It is getting ever closer to the last-chance saloon for Coventry City’s play-off hopes. Failing to build on that fantastic 4-1 win over Sheffield United has left the Sky Blues with a lot to do. It is an especially tall order with such a tough final month of the season ahead, but the combination of a game in hand and fixtures against direct top six rivals means that the opportunity remains for Coventry City to make up their current deficit with the top six.
The run-in begins with one of the few remaining home games left of the campaign, with sixth-placed Blackburn Rovers the opposition. A win in this game would not only be a good start to this final period of the season but would immediately put the play-offs in grasping distance. If the top six remains this team’s ambition, victory here is essentially a must.
The two-week gap since the last game will have been a welcome breather for both Mark Robins and the players. Although there remain a number of injury absentees, the manager’s hand will have been bolstered simply by the majority of his squad having been handed a break from a gruelling fixture list.
Onto team selection, the returns of Michael Rose and Todd Kane to consideration bolsters the manager’s options in defence, but it will remain a case of having to play at least one player in the back three out of their natural position, with Jake Clarke-Salter and Kyle McFadzean both likely to miss this game.
After a decent showing at left centre-back against Derby County, the most obvious choice looks to be Jake Bidwell, but he may be required at left wing-back if Ian Maatsen hasn’t returned from international duty at a good level of fitness. If not Bidwell, then Ben Sheaf will continue to fill in at centre-back, likely on the right with Dominic Hyam shuffling over to the left.
The rest of the team just about picks itself, with any tweaks likely to be tactical, rather than based on player availability. The wing-back positions are probably the area of most interest, if Todd Kane is fit enough to challenge Fankaty Dabo for a starting place, while any one of Ian Maatsen, Jake Bidwell or Jordan Shipley (in order of declining likelihood), could start on the left. In attack, it is likely to be the configuration of Callum O’Hare behind Matt Godden and Viktor Gyokeres, which has been the go-to of late.
Last Time We Met
It was just after another international break, back in October, when Coventry City made the trip to Blackburn Rovers, with both teams looking to build on good starts to the campaign. The Sky Blues had their moments in the first-half, but Blackburn took the lead through a lovely give-and-go between Joe Rothwell and Sam Gallagher, with the former scoring. The duo then combined for the latter to score, after Ben Sheaf was caught playing a blind pass in a dangerous area of the pitch.
Blackburn Rovers looked to be out of sight, especially so, after Tyler Walker had a goal ruled out for a marginal offside call just before half-time. However, Walker grabbed himself a deserved goal just around the hour mark to spark a comeback, with Liam Kelly’s strike from the edge of the area deflecting in off Blackburn’s goalkeeper, Thomas Kaminski.
There was more excitement to come, with Viktor Gyokeres hacked down rather crudely in the penalty area – taking a blow to the ankle that may have been a big reason why his form in the following months dipped so starkly – with the referee seeing nothing wrong. Then, Simon Moore had to produce an excellent save from, an offside, Ben Brereton Diaz late-on. A draw was probably the fair result.
The Manager – Tony Mowbray
Oh Tony. Oh Tony. Tony, Tony, Tony. Why does this always happen to you? An excellent start to the season, a horrendous second half of it. He has tried everything over the years in order to prevent it, from signing a load of players, to signing almost none, sticking with a preferred system, tinkering with it, it seems there is something endemic about Tony Mowbray that sees his teams buckle in the latter stages of campaigns.
While previous Tony Mowbray collapses have often been the result of serious underperformance from talented squads, it has to be said that this Blackburn Rovers side had overperformed a tad or two to get in such an excellent position mid-way through the campaign. With little in the way of bolstering last summer, several players – most notably, Ben Brereton Diaz – raised their performance levels massively in the opening period of the season to make Blackburn such an exciting and potent side. The run of form post-Christmas, while poor, may well simply be a regression to the mean, rather than reflecting Tony Mowbray’s supposed inadequacies as a manager.
Who To Look Out For?
Blackburn Rovers will be sweating on the availability of their aforementioned talismanic striker, Ben Brereton Diaz. Not only is he the team’s top-scorer, but he is just about the only scorer in this Rovers side right now. Blackburn have mustered just four goals in their last 11 games, in a period where Brereton Diaz has largely been absent, highlighting the team’s reliance on a forward who combines physicality and pace with directness. After recovering from injury, Brereton Diaz went on international duty with Chile, playing 80 minutes on Wednesday, and may only be in a condition to start this game on the bench.
In Brereton Diaz’s stead, Blackburn’s only out-and-out striker is the hard-working beanpole, Sam Gallagher, who has struggled in front of goal of late. Tony Mowbray has often deployed a strikerless system, with the diminutive but skilful duo of Reda Khadra and Tyrhys Dolan playing furthest forward, however, a knock recently picked up by Khadra looks like forcing Blackburn into starting with Gallagher up top.
In central midfield, the trio of Joe Rothwell, Lewis Travis and John Buckley is up there with the best in the division. Rothwell has long been an incredibly dangerous presence in the centre of the pitch due to his ability to pick up the ball from deep and drive forward past opponents, and has added an extra level of consistency to his game this season as he runs out the remainder of his contract with the club. With John Buckley having stepped things up nicely as another energetic box-to-box midfield presence, the snapping, defensive instincts of Lewis Travis provides really good balance for Blackburn Rovers.
At the back, Blackburn Rovers look to be facing something of an injury crisis, with key centre-backs, Darragh Lenihan and Jan-Paul van Hecke, doubtful to start this game. With Daniel Ayala also on the injury list, Rovers may just have one senior centre-back available for this game, Scott Wharton. At the very least, Blackburn can call upon Thomas Kaminski, one of the division’s most reliable goalkeepers, if things get overwhelming for them in this game.
Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost
With Blackburn Rovers having largely played on the counter-attack this season (they have the second-lowest possession average in the division), it looks like being up to Coventry City to make the most of being handed the majority of the ball. That dynamic could be altered if Blackburn look to adopt a more proactive approach to cover their possible shortage of senior defenders for this game.
Coventry City will need to play quickly and more decisively in possession than they have been recently. A big part of their threat in this game is likely to come from stretching Blackburn Rovers with their width, which will require the wing-backs to be more direct in either attacking the byline or crossing than they tend to be. Additionally, players like Callum O’Hare and Gustavo Hamer are going to be important in finding that final pass.
With the target-man, Sam Gallagher, likely to start in attack for Blackburn, with Ryan Giles (one of the division’s leading assist-makers) there to provide crosses for him, the defence’s aerial ability is likely to come under inspection here. Whether Gallagher is a direct threat of not, his mere presence could well upon up space for Blackburn’s other quick and skilful attacking players, which could be especially devastating on the counter-attack if the Sky Blues’ defence is left in one-on-one situations. Furthermore, there will likely be the option for Tony Mowbray to introduce Ben Brereton Diaz later on in this game to move up through the gears, if required.