Preview: Yeovil Town

With the run we’ve been on, and with teams above us dropping points on Saturday, the draw at Newport has to be viewed as a disappointing result. Fortunately, it hasn’t been a costly draw, the gap to third place remains at six points (with a game in hand) and the cushion to the play-offs cushion reduced by one point. If we can back up Saturday’s result with three points in this upcoming game against Yeovil, the run continues, anything less and we’re back to looking nervously over our shoulders to hang onto a play-off spot.

Having based this recent run on a settled line-up and being able to score the first goal in games, to have salvaged the draw against Newport via the introductions of Kyel Reid and Maxime Biamou from the bench, it’s a sign that Mark Robins hasn’t simply stumbled on a temporary winning formula. Players are likely to get fatigued over the next seven games, we’re also likely to fall behind in at least a couple of those games, the Newport result was a sign that we might be able to overcome those kind of setbacks.

Possible Line-Up

With this Yeovil game coming so quickly off the back of the Newport game, Mark Robins may have to change up the starting XI that’s served us so well in recent weeks – particularly as Yeovil have the advantage over us of not having played on Friday. The question is which changes can be made that avoid disrupting the balance of the side?

It only really looks like the introduction of Kyel Reid on the wing for either Peter Vincenti or Jordan Shipley doesn’t alter the team dynamic too drastically, but even then, it takes away a game-changing substitution that we could potentially need in this game – with Shipley and Vincenti players less likely to change games as substitutes. Unless there are players carrying knocks, it seems unlikely that Robins will make changes for this game, despite how quickly this game has come around.

Last Time We Met

Our last meeting with Yeovil came off the back of the defeat to Newport and saw us lose in similar manner. A decent start to the game was undermined by Liam O’Brien needlessly charging off his line and colliding with Chris Stokes to hand Yeovil’s Rhys Browne a tap-in. We continued to pound away with decent-ish half chances before Olufela Olomola charged through our defence to seal the win for Yeovil.

How Are They Doing?

Yeovil looked like heavy favourites for relegation this season – emphasised by their 8-2 opening day defeat to Luton Town – however, manager Darren Way has managed his resources well to render Yeovil effectively safe from relegation with nine games of their season remaining.

What has been particularly impressive is that Yeovil’s safety has been achieved with a relatively inexperienced squad – packed out with loanees – which has rarely been the formula for avoiding relegation in the lower leagues. Darren Way seems to put an emphasis on developing promising young players in need of experience to round out their games, rather than the safe approach of doling out one-year contracts to experienced journeymen – however, their away form this season has arguably demonstrated the limitations of such an approach.

Possible Line-Up

With the experienced lower league maverick Francois Zoko as the figurehead in attack, the pace and skill of wingers Otis Khan, Jordan Green, Rhys Browne and Jake Gray has really come to the fore at times for Yeovil this season. Khan in particular has shone for Yeovil this season, and was seemingly close to a move to a League One club in January which fell through. Green and Browne offer raw pace in wide areas, while Jake Gray can operate as a central midfielder, where he offers drive and creativity.

In defence, Yeovil have a few players who are being linked with bigger and better things. The lanky Omar Sowunmi – who has also played as an emergency centre-forward – is seemingly on the radar of League One sides, while the composed Shaun Donellan at centre-back has impressed immediately since joining the club in January, and the versatile Tom James has been linked in the press to Swansea and Bournemouth. The form of those three – along with emergency goalkeeper signing Stuart Nelson – has helped Yeovil tighten up at the back considerably over the past couple of months.

Prediction

There is a danger that the expectation that this a straightforward three points for us against a side that not only has little to play for but has one of the worst away records in the division engenders a sense of complacency among our players and anxiety in the stands if we take time to settle into this game. However, we’ve shown in recent weeks that we can put away these kind of sides and this should be a three points to set us up for a big game against Notts County afterwards.

As for a scoreline, I can see us winning this 2-0.

Preview: Newport County

Having looked in danger of dropping out of contention for the play-offs just over a month ago, we’ve put ourselves in a position where automatic promotion could be within our grasp. With many of the promotion and play-off chasing sides playing each other over the Easter period, six points against two teams with nominally nothing to play for could put automatic promotion into our own hands – or at least, very close to.

