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.
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.
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.
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.