton Town.

Possible Line-Up

With two defensive-minded midfielders in James Dunne and Amine Linganzi, getting the ball forward on the counter or hitting teams from set-pieces is an important element of Swindon Town’s threat. Former Premier League free-kick wizard Matthew Taylor has supplied nine assists this season, despite being clearly lacking in mobility. Taylor is one of several set-piece experts in Swindon’s squad, with Ollie Banks, Ellis Iandolo, and the likely to miss this game ex-Sky Blues fans’ favourite Chris Hussey all on the books too.

A more fondly-remembered ex-City player in Reice Charles-Cook has been in excellent form in goal for Swindon after first-choice keeper Lawrence Vigouroux was dropped for disciplinary reasons. Given Mark Robins barely gave Charles-Cook a look-in, he may be turning up to prove a point to an ex-manager.

Prediction

Far be it for me to be pessimistic, but I’ve got the heebie-jeebies heading into this game. Swindon’s away form cannot be ignored and they are a team in good form in general, while our lack of luck/ability in front of goal is in danger of puncturing our hopes this season at this most crucial phase.

If we can’t win this game, we need to develop a tougher streak in at least avoiding defeat than we have in a lot of tight games this season. The minimum we need to take from this game is a clean-sheet, I’m hoping that can see out a 0-0 draw but I’m fearful we could lose this 2-0.

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: Chesterfield

It was hardly a classic performance at Carlisle on Saturday, but we held onto the win after scoring a goal out of nowhere. It was a vital three points to keep us in the top seven and we have a chance now in this upcoming game against Chesterfield to push towards the automatic promotion places.

It was a game won via sharp finish from Marc McNulty, who’s run of form has been perfectly timed to mitigate the loss of Jodi Jones. Still though, as his penalty miss demonstrated, you wouldn’t back him to score at any opportunity. Whether this run of form for McNulty continues or not, it’s crucial that we start seeing goals from midfield and our other forwards.

As for this upcoming game against Chesterfield, it’s a case of Mark Robins playing squad Tetris to piece together a cogent starting XI from the remaining fit players available. In addition to the injuries to Jodi Jones, Liam Kelly (although there are rumours he could be back fit imminently) and Tony Andreu, Peter Vincenti is out for at least two months, Rod McDonald missed the Carlisle game through illness and the birth of his child, Jordan Willis limped off in the Carlisle game, along with Stuart Beavon and Duckens Nazon, while Devon Kelly-Evans picked up cramp in the final minutes of the game.

Possible Line-Up

While it may be wise to hand the young bodies of Jordan Shipley and Tom Bayliss a rest, Robins doesn’t really have the luxury of being able to rest players who are still capable of ambulatory movement.

Maxime Biamou is almost certain to start after coming off the bench against Carlisle, he is likely to be partnered by Marc McNulty, although Robins has stated that Jordan Ponticelli is likely to get a look-in during this run of festive fixtures. That could see McNulty deployed on the right, given the lack of other fit wide options at the moment. The midfield is likely to be similar to the one that started against Carlisle, while the back-up central defensive pairing of Tom Davies and Dominic Hyam could be set to continue into this game.

Last Time We Met

There’s not much to say about our last meeting against Chesterfield, a boring 0-0 draw early in the season, other than it was a game where Marc McNulty had several great chances to give us the win – he may have scored one of those had the game been played now.

How Are They Doing?

Chesterfield’s poor season thus far serves to highlight how well Mark Robins has done for us this season in avoiding a hangover from relegation. Similar to us, Chesterfield’s squad was almost entirely reconstructed over the summer and there were some very good players signed, however, they started the season in disastrous form and have struggled to recover from it.

For a while, Jack Lester’s arrival as manager seemed to engender an improvement in performances, but they have only won one of their past five games – including a 5-1 defeat to an out-of-form Stevenage side. Despite his club legend status, it was a bold move to appoint an inexperienced manager with the club in a tailspin after relegation, Lester may be fortunate that there are at least two worse sides than Chesterfield in the division this season.

The only positive to come from Chesterfield’s season thus far has been the form of Kristian Dennis in front of goal. An out-and-out goalscorer, Dennis can get in behind defences and really comes alive in the penalty area. With 12 goals to his name this season, Dennis is the joint-fourth highest scorer in the division.

One of the main negatives though has been the form of their, literally, big summer signing Chris O’Grady. The vastly experienced target-man has looked like his best years are quite a way behind him, which has massively thrown off Chesterfield’s plans for this season. O’Grady was brought in, taking up a sizeable chunk of their wage budget, to play the figurehead role in attack for their younger, more mobile forwards and midfielders to play around, it simply hasn’t worked out.

Possible Line-Up

Of those mobile forwards and midfielders, few have been in particularly good form this season, although youngster Joe Rowley looks to have a bright future ahead of him. A technically skilful forward with a fair degree of pace, Rowley was reportedly being looked at by Premier League clubs over the summer.

In goal, Chesterfield have had to contend with an injury to first-choice keeper Joe Anyon and the retirement of stalwart Tommy Lee. Sheffield United youngster Jake Eastwood has been brought in and done fairly well since his arrival though. They have also lost key centre-back Ian Evatt to injury in recent weeks, forcing full-back Scott Wiseman to fill in.

Prediction

Leaving aside the excuses of the long away trip to Carlisle that we’ve had to do so soon before this game, as well as the lack of fit players currently available, this is a massive opportunity to record back-to-back wins and assert our position among the automatic promotion contenders. Chesterfield are in poor form, and have only won once away from home all season. The only thing to be concerned about heading into this game is our terrible record against bottom half sides this season.

