Preview: Charlton Athletic

Last Saturday’s win over Peterborough was perhaps the most enjoyable home game of the season. The game itself was a fairly mediocre one that we slightly edged, however, it was the atmosphere brought on by the good weather, legend’s day, and the chance to congratulate our Wembley heroes that made it such a wonderful afternoon.

Already, that’s feeling like a distant memory following the announcement of the season ticket prices this week. Personally, I don’t feel like they’re as scandalous as it’s being made out, but I also appreciate that people making a decision with their own money may feel differently. Regardless of the actual pricing of the tickets, the announcement has seen the battle lines drawn for what’s inevitably going to be a summer of mud-slinging and what could be a really difficult next season ahead.

Possible Line-Up

While the Peterborough game was an opportunity to bask in the sunshine and forget about the reality of the situation we’re in, this Charlton game where they’ll be protests and relegation could be confirmed looks set to serve as a cold, hard dose of reality. For Mark Robins and the players, it’s about displaying that they can cope in a less advantageous atmosphere, potentially having to deal with disruptions to the game, which could be a truer mark of their ability to produce the goods next year.

After a hectic list of fixtures in recent weeks, Robins should benefit from having a better rested squad than the past few games. Hopefully, the likes of Jordan Willis, Kwame Thomas and others dealing with minor knocks will be fit enough to enter contention for selection, potentially offering the manager some difficult decisions to make.

With Ruben Lameiras in good form over the past few games, it’s hard seeing even a fit Kwame Thomas taking his berth just behind Beavon in the starting line-up. The main selection quandary could well be whether to hand Jodi Jones a rare start ahead of Kyel Reid, even though the latter has been much-improved under Robins.

Last Time We Met

As I tried to locate the away end at The Valley back in October I heard a mysterious cockney voice utter “beware of flying pigs” darkly into the South London air. Thinking nothing of it other than that Londoners are weird, I took my seat for a game of football that I hoped would kick-start a season that hadn’t exactly gone to plan yet.

That cockney wisdom soon came to make sense when the referee blew his whistle to start the game and pigs did indeed fly (well, fall in style). Point made, the game resumed after a lengthy period where rubber pigs were removed from the pitch by the players and we proceeded to lose 3-0 to a team managed by Russell Slade. In fairness, it wasn’t actually a terrible performance, but we were too weak at the back and lacked the ability to convert possession into goals, however, it was a display that screamed relegation.

How Are They Doing?

Charlton have been beguiling this season, at times they have been one of the best teams in the division but they’ve so often been sub-par and appearing to be lacking in motivation that they now find themselves in mid-table with nothing to play for. A high level of squad turnover this season hasn’t helped, first in Russell Slade clearing out the mess of a squad he’d been left after relegation from the Championship, and then Karl Robinson making sweeping changes after replacing Slade in November.

While Karl Robinson has the excuse of not working with a squad entirely of his own choosing, Charlton’s performances under him at times have questioned the concept of him being a good up-and-coming young English manager. He’s got a very strong squad to work with, possibly one of the best at this level, yet he’s only picked up 20 points from the 21 games he’s had in charge – 10 fewer than Slade managed with the same number of games.

The quality in Charlton’s squad comes mainly comes from midfield/attack, where Ricky Holmes has been the star player this season. Remarkably for a player who’s never played as high as this level before, Holmes has looked a cut above in his wing play and end product. Former Swindon winger Nathan Byrne provides further quality out wide, while the attack boasts the physical prowess of Josh Magennis and Lee Novak, as well as the enigmatic former Celtic striker Tony Watt.

Karl Robinson’s big signing Jake Forster-Caskey has been a class act in a deeper midfield position, supplying creativity alongside academy product Joe Aribo who was rather exuberantly likened to Dele Alli early in the season by Robinson. The experienced Andrew Crofts provides a physical platform at the base of midfield to build from, while there’s also club captain and hero Johnnie Jackson to call upon despite his advancing age.

