Lambert and his Blues must handle the big moment as Portsmouth visit on momentous day
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Ipswich Town are in League One action against Portsmouth this afternoon. Andy Warren looks ahead to the game.
A big day
If you want to, you can certainly make the argument that this is the biggest game of Paul Lambert’s time in charge of Ipswich Town.
It’s certainly one of the biggest, anyway.
The return of supporters to Portman Road, for the first time since March, is a big moment for all connected with the club and comes at a time when the Scot still has plenty of people to convince that he’s the man to take the club back up the leagues.
Those 2,000 fans attending today’s game will surely do so with an open mind and a spring in their step as they make a long-awaited return following an extremely difficult year. But, should things not go well on the pitch, it’s entirely possible the growing frustrations of many, born behind laptops over the last three-and-a-half months, may come to the surface in ‘real life’.
This is also a game where Lambert’s Ipswich have the opportunity to answer arguably the biggest question hanging over their heads.
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Yes, they’re third in the table having dealt with a ridiculous injury list so far this season, robbing them of many of their key players. On the face of it that’s an excellent return from the first 16 games, given eventual champions Coventry had just a point more than Ipswich currently have at the 18-game mark last season.
But it’s the fact they have not been capable of beating promotion rivals over a prolonged period which is the biggest cause for concern. They managed it just twice in 18 games against top 10 clubs last season (against Fleetwood and Gillingham) and have beaten only Accrington in five league attempts against this season’s top 10.
They’ve also lost to today’s opponents, Portsmouth, at home in the FA Cup on a day when Ipswich were again dealt a bad hand by match officials.
If they can turn the tables on the side sitting directly below them this afternoon, in front of supporters no less, they may just begin to convince a few wavering fans of their promotion credentials.
Matchday at Portman Road has been a pale imitation of itself over the last few months.
The soul has been missing. There’s been no heart, no colour, no passion and no community.
At times it’s been surreal, at others truly miserable.
And though there are only 2,000 fans returning this afternoon, it will make the world of difference.
It certainly did at Plymouth last weekend, where just 10% of Home Park’s capacity made much more noise than you might expect from just 1,800 supporters spread out around the ground.
It’s the little things that hammer home just how much has been absent during the first part of this season. The splattering of applause as the teams come out to warm up, the men, women and children clad in scarves and hats while walking to the ground and the first time the referee was chastised for making an unpopular decision.
It’s going to be different, of course it is. The usual matchday routines will be absent, fans will be sitting in unusual positions, only two stands (South and Co-op) will house supporters and masks will need to be worn throughout.
But it is certainly a step in the right direction.
Same but different, please
Town and Pompey have already met this season, of course, in an ultimately dramatic FA Cup first round tie which ended in a 3-2 victory to the men from the south coast.
The Blues went two down early in this game but battled back well during the hour which followed, forcing an extra-time period in which they ultimately ran out of gas before Sean Raggett’s controversial winner.
There were promising signs in this game as a much-changed Ipswich side managed to compete well against Kenny Jackett’s starting XI, but they never truly recovered from handing their visitors an early lead.
Lambert’s men can’t afford to do the same again this afternoon but there are certainly elements of last month’s display which we would happily see repeated.
The cavalry are coming, but not just yet.
Lambert isn’t expecting any of his injured troops to return in time for this game, with Aaron Drinan the only one with any hope after missing last week’s win at Plymouth with a hamstring problem.
The one positive, though, is the return of Andre Dozzell who should slot straight back into the starting XI following his one-match ban.
Freddie Sears could be back from his own hamstring issue on Tuesday, when Burton visit, but the likes of Flynn Downes, James Norwood, Gwion Edwards, Cole Skuse, James Wilson and Teddy Bishop are all still out.
Furthermore, young midfielder Liam Gibbs won’t be able to resume his place on the senior bench after picking up a minor groin problem in Monday night’s FA Youth Cup win over Fulham.
Lambert already has Emyr Huws as midfield cover on his bench, so shouldn't have too many worries there.
Town's turnaround at Plymouth last weekend came with a front two of Kayden Jackson and Oli Hawkins, with the latter introduced from the bench, but the big striker will most likely have to make his impact as a substitute again when his former club come to town.