Competitive football is back... But will Ipswich treat EFL Cup opener as extension of pre-season?
Ipswich Town return to competitive action with an EFL Cup first round home tie against fellow League One side Bristol Rovers today. Stuart Watson previews the action.
THE REAL THING
And so, 182 days on from a 1-0 home defeat to Coventry City, the Blues will finally return to competitive action this afternoon.
Following pre-season outings against Colchester, Tottenham, West Ham and Cambridge United (WLLL), this is the real thing... kind of.
A condensed campaign, which will be a virtual non-stop rollercoaster of Saturday-Tuesday action, kick-starts with two cup games – Bristol Rovers in the EFL Cup first round, then Arsenal’s Under-21s in an EFL Trophy group match next Tuesday (both matches at Portman Road).
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To be honest, it doesn’t feel like the new season has truly started until that first weekend of league action.
HOW STRONG WILL LAMBERT GO?
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So how will Paul Lambert treat these next two games – a chance to really start bedding in a settled team or purely as an extension of pre-season?
After last season came to such a bitterly disappointing end, a good start is badly needed to take the edge off any negativity which has festered among long-suffering fans.
Those fans are gagging to see Lambert stick to a system and core of players this time around and, judging by the noises that have come out of Portman Road this summer, it seems like that will happen.
Such a bedding in process will have to wait just a little bit longer though because this has been no ordinary pre-season.
Clubs up and down the land are very wary of players succumbing to injuries after such a long break. General fitness can be maintained, but bodies are still being reconditioned to football movements and physical contact.
There is the long game to think about.
Flynn Downes handed in a transfer request earlier this week after the club turned down a second bid for him from Premier League club Crystal Palace.
Lambert says the 21-year-old was withdrawn from today’s team after telling his manager that he ‘wasn’t in the right frame of mind to play’.
The domestic transfer window doesn’t close until October 11 and Town, excluding today, have at least seven more games to play before then.
Will the club’s standout player of last season be left sitting in the stands while negotiations pan out? Or will he be told to simply get on with it once the league opener against Wigan comes around a week on Sunday?
Central midfield options are certainly not something Lambert is short of.
Very few players took their chance in last weekend’s 1-0 loss at League Two side Cambridge United, so it’s likely that many of those who were rested for that game will return to the starting line-up.
Summer signing Stephen Ward should be at left-back, while at least one of, if not both, Toto Nsiala and Luke Chambers could come in, leaving us no nearer to knowing what the preferred centre-back pairing will be this season.
Andre Dozzell and Teddy Bishop, you would imagine, will return to the midfield after impressive showings against West Ham, with Gwion Edwards (if fit) and Freddie Sears quite possibly returning on the flanks.
Oli Hawkins, who is ‘not fully fit’ according to Lambert, is likely to be given another start after his 45 minutes last weekend. Town need him up to speed.
As much as we all want to see the dynamic Kane Vincent-Young flying forwards from right-back again, it’s probably prudent to tread carefully with him for a little while longer. The 24-year-old, who underwent adductor surgery last November, has sat out the last two friendlies with a slight Achilles problem.
Likewise, it’s probably not worth taking unnecessary risks with James Norwood and Jack Lankester after their recent returns from long-term injuries.
Kayden Jackson has sat out the last two friendlies with a groin strain and, following a fortnight off, won’t be thrown straight back into the action.
Cole Skuse (knee), Janoi Donacien (‘knock’) and Myles Kenlock (thigh) may well all come into contention after recent minor injuries.
The lack of any kind of cup excitement has been a definite contributing factor in Town fans’ growing apathy of recent years. With little to cheer about in the league, many have been left bemused at managers’ decisions to treat knock-out football as an inconvenience.
Town have exited the League Cup at the first hurdle in five of the previous seven campaigns, losing 3-1 at Luton last season. The third round trip to Old Trafford in 2017 already feels like a long time ago, with the semi-final matches against Arsenal back in 2011 a distant memory.
Do the Blues really want any cup runs this season though? With all the action squeezed into a smaller time frame, rounds one, two, three and four of the EFL Cup are all scheduled for this month. There’s the potential for a League One or Two club to play eight games in 25 days.
You could argue that would be a good thing for Town given how big the squad is. More games provide an opportunity to get more players’ fitness and morale up. And winning is a good habit to get into.