Nonetheless, I can see us squeezing to the win here, by a 1-0 scoreline.

Preview: Wycombe Wanderers

It was a win last Saturday, but it was by a hair’s breadth margin against a fairly mediocre Cheltenham Town side. It will have done little to quell the sense of decline since the injuries to Jodi Jones and Liam Kelly, but it at least kept us in the top seven and gives us something to build upon.

The two main positives to take from last Saturday was the performance of Tom Bayliss in midfield on his league debut and the movement of Maxime Biamou and Marc McNulty in attack. Bayliss looks the next in succession of highly-comfortable ball-playing midfielders this club is producing by the spadeload at the moment. As for Biamou and McNulty, while their finishing left plenty to be desired, they consistently put themselves in positions to get lucky with the kind of finish that McNulty eventually produced for the winning goal – that has to be seen as encouraging.

Possible Line-Up

However, the defensive performance against Cheltenham was nothing less than shambolic. There was little sense of defensive organisation or discipline in the display, with the goal that we eventually conceded summing it all up – leaving gaping holes , losing headers, making rash challenges. It didn’t help that there was a lack of protection from midfield – Cheltenham often found themselves with time and space on the ball – but it only served to emphasise how important Liam Kelly’s presence in the centre of the park has been this season in making the likes of Rod McDonald, Jordan Willis and Jack Grimmer look good.

With a Wycombe side likely to be far less charitable in their finishing in this upcoming game, Mark Robins has to ensure that the defence is both better organised and protected. The physical presence of Tom Davies is likely to be helpful against the bombardment Wycombe are likely to throw at us, although it leaves a tough decision over whether to drop Jordan Willis or Rod McDonald. In midfield, it seems a choice between sticking with a very raw talent in Tom Bayliss who could find himself out of his depth in this kind of game so early into his career, or opting for a Ben Stevenson or Callum Maycock who boast slightly more experience/physical strength than Bayliss (which, admittedly, isn’t saying a lot).

Last Time We Met

Our last game against Wycombe Wanderers was probably the most momentous win we’ve had at the Ricoh Arena – it was certainly one of the most unexpectedly joyful. While Wycombe were in the division below us, not only were we on a dismal run of form under Russell Slade, but we’d been in this kind of situation too many times before for much of the fanbase to truly believe that we could actually secure a place at Wembley.

In the event, we came racing out of the blocks via goals from George Thomas and Stuart Beavon in a comfortable first-half performance. The two-goal cushion was just what we needed to weather the onslaught that Adebayo Akinfenwa’s introduction for Wycombe in the second-half subject us to. The hulking striker bulldozed his way through a youthful Coventry City backline to introduce a familiar sinking feeling throughout much of the crowd. Yet we somehow managed to hold-out, even Jack Finch came on to play an important cameo role, and send the Ricoh Arena into an unprecedented level of delirium – we were on our way to Wembley.

How Are They Doing?

I have to admit that I called it completely wrong with Wycombe heading into the season. The club looked to have run out of momentum and had become incredibly reliant on an ageing Adebayo Akinfenwa in attack, with manager Gareth Ainsworth showing little inclination to change his tactics. Instead, Akinfenwa has been as good as ever – only Notts County’s Jorge Grant has scored or assisted as many goals as him – while Ainsworth has diversified Wycombe’s threats somewhat.

While coping with Akinfenwa’s sheer physical strength – he’s capable of playing a highly effective target-man role despite being under six-foot – will be the primary challenge for our defence, we’ll also have to be wary of not becoming too focused on stopping just one player as Wycombe have several attacking players who are arguably worthy of playing at a higher level.

Former Peterborough talisman Craig Mackail-Smith has proved a useful signing this summer for Wycombe, playing just off the wing, Mackail-Smith has seven goals to his name this season. The ludicrously talented Eberechi Eze, on loan from QPR, can either play out wide or through the middle and has scored some absolute beauties this season. Paris Cowan-Hall is a pacey winger who has probably just lacked the consistency in his career to make it at a higher level, while Sam Saunders is a set-piece expert and another in the Wycombe ranks capable of scoring wonder goals from nowhere.

That’s not to mention that they’ve been without Scott Kashket – scorer of 15 goals last season – for much of the campaign.

Possible Line-Up

Wycombe’s attacking threat is also supplemented in the form of left-back Joe Jacobson – another set-piece expert – who has an incredible four goals and four assists to his name this season. To put it another way, he’s only one goal/assist behind Jodi Jones.

Wycombe’s willingness to get the ball forward to their attacking players at any and every opportunity – they will launch free-kicks from inside their own half into the box – can leave them exposed somewhat at the back, although Adam El-Abd and Anthony Stewart are a highly competent defensive pairing that we’ll have to navigate. El-Abd can only be described as an utter bastard, the kind of player who’ll tackle the player rather than the ball, while Stewart is a tall and mobile centre-back who can be effective in both boxes.

Prediction

I’m really worried about us heading into this game. Our defence looked so poor last week against a fairly mediocre Cheltenham side, and Wycombe are likely to pose an even bigger threat and are more likely to take the chances that fall their way. Even worse, we don’t have the attacking threat to go toe-to-toe with Wycombe should our defence let us down. We’re going to have to produce a much higher standard of performance than we’ve managed in recent weeks to take anything out of this game.

I can see this being a rather chastening defeat – 3-1 to Wycombe.

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.

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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.