Bury v Sheffield United
The Shakers might nowadays be described as a modest club with expensive tastes, given the size of their budget and top-notch training facilities, so we probably shouldn’t be too surprised that motivation has become a problem in a fading league campaign. Theirs is a culture that warrants immediate success, short-term goals bring the best out of them.
Going into November, David Flitcroft’s men were riding high in the play-off places but a succession of FA Cup glamour ties against traditional northern rivals came along and heads were turned. Wigan, Rochdale and Bradford were all beaten, without a single goal conceded in six hours, to set-up a fourth-round date with Hull - but it coincided with a run of 11 defeats in 16 bread-and-butter contests.
Flitcroft admits his team have found it difficult maintaining a consistent level of performance but now’s the time to dig-in and prevent a disappointing run from turning into a disaster. Consolidation was always the expectation this term but a relegation battle, given their resources, would bring hellish pressure, an experience to be avoided at all costs.
So it’s time for the Shakers to deliver and they will take comfort from the memory of a 3-1 victory in the reverse fixture at Bramall Lane back in September, which was one of several smash-and-grab raids executed to perfection against promotion-chasing opposition in the opening quarter of the season.
Nigel Adkins’ men won four games on the bounce in December but have reverted to type since then and their shot data is nothing special. My 16-match and 24-match ratings both make this an each-of-two encounter, so anything above 2/1 about the home win is not a price to be sniffed at.
Oxford v Northampton
The Cobblers are due to be the victims of some heavy regression at some point, averaging 2.48 points per game over half a season on a paltry shot ratio of 52.6 per cent simply isn’t sustainable. But until that bubble bursts, the belief generated by a run of 16 wins in 19 games shouldn’t be underestimated.
As if to emphasise the point, Chris Wilder’s men ran out 4-0 winners at Leyton Orient on Saturday, scoring with all four shots on target, meaning that 13 of their last 19 on-target attempts have found the back of the net. Kevin Nolan knows a thing or two about the subtleties of game-management and he was gushing in his praise of how Northampton went about their business.
Now the Cobblers head to the Kassam with all that accumulated confidence and a 15-point cushion on fourth-placed Wycombe, who they host this coming Saturday. In essence, they could lose both these next two games and still have the daylight of a dozen points. Yet seize any opportunities that fall in their path, they could be sat on 70 points and already have one foot in League One come Sunday.
The onus is entirely on Oxford to make the running in this game and that could play straight into Northampton’s hands. It only adds weight to the price about the visitors that Kemar Roofe and a couple of other unnamed players are rated no better than 50-50 to be fit for the Yellows. Oxford's performances haven't been up to scratch since they secured their place at Wembley in the JPT final.