A drawing against MK Dons at the weekend brought to an end a three-game winning streak in the league. While we remain in a good position in the league, the win would have seen us move within striking distance of the top two.
The lethargy on show at the weekend makes the prospect of this midweek FA Cup Replay with Bristol Rovers less than enticing. However, the £135,000 prize money on offer means that any notion that we will be taking this game lightly is misguided.
Changes are likely to be kept to a minimum for this game, with Mark Robins looking to balance keeping the squad fresh versus not deviating too heavily from a formula that has worked over the past few games.
The prime candidate to come into the side is Callum O’Hare. While his impact is probably best utilised from the bench, the player himself is unlikely to be content with such a role. With Jordan Shipley and Zain Westbrooke having looked the most fatigued at the weekend, this game feels the perfect opportunity for Callum O’Hare to prove himself in a starting role.
Elsewhere, any changes are likely to alter the dynamic, if not the entire shape, of the starting XI. After O’Hare, Jamie Allen and Maxime Biamou are the next-closest fringe players to come into the fold but it may be a case of one or the other due to the amount of change that playing both would cause.
Last Time We Met
You don’t have to cast back your memory too far to recall our last meeting with Bristol Rovers, with this fixture being the FA Cup replay. While it was a commanding performance from the Sky Blues at the Memorial Stadium, two sloppy goals conceded meant that we did rather well to avoid elimination from the competition.
Manager – Kevin Maher (Interim)
Incumbent Bristol Rovers boss, Ben Garner, has been granted an extended period of leave by the club due to the health of a family member, meaning that first-team coach, Kevin Maher, will be in interim charge of the club for this game.
Rovers had not been in good form under Ben Garner’s charge, failing to win any of the six games he oversaw and, perhaps more alarmingly, unable to score from open play. However, having taken charge on Christmas Eve and battling a horrendous injury list, there were already significant mitigating factors before taking into account whatever might have been happening in his private life off-the-pitch.
Who To Look Out For?
As we saw in the initial tie between the two sides, Jonson Clarke-Harris is the most clear and present threat that Bristol Rovers pose. There was a lot of gnashing from our fans around Clarke-Harris’ propensity to go down at the slightest of touches but it was effective in unsettling our defence, causing uncertainty as to whether to get tight to him or trying to avoid giving away free-kicks and risking leaving him in free space.
Rovers’ chief form of service to Clarke-Harris comes from the attacking wing-back duo of Alex Rodman on the right and Luke Leahy on the left. While they aren’t the most defensively aware of wing-backs, they run directly down the wings, are good crossers and will look to ghost into the far post area when the other is in a crossing position.
While Rovers are primarily a hard-working and fairly physical side, Ed Upson and Liam Sercombe in central midfield add a level of technical quality, especially from set-piece situations. If we allow those two time and space on the ball, they can punish us.
Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost
Bristol Rovers have had little opportunity to change things up over the past few weeks as their form has nosedived in the wake of the departure of former boss Graham Coughlan. With this being another game with a short turnaround from the last, it was already unlikely that Rovers would be looking to do anything different, before factoring in current manager, Ben Garner’s, sudden leave of absence.
Nonetheless, managing the threat caused by Jonson Clarke-Harris will is our primary concern here. The key may well be to funnel him into wide areas where he is going to have less opportunity to threaten our goal. While it may open up space for his team-mates, it seems a reasonable risk to take given Clarke-Harris’ importance to this Bristol Rovers side.
The width that our wing-backs provide could well be an important way in which we can stretch the opposition when we’re in possession. It is going to be essentially a one-vs-one battle on either flank between the wing-backs of each side, whoever can get on top of the other is likely to have the advantage in this game.