Who should be lifting who? Ipswich Town head into crucial home double header
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Ipswich Town host Sheffield United in a Championship match at Portman Road tomorrow. STUART WATSON previews the action.
For a long time it’s looked very much like Town are destined for a mid-table mediocrity. Back-to-back wins at Preston (1-0) and Sheffield Wednesday (2-1) have left everyone discussing if maybe, just maybe, a late charge into the top-six is possible.
The gap has closed to seven points with a game-in-hand to come. ‘I still think it’s too much,’ was Mick McCarthy’s ever-honest verdict after the midweek victory at Hillsborough. And he’s probably right.
Over the last five seasons, the average points tally for the team that finishes sixth is 74. Town would need an average of two points per game over the final 11 matches to achieve that. And they’ve not produced that spell of form since the end of 2015.
But then again...
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If you analyse the performance levels of the last few weeks there has been a lot more good than bad.
The Blues have tasted defeat just three times this calender year and that was against the automatic promotion cashing trio of Fulham, Wolves and Cardiff.
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A defence boosted by impressive January recruit Cameron Carter-Vickers has conceded just five goals in the last nine. The bigger question is whether Town have the firepower to chalk up the seven wins that are realistically required.
Goals have dried up since the turn of the year and Town have become heavily reliant on set-pieces. The hope is that Martyn Waghorn, red-hot earlier in the campaign, can hit the goal-trail again after his mid-week brace.
Five of the remaining matches – starting with tomorrow’s visit of Sheffield United – are against teams the Blues are looking to climb over into sixth-spot (Bristol City, Millwall, Brentford and Middlesbrough also to come).
And four matches are against teams struggling towards the bottom, starting with next Tuesday’s rearranged visit of Hull and also including Birmingham, Barnsley and Reading.
Blunting the Blades
Town have already lost twice to Sheffield United this season and both by a scoreline of 1-0.
At Bramall Lane last October, Chris Wilder’s newly-promoted men edged a fine margins affair and moved joint-top courtesy of Chris Basham’s header just after half-time.
Then, at Portman Road at the start of January, Town limped out of the FA Cup with a toothless display against a much-changed United team who never looked troubled after Nathan Thomas’ 25-yard screamer.
The Blades played some swashbuckling football in the opening months of the campaign, but are less of a surprise package now. Key playmaker Paul Coutts being sidelined for the season back in November was a major blow for them.
Their yo-yo current form, most recent game first, reads: LWLWLWL. Tomorrow is their fourth successive game on the road following trips to Hull, Reading and Fulham.
Following Tuesday night’s 3-0 defeat at Craven Cottage, Wilder said: “I’ve got to admit, I didn’t think that was as one-sided as perhaps people might come away and think. But in the big moments, the key moments that ultimately decide things, they’ve got that quality to make the difference. A quality, with all due respect, few others in this division have.”
The Blues are now unbeaten in five away games (W3 D2). By contrast, they’ve won just once in their last seven outings on Suffolk soil (D2 L4).
Since home wins against Nottingham Forest (4-2) and Reading (2-0) in the first half of December, Town have found the net just twice in front of their home fans. League attendances have fallen to a near 20-year low.
Several players have admitted that the atmosphere at Portman Road has not helped their cause. At best it’s been flat. At worst there have been toxic chants aimed at McCarthy.
That’s where this club is at. Apathy is the over-riding mood following at least 18 months of largely forgettable action. It leads to the age-old debate about who should lift who.
Town’s fans, to be fair, don’t get on their team’s back from the off. And they’ve shown they will make some noise when given something to shout about. Intense, passionate, fast starts have been few and far between though.
Produce one of those tomorrow and the symbiotic relationship between those in the stands and those on the pitch could be reignited given recent results.
Sheffield United operate with wing-backs, so it’s likely McCarthy will stick with the 3-5-2 system he used against Norwich and Sheffield Wednesday rather than revert to the 3-4-3 formation used against Cardiff and Preston.
If Mustapha Carayol is ruled out with the groin injury that forced him off on Tuesday night, the big question is who will partner Waghorn up top. Joe Garner should be fully fit again after being rested in midweek due to ‘bumps and bruises’, while Freddie Sears did his chances no harm with a very lively substitute display in his favoured central role. Bersant Celina in a free role would also be an option.
Sheffield United’s 15-goal topscorer Leon Clarke is likely to return after sitting out the midweek game due to a tight hamstring. Young starlet David Brookes, who has had shoulder/back problems, is pushing for his first start since early December.
Striker James Wilson, signed on loan from Manchester United in January, could also be available again following an ankle injury.