While you usually want to revel in a 4-0 win and a hat-trick from one of your strikers, we can’t afford to lose any of the focus we’ve shown in recent weeks. Past slip-ups mean that our hold on even a play-off place is still tentative. The fact that the Grimsby win was our third in a row – and sixth game in a row unbeaten – has barely been commented on, which is a positive sign that there is a focus on finishing the job off, rather than basking in a strong run of form.

Possible Line-Up

After months of chopping and changing, Robins looks to have settled on a balanced and consistent side. Dominic Hyam and Rod McDonald have formed an excellent understanding in central defence, Jack Grimmer and Ryan Haynes from full-back allow us to stretch sides, Tom Bayliss and Michael Doyle seem the ideal yin and yang pairing in the centre of the park, Jordan Shipley and Peter Vincenti seem to balance things out nicely out wide and in Jonson Clarke-Harris and Marc McNulty we have two goalscoring strikers up front who are increasingly developing an understanding of how to play together.

Unless there are injuries that have cropped up since last week, there is absolutely no reason to change things up for this Newport game. While Liam Kelly, Kyel Reid and Maxime Biamou made important contributions against Grimsby from the bench which allowed us to kill the game off, the starting XI is performing so well that it’s hard to see anyone forcing their way into the side at the moment.

Last Time We Met

It was a defeat typical of the games we lost in the first few months of this season. Newport, a determined and hyper well-organised side, set out at the Ricoh Arena to contain us and went about their game-plan to perfection – even managing to be the better, more creative side in the first-half. Thanks to a a goalkeeping howler from Liam O’Brien, as he completely misjudged Reece Cole’s 25-yard daisy-cutter, and then some determined defending from Newport, it was a game we lost without posting too much of an attacking threat.

How Are They Doing?

For the opening few months of the season, Newport looked like being one of the surprise packages in League Two this year. Carrying the momentum from their remarkable escape from relegation last season, Newport were playing a physical, combative, and determined style of football that also saw them pummel the opposing side with crosses, set-pieces and shots and had them right in the play-off picture.

However, their run in the FA Cup – which saw them beat Leeds and take Spurs to a replay – seems to have derailed their season somewhat, with teams starting to cotton onto Newport being a genuinely good team. They have just one win in their past 10 league games and it seems that Mike Flynn – in his first full season as a manager – has struggled to deal with the drop-off in form, having chosen on one or two occasions to hang his players out to dry in the press, which is often a tactic of last resort.

Despite their recent run of form, here are two important stats to bear in mind – they have only lost three games at home all season, and none of the current top seven have beaten Newport at home this season. Going to Rodney Parade hasn’t been an easy fixture for anyone this season and Newport are a side that appear to relish playing against the better teams than in the games where they have to go out and attack.

The physicality and threat from set-pieces of Newport could be where we come unstuck in this fixture. Dan Butler and Robbie Wilmott – having played most of their football this season at wing-back – are their leading assist-makers, along with centre-back Ben White – mainly from flick-ons at set-pieces. Additionally, defender Mickey Demetriou is on five goals, further highlighting Newport’s threat from dead-ball situations.

Possible Line-Up

Newport appear to have been affected by the loss of midfield enforcer Joss Labadie to a season-ending injury, which has placed extra emphasis on the more creative-minded Matt Dolan and Josh Sheehan to perform their defensive duties. Nonetheless, Dolan is a player who can run a game at this level if given time on the ball, and Josh Sheehan – along with Wolves loanee forward Aaron Collins – has been one of Newport’s better players in recent weeks.

In attack, Newport have one of the division’s more reliable goalscorers in Padraig Amond, who is generally played with Frank Nouble as either a strike partner or wide player. Nouble is enjoying one of his best goalscoring seasons at Newport, having finally accepted the impact his physical presence can make. Additionally, Newport have Shawn McCoulsky on the books, who has 10 goals to his name this season but has lost some of the form he was in earlier in the campaign.

