The time is now as McKenna's Town head for tough Fleetwood test
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Ipswich Town take on Fleetwood Town at Highbury this afternoon. Andy Warren previews the action.
It’s time for Episode VI of Ipswich Town v Fleetwood Town.
The Blues lead the series by three wins to two, with the first five games between the two teams certainly not lacking in incident.
Joey Barton, the former Fleetwood boss, was at the heart of the first two, questioning whether Ipswich’s promotion bid was ‘built on solid foundations’ and insisting Paul Lambert’s squad were ‘the worst Ipswich team in history’ going into the first meeting in October of 2019.
Kayden Jackson won the game for Town that day, but Barton’s comments were proved to be well-founded, as Lambert’s men fell away. Fleetwood’s 1-0 victory at Portman Road the following March, just before football’s Covid shutdown, played a part in that.
Since then, Paul Cook’s Ipswich were dreadful at Highbury in a 2-0 loss in March of last year, before Luke Chambers and Cole Skuse said goodbye to an empty Portman Road in May of 2021. ‘Demolition Man’ went to work just 36 hours later.
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Bersant Celina raised the roof and sent co-owner Brett Johnson wild in October, with his last-gasp winner.
Who knows what’s in store today.
We know Town still face an uphill battle to reach the play-offs.
Draws with Cheltenham and Morecambe, when Town created more than enough chances to win both matches several times over, made sure of that.
So a victory today is exactly what Kieran McKenna’s men need.
Should Town be held or even beaten this afternoon, the play-offs will still be within reach mathematically. But an already-small margin-for-error is shrinking with every dropped point.
Teams around Town still have games in hand, with some playing their spare matches in midweek. That’s meant the gap to the top six is now six points.
The time is now.
On the face of things, Fleetwood sit 19th in League One and should be beaten by teams with promotion aspirations.
But we all know it doesn’t work like that.
The Cod Army, now managed by Stephen Crainey after Simon Grayson’s exit, have proven a tough cookie in recent seasons and, though they’re winless in eight games, there are reasons to be fearful.
They’ve drawn five of those eight games, including 3-3 thrillers with promotion-chasing Plymouth and Portsmouth, and beat leaders Rotherham recently.
"There's so little between the teams at the top and the bottom,” boss McKenna said ahead of this game. “It's such fine margins between not getting results on a weekly basis and getting results.
"Their home record has been really good. They've had MK, Plymouth, Rotherham and Cambridge and they've not lost any of them. Obviously they beat Rotherham.
"They went away to Portsmouth last weekend and were 3-0 up at half-time against a good team.
"As I've said, every game is a challenge. You can't take anything for granted in this league because there are random results every weekend. We'll certainly respect Fleetwood for their strengths and their threats. We know it's going to be a big challenge and that we're going to have to be at our very best."
This afternoon’s match will be far from simple.
Strike it rich
We’ve been having this same discussion heading into all of Town’s recent games. Who should play up front?
Last weekend, McKenna named Macauley Bonne, James Norwood and Sone Aluko as his front three at Morecambe.
The Town boss switched all three on 69 minutes at the Mazuma Stadium, with Bonne, Norwood and Aluko all having chances (of varying difficulty) to break the deadlock but not taking them. Celina, Jackson and Conor Chaplin took over for the final 20 minutes.
Town have had 40 shots in their last two matches but were only able to convert one of them, through Wes Burns. The first half of the last sentence is undoubtedly a positive – Ipswich are making chances. It’s a poor conversion rate which is letting them down.
So, which blend will the Ipswich boss go with this weekend?
Is it time for McKenna to nail his colours to the mast and give a group of attackers consistent games and a chance to play their way into form?
It will be interesting to see which way he turns this afternoon.
There are decisions to be made in other areas of the pitch, too.
Will Tyreeq Bakinson get another opportunity alongside Sam Morsy, or will Tom Carroll or Idris El Mizouni come into contention?
Then there’s Ipswich’s left-side, where Dominic Thompson has visibly tired in the second half of recent games.
Kane Vincent-Young and Matt Penney are potential options there.
Christian Walton, Janoi Donacien, Luke Woolfenden, George Edmundson, Burns and Morsy are all nailed-on starters, barring any late injuries.
It's not just the Ipswich Town side which is full of intrigue this weekend.
There could well be two former Blues lining up for Fleetwood, in the form of Toto Nsiala and Ellis Harrison.
Nsiala left Ipswich in January, ending a rocky spell with the club and returning to the North West, in a move which seemed to work for all parties.
He dropped out of the Fleetwood side for Tuesday night’s victory at Wigan, having been a regular starter since his move, but could return this afternoon.
It will be interesting to see the reception he gets from the Town fans.
Then there’s Harrison, the striker who spent a single season in Blue before moving to Portsmouth in the summer of 2019.
He’s scored twice since moving to Highbury and has started every game under Crainey, performing well during his first weeks with his new club.
Town won’t face Joe Garner, though, after he was sent off following a brawl with Wigan’s James McClean on Tuesday.
Harry Wright, the former Ipswich youth keeper, is also at Fleetwood but is yet to make the bench for a league game following his summer move.