With a televised home tie against either Tottenham or Leicester awaiting the U’s in a fortnight, everybody is suddenly looking forward rather than dwelling on the horrors of November and December when the U’s suffered nine straight league defeats. The rot was finally stopped in the first game of 2016 with a late equaliser at Oldham and there’s a growing sense that Keen, a respected coach at Premier League level, is adding another layer to their game every week.
When these two sides met in South Yorkshire four months ago, the Essex minnows blazed a trail by racing into a 2-0 interval lead on the way to a 3-2 success. It was the first game of a four-match winning streak that initially justified a gung-ho approach where they fancied themselves to outscore the opposition no matter how ragged they became defensively.
However, it was a kamikaze approach that soon spiralled out of control as opposition video analysts got to grips with the counter-attacking raids involving Marvin Sordell, George Moncur, Gavin Massey and Callum Harriott. Teams soon started taking a more measured approach, banking on the easy pickings of that porous rearguard, and the U’s subsequently went into a tailspin.
Now might seem like a dangerous time to oppose the Blades given their heroics at Wigan in midweek, where they came from 3-0 down to draw 3-3, but the counterintuitive often pays dividends in these scenarios. Yes, those sort of comebacks can do wonders for confidence and belief in the long run but the emotional investment could leave Nigel Adkins’ men spent at the end of a long journey just four days later.
Either way, my 24-match ratings make Colchester favourites and though that would be an absurd conclusion if Tony Humes were still at the helm, it’s arguably a fair reflection of the raw materials Keen is working with, in conjunction with the mediocre standards the Blades were setting prior to pulling Manchester United in the cup.
The Teessiders are 3/1 and that’s not a price to be sniffed at when you consider the possibility that Tuesday’s FA Cup replay against Aston Villa could be distracting Wanderers, with a fourth round home tie against Manchester City up for grabs. No matter how much Gareth Ainsworth tries to guard against it, the Chairboys are liable to keep something back if they genuinely fancy their chances of causing an upset at Villa Park - and why wouldn’t they?
Either way, my 24-match ratings make the home side no bigger than 5/2. Wycombe are best when they approach games as underdogs. Defeats against the likes of Newport, Stevenage and Morecambe are fine examples of what can happen when the onus is on the Buckinghamshire outfit to make the running against the lesser weights of the division.
Notts have 33 senior players on their books, the vast majority of whom should all expect to be playing regular first-team football at this level. But when you’ve got nearly half of that number failing to make the matchday squad each weekend, it’s inevitable that the collective spirit will suffer and a lot of negativity will be swirling about. That’s really the only way to explain their results in relation to resources.
Mark Yates has no such problems. He was stripped of six players last weekend - four of them loan signings returning to their parent clubs - but his bare-bones Crawley side still had the character to overcome in-form Cambridge. Yates’ personnel problems have eased only slightly in the subsequent seven days, but the price is right about their mental qualities shining through. My 16-match ratings make the Red Devils favourites on home soil.