Prediction

It’s been a bit of a trope during these past few games that ‘it would be typical if we slipped up now’, but it would be typical if we slipped up now. Newport having essentially nothing to play for creates the sentiment that this is a game we should win easily, however, football isn’t as simple as that. Newport are a team that relish taking on better teams, especially if they can get an early goal and set about frustrating the flow of play.

If we are going to drop points in one of these two games over Easter, it seems likelier that it will be against a Newport side that are strong at home rather than a Yeovil side that struggle to win away. The intensity and ruthlessness we’ve shown in recent weeks has to be continued in this game. Nonetheless, I think we’ll drop points here – 1-1.

Preview: Crewe Alexandra

A point against arguably the division’s best side is hardly something to be sniffed at, but neither can throwing away a two-goal lead, against any calibre of opposition. Nonetheless, we’ve put ourselves in a good position with our recent run of results and the points dropped against Luton will be mourned less if we can follow it up with wins in our next couple of games.

As things start to heat up with the end of the campaign approaching, we’re in with our best chance of making the play-offs since we were fourth in the second-tier back in 2001/02 with seven games to go. Of our remaining ten games, just four are against top-half teams – only one of whom is above us in the table – making a top seven finish eminently achievable, but only if we can show an ability to put away the teams we’re expected to beat.

Despite being on a four-game unbeaten run, the team selection heading into this game against Crewe is far from settled. While Mark Robins doesn’t appear to have settled on a front four of his preference, Jordan Shipley and Peter Vincenti made positive contributions on Tuesday night against Luton, while Kyel Reid is a reliable wide threat at League Two level and there is still Carl Baker to call upon – provided his international clearance comes through – which puts us in a better position than where we were a month or so ago.

Possible Line-Up

Elsewhere, doubts over Jordan Willis’ current level of fitness mean it’s likely that Rod McDonald and Dominic Hyam will continue to be partnered together in central defence. While we’ve kept two clean sheets in three games with this partnership, it is one that appears to leave us prone to crosses – as Luton exposed – especially with Jack Grimmer and Ryan Haynes being not exactly the most defensively sturdy of full-backs as part of the back four.

The partnership of Jonson Clarke-Harris and Marc McNulty in attack is yet to convince either, despite both having been among the goals recently. The inability of either to act as a target man leaves us without an out-ball at times – especially at throw-ins, which can invite pressure on the defence, which probably necessitates the inclusion of Peter Vincenti out wide to provide some all-important height to the side.

Last Time We Met

Typically, when Coventry City fans think of Crewe, we think of some excruciatingly painful defeats, such as the JPT area final defeat in front of 30,000 at the Ricoh back in 2013. However, since beating them 3-2 and 5-0 during Tony Mowbray’s one full season in charge of the club, we seem to have exorcised the curse – touch wood.

Our last meeting with Crewe was a routine 1-0 win that should have been by a much more comfortable margin hadn’t we been so profligate in front of goal. A first-half goal from Duckens Nazon – assisted by Jodi Jones and the corner flag – was all it took to see Crewe off at the Ricoh back in September. Of that attacking combination, only the corner flag remains available as an option for this game.

How Are They Doing?

Crewe have been an incredibly frustrating and inconsistent side this season, thanks mainly to a bad habit of leaking late goals, which hasn’t been helped by the amount of chopping and changing of the team throughout the campaign. It’s a classic sign of a rookie manager, in the form of David Artell, still getting to grips with the squad – although last week’s late comeback against Stevenage is perhaps a sign of lessons learned.

Artell has built a top-heavy side in his first full season as a manager, with resources spent on proven League Two strikers such as Chris Porter, Chris Dagnall, Shaun Miller and Jordan Bowery, and relatively little on defence. Porter in particular has proven to still be a reliable goalscorer, with 12 goals to his name this season, although is likely to miss this game through injury. With Dagnall just recovering from a spell out too, it will be ex-Sky Blue Shaun Miller and ex-Villa Jordan Bowery as Crewe’s attacking pair – Miller looking to make runs in behind and Bowery expected to use his combination of pace, work-rate and reasonable physical presence in support.

