James Heneghan’s Northampton Town v Oxford United preview

Chris Long's fine solo goal proved the match-winner at the Kassam Stadium back in November. Pictures: Kirsty Edmonds
Chris Long's fine solo goal proved the match-winner at the Kassam Stadium back in November. Pictures: Kirsty Edmonds

Fixture: Northampton Town v Oxford United, Sky Bet League One

Date/time: Saturday, February 24, 3pm kick-off

Venue: Sixfields

Forecast: 5C, sunny spells

Outs and doubts: Cobblers: Shay Facey (hamstring), Kevin van Veen (knee), Aaron Pierre (thigh), Aaron Phillips (thigh). Oxford: Joe Rothwell (hamstring), Rob Hall (knee), Mike Williamson (knee)

Betting: Northampton 6/5, draw 12/5, Oxford 13/5

Form guide: Cobblers DLWLDW Oxford LLLWLL

Possible line-ups: Northampton (4-1-4-1): O’Donnell; Facey, Taylor, Turnbull, Bunney; Powell, Grimes, Crooks, Ariyibi; O’Toole’ Long. Oxford (4-2-3-1): Eastwood; Kane, Dickie, Mousinho, Smith-Brown; Ledson, Mowatt; Buckley-Ricketts, Henry, Richardinho; Obika

Man in the middle: Martin Coy

Last time out: Scunthorpe 2 Northampton 2 (Long, O’Toole); Oxford 0 Plymouth 1

Most recent meeting: Saturday, November 11, 2017 – Oxford United 1 (Thomas) Northampton Town 2 (Taylor, Long)

Record v Oxford: P32 W15 D3 L14

Opposition view: “We’ve had three defeats on the trot which is never good,” said U’s caretaker manager Derek Fazackerley ahead of Saturday’s game. “We were encouraged by the performance last week but at the end of the day we are paid to produce results and a win at Northampton would put a smile back on everyone’s faces. The teams have been up and down together for the last two or three years and there is a little bit of local rivalry so it’s a game we will be looking to perform well in and also take something out of.”

Cobblers connection: You could take your pick from a host of names who have both played and managed for these two clubs, but two more recent connections are midfielders Chris Hackett and Danny Rose. Currently working as an U18s coach, the former is now back at the Kassam Stadium where he started his career, rising through the youth ranks to make over 150 appearances across six years. Hackett’s time at Sixfields towards the latter stages of his career was almost as long, turning out 138 times and scoring 12 goals. As for Rose, he made the direct switch from Oxford to Sixfields in January 2016 when he helped the Cobblers get over the line and clinch the title, finishing above United in the process.

So far, Northampton have managed just 20 points from 17 games at Sixfields – only two sides have a worse points-per-game ratio at home in League One – and that can largely be put down to their inability to grab games by the scruff of the neck.

James Heneghan’s preview: Oxford United have become Northampton’s go-to opponents when their need for three points has reached the desperation stage over recent years so it’s handy that they are the visitors to Sixfields for this weekend’s crunch clash.

Two seasons ago, Chris Wilder’s Cobblers recorded a 1-0 victory against the U’s at Sixfields to kick-start their march towards the title before Marc Richards’ stoppage-time winner on Boxing Day of 2016 briefly halted Northampton’s alarming slide towards relegation.

Even earlier in the current campaign, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink saw his side produce one of their most complete performances of the season to triumph 2-1 at the Kassam Stadium and make it three wins in a row, although at least United scored against their cross-border rivals for the first time in nearly 500 minutes of football having suffered successive 1-0 defeats prior to last April’s drab goalless draw.

From having one eye on the play-offs and possible promotion, Oxford’s descent down the League One table has been so steep over recent months that former Wales international Craig Bellamy looks to be the man identified to reverse it.

With Pep Clotet sacked over a month ago, the U’s have taken their time in finding a successor with caretaker Derek Fazackerley still in temporary charge but, having initially been rejected by Everton U23s manager David Unsworth, it seems Bellamy, formerly of Man City and Liverpool, will be the one to take over after holding talks with the club this week – though Thursday’s takeover of Thai businessman Sumrith “Tiger” Thanakarnjanasuth might delay any announcement until after the weekend.

And if Bellamy does take charge, you can’t accuse him of going the easy route. United, who were 10th and just three points away from the play-offs on January 6, have lost six of their last seven to lurk dangerously close to relegation.

Pep Clotet was sacked last month

Pep Clotet was sacked last month

And their problem has not only been dreadful form, it’s also the opponents they have lost to. Bar two late goals in a 3-2 win at Charlton Athletic a few weeks ago, they’ve suffered defeats to Bury, Walsall, Bristol Rovers and Plymouth and will be only one point above Town if their poor run continues on Saturday.

Results in midweek were kind on the Cobblers. Horribly out-of-form Fleetwood lost their eighth game in a row, beaten 2-1 at home to Portsmouth, to remain a point below Town while Rochdale and MK Dons, two teams desperate for points, drew 0-0 in a result that does neither side much good.

But those scores will count for little if Northampton do not win this weekend because there’s only so much you can rely on your rivals slipping up before they inevitably start winning games.

Against Scunthorpe last time out, Town were disciplined and organised to earn a commendable 2-2 draw but while a cautious approach is understandable, even pragmatic, away from home, the Cobblers must find a different way to collect points at Sixfields.

So far, they’ve managed just 20 from 17 games – only two sides have a worse points-per-game ratio at home in League One – and that can largely be put down to their inability to grab games by the scruff of the neck and force the issue, with the two most recent visitors to Sixfields, Rochdale and Gillingham, finding it all too easy to dominate the ball, create chances and ultimately win the game.

With four wins and two draws from their last eight games, Town remain on the rise and just about heading in the right direction but statistics can be skewed any which way you like; for example, failure to beat Oxford this weekend would make it just one win in six, potentially dropping them back into the bottom four.

One thing in Northampton’s favour in the immediate future is the fixture list and it is essential they emerge from these next five games – against Oxford, Blackpool, Bristol Rovers, Rotherham and Fleetwood – with a decent points haul given their following three opponents are promotion-seeking trio Charlton, Peterborough and Shrewsbury. And if it does go down to the wire, they do at least end the campaign with four winnable games.

Shay Facey has returned to training this week and will challenge Brendan Moloney for the right-back spot but, that aside, it’s difficult to envisage Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink making many changes.

Gboly Ariyibi impressed in glimpses on his first start for the club at Glanford Park and there’s also Hildeberto Pereira, back from suspension, to consider for selection.

Prediction: Northampton Town 2 Oxford United 1