Pick me! Road to Wembley and Young Guns' firepower... Ipswich v Arsenal U21s
- Credit: Steve Waller - www.stephenwaller
Ipswich Town host Arsenal U21s in the second round of the Papa John’s Trophy tonight (7.45pm ko). STUART WATSON previews the action.
ROAD TO WEMBLEY
Ipswich Town haven’t played at Wembley since 2000.
That ‘Twin Towers’ version of the stadium was shut just a few months later and English football’s new home finally opened in 2007.
Fast forward almost 15 years and Ipswich – along with Accrington, Blackburn, Colchester, Crawley. Nottingham Forest, Oldham, Port Vale and Sutton – are one of just nine clubs currently in the Football League still not to have played under the iconic arch.
Town are now just four wins away from getting off that list.
Beat Arsenal’s U21s tonight and they’re into the last 16.
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Third round ties are scheduled for the week commencing January 3, then comes the quarter-finals (w/c Jan 24), semi-finals (w/c Mar 7) and final (Sun, Apr 3).
Sunderland and Portsmouth have both reached the final twice in recent years. Could this be Town’s time?
Speaking after Town beat Colchester United on penalties to secure their place in the knockout rounds, Blues boss Paul Cook said: “It's a good competition, there's a final at Wembley so let's try and go all the way.”
RECORD SO FAR
Auto Windscreens, LDV Vans, Johnstone’s Paint, Checkatrade... There was a time not so long ago that the EFL Trophy was just a funny named competition that Ipswich Town fans could be faintly amused by from afar.
Not any longer. This is, of course, the Blues’ third season of playing in a competition exclusively for third and fourth tier clubs.
In 2019/20, Town finished second in the group after beating Tottenham U21s and Gillingham, but losing to Colchester. Barry Cotter scored the winning penalty at Peterborough in round two, but then former Town flop Lee Martin dumped the Blues out with a late goal at League Two side Exeter.
Last season, Paul Lambert’s men finished bottom of the group after defeats to Arsenal U21s and Crawley sandwiched a win against Gillingham.
WHY IT’S AT HOME
The Blues were all set for an away draw after finishing second in Group A with five points – a 2-1 home defeat to West Ham U21s followed up by a 2-0 win at Gillingham and 0-0 draw against Colchester (a bonus point subsequently awarded for a penalty shootout win).
But then West Ham were booted out the competition for fielding an ineligible player, Town were bumped up to top spot (thus getting a home draw) and Colchester were reinstated (they were at Swindon last night).
‘Forget about cup distractions and focus on the league...’
Nope. Not this year. I’m not having it.
Town have got the squad depth to cope with the demands of a few extra cup clashes.
And, no doubt about it, fans could do with a little pick-me-up right now.
Since a magnificent 4-1 win at Wycombe at the start of November, the feelgood factor has faded slightly.
Cook’s men made hard work of progressing in the FA Cup, over two games, against League Two side Oldham.
A goalless home draw against Oxford was followed by successive 2-0 defeats to Sunderland and Rotherham. Then, on Sunday, a 2-1 win against rock-bottom Crewe was far from convincing.
With crunch league fixtures against the likes of Charlton, Wigan, Sunderland, Gillingham, Wycombe and Lincoln on the horizon, the inconsistent Blues need to prove – both to themselves and the supporters – that they are capable of stringing wins together.
The last time Ipswich won three successive games was back in February/March - just before Cook took charge.
This week - home games against Crewe (bottom), Arsenal U21s and League Two side Barrow (in the FA Cup second round on Saturday) - represents a golden opportunity to regain some momentum at a vital moment.
As previously mentioned, Town hosted Arsenal’s U21s in this competition back in September 2020.
In what was only the second competitive game back following a lengthy Covid break, the Blues led through a Jon Nolan goal but went down 2-1 to a team full of teenagers.
That game was most memorable for an outstanding display from young Gunners centre-back Mark McGuinnness. Ipswich, of course, went on to sign him on a season-long loan.
Steve Bould left his role as Arsenal’s U23 coach back in June and he was replaced by Kevin Betsy, a former Football League journeyman who has risen through the coaching ranks with Fulham and England.
Arsenal are currently second in the Premier League 2 table, having scored an impressive 38 goals in 13 games.
Mind you, they've conceded 28 too. With a string of first-choice defenders sidelined, they lost 5-3 to Derby last Friday night.
Folarin Balogun – who scored at Portman Road last year – bagged a hat-trick in that match and is pushing to get back in Mikel Arteta’s first team plans.
The 20-year-old striker, who has been capped five times by England U21s, started the Gunners’ opening Premier League game of the season at Brentford back in August and subsequently came on against Cheslea.
Danish youth international Mika Biereth will be another major goal threat.
That said, Town will feel this is a makeshift backline they can get joy out of.
Cook is likely to make wholesale changes to his side but still select a squad made up exclusively of first-teamers.
Those that do play, both tonight and/or against Barrow, will feel they’ve maybe got a chance of forcing their way into the league plans.
Joe Pigott, in particular, will want to be putting as much pressure as he can on Macauley Bonne, the goals having dried up for the fans’ favourite.
Kane Vincent-Young and Matt Penney will also feel that the door may be ajar for them if they can perform.
Tom Carroll, who hasn’t played since September 25 due to a hip problem, is likely to get some game time. He too could give the manager a headache over the coming days.
Lee Evans and Kyle Edwards both came off the bench at the weekend. Might they start this one? Edwards will be itching to get his first Town goal.
The likes of Vaclav Hladky, Cameron Burgess, Luke Woolfenden, Idris El Mizouni and Rekeem Harper will be also involved, possibly even the lesser spotted Kayden Jackson and/or Louie Barry.
There has to be a winner tonight. If it ends in a draw, the game goes straight to penalties.
Last week, it was announced that ‘due to concerns of a demanding fixture schedule over the coming months’, clubs will be permitted to make five substitutions from the seven they nominate for the remainder of the 2021/22 competition.