Fixture: Bristol Rovers v Northampton Town, Sky Bet League One
Date/time: Saturday, January 7, 3pm kick-off
Venue: Memorial Stadium
Forecast: 10C, cloudy
Outs and doubts: Rovers: Daniel Leadbitter (knock). Cobblers: Gabriel Zakuani (international duty), Brendan Moloney (knee), Aaron Phillips (hamstring)
Betting: Rovers 19/20, draw 13/5, Northampton 11/4
Form guide: Rovers LWWLWL, Cobblers LLWLLW
Avg. goals scored/conceded per game: Rovers 1.6/1.8, Cobblers 1.4/1.4
Likely line-ups: Pirates (4-4-2): Puddy; Leadbitter, Lockyear, Hartley, Brown; Bodin, Clarke, Lines, Montano; Taylor, Harrison. Northampton (4-3-3): Smith; Anderson, Diamond, Nyatanga, Buchanan; McCourt, Boateng, Taylor; Hoskins, Wylde, Revell.
Man in the middle: Gavin Ward
Last time out: Charlton Athletic 4 Bristol Rovers 1 (Easter); Northampton Town 1 (Revell) Bradford City 2
Most recent meeting: Saturday, October 1, 2016 - Northampton 2 (Revell 2) Bristol Rovers 3 (Gaffney, Hartley, Colkett)
Record v Rovers: P98 W38 D28 L32
Opposition view: Darrell Clarke on Saturday’s game at the Memorial Stadium: “Northampton obviously won the league last season in League Two, but we have managed to get six points ahead of them this campaign so far, which is good. For me, the teams that were promoted to League One last season have more than held their own this season and we expect a tough game on Saturday.”
Cobblers connection: John-Joe O’Toole is expecting a typically frosty reception when he heads back to the Memorial Stadium this weekend but he is not the only Cobblers player who has donned a Bristol Rovers shirt in recent times. New boy Hiram Boateng is in line to make his Northampton debut on Saturday and if he does, it will be against the club at which he began the season. Having come through the youth ranks at Crystal Palace, Boateng’s only taste of first-team action prior to this season came on loan at Crawley and Plymouth, for whom he played in last year’s play-off final. But signed by Pirates boss Darrell Clarke in August, Boateng was a regular for Rovers in the early part of the current campaign, making 12 appearances. However, after finding himself out of the side, the 20-year-old central midfielder returned to Palace a week before his loan spell was due to end.
James Heneghan’s preview: If Rob Page is to find a chink of light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel, it will surely need to come at the Memorial Stadium on Saturday when his side must at least produced an improved performance, if not result, than the one against Bradford on Monday.
Aside from the cup disaster at Stourbridge, that defeat and performance at Sixfields was undoubtedly the low point of this dreadful run of form which has taken the Cobblers from play-off hopefuls to relegation candidates.
Thanks to the equally poor form of others, there is still a healthy cushion between Town and the bottom four but with fans growing more frustrated by the week, a team drained of confidence and a manager under increasing pressure, it’s difficult to see the Cobblers turning around their fortunes any time soon.
Page’s first task must be to raise the spirits of his players whose confidence has dwindled as the defeats have totted up.
That was clear on Monday when their first instinct after taking the lead was to sit back and protect what they had rather than push for a second, that is in sharp contrast to last season when the Cobblers would keep going at teams regardless of the score.
There is no better way of regaining that confidence and self-assurance than winning, ideally starting at Bristol Rovers this weekend, and Page might well be glad to get away from Sixfields and back on their travels where his side have experienced better, if not especially great, fortunes of late.
There’s been a better balance to the side in away games over the last few weeks, as evidenced in recent trips to Port Vale, Oxford United and to some extent Sheffield United.
During those first two games and in the first-half at Bramall Lane, the Cobblers managed to marry defensive organisation with the ability to create chances on the counter, a combination which has been conspicuous by its absence in home matches.
Indeed, all six of the points they’ve earned since October have come away from Sixfields, although there are easier places to go than the Memorial Stadium where Rovers have lost just once in the league in the last two and a bit months.
Of course, this was the setting for the first instalment of Northampton’s charge to the title last year and it was player of the season John-Joe O’Toole who got the ball rolling by silencing both his critics and his vocal abusers at the Memorial Stadium with the winning goal.
Page would dearly love O’Toole to conjure up something equally special this time around, but it might not be as straightforward as back then given Rovers have turned what was a 14-point deficit at the end of last season into a six-point lead at present.
The Pirates have been up-and-down of late, and whilst they are a team who evidently like to attack, there is a clear element vulnerability to them at the back: only one team in the entire division - Bury - have conceded more than their 44 goals so far this season.
The question is: will the Cobblers carry enough of an attacking threat to exploit that weakness?
The reverse fixture against Rovers was the first clear sign of trouble as the Pirates became one of several sides to profit from both a poor second-half performance from Northampton as well as a last-minute winner to run out 3-2 winners.
At the time, it was Town’s first league defeat at Sixfields in 2016 but it was a game that triggered a string of disappointing results as they remain without a home win since.
Page is not helped this weekend by the loss of arguably his most consistent performer in Gabriel Zakuani, who will be in Gabon for the next month captaining DR Congo in the Africa Cup of Nations.
Given the apparent lack of trust in Rod McDonald, Zakuani’s absence will almost certainly mean a recall to the team for Zander Diamond who will partner Lewin Nyatanga at the heart of defence barring any late injury problems.
It seems harsh on McDonald who overcame a shaky start last term and improved drastically throughout the course of the campaign, so much so that he arguably ended the season as Town’s best defender, yet with barely 200 minutes of first-team football this time around, it is clear that Page places his trust elsewhere.
Should McDonald be starting? Or is Diamond-Nyatanga the way to go? To have your say, vote using the poll on this page.
Elsewhere, the energy and pace of new duo Hiram Boateng and Greg Wylde, who are both likely to make their full debuts on Saturday, might put an extra spring in Northampton’s step, whilst Page must also decide who to start