The point salvaged by Jordan Ponticelli’s impudent backheel had evaporated so quickly in front of our eyes at Notts County that it still feels difficult to compute the gravity of losing what was the biggest game of our season up until that point. While results in midweek have allowed us to hold onto our play-off spot, there is no denying that our hold on a play-off spot is slipping.
It’s not just the buffer being reduced to one point, but the sudden lose of form and any sense that Mark Robins knows his strongest team. Aside from Lee Burge in goal, Rod McDonald at centre-back, Michael Doyle in midfield and Marc McNulty up front, it feel as if Robins could be set to pick any combination of the remaining available players for this upcoming game against Crawley.
To be in such a situation with five games remaining and a play-off place on the line is really a cardinal sin. Our best runs this season have coincided with having a settled line-up, our poorer runs have been when Robins has tried to chop and change things. It doesn’t take a genius at this stage of the season to spot the trend, Robins should have known better than to pick the heavily-changed team he did at Notts County.
A win is needed in this game against Crawley to kick-start us ahead of the run-in – as well as a potential further three games to secure promotion via the play-offs – although, it’s not a make-or-break game. A point may be enough to begin the turnaround, but that probably puts pressure on us to avoid defeat in our final four games and win at least two of those. However, if confidence really has been dented by our recent run, trying to value a clean sheet may not be the worst course of action.
Jordan Willis’ return to fitness is likely to mean a third different back four in the space of three games, but is undoubtedly an upgrade on Tom Davies – especially against a pacey Crawley side. Elsewhere, there is conundrum over who to play on the right wing, whether we continue to shoehorn Tom Bayliss there, or restore Peter Vincenti to allow Bayliss to play in his stronger central position. Up front, Jonson Clarke-Harris seems set to return as Marc McNulty’s strike partner despite Maxime Biamou looking more threatening during his half of football against Notts County.
Last Time We Met
It was during a similar period to now where we had not only lost form but Mark Robins was experimenting with his line-up that we faced Crawley at the Ricoh Arena back in November. For the first and only time this season, Mark Robins attempted to deploy a back three, however it was quickly discarded as Crawley’s pacey front three carved through it for the game’s opening goal.
An improvement in the second-half was reward when Duckens Nazon took down Ryan Haynes’ cross and squared it to Marc McNulty who levelled matters. Jordan Ponticelli had an excellent chance to secure what would have still been our only victory at home this season after falling behind, but failed to seize it. The game ended 1-1, which was probably a fair reflection of the balance of play.
How Are They Doing?
Having made the decision this summer to appoint the ex-Premier League player who looked least likely to go into management in League Two in Harry Kewell, Crawley looked like they were wilfully playing with fire. Despite a rocky start marred by defensive errors caused by ambitious attempts to play out from the back, Kewell has proven to be something of an inspired choice for Crawley.
For a period between December and February, Crawley looked like a side capable of gatecrashing the play-offs. Their pace and skill up front supplied via Enzio Boldewijn and Jordan Roberts in particular was devastating, supplemented by the goals from midfield of the experienced Jimmy Smith, as well as later on via the loan signing of Charlton’s young forward Karlan Ahearne-Grant – who has eight goals in 12 appearances since joining Crawley.
Their recent win over Port Vale though came via bringing in the hulking Dutch centre-forward Thomas Verheydt back in the side, who has the ability to bully our defenders. There has also been praise recently for the hard-running and pacey forward Panutche Camara, who provides Harry Kewell with a different kind of number nine from Verheydt to pick from.
The Achilles’ heel of this Crawley side though is undoubtedly their defending. On their day, defenders Mark Connolly and Josh Yorwerth are high-calibre performers at this level, with keeper Glenn Morris an excellent shot-stopper. However, Yorwerth in particular is incredibly inconsistent and the lack of defensive strength at full-back along with their attempts to play out from the back can spectacularly backfire.
While Crawley are still within grasping (with the very tips of their fingers) distance of the play-offs, the focus around the club already appears to be on next season. Nonetheless, there are very few teams who get to this stage of the season and genuinely give up. There will be players in that Crawley side playing for their futures at the club or looking to make a move elsewhere. We have to approach this game with intensity and intent, otherwise we could fall sucker to a side playing without the pressure we are under.
This has to be the game where the turnaround starts. The teams below us aren’t going to continue to miss opportunities to take our play-off spot and even if they do, we still have to end the season with confidence, momentum and a settled team.
I think this will be a 1-1 draw.