Fixture: AFC Wimbledon v Northampton Town, Sky Bet League One
Date/time: Saturday, March 11, 3pm kick-off
Forecast: 13C, cloudy
Outs and doubts: AFC Wimbledon: Barry Fuller (shoulder). Cobblers: Gabriel Zakuani (hamstring), Alex Revell (knee), Sam Hoskins (knee)
Betting: Wimbledon 21/20, draw 12/5, Northampton 13/5
Form guide: Dons DWWDLD, Cobblers WLLDWW
Avg. goals scored/conceded per game: Dons 1.3/1.3, Northampton 1.5/1.7
Likely line-ups: Wimbledon (3-5-2): Shea; Charles, Robinson, Bulman; Francomb, Nightingale, Reeves, Soares, Meades; Poleon, Elliott. Northampton (4-4-2): Smith; Phillips, Diamond, Nyatanga, Buchanan; Taylor, O’Toole, Williams, Wylde; Richards, Smith
Man in the middle: Nigel Miller
Last time out: Bolton Wanderers 1 (Madine) AFC Wimbledon 1 (Elliott); Northampton Town 2 (Smith, O’Toole) Charlton Athletic 1 (Botaka)
Most recent meeting: Saturday, August 20, 2016 – Northampton Town 0 AFC Wimbledon 0
Record v Dons: P11 W5 D6 L0
Opposition view: Dons boss Neal Ardley on Northampton’s visit to Kingsmeadow: “They’ve been a little bit up and down with their performances but they had a good win last week and they’ve got two of the better forwards in the league in Michael Smith and Marc Richards. John-Joe O’Toole scores goals every season and Matty Taylor has quality that goes above this league so we have to perform to a high level and take our chances when they come.”
Cobblers connection: Kaid Mohamed. During his two years at Port Vale between 2013 and 2015, Mohamed was loaned out three times, once to AFC Wimbledon, once to Bristol Rovers and also to Northampton. That was the second time he turned out for the Dons having also played seven times in 2011. His time at Kingsmeadow may have been fleeting but he left a lasting impression, scoring four goals – including a hat-trick – in their 8-1 aggregate win over Fleetwood Town in the 2011 Conference play-off semi-final.
James Heneghan’s preview: After last week’s timely win over Charlton Athletic, the next four days bring two games that present Northampton with the perfect opportunity to finally lay to rest any nagging fears of the drop.
The inability to make life easy for oneself is a common trait found in most football teams up and down the land – just ask any fan of any club – but that has certainly rung true for the Cobblers this season.
Back-to-back wins over Chesterfield and Swindon last month seemed to have perished thoughts of an immediate return to League Two, only for one point from the next three games to drag them back into trouble.
But that pressure-relieving win over the Addicks came in the nick of time and it was just what the doctor ordered after two indifferent results and performances, and now is the time to capitalise on it.
First comes a visit to mid-table AFC Wimbledon on Saturday, followed by a home match against woefully out-of-form Port Vale next Tuesday.
Four points or more from those two eminently winnable games must be the target.
Much to the envy of those at Sixfields, Wimbledon have experienced a steady if unspectacular season under the ever-impressive guidance of Neal Ardley, safely securing themselves in mid-table following promotion last season.
With just three wins since Christmas, their form of late has been iffy at best but their knack of staying in matches and not losing – drawing seven times since the start of the year – is an invaluable asset and one which has eluded this weekend’s visitors for much of the campaign.
Indeed, the four points that separate these two in League One owes much to Wimbledon’s 14 draws compared to Northampton’s seven, and it is the difference between mid-table safety and relegation danger.
There did come a point when it seemed the Dons would be sucked into a relegation battle alongside the Cobblers but impressive wins over Walsall and at Scunthorpe, followed by a draw at Bolton Wanderers last time out, has quickly quashed those fears.
Though they cannot completely rule it out, Wimbledon should be able go into their final 11 games safe in the knowledge they’ll be playing League One football next season.
The Cobblers, by contrast, an ill-afford to rest on their laurels even after last weekend’s victory. It is all too easy to think the job is done but football is too volatile and changes too rapidly for such thoughts to be considered.
Failure to win either of these next two will suddenly change the picture again, only this time for the worse, and with those around them playing one another, it won’t take much for Northampton to be dragged back into an unwanted and unneeded battle.
Away wins have been few and far between but, without one in 2017, Kingsmeadow would be a timely place to set that particular record straight.
For that to happen, Justin Edinburgh must find a way of plugging the gaps at the back. Only two teams have conceded more on their travels than Northampton (38) this season, with 17 of those goals coming on their last five away trips.
They must become more ruthless, too. On their last away trip, the Cobblers created and missed three clear chances before Fleetwood took their first of the day and never looked back.
Poor defending and wasteful finishing is never a good combination, something Northampton have found out the hard way.
Edinburgh has regularly tinkered both personnel and systems in search of the right formula, but after the performance and result against Charlton, he has few selection dilemmas for the trip to London.
That said, there is one position in particular where there are a wealth of options.
Whilst Neal Eardley was welcoming the birth of his child last weekend, fellow right-back Aaron Phillips was making full use of an unexpected opportunity, producing a man of the match performance against Charlton.
He deserves to retain his place for Saturday, however with Brendan Moloney on the comeback trail and Eardley also back in contention, the fight for the right-back berth is a ferocious one.
Gabriel Zakuani’s unfortunate, potentially season-ending injury has not come at a good time and the defence remains a genuine concern but as long as Northampton continue to score goals and create chances at the current rate, they can get by.
And if the goals are going to flow as they have been, a lot will continue to rest on the shoulders of John-Joe O’Toole, whose remarkable run of seven goals in seven games could not have come at a better time.
The February Player of the Month contender has been a man reborn under Edinburgh, and not just for his goals.
His all-round, industrious and powerful midfield displays have played a key role in the team’s improved form, and he will again be a key figure in Saturday’s contest.
Michael Smith, also on target at Sixfields last weekend, will hope that goal opens the floodgates, while the return of Luke Williams gave the Cobblers an extra dimension in midfield.
Aside from choosing which loan player to leave out and who to select at right-back, the team virtually writes itself, but style and performances do not matter at this stage of the season, it’s all about substance and points.
Northampton’s away form has been patchy at best since the turn of the year but, coming off a good home win and now with survival firmly in their sights, there is no reason why the Cobblers can’t return from London at least a point better off.
Prediction: AFC Wimbledon 1 Northampton Town 1