Fixture: Northampton Town v Oxford United, Sky Bet League One
Date/time: Saturday, March 25, 3pm kick-off
Forecast: 12C, sunny
Outs and doubts: Cobblers: Alex Revell (calf), Gabriel Zakuani (hamstring), Sam Hoskins (knee). Oxford: Ryan Ledson (international duty), John Lundstram (dead leg)
Betting: Northampton 9/5, draw 5/2, Oxford 7/5
Form guide: Cobblers LWWWLL, United LWLWLL
Avg. goals scored/conceded per game: Northampton 1.5/1.6, Oxford 1.3/1.2
Likely line-ups: Northampton (4-4-2): Smith; Phillips, Diamond, Nyatanga, Buchanan; McCourt, O’Toole, Taylor, Williams; Smith, Richards. Oxford (4-4-2): Eastwood; Edwards, Dunkley, Nelson, Skarz; Hall, Lundstram, Ruffels, Johnson; Maguire, Hemmings
Man in the middle: Often seen refereeing in the Premier League, top flight official Michael Jones will step down a couple of levels this weekend to take charge of Oxford’s visit to Sixfields. The Chester referee has dished out 93 yellows and four reds in his 24 games this season. Due to the international break, Saturday will be just his second League One game of the campaign.
Last time out Bolton 2 (Le Fondre, Morais) Northampton 1 (Smith); Oxford United 2 (Hemmings, Maguire) Bolton Wanderers 4 (Morais, Beevers, Dunkley OG, Vela)
Most recent meeting: Monday, December 26, 2016 – Oxford United 0 Northampton Town 1 (Richards)
Record v Oxford: P30 W14 D2 L14
Opposition view: Ahead of his side’s short hop across the border to Sixfields, Yellows boss Michael Appleton remains hopeful his side can make the top six, saying: “We’ve got eight games left and I want to try to win as many as possible. I’m not going to give myself a hernia if we don’t get into the play-offs, but we’ll give it as good a shot as we can. While it is still mathematically possible, we will keep pushing.”
Cobblers connection: After winning promotion with Oxford in the Conference and then with Northampton in League Two, Chris Wilder looks certain to complete the set when Sheffield United’s inevitable promotion to the Championship is confirmed in the coming weeks. His six years at United started well and within 18 months he was guiding them back to the Football League, but it all ended in an untidy divorce four years later when he traded the Kassam for Sixfields - and we all know what happened next.
James Heneghan’s preview: About to play their 54th match of a gruelling campaign, Oxford United’s bid for back-to-back promotions has somewhat stalled in recent weeks and their hopes of getting back on track rely heavily on doing something they’ve not done in their previous four attempts: beat last year’s League Two champions.
On the receiving end of a 1-0 defeat on each of the last three encounters with the Cobblers, Michael Appleton must find a way of reversing that trend on Saturday, otherwise his side’s league campaign will be in danger of petering out.
As it stands – five points adrift of Southend United – they remain in the hunt for a top six finish but one more defeat might be too much to come back from, especially as they are already showing signs of a tired team as they near the end of another busy yet successful season.
The most recent such example of Northampton’s supremacy in this fixture came on Boxing Day of last year when Marc Richards’ injury-time winner snatched what proved Rob Page’s final victory as Northampton manager.
How Town would dearly love a similar outcome this weekend – and not only because it would break the magical 50-point barrier.
Three points would end all talk of relegation and steer them further into the safety net of mid-table, all while having the added bonus of completing the double over their rivals for the second season running.
Oxford also require all three points this weekend but for very difference reasons. Though they may have finished 13 points behind Northampton last season, they look certain to flip the tables this time round and finish above their Northamptonshire counterparts – something that will undoubtedly please Appleton, although old foe Chris Wilder will still have the last laugh when he picks up a league title for the second year running.
The Yellows still haven’t given up on back-to-back promotions either, although regardless of the outcome in the league, this will still go down as another successful campaign under Appleton’s guidance.
It could end with silverware too if they beat Coventry City in next month’s Checkatrade Trophy at Wembley, a final for which they will be strong favourites.
Having also embarked on an impressive FA Cup run for the second successive season, Appleton and his team are developing a reputation for thriving in cup competitions. They beat both Rotherham and Newcastle on their way to the fifth round this term, ended only by a late defeat at Premier League Middlesbrough.
The one drawback to their cup exploits has been the inevitable fixture pile-up and that is perhaps one reason for their recent drop off in form that has seen them lose four of their past six league games, leaving them five points adrift of the top six.
In some ways they are victims of their own success. But when fans and players reflect on the season as a whole, it will be viewed as another triumphant nine months, irrespective of what happens from now on in.
These two both played Bolton Wanderers in their most recent fixture and both times the Trotters took the spoils, albeit only after surviving a mighty scare each time.
The Cobblers can take great heart and encouragement from the way they performed at the Macron last time out and if they can replicate that type of performance in their final seven fixtures, a top half finish remains eminently attainable.
Victory this Saturday might be a necessity to achieve that, though, given the degree of difficulty for each of the next three fixtures; away at Rochdale and Millwall and home to champions-elect Sheffield United.
Northampton’s final three games are all winnable, admittedly, but they should act as insurance against relegation and nothing more.
His side’s performance at the Macron is unlikely to prompt many changes from Justin Edinburgh for Saturday’s clash. Brendan Moloney made a late cameo, his first appearance since November, and may be in line for further game-timee, and it will also be intriguing to see which loan player misses out.
Hiram Boateng and Gregg Wylde have been the two battling out over the past month, and whilst that is something of a mystery in the case of the former, Town’s performances and results during his absence have hardly caused concern.
And for that very reason, Edinburgh will not be shuffling his pack a great deal when Oxford come into town for what should be close to a sell-out.
On paper, the visitors hold a narrow advantage coming into this one, but with their tails up and a full week’s rest behind them, the Cobblers should fancy their chances.
Prediction: Northampton Town 2 Oxford United 1