Possible Line-Up

In midfield, Crewe possess two promising technically-gifted youngsters in Callum Ainley and Tom Lowery who have the potential to play much higher than League Two if they can add consistency to their game. That makes the role of the vastly-experienced Paul Green extra-important, while Aston Villa loanee Harry McKirdy offers pace and explosiveness as a wildcard option, likely from the bench.

Crewe’s back four and goalkeeper have consistently been an issue this season, which arguably hasn’t been helped by fairly consistent changes in that area of the pitch. Goalkeeper Ben Garratt has had his confidence knocked by Crewe’s struggles over the past couple of years but is someone who could potentially shut up shop on a good day. Additionally, George Ray at centre-back can play to a high standard on his day, despite being part of a generally leaky Crewe defence this season.

Prediction

It’s been a bad habit for us this season to lose games against supposedly inferior opposition just when we’re starting to build momentum. While Crewe’s leaky defence should present us opportunities to get goals in this game, their inconsistency as a side makes them hard to predict – they can just as easily produce their best performance of the season as they can get completely thumped here.

Nonetheless, this is a game that we should be able to go out and win with a relative degree of comfort, and I’m going to back us to do so by 2-1.

Preview: Barnet

After last week’s snowy interlude that saw the Lincoln game postponed, we return to league action with our prospects of getting into the play-offs – and possibly even the automatic promotion positions – enhanced thanks to the trials and tribulations, as well as actual games of football that our promotion rivals have experienced over the past week or so.

A home game against bottom side Barnet should present the perfect opportunity to leap into the promotion run-in, having clawed ourselves back into position with our past two results. Although, this being football, it’s not going to be quite as straightforward as it looks on paper – not least because Barnet have actually taken as many points as we have over the past six games.

Mark Robins has to ensure that any rustiness endured after an unexpected weekend off is avoided, as well as ensuring that the focus is on this game, rather than on seemingly tougher challenges ahead. Too many times this season we’ve dropped silly points just when we looked to be building momentum. Winning or losing this game isn’t going to decide whether we make the play-offs or not, but it eases both the pressure in the stands and on having to win other games later on in the season.

Possible Line-Up

While defensive performances seem to have improved of late, it’s worth noting that we’ve relied on penalties to take four points from our last two games instead of one. The attempt to integrate both Jonson Clarke-Harris and the, now fully-fit, Liam Kelly into the side appears to have disrupted our momentum as an attacking side. Clarke-Harris’ inclusion has added another goalscoring striker, but one who arguably offers less in terms of link play than Maxime Biamou, while Liam Kelly’s return to fitness has seen Tom Bayliss shunted into a wide position, where he only intermittently affects the game.

It seems Mark Robins is set at the moment on maintaining the Kelly-Doyle central midfield axis, which is likely to see Tom Bayliss continue in a wide position for this game. Bringing Kyel Reid into the side as a starter seems like it could provide greater balance and creativity to the team, but it remains to be seen whether Mark Robins fully trusts a player who pretty much went AWOL in the summer.

Last Time We Met

We had a great opportunity the last time we played Barnet to move top of the division, following a run of three straight league wins. With the Sky cameras watching, along with a packed-out away end, the two teams served up an absolutely insipid contest devoid of any incident or goal-mouth opportunities.

There’s nothing else really to say about that game.

How Are They Doing?

There was a small level of optimism at Barnet heading into this season that they could be one of the division’s surprise packages. With one of League Two’s most lethal strikers in John Akinde supplemented with the signing of ex-Tottenham youngster Shaq Coulthirst, alongside a squad packed out with some useful-looking academy players, Barnet potentially had the ingredients of a strong season ahead of them.

Despite a promising-enough start to the season, an injury to Akinde that kept him out for most of the first half of the campaign and a lack of leadership both on the pitch and off the pitch – Graham Westley is Barnet’s third manager of the season – has seen the Bees cut adrift alongside Chesterfield at the bottom of League Two.