Possible Line-Up

At the back, Charlton have an array of high-calibre centre-backs who could all really be playing at a higher-level. Patrick Bauer and Jorge Teixeira are domineering presences in central defence and the only random foreign players to last Russell Slade’s summer cull. There’s also Jason Pearce who has excelled in the past at Championship level, while Ezri Konsa has emerged as a big prospect this season after playing in a number of positions in defence and midfield.

There’s also the reliable Chris Solly to call upon at right-back, who has stayed loyal over the years despite previous links to Premier League clubs, and Declan Rudd in goal, who made several appearances last season in goal for Norwich in the top-flight. All in all, this is a time that shouldn’t be languishing in mid-table in League One.

Prediction

There are similarities between this Charlton side and the Peterborough one we faced last week. Both have aspirations of playing pretty, passing football and have a number of dangerous attacking players, but both have appeared to lack a cutting edge to their play and have a soft underbelly that can be exposed with proper organisation and the right mentality.

I would be confident predicting a win in this game, however the potential protests present an unknown factor both in how they may happen and whether it will have any effect on the team. Given that it is an unknown factor, I’m going to stick to my guns and tip us to win this game 2-1.

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Preview: EFL Trophy Final

When we went two goals ahead against Wycombe back in February, it didn’t feel real. When the final whistle blew in that game, it didn’t feel real. When I ran on the pitch afterwards, it didn’t feel real. When the tickets went on sale, it didn’t feel real. It won’t be until I take my seat for this game that it will actually feel real, that Coventry City have made it Wembley.

For so long at this football club, it’s been about this quest to make it to the national stadium. We’ve come close on several occasions – those years getting close to making the play-offs, that game against Crewe – but it’s always felt out of our reach, no matter how close we actually were. This is Coventry City, the club that hasn’t made the top six of any division for 47 years, we just don’t do success.

For many, making it to Wembley is a prize, regardless of the result in this game. As someone who, through other sports, has been to big finals and seen my team lose, I’m telling you that is the most sickening experience you can have as a fan of your team. It’s not only that so much went into getting there and you didn’t win, but you’re made to watch the opposition have that amazing moment that you were expecting to have.

Mark Robins’ arrival as manager has been almost perfectly timed to provide us with the shot in the arm required to stand a chance against a strong Oxford side. He’s taken time to assess the options available to him and has now found a way to make us look like a proper team. Players appear to know their roles in their side and we’re playing with a level of intensity that has been lacking for the majority of the campaign.

Possible Line-Up

However, some of that continuity and momentum from the past couple of performances is going to be lost due to the ineligible players for this competition. Significantly, Nathan Clarke and Farrend Rawson looked to have formed a robust central defensive partnership but will both be unavailable. On the one hand, that will likely see Jordan Willis and Jordan Turnbull re-form a defensive partnership that was the root of our problems for much of the season, on the other, they’re both mobile defenders who have a degree of comfort on the ball, against a less direct team than our previous two opponents, that could even prove a blessing in disguise.

Elsewhere, Ruben Lameiras’ impact from the bench last week may have made a case for handing him a start in this game to supply genuine creativity in the final third, but I sense that it’s a choice between Kwame Thomas (if fit) and Jodi Jones for that place alongside Beavon in attack. I would imagine that the rest of the midfield four will remain in place given that they are both functioning as a unit and available for selection for this game.

Finally, there is a choice to be made whether to reward Reice Charles-Cook for his performances in this competition with a start in goal in the final, or to stick with the current first-choice of Lee Burge. My inkling is that Lee Burge will start, although it wouldn’t be shocking were Charles-Cook to get the nod.

Last Time We Met

Our two meetings with Oxford this season have curiously been both our best and worst performances of the league campaign. Back at the Ricoh Arena in October, we produced a remarkably composed and controlling performance with Ben Stevenson smashing in a screamer and Marvin Sordell chasing down a weak back-pass to hand us a comfortable win. However, barely a month later, Oxford eviscerated us at the Kassam Stadium in a game that signalled the beginning of the end for Mark Venus as manager.

