Stockport County v Crewe Alexandra
Stockport County have a great opportunity to close the gap on the play-offs on Boxing Day as they take on North West rivals Crewe Alexandra.
The Hatters have been on a roll in the league and are only five points off the top seven. They won 3-1 last time out at home to League One side Charlton Athletic in the FA Cup thanks to midfielder Will Collar’s hat-trick and have since seen their last two league games postponed against Rochdale and Gillingham respectively due to frozen pitches. County will therefore be itching to return and their boss Dave Challinor has said he feels his players have been ‘ruthless’ over the past couple of months and will be looking for more of the same against Crewe.
On the selection front, Liverpool loan goalkeeper Vit Jaros is back from injury now and will compete with Ben Hinchcliffe for the number one spot, whilst midfielder Antoni Sarcevic is also back in contention which is a boost and provides an alternative to the likes of Collar, Ryan Croasdale and Callum Camps. Stockport are in strong form and have lost just once in their last 11 outings in all competitions and that was against table toppers Leyton Orient. They are proving to be a tough team to beat at the moment and in Paddy Madden, who has scored eight times this term, they have a striker who knows where the back of the net is and is causing problems for opposition defenders.
Crewe have had a disappointing season so far and find themselves down in 17th place after just six wins from their first 19 matches. They are in for a tough clash at Edgeley Park and have lost their last two clashes against Barnsley and Newport County respectively having only played only one in December. Manager Lee Bell has recently revealed that wants to bring in a striker in January which shows they lack a cutting edge up top but insists the club ‘won’t be going out spending money’.
The Railwaymen have attacking pair Courtney Baker-Richardson and Chris Long out with long-term injuries which isn’t ideal, whilst key midfielder Callum Ainley is also sidelined until 2023. This leaves Bell with a depleted squad which isn’t good ahead of a hectic festive run of fixtures as his team looks to start climbing up the table. Crewe have struggled on the road so far in this campaign and have only won twice in their 10 away games which suggests they are vulnerable to a defeat on their travels which doesn’t bode well as they prepare to make the short trip to face in-form Stockport.
Swindon Town v Walsall
Swindon Town will be in for a tricky afternoon against a Walsall side who are picking up results under Michael Flynn.
The Robins’ form has stuttered over recent times and they have seen the gap between them and the top three stretch to seven points. They were one of the very few teams who actually played last weekend due to the freezing temperatures and ended up winning 1-0 away at Barrow courtesy of midfielder Louis Reed’s early penalty. However, that was just their first win in six games in all competitions. Boss Scott Lindsay said afterwards that they had ’worked hard’ on defending in training which shows that he has been worried about their defensive fragilities over recent times.
On the injury front, defender Mathieu Baudry has been ruled out on a long-term basis with a knee injury which leaves Frazer Blake-Tracy and Angus MacDonald as the most likely centre-back pairing. Baudry’s absence isn’t ideal as he injects useful experience into the team at the age of 34. Nevertheless, Swindon have received a boost on the loan front with Middlesbrough goalkeeper Sol Brynn poised to remain at the County Ground until the end of the season. Their home form hasn’t been great and they are winless in their last three outings on their own patch against Tranmere Rovers, Crewe Alexandra and AFC Wimbledon, scoring just once, and will be under no illusion how tough of a task Boxing Day will be.
Walsall are on fire at the moment and have their sights set on the play-offs. They are currently only three points off the top seven and will see their clash against Swindon as an opportunity to close the gap. The Saddlers won 2-0 away at Doncaster Rovers last time out in an eye-catching result courtesy of goals by attacking pair Thomas Knowles and Danny Johnson which proves they can pick up points at difficult places to go. Speaking after that one, Flynn said his players showed that bit of ‘quality’ to pick up the three points. The Midlands outfit have received good news regarding striker Conor Wilkinson, who is now back in contention, and he gives them another option up top ahead of the second-half of the campaign. He scored 10 goals in all competitions last term and will battle with Knowles and Johnson for a place up in forward areas.
Walsall are one of the in-form teams in the division right now and are unbeaten in their last eight games in all competitions in a run of fixtures spanning back to 18th October. In addition, they don’t concede many goals either as Flynn has them well organised and they have let in just three in their last seven so will be in very confident mood.
Tranmere Rovers v Doncaster Rovers
Tranmere Rovers look really out of shape. Suspensions for both of their key centre-backs, Jordan Turnbull and Southampton loanee Dynel Simeu, certainly haven’t helped. Turnbull should be available to feature this coming Boxing Day, but he alone can’t change the fortunes of a Tranmere side that look worryingly devoid of ideas in forward areas.
Criticism continues to come Micky Mellon’s way as the forward pair of Kane Hemmings and Elliott Nevitt find themselves provided with limited opportunities each game. A midfield pair of Chris Merrie and Lee O’Connor is defensive minded, and doubled frustrating to see when more attack-minded midfielders in Rhys Hughes and Reece McAlear remain unused. Ethan Bristow and Josh Dacres-Cogley are an exceptional full-back pairing. Kieron Morris and Josh Hawkes likewise are a quality pair of wingers. They can only be expected to provide so much attacking threat when defensive output is also expected from them. Since beating Crewe Alexandra in mid-October, Tranmere Rovers have gone on a 10-game winless run that has seen them fall well away from League Two’s top places. The Super White Army sit 15th ahead of Boxing Day, six points away from the first play-off position.
The poor shape of Tranmere could be something that Doncaster Rovers look to exploit. It has been difficult to draw conclusions about how good Donny can become this season under Danny Schofield. The local-born coach has intent to implement a positive, possession-based style predominantly in a 3-4-3. Results so far though have been a mixed bag, with highs including a 3-1 victory at Grimsby Town, and lows including a 3-0 defeat at relegation-threatened Colchester United. A desire to give Charlie Seaman gametime saw him preferred to first choice right-wing-back Kyle Knoyle during the recent win over Newport County. Knoyle was instead deployed on the right side of the back three, the incredibly versatile Tommy Rowe deployed in an auxiliary left-centre-back role. Harrison Biggins, naturally a midfielder, has featured recently as right-wing cover for the unfit Luke Molyneux. The quality of Ben Close and Adam Clayton does mean that his absence in the centre of the park is not felt too greatly though.
Even if Doncaster Rovers do not have all of their personnel available for this trip to Prenton Park, they have the quality to take advantage of their out-of-form opponents. Striker George Miller’s total of nine makes him one of the league’s top scorers, and in much more confident form that the Tranmere front pairing of Kane Hemmings and Elliott Nevitt. The pressure on Mickey Mellon grows week and week, and he can only keep going without a win for so much longer…
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