(Side Note: there’s probably about a 10% chance only one team will be relegated from League Two this season, depending on whether Sutton – who have a 3G pitch, which isn’t allowed under EFL regulations – were to be promoted from the National League. Which would make Barnet’s chances of survival easier, although it’s by no means guaranteed)

Graham Westley seems to have stiffened the team up since his arrival in January, but they still have a habit of leaking goals due to their brittle confidence. Westley will undoubtedly look to set his side up to frustrate in this game – he is after all a manager almost synonymous with time-wasting from the very first minute in games – which makes it all the more important that we take this game by the jugular and not provide Barnet anything to hold on to.

Possible Line-Up

In terms of who will threaten us, John Akinde is clearly the main man for Barnet, although he hasn’t been the same since returning from injury. Akinde is one of those big strikers who doesn’t necessarily like to use his physicality, but his goalscoring record in the past two seasons shows how impactful a player who can be in the box. Alongside Akinde, Barnet will be looking to exploit the pace of Shaq Coulthirst, as well as utility player Mauro Vilhete.

The rest of Barnet’s set-up will be hard-working and/or physical players who can put up a block in front of their goal. Aside from Curtis Weston in midfield, Barnet lack an experienced leader in midfield and defence, which has partially been why they’ve struggled to recover from poor results this season. It’s yet another reason why we really need to be playing on the front foot and asking questions of Barnet from minute one in this game.

Prediction

While Barnet are likely to be thorny opponents for us, we’ve got to be approaching a game against a side at the foot of the table as one we can win comfortably. The main question about us heading into this game is whether there are the goals in this team at the moment to successfully set out to win a game where we have to come out on the front foot.

I think it’s going to be a tight contest, but one we’ll be able to triumph – 1-0.

Preview: Lincoln City

It was a week that could easily have been the undoing of our season, we approach the end of it with four points already in the bag and with a small chance of moving back into the play-offs if we can beat Lincoln City in this forthcoming game.

Just when it looked like our away form had abandoned us, we take four points from two of the best home sides in the division. Just when it started to look like we were leaking goals at an alarming, we look to have solidified again. It’s not quite a come-back, but we look to be moving in the right direction with 12 games still to play.

The biggest question mark at the moment is our lack of goals from open play over the past month or so. Of the four goals we have scored in the league in February, three have been penalties, which is obviously a source that cannot be relied upon when you’re chasing promotion.

The integration of Jonson Clarke-Harris into the side, appears to have upset the balance between the front two, while Marc McNulty looks to have lost form slightly and Maxime Biamou shows little sign of adding goals consistently to his game. Additionally, Liam Kelly’s return to fitness has seen Tom Bayliss pushed into a wide position where he has less of an influence on creative proceedings, while Jordan Shipley appears to offer the side less when there isn’t a natural winger on his opposite flank.

Possible Line-Up

The bold thing for Robins to do against Lincoln would be to start Bayliss alongside Michael Doyle, play Kyel Reid from the start out wide, adding creativity to both the centre of the park and in the wide positions. However, it seems Robins’ natural conservatism as a manager will likely see Bayliss continue on the right flank and Reid deployed as an impact sub.

In defence, Dominic Hyam deserves some credit for being part of a defence that kept one of the division’s best attacks to a clean sheet, however, I don’t think there’s much of a debate to be had over whether to restore Jordan Willis to the side. Hyam stood up well to Akinfenwa, but still lost more in the air than he won, while Willis dominated the same striker in the reverse fixture. Lincoln pose a similar threat via Matt Rhead, and we know Willis can stand up to that kind of striker, so that’s why he’ll be coming straight back into the side.

Last Time We Met

Our last meeting with Lincoln was a rare occurrence for us this season, a game that we won after falling behind. A dismal first-half performance from the Sky Blues saw Lincoln take a deserved lead via man mountain Matt Rhead. However, Duckens Nazon and Jodi Jones took the second-half by the scruff of the neck and dragged us to victory. First, Jones fired an audacious effort from range and a narrow angle to level the scores up, before Nazon fired home a rebounded Jones effort to put us ahead.

God, I miss those guys.

How Are They Doing?

While Lincoln’s rise over the past 18 months has them on an overall different trajectory to ourselves, they are in many ways, a similar side to us having a fairly similar season. Having been one of the pre-season promotion favourites, Lincoln have intermittently clicked into gear before dropping silly points and find themselves on the edge of the play-offs at a key stage of the season.

