Fixture: Northampton Town v Bristol Rovers, Sky Bet League Two
Date/time: Saturday, April 9, 3pm kick-off
Forecast: 9C, showers
Outs and doubts: Cobblers: Paul Corry (knee)
Betting: Northampton 13/10, draw 23/10, Rovers 21/10
Form guide: Cobblers DDWWDW, Rovers WLWWWW
Avg. goals scored/conceded per game: Northampton 1.8/1.0; Rovers 1.6/1.0
Likely line-ups: Northampton (4-4-2): Smith; Moloney, Diamond, McDonald, Buchanan; Holmes, O’Toole, Byrom, Adams; Marquis, Richards. Rovers (4-4-2): Mildenhall; Leadbitter, Lockyear, McChrystal, Brown; Bodin, Lines, Clarke, Lawrence; Taylor, Gaffney.
Man in the middle: Tony Harrington is a referee not fondly remembered by Northampton fans following his rather inept performance in January’s 3-0 FA Cup defeat to MK Dons. In that game, Harrington awarded two penalties to Dons; one two yards outside the box and the other after Adam Smith had clearly won the ball. He’s not a particularly card happy ref, though, having brandished 63 yellows and just two reds in his 26 games this season – one of the lowest ratios of cards handed out to games refereed across the Football League.
Last time out: Northampton 2 (Holmes 2) Notts County 2 (Audel, Stead); Bristol Rovers 3 (Taylor 2, Lawrence) Crawley 0.
Most recent meeting: Saturday, August 8, 2015 – Bristol Rovers 0 Northampton Town 1 (O’Toole)
Record v Rovers: P96 W38 D27 L31
Opposition view: Rovers top scorer Matty Taylor told the Bristol Post: “There is no doubt in my mind that Northampton will be champions. On paper it is the toughest game of the season, but we are on a good run ourselves. We will be going there full of confidence looking to make sure that we put their promotion party on hold for another seven days.”
Cobblers connection: John-Joe O’Toole will not be expecting an especially warm reception by the travelling Rovers contingent this weekend following his acrimonious departure from the club two years ago. Despite O’Toole’s contribution of 15 goals in 2013/14, Rovers were relegated from the Football League that season and the Irishman opted not to stay as he instead signed for Northampton that summer. The midfielder’s every touch was met with a chorus of boos when Northampton met Rovers back in August, however O’Toole had the last laugh when nodding home the winning goal.
James Heneghan’s preview: The visit of promotion-chasing Bristol Rovers to the home of champions-elect Northampton this weekend offers a stark contrast in circumstances from the last time these two clubs met at Sixfields a little over two years ago.
That encounter was equally as crucial and as important as this Saturday’s crunch clash, but the mood back then was a world away from the joyous emotions going into this weekend as both clubs battled tooth and nail to avoid relegation from League Two.
Rovers had previously never been out of the Football League since they were admitted in 1920 but after that game at Sixfields ended goalless, the Pirates endured a wretched run of form to drop into the Conference for the very first time.
Two years on from those troubling times, both Northampton and Rovers have come a long way, and instead of potentially facing each other in the Conference, these two could now find themselves meeting in League One next season.
Cobblers’ inevitable promotion will be confirmed with victory tomorrow, while seven wins from the last eight have seen Rovers rocket up League Two, going from play-off contenders to favourites for a top three spot, following their dramatic play-off final win over Grimsby last May.
The visit of Darrell Clarke’s men might be the opportune time for Chris Wilder abandon 4-4-2 and switch back to what worked so effectively earlier in the season and what laid the foundation for Northampton’s title assault.
Whilst the results have hardly been catastrophic since Wilder first opted to play two up front – which coincided with James Collins’ debut at Plymouth – it’s indisputable that recent performances have taken a turn for the worse.
Some of that can, of course, be attributed to a natural drop off in performance levels towards the end of an energy-sapping, emotionally-draining season but opposing teams appeared to have discovered a way to counter and stifle Northampton’s creativity and attacking zip in the past few weeks.
Attacking players have been restricted and with two big target men up front, the temptation is to punt aimless, harmless long balls forward instead of working it out from the back, moving the ball wide and pulling teams apart with fluid, unpredictable movement, something which worked to such devastating affect earlier in the season.
Playing three fleet-footed, interchangeable players behind a target man offers more freedom to the likes of Nicky Adams and Lawson D’Ath who thrived in earlier in the season but have struggled since the switch to 4-4-2.
Neither are traditional wingers and both prefer to drift inside but 4-4-2 restricts their movement, while Collins has also recently gone off the boil, which should pave the way for John Marquis to return to the team.
Whether that’s alongside skipper Marc Richards or on his own remains to be seen but playing one out-and-out striker up front could also allow Sam Hoskins to be brought in for a much-deserved and long overdue start following a string of impressive cameo appearances from the bench.
On top of that, Rovers’ willingness to attack might play into Northampton’s hands.
Indeed, just like Northampton don’t do defeats, Rovers don’t do draws, and with just five all season, Clarke’s men rarely settle for a point even if that occasionally costs them at the other end.
Recent Northampton opponents, such as Stevenage, Mansfield, Cambridge and Notts County, have been happy to sit back, frustrate and play on the counter but Rovers might come with more attacking purpose, therefore are like to commit more men forward, leaving more gaps for Northampton to exploit.
In turn, though, that will likely mean a busier afternoon for Northampton’s back for and it goes without saying that one man they will have to keep quiet is red hot striker Matty Taylor who has surpassed Jay Simpson as League Two’s leading marksmen.
The diminutive forward has 10 goals in his last eight games to spearhead his side’s promotion charge and he’ll be on the hunt for more goals at Sixfields as Rovers become the 19th team to attempt to end Northampton’s unbeaten run that stretches back to mid-December.
Cobblers could be promoted even with a defeat, providing Accrington and Plymouth also lose and Portsmouth fail to win, but they’ll be desperate to kick-start the party celebrations in style.
Prediction: Northampton 2 Bristol Rovers 2