How Are They Doing?

Nothing can illustrate the feeling towards this game on Oxford United’s end other than they’ve actually required a marketing campaign to sell tickets for this game. They made the final last year, so they’re not as desperate for the day out at Wembley that we are, they also have a realistic prospect of making the play-offs this season, so this game may not even define their season in the same way that it does ours.

A 5-1 win over Bury on Tuesday night emphasised how Oxford have been moving through the gears over the course of the campaign. They looked disjointed for much of the first half of the season, having lost key players from last year’s promotion-winning side from League Two in Kemar Roofe and Callum O’Dowda to Championship clubs and letting go the experience of defenders Jake Wright and Johnny Mullins, as well as striker Danny Hylton. However, the club made some excellent additions in the transfer market both in the summer and then in January, and that quality is really shining through at the moment.

The two key moves in the summer window were firstly securing set-piece maestro and wind-up merchant Chris Maguire on a permanent deal – any free-kick from him closer than 30 yards from goal is almost a penalty – and bringing in winger Marvin Johnson from Motherwell and then converting him into a marauding left-back. Additionally, they managed to bring in Everton youngster Ryan Ledson on a permanent deal and he has been a class apart in the centre of the park for much of the campaign.

Oxford also added firepower to their attack in January through bringing in Toni Martinez and Conor McAleny on loan from West Ham and Everton respectively. However, we don’t have to worry about them as they have both already featured in this competition for their parent clubs, which is just as well as Toni Martinez scored against us at the Ricoh Arena for West Ham PL2 and Conor McAleny has eight goals in 13 appearances.

Losing those two is likely to see Kane Hemmings step up into a central attacking role, a player who has played very well in patches this season, with Maguire operating just behind him. However, Oxford will still have Rob Hall to utilise going forwards, he’s a pacey and skilful winger with excellent delivery who has five goals and five assists to his name despite spending the first few months of the season out injured.

Captain John Lundstram will play in midfield alongside Ryan Ledson, another former Everton youngster, Lundstram plays in a deep role and is important in providing a defensive platform as well as playing the ball out of defence. Michael Appleton could also pick either Joe Rothwell – a former Manchester United youngster – or Josh Ruffels – a former Coventry City youngster – should he wish to operate with a three-man midfield.

Possible Line-Up

In defence, the big Chey Dunkley has been an ever-present at centre-back this season but former Plymouth captain Curtis Nelson has looked a class act alongside him having returned to fitness following injury struggles in the first few months of the campaign. The previously mentioned Marvin Johnson is a real force of nature from left-back and is being tracked by Championship clubs, Appleton could decide to pick Joe Skarz at left-back and push Johnson further forward should he be feeling cautious about the big occasion.

In goal, Oxford have Simon Eastwood, who was yet another great summer signing they made. The former Blackburn man is one of those keepers who can really shut up shop if they’re in the mood, and has done so on several occasions at a higher-level before dropping down to League One for more regular football.

Overall, Oxford are a similar club right now to how Barnsley were last season (coincidentally, the team that beat them in this final last year) and have maybe just been held back from being a top six side already by the relative lack of experience in their squad. They are very much the favourites for this game and we’ll likely spend extended spells of the 90 minutes without the ball.

Prediction

I was more fearful for this game a couple of weeks ago when we were playing without confidence than I am now even though Oxford are in good form themselves and are a much better side than we are. The key areas for the game for us will be whether we can adapt to the change in personnel in defence and how consistent a threat we can be on the counter-attack. For Oxford, it’s about converting the dominance they’re likely to have into goals, which could be affected by losing their form striker for this game.

Oxford are favourites for this game and it could be a really humiliating defeat on the big stage for us. I can envision scenarios of this game in which we win, but my instinct is that Oxford will beat us, probably 2-0.