In terms of style of play, Lincoln are a fairly similar side to us as well. The core of the team is about hard work and keeping things fairly tight at the back. They don’t play especially pretty football, nor are they completely one-dimensional. The main differences between the two sides are that we have a more reliable goalscorer in Marc McNulty and they have pace in wide areas.

Lincoln have probably been dogged this season by a lack of a reliable goalscorer, despite having strikers who are effective at other things. Top-scorer Matt Green is on 10 goals this season and can offer both pace in behind and physical power, but his finishing can be a little wayward. The hulking Matt Rhead has a deceptively good touch for a six foot four, 16 stone striker, but a lack of mobility means he’s not in goalscoring positions often enough. The only alternative is Ollie Palmer, who is a less effective version of Matt Rhead – although can still be excellent at this level on his day.

Out wide, Ipswich loanee Danny Rowe has really caught the eye with both his pace and industry since joining in January. Harry Anderson, another pacey and industrious winger, has had a productive season with six goals and four assists. While Lincoln also recently signed Stevenage’s impressive winger Tom Pett, who possibly offers greater subtlety in wide areas.

Possible Line-Up

Lincoln’s central midfield options are also impressive with the hard-running box-to-box midfielder Alex Woodyard among the best central midfielders at this level. He’s likely to be partnered with the experienced, but also box-to-box, Lee Frecklington who has returned to the club after successful spells at Peterborough and Rotherham United. There’s also Michael Bostwick there to provide ballast, although he has been deployed in central defence of late.

There is possibly uncertainty to exploit at the back for Lincoln after the loss of key centre-back Sean Raggett in January, who returned to Norwich after a loan spell, and an injury to January signing James Wilson who had impressed as Raggett’s replacement. Nonetheless, Luke Waterfall and Michael Bostwick certainly boast plenty of experience, while Blackburn loanee Scott Wharton enjoyed a productive loan spell at this level with Cambridge last season.

They also have Ryan Allsop in goal, who had what can best be described as a mixed loan spell with us three seasons ago.

Prediction

This is the first of the three remaining games this season that we have against teams currently above us in the table. If we can navigate our way past this, then we have, in theory, a relatively favourable set of fixtures between now and the end of the season to nail down a play-off spot, or better.

While Lincoln’s away form is relatively ordinary, they will be motivated by a large away following as well as the desire to bounce back from some poor recent results. This is going to be a stern inspection of our ability to build on the past couple of results.

A lot rests on the ability of our attack to grab a goal or two, as I think our recent defensive improvements have shown we can keep things tight. I think we’ll be able to edge this game 1-0.

Preview: Mansfield Town

It’s hard to be particularly angry at a defeat away at Premier League opposition, but our passiveness in the first-half renders any positives to take from the fight-back we sustained in the second-half moot – Brighton had already won the game before we started playing. It’s a fourth defeat in a row now, but the main hope is that taking time out of the league and then having a week’s rest will restore the confidence and focus that has been lost over the past few weeks.

That’s because we’ll need every iota of confidence and focus for the task ahead of us this week, with games against three teams currently sitting above us in the table. If we can take five or more points from these games, we’re starting to make up ground again in the play-off chase, anything less than three points then we’re going to need string together a run of four or five wins as soon as possible in order to put ourselves back into play-off contention.

With the first two of this run of three games coming on the road, and to teams challenging for automatic promotion, it’s absolutely crucial that Mark Robins rectifies our terrible recent away form. What’s strange about it is that it’s uncharacteristic of a Mark Robins side to be so poor away from home – we’ve even had recent evidence of a perfectly-executed away performance in the FA Cup win over MK Dons.

The first task is to end the leaking of goals that has set in since the start of November – we’ve kept just two clean sheets in our past 16 league games. It hasn’t been helped by the number of injuries we’ve sustained at the back, but there is a worrying lack of organisation and concentration in this defence – which is somehow still the best in the division.

