Preview: Stevenage

Last week’s win over Crawley puts the chance to secure a play-off place tantalisingly within our grasp. Taking 73 points as a benchmark, we are just one win and two draws from our final four games from securing that, winning this upcoming match reduces that task to taking two points from three remaining games. It’s all looking very doable at the moment – presuming we’ll only need to reach 73 points.

Winning tonight’s game is crucial in crystallising our play-off spot at this late stage in the season. It puts the pressure on Mansfield and Lincoln to win their games on Saturday and potentially leaves us in a situation where a win over Lincoln on Tuesday could all but secure a play-off place – were Mansfield to lose their game. However, a defeat in this game could also put us back in a situation where we’re chasing a top seven place with games running out.

For Mark Robins, this game will be about ensuring the players use the pressure of the situation in the right way. For Stevenage, this is a free hit and, like Yeovil, they may be able to exploit the leadenness in the legs that pressure games can inflict. From our perspective, it’s all about ensuring that Stevenage have no reason to believe they can get something from this game – preferably by scoring a couple of early goals.

Possible Line-Up

After beating Crawley on Saturday, the team has received a much-needed shot in the arm after back-to-back defeats that were harrowing in different ways. However, the team selection and formation used by Mark Robins for that game was more than a little baffling and there’s a strong suspicion that we won in spite of the formation rather than because of it – although getting the win to avoid the season nosediving was important regardless of how it came.

Mark Robins intimated that the formation involving Jordan Ponticelli and Marc McNulty deployed as wingers and Tom Bayliss looking uncomfortable being played further forward was something that had been designed specifically with Crawley in mind. It may be the case that it was a one-off team selection, however, it’s hard to see how Robins can drop Ponticelli after his brace against Crawley while also having Marc McNulty, a target man, Tom Bayliss, and Doyle and Kelly in midfield, which seem to be his preferred options.

Last Time We Met

We drew 1-1 with Stevenage the last time we played them, Marc McNulty scoring first before Stevenage got a relatively late equaliser via Tom Pett. However, it’s a game that will be remembered most for the injury sustained by Jodi Jones, which subsequently saw us without arguably the division’s best player for the rest of the season.

Maybe this return match wouldn’t have just been about holding onto a play-off spot if Jodi had never picked up that injury.

How Are They Doing?

The season is petering out for Stevenage, a side that had been hopeful of being something of a dark horse for the play-offs but have spent the year unduly troubled by neither the play-offs nor fears of relegation. Nonetheless, a poor run of form between October and March saw manager Darren Sarll out of a job.

Sarll has been replaced by Dino Maamria – an ex-player and assistant manager during the successful Graham Westley-era which saw Stevenage rise from the National League to the League One play-offs – brought in after turning Nuneaton from relegation contenders in the National League North into outside play-off candidates. Big on motivation and fitness. Maamria had the team fired up enough for important wins over Barnet and Newport recently which have secured Stevenage’s place in League Two for another year.

It appears though that that initial spurt of motivation that Maamria provided has fizzled out, with last week’s 2-0 defeat to Cambridge a particularly limp performance. The manager appears now to be starting to test out players and formations before the summer transfer window.

Any team that Maamria builds next year is likely to be based on getting the best out of striker Danny Newton – a hard-working forward who has some excellent goals this year on his highlight reel – goal-poacher Matt Godden and academy attacking midfielder Ben Kennedy – who Maamria described recently as being capable of playing in the Championship, right now.

Possible Line-Up

Some important January loan signings have added quality to Stevenage’s squad, although at least two of them look set to play next season in League One. Those two are Tom King in goal, on loan from Millwall, who heroics have been important in Stevenage avoiding a complete mid-season collapse, and Luke Amos, from Spurs, who is a classy presence on the right of a midfield diamond who seems reminiscent to me of Grant Ward during his loan spell with us a few years ago. Arsenal youngster Ben Sheaf has shown glimpses of quality in defensive midfield, but has been overwhelmed with the physicality at times of League Two football.

With the quality of the side generally further forward, Stevenage’s ageing back four has looked creaking at times this season. Centre-backs Luke Wilkinson and Jack King are two pretty agricultural centre-backs at this level and also suffer from a lack of pace. Similarly at full-back, Ronnie Henry and Joe Martin aren’t exactly the most dynamic. We should probably be looking to press them into errors, or exploit them with balls played in behind.

Prediction

It’s not helpful that right now it’s not clear what XI and formation Mark Robins is going to pick for this game, however, you would hope that the opportunity that this game presents to take a step forward in securing a play-off place would not be lost on any combination of players used here. Stevenage are in many ways an ideal opponent as a side relatively low on confidence that has little to play for, although similar things were thought about Yeovil.

Nonetheless, this is a game that we should be expecting to win if everyone is playing to their highest level of concentration and intensity. I can see this being a victory by a single goal, so I’m going to call it as a 1-0.

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