Preview: Port Vale

Forget about winning for now, we’ve gone four games without even a goal to celebrate, making the process of shuffling off into League Two that bit more depressing. With confirmation of relegation looming, now is the time to take the shackles off and play without the fear of the consequences of losing.

It’s easier said than done with a squad lacking in goal-scorers, as well as that vital component of confidence. However, a more positive and creative line-up against MK Dons led to some promising attacking moves, even if the end result was a loss and just five shots on goal. There were signs though that letting the likes of Ruben Lameiras and Jodi Jones free could not only make games more enjoyable for ourselves but possibly provide a crucial axis for next season – providing that either player is around next season.

Possible Line-Up

This game against Port Vale should be about letting free more of that creative intent, with a view to possibly even scoring a goal. Lameiras and Jones should be given another chance to show what they can do, and the lack of fitness of Saturday’s full-backs, Jordan Willis and Chris Stokes, should further supplement our ability to create chances with the more attacking Ryan Haynes and Dion Kelly-Evans coming back into the side.

The other likely starters for this game should be Nathan Clarke and Farrend Rawson in central defence, who appear to be Mark Robins’ go-to defensive partnership. The manager also seems to have a preference in midfield for Callum Reilly alongside Ben Stevenson, although both are struggling for confidence and form at this moment in time and may lack the steel to compete against a side still fighting for its life in this game. In attack, Charles Vernam seems the likeliest candidate to start given Marcus Tudgay picking up an injury on Saturday and Stuart Beavon’s continuing fitness problems.

Last Time We Met

With Tony Mowbray having just left the club following a 10-game winless run to start the season, it was left to Mark Venus to pick up the pieces as we pondered our next move. Port Vale had started the season in excellent form, particularly at home, and were expecting to continue that run against a team and club in disarray.

However, we produced one of our best performances of the season as we not only won the game in comfortable fashion thanks to goals from Marvin Sordell and Chris McCann, but we dominated the game thanks to a combination of composure on the ball and pressing the opposition off of it – almost the exact opposite of what we’ve done in every other game this season.

How Are They Doing?

That defeat back in September precipitated an unravelling at Port Vale that they’re still trying to recover from. The club had taken a huge gamble this season in not only appointing a foreign manager with no experience of the Football League but signing a legion of foreign players with no experience of the Football League. Thanks to the performances of English players such as defenders Remie Streete and Nathan Smith, as well as striker Alex Jones, Port Vale looked to making a mockery of pre-season predictions, but performances deteriorated under Bruno Ribeiro before he left in December.

Former Leeds and Sheffield United shin-kicker Michael Brown has stepped into the breach, without having officially being appointed as permanent manager, and has slowly attempted to undo the mistakes made at Vale Park over the summer and during the first half of the season. Barring a few, almost all of the foreign signings have been frozen out and have been replaced by a series of panic loan signings and free transfers. As a result, performances have been disjointed with Vale slipping into relegation danger. However, results have improved as of late and they’ll get out of the bottom four with a win in this game.

As mentioned earlier, Remie Streete and Nathan Smith have been immense in central defence this season despite their relative inexperience. A big issue for Port Vale recently though has been the January deadline day departure of goalkeeper Jak Alnwick to Rangers, and the hasty replacement signing with Celtic youngster Leonardo Fasan, who has cost the team several points. Fasan has been dropped recently in favour of Deniz Mehmet, who spent much of this season on the bench at Falkirk.

Possible Line-Up

Further forward, the set-piece prowess of both Sam Foley and former Newcastle man Ryan Taylor is a major threat. Taylor has recently returned to the club after an impressive spell earlier in the season and the power and placement of his set-pieces can be impossible to defend against. Chris Eagles, who so nearly signed for us last season, has made a decent impact out wide after signing in January and they may even be able to call upon ex-Charlton and West Brom winger Jerome Thomas for this game.