Possible Line-Up

The second task is to find the right balance in attack to give us a threat on the counter. Recent team selections with Jordan Shipley, Tom Bayliss, Josh Barrett, and Peter Vincenti in wide positions have robbed us of pace on the break, which has placed the attacking burden on Maxime Biamou winning headers and Marc McNulty conjuring a finish from somewhere. Kyel Reid’s reintegration into the first-team provides pace and direct running from out wide, while Jonson Clarke-Harris provides a more mobile, less aerially dominant but potentially more prolific strike partner to McNulty than Biamou does.

Whatever team is selected, it has to have had forethought gone into it and it has to be given games to integrate if it looks like being successful, chopping and changing (although some of it necessary) has curtailed what had been a strong run of form for us.

Last Time We Met

It had been a characteristic of our season up until November that when we’d lose games, we had at least been the better team. Along with the away defeat to Accrington Stanley, the loss to Mansfield earlier in the season was one we deserved. Our back four looked rattled by Mansfield’s combination of direct balls forward and pace in wide areas, Rod McDonald and Jordan Willis were constantly caught under high goal-kicks while Jack Grimmer in particular was tortured by Mansfield’s lithe winger CJ Hamilton.

Nonetheless, we looked to have weathered the storm somewhat – albeit while creating next to nothing – until Mansfield’s Alex MacDonald leathered in a stunning effort from distance past Lee Burge to earn his side a deserved three points.

How Are They Doing?

Mansfield had been heavy promotion favourites heading into the season – mainly off the back of signing a lot of League One journeymen players early in the summer – and had struggled to live up to that billing. They spent the first few months of the season looking disjointed, with manager Steve Evans struggling to find his preferred line-up and often playing players out of position, however, they have quietly moved up through the gears now that their team is more settled and are on a run where they have lost just twice in their past twenty games and only once at home all season.

Evans spent much of the summer making it very clear he was after a mythical 20-goal a season striker to fire Mansfield to promotion. However, it’s transpired that the 20-goal calibre forward Evans was after was right under his nose in the form of Danny Rose. A good all-round striker who is strong in the air for his height, energetic and a strong finisher, Rose plays a key role in not just scoring goals but facilitating their creation.

Rose is partnered by Kane Hemmings – who was signed by towards the end of the summer after other preferred striker targets fell through. While Hemmings hasn’t been as prolific as expected, his pace and ability to run the channels and in behind cause teams plenty of problems. Given our tendency to play something of a high defensive line, Hemmings’ pace could be our undoing.

Possible Line-Up

While Mansfield tend to play a direct style of football, it’s based more on the energy and tempo of their football than simply hoofing it forward to a big target-man (which they don’t have). They have pace and energy in wide areas in the form of CJ Hamilton, Alfie Potter and Alex MacDonald, while Joel Byrom in the centre is a real tyro who can wreak havoc with his drive from midfield.

At the back, Mansfield have experience and physicality at centre-back by the bucket-load in the forms of Zander Diamond, Krystian Pearce, David Mirfin and Rhys Bennett. With winger Paul Anderson having been converted fairly successfully to right-back, and Mal Benning an attacking option at left-back, Mansfield can really overload teams down the flanks.

Prediction

Mansfield are a fearsome prospect and hardly the team you to play – especially at Field Mill – when seeking the win to rekindle your season. However, we have consistently seen this team pick up results at just the moment it looks like the season is falling apart, particularly when up against the better teams. Mansfield will want to play on the front-foot, which, in theory, plays into Robins’ strengths as a counter-attacking manager.

A lot rests on how confident and organised our defence is after recent results, if we can hold tight long enough to get the first goal, this could be yet another backs-to-the-wall win at one of the division’s better teams. If we continue our streak of sloppiness and passiveness in defence, this could be the kind of defeat that kills a season.

Somehow I think we can get a result from this encounter, I’m going to tip us to draw this 1-1

Preview: Brighton & Hove Albion

A large part of doing this blog is about trying to apply rationality to what happens with this club, yet it often feels as if what happens with this club isn’t rational. The law of averages dictates that at some point we’re due a promotion season, but there seems to be some greater force which seems to completely derail us whenever things seem to be heading in the right direction.

