Keith Curle may be a little less surprised by Northampton’s lofty league position having watched first-hand as the rampant Cobblers proved a cut above his outclassed and outplayed Carlisle United side on Saturday.
Instead, the only surprise for Curle would have been the ease in which his side were dispatched by Northampton who produced a typically classy away performance to stretch their remarkable unbeaten run on the road to 11 games, with their last away defeat coming in mid-October.
If any game was going to trip them up, you felt this 500-mile round trek would have been the one.
Besides it being away to a team with sights set on the play-off, it also came at the end of a hectic 21-day period which saw the Cobblers play seven times and take on five teams with promotion ambitions.
But any suggestions that they might be running out of juice, especially after two draws, were emphatically quashed as, instead, Northampton dismissively swatted aside another team to continue their stranglehold over the rest of League Two.
Curle’s comments in the lead up to this game were odd timing, to say the least.
Chasing not just promotion but also the league title, Northampton hardly need any extra motivation as they head into the final stretch of the season, but Curle’s “surprise” remarks only gave them that extra incentive to show the Carlisle boss just how good they are in front of his very eyes.
A quick glance at the goals for and against column would suggest that these are two teams who like to attack and score goals but, particularly in Carlisle’s case, are also susceptible to letting a few in at the other end.
For that reason, as well as the fact that October’s meeting between these two yielded five goals, you felt this would be an open, entertaining game.
The early signs at Brunton Park fell in line with that theory, too, as the first half provided plenty of entertainment in a game that saw two teams show eagerness to attack which, in turn, left space for the other to exploit.
Gradually, though, Northampton asserted their superiority; a 10-minute spell midway through the first half was particularly memorable as the visitors utterly monopolised possession and patiently probed for an opening, moving the ball from side-to-side and not allowing Carlisle the chance to get out.
That passage of play followed John Marquis’ 16th minute opener, the striker left totally unmarked to nod home Lee Martin’s inch-perfect cross.
Taking the lead has become a regular occurrence this season – no team in England’s top four divisions has scored the first goal more times than Northampton (71% of games) – and more often than not it results in victory.
Of those 25 matches in which they’ve scored first, only six have ended in anything but three points and Saturday was the latest example.
Once ahead through Marquis, Northampton proceeded to seize control although not without the odd alarm as some hesitant defending presented chances for Derek Asamoah and Jason Kennedy but Carlisle’s wastefulness would prove costly.
On 33 minutes, a somewhat fortuitous John-Joe O’Toole goal doubled the lead when the midfielder’s shot deflected off a defender and left Mark Gillespie wrong-footed, and it could have been more at half-time but Marquis could only scoop over when well-placed.
Having spurned numerous first-half openings, Carlisle required just 90 seconds of the second-half to reduce the deficit through Hallam Hope’s emphatic finish.
That was to provide only false hope for the home crowd, though, and instead of going into their shell, the Cobblers regained their composure and attacked with renewed vigour as two moments of Ricky Holmes wizardry wrapped up an emphatic victory.
It must be said, though, that Zander Diamond’s perfectly-time last-ditch tackle at 2-1 proved crucial as United wasted a three-on-two opportunity to equalise having broke from a Cobblers corner after Gillespie thwarted Martin.
O’Toole was the first beneficiary of Holmes’ vision, getting a faint touch on the winger’s fine pass, before James Collins rounded off a superb afternoon by lashing into the bottom corner following a well-worked move that involved a Brendan Moloney dummy and a defence-splitting through ball from Holmes.
It could have been more too but four goals would have to do as Northampton eased off, dropped the tempo and comfortably played out the remaining 15 minutes with little alarm, bar a fine Adam Smith reaction stop.
The build up to the fixture was dominated by Curle’s comments but, in fairness, the Carlisle supporters provided a moment of class after the full-time whistle when, in appreciation of a terrific away performance from the league leaders, they applauded Northampton off the pitch, which was acknowledged by both the players and Chris Wilder.
Wilder would steal back the limelight, however, when responding to Curle’s comments post-match, claiming the Cobblers “didn’t need to get out of second or third gear” during this win.
Curle still didn’t seem particularly impressed by Northampton even after Saturday’s game, pointing the finger at his own side’s vulnerabilities rather than Town’s good play, but given that Northampton are 28 points better off and certainties for promotion, it’d be fair to say Wilder and co had the last laugh.
How they rated...
Adam Smith - One excellent reaction stop late on was the highlight of a uneventful day for the shot-stopper... 7
Brendan Moloney - Superb performance from the marauding right-back who got forward to support Holmes and offer an attacking outlet at every opportunity, even pulling out a clever dummy in the build-up to the fourth... 8
Zander Diamond - Good first half in which he cut out several dangerous crosses before producing a goal-saving tackle at 2-1 that was vital... 8
Luke Prosser - Solid enough albeit having started shakily. Got his head to a couple of threatening balls into the box... 7
David Buchanan - Element of fortune about his assist for O’Toole’s goal but typical of him and this team’s philosophy to be in that position in the first place... 7
Ricky Holmes - Carved open the Carlisle defence with two moments of wizardry that put the game to bed in the second half. First sliding in O’Toole before producing an exquisite through ball for Collins... 8
John-Joe O’Toole - Now has double figures for the season as he and Byrom bossed the midfield all afternoon on another day where he was a cut above everyone else on the pitch. First goal was somewhat fortunate but took his second well... 9 CHRON STAR MAN
Joel Byrom - Took full advantage of the space Carlisle gave him to pull the strings from midfield... 7
Lee Martin - Excellent cross for Marquis to head home as he exploited the space between Carlisle’s centre-backs and right wing-back in the first half. Best display in a Cobblers shirt... 8
James Collins - United’s defence never had a moment’s rest due to his relentless hassling. Deserved his goal when it came, which he took brilliantly.... 8
John Marquis - Proved too much of a handful for Carlisle’s back four. Had at least three clear opportunities to score, only taking one with a good header... 8
Lawson D’Ath - 7
Sam Hoskins - 6
Jason Taylor - 6