Losing Alex Jones in January was a big blow for Port Vale’s threat in the final third, however, JJ Hooper has been in impressive form over the past few game to help address losing such a reliable goalscorer. Hooper is a real wildcard to deal with as he’s possesses a good mix of skill, pace and power, and is now benefitting from getting a consistent run in the side. Anton Forrester is likely to start alongside him and is more of a target-man type of striker, although Vale may have the giant Curacao forward Rigino Cicilia available for selection to add to their physical threat in attack.

Prediction

This is potentially a game where we can look forward to expressing ourselves, however, this is also potentially a game where a side fighting for its life will want it far too much than to let us walk all over them. The onus is on Port Vale to establish themselves physically in this game, and possibly to get an early goal to take the sting out of us. However, Vale have struggled on the road this season so may be caught awkwardly between trying to stay organised like an away side or trying to take the game to us like a home side.

The form book and the gravity of Port Vale’s situation should make this a fairly easy away win. But I wonder whether we’ve entered now into a pressure-free environment that could give us more freedom to play. I still think Port Vale will win this game, but I’m going to be bold in predicting we’ll score, twice, in a 3-2 defeat.

Preview: Milton Keynes Dons

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

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

A Combination Of Players That We Have

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

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

Last Time We Met

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

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

How Are They Doing?

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

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

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

Possible Line-Up

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

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

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

Prediction

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

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

Preview: Wycombe Wanderers

Another defeat, another ‘protest’, more arguing over the rights and wrongs of it all, and we’re still limping into the abyss. The defeat to Millwall on Saturday that was as predictable as they come, extending a 13-match winless run in the league and making the question right now not whether we can survive, but whether we’ll win again this season.

Had it not been for this remarkable run to the semi-finals of the Checkatrade Trophy, this season would have been an unremittingly awful compendium of torture for Sky Blues fans. Yet, there’s a rather large part of me wondering whether would be even worse torture to get this far and not make it to Wembley at this point, than it would have been to have quietly made an exit from this competition when nobody was looking.

On the face of it, drawing a League Two side and playing at home in a one-off semi-final should be a massive advantage for us. However, we are a terrible team in no kind of form and will only have about half our full-strength squad to pick from thanks to various players being ineligible, suspended and injured for this game. i’s not so much about Slade picking a team he feels is best-suited for overcoming a physical and cynical Wycombe side, it’s about picking a combination of the players available to him that bear the closest semblance to a functional team.

In defence, Jordan Willis, Nathan Clarke, Farrend Rawson and Kevin Foley are all unavailable, which is absolutely killer for us given how effective Wycombe are from set-pieces and long balls. Cian Harries and Jordan Turnbull are just about the only central defensive pairing Slade can pick. Dion Kelly-Evans is going to have to grow a foot taller in time for this game for dealing with the aforementioned aerial threats Wycombe pose. But at least we have Ryan Haynes available at left-back, who scored twice the last time we played them.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

In midfield, there are fewer selection issues for Slade to contend with in terms of players being unavailable, it’s just about how cautious he wants to be. Jodi Jones and Ruben Lameiras seem to have saved their best performances this season for this competition, but are so inconsistent that it’s as much a risk to play them in this game as it is not to. Hopefully, Ben Stevenson will be available for selection in the middle of the park as Callum Reilly just does not offer a similar level of quality and composure.

We really need Stuart Beavon to replicate his debut performance against Bolton if we are to stand any chance of scoring in this game. His work-rate and physical presence could unlock the door for our other players, but he’s clearly an ageing player who struggles to last a full 90 minutes and it’s not helping that the ball is being hoofed towards him rather than played into his feet or the channels.

Last Time We Met

It was a bizarre game the last time we played Wycombe, in this competition back in November. We were still on that decent run under Mark Venus but the signs that the wheels were about to come off were getting increasingly apparent. Wycombe, who were on a poor run of form at the time, took a fairly straightforward two-goal early into the second-half, before we sparked to life.

Ryan Haynes started playing like a ginger Gareth Bale and quickly cancelled out Wycombe’s lead with two goals in three minutes from typical barnstorming, is-he-going-to-shoot-or-pass runs that he’s occasionally capable of. George Thomas did something he had never done at senior level, and scored, to put us in front. Then, Gael Bigirimana got in on the act to make it 4-2, scoring what was also his first senior goal for the club.

How Are They Doing?

That defeat seemed to spark Wycombe to life, having started the season somewhat listlessly in lower mid-table of League Two. They have only lost twice in the 19 games they’ve played since our last meeting and have forward Scott Kashket in red-hot form, having scored 11 goals in his past 15 games in all competitions.

Wycombe are a very direct and cynical side who will be a nightmare to play against, especially if we fall behind. Manager Gareth Ainsworth has regularly deployed his side in a 4-3-3 formation where target-man, and social media famous, Adebayo Akinfenwa is absolutely pivotal in winning headers and providing flick-ons to the supporting runners. They showed against Spurs recently that their style of play can unsettle even top-level defenders, so we’ll have to be at our very best to repel Wycombe’s threat.

Alongside Akinfenwa and Kashket in attack, Gareth Ainsworth can either call upon the experienced Paul Hayes, who scored an excellent goal against Spurs, Garry Thompson, also on the scoresheet at White Hart Lane, or the pacey Paris Cowan-Hall, who has just re-joined the club for a fourth spell. This is a team that absolutely thrive off winning second-balls and often, the actual formation they play matters less than who is around Akinfenwa to benefit from his physical prowess.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

At the back, Wycombe have two full-backs in Sido Jombati and Joe Jacobson who provide energy and quality from their delivery, which is counter-typical for such a direct team. Centre-Back Aaron Pierre is a real domineering presence at the heart of their defence and is someone who should really be playing at a higher level.

In goal is Chelsea loanee Jamal Blackman, who is an interesting keeper because he has the capability to produce some absolutely spectacular saves, while also being susceptible to some fairly routine errors. Which Jamal Blackman they get in this game could well be crucial in either winning or losing the tie for Wycombe, if that is we can manage to challenge him with enough efforts on goal.

Prediction

Every bone in my body is telling me that we’re going to monumentally screw-up this big opportunity. Not only is this Coventry City we’re talking about, but we are in terrible form and the manager has to pick from a patched-up team. Even though we’re one game away from Wembley, it still doesn’t feel like tangible possibility.

I predict a 3-0 loss, and an absolutely infuriating evening for everyone in Sky Blue.

Preview: Bristol Rovers

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

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

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

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

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

Last Time We Met

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

How Are They Doing?

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

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

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

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

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

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

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

Prediction

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

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

Preview: Walsall

Two wins of differing quality in a week and we’re starting to look like a team that could quickly move up the table. It’s fair to say that we had our fair slice of fortune against both Oxford and Rochdale, but it was pleasing to see the team apply themselves with so much dedication in order to ensure that we held onto six very valuable points.

This not-really-or-maybe-it-is-derby against Walsall is going to be a good indicator of this team’s ability to pull away from danger. There was pressure to get the wins last week, whereas a defeat in this game wouldn’t be such a disaster. It’s one thing motivating yourself for a game where you absolutely have to win, but being able to summon up the levels of concentration and determination on a week-to-week basis is going to be the difference between a season of struggle and pushing towards the higher reaches of this division.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

A massive part of last week’s victories was a sense of continuity in team selection and formation. However, the injury to Chris McCann may force Mark Venus to make a tactical shift, especially after Ruben Lameiras made the difference against Rochdale when shifted into a central position. As well as Lameiras played last week, the overall performance wasn’t good and losing the presence of McCann in the centre of the park contributed to that. It’s a genuine dilemma whether Venus maintains tactical continuity or makes changes to get the best out of one player.

Elsewhere, we’re probably going to be looking at a settled side. The defence is improving, without looking fully convincing, thanks to Jordan Willis really stepping up to the plate over the past few games. The balance of the front three of Sordell, Agyei and Lameiras doesn’t feel quite right, but it seems better to stick with a winning side rather than make changes in the elusive search for improvement.

Last Time We Met

Our meetings against Walsall last season saw us up against what was probably the best footballing team in the division over the course of the campaign. A trip to the Bescot on one of the last hot days of summer 2015 saw the Saddlers teach a Sky Blues side high on confidence after winning its first three league games a footballing lesson, pretty much playing us off the park in a 2-1 scoreline that flattered us.

It was much closer at the Ricoh Arena back in January of this year where Tony Mowbray’s Sky Blues were the better team for around 60 minutes, taking the lead via a Chris Stokes header from a Joe Cole set-piece, but crucially failing to add to that slender advantage. An attempt to sit on that lead was undone when a classic Walsall combination from last season earned the Saddlers a point, the mercurial Romaine Sawyers switched the play to the enterprising Rico Henry, who had the freedom of the left-side of the pitch, Henry’s cross was then turned home by the goal-poacher Tom Bradshaw.

How Are They Doing?

Like ourselves, Walsall have had to completely rebuild their team following a failure to secure promotion and have been inconsistent for much of this season, although to a lesser extent than the Sky Blues. Manager Jon Whitney stepped up from caretaker manager towards the end of last season but is still to fully convince as a manager in his own right, constantly making big tactical and personnel changes from game-to-game.

Walsall have however found some form in recent weeks and have lost just once in the last nine games. While that run seems to be related to Whitney playing a more settled side, it’s fair to say that the decision to sign Erhun Oztumer to replace Romaine Sawyers has played a large role too.

Although both Oztumer and Sawyers occupy the ‘sometimes misunderstood, mercurial, lower-league playmaker unlikely to ever fully fulfill their potential but will be all the memorable for it’ role, the two are as contrasting as it’s possible to be within that spectrum. The lanky Sawyers dictated play from high up the pitch, providing momentum and openings for other players to score goals The tiny Oztumer is more interested in the spectacular, shooting from ridiculous distances and taking risks most other players wouldn’t even think of taking. Oztumer has seven goals and three assists already this season, Sawyers managed five goals and eight assists in the entirety of last season.

Despite a summer exodus, a combination of smart recruitment and players already at the club stepping up has given Walsall a squad bountiful in useful attacking options. Academy-produced youngster Kieron Morris has built on a decent supporting role last season with three goals and two assists as a regular starter this time around.  Franck Moussa is someone Sky Blues fans will know all too well, a player on that Oztumer-Sawyers spectrum, who frustrates you until he goes out and wins a game on his own.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Walsall also have another, less fondly remembered, former Coventry City player in their ranks in Simeon Jackson. The decision to replace Tom Bradshaw with the Canadian forward was roundly mocked but Jackson has five league goals to his name this season which probably suggests he was a victim of poor service during his season at the Ricoh Arena. The giant Amadou Bakyoko has stepped up from the academy after several nondescript non-league loan spells over the years and has provided an alternative figurehead in attack from time-to-time. There’s also record signing Andreas Makris to call upon, but he’s struggled for form since arriving in the Black Country from Cyprus this summer.

Walsall’s defence this season has been the least functioning part of the team, with Whitney’s predilection for tinkering leading to some disjointed performances. Centre-backs Jason McCarthy and Kevin Toner have regularly been used at full-back, but the leadership of James O’Connor and the goalkeeping exploits of Neil Etheridge have seen things settle down defensively for Walsall in recent weeks.

Prediction

This is quite a strong Walsall side but one that can be beaten if we play with cohesion, and get some luck along the way. Given the different manners of the wins last week, there’s no reason to not to believe that we can’t make it three wins in a row but it still feels like there are defensive errors waiting to happen and our attack is still far from convincing.

I’m going to sit on the fence with this one and predict a 1-1 draw.