This season seems to be another case in the mounting evidence that this club has been cursed, not only have we lost arguably our two best players to season-ending injuries, but just when we looked to be timing a run of form to plant ourselves in the automatic promotion race, a combination of injuries and illness decimated our squad for a key promotion game and we look now to be reeling from that psychological blow.

This FA Cup game against Brighton could be an opportunity to put those concerns on ice and return fresh next Saturday to kick-start our season, alternatively, it could further harm the confidence that seems to have seeped out of this side over the past week. Playing against Premier League opposition, it’s a chance for Mark Robins to re-instil the defensive organisation that seems to have abandoned us, or it could serve to make things worse.

In terms of team selection, Mark Robins remains hamstrung by the injuries in defence and central midfield. Playing Jordan Willis at right-back isn’t ideal, but it seems as if Dion Kelly-Evans has put himself out of favour after his performance against Accrington last week. We could also probably do with resting Tom Bayliss and Jordan Shipley with both having played a lot of football in their first professional seasons, but there is a dearth of alternatives, which means we’ll have to hope they can be the rare youngsters that avoid burn-out.

Finding that balance in the front four over the next few games could be critical to whether this season continues to implode or whether we can get back on track. Having Shipley and Vincenti out wide on Tuesday was probably overly cautious from Robins, as while they are our best defensive wingers, neither offers much on the counter. If Kyel Reid can be integrated into the side, it would give us the ability to carry the ball forward out wide that we’ve lacked since Jodi Jones’ injury, although he is cup-tied for this game. Additionally, if Jonson Clarke-Harris can harness his physicality and natural goalscoring ability, we have a striker on our books who is too good for League Two.

Last Time We Met

Coventry and Brighton are two clubs that have been on very different trajectories over the past decade – although Brighton’s recovery from homelessness offers some hope for us. Our last meeting came in the Championship during our relegation season under Andy Thorn. It came during the period around the turn of the year where survival started to look probable, Gary McSheffrey and Lukas Jutkiewicz scored the goals at the Ricoh to take us off the bottom of the table.

Interestingly, one player from the two sides on that day remains at their club – Lewis Dunk.

How Are They Doing?

Brighton have adapted to life in the Premier League this season fairly successfully, finding themselves in the relative comfort of mid-table – although only two points above the relegation zone. Chris Hughton has them set-up relatively solidly at the back, with just enough flair up front to eke out the results to currently keep them above water, although creativity remains an issue for them.

Brighton’s intelligent transfer policy has been a crucial element in their adaptation to Premier League life, with attacking midfielder Pascal Gross, goalkeeper Mat Ryan and winger Jose Izquierdo looking particularly excellent signings. Although discussion of their key players feels somewhat academic as Chris Hughton has already demonstrated that he will play a second-string side in the earlier rounds of the FA Cup, something unlikely to change against League Two opposition.

Possible Line-Up

This game looks an opportunity for Hughton to give a run-out to their big January signing Jurgen Locadia. A powerful and pacey striker, it remains to be seen how his form in the Eredivisie translates to the Premier League, but Brighton will be hoping we’ll provide a chance for him to get going. Our struggles in defending crosses this season could prove particularly helpful in that regard.

Elsewhere, Brighton’s second-string side is likely to include the midfield talents of Dale Stephens and Beram Kayal, both capable of taking hold and running a game of at least Championship standard, which means we’re especially likely to be on the end of long periods without the ball. Ex-Newcastle stalwart goalkeeper Tim Krul looks another set to be given minutes, while the mercurial Anthony Knockaeart could obliterate us floating in from a wide position if the mood takes him.

In short…

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Prediction

The leveller for this game looked to be our greater sense of unity and cohesion against a second-string Brighton side trying to figure out each others’ games. However, it isn’t just our poor form that hinders our hopes for this game but the amount of players that have come into the side over the past couple of weeks which has robbed us of some vital cohesion. Brighton’s back-ups may still struggle to click in this game, we’ve got to hope that the sense of occasion snaps ourselves into a functioning team-unit.

Looking at it rationally though, it’s hard to see any other result here than a comfortable Brighton win. If we can keep it down to a couple of goals, then hopefully it won’t affect confidence any further than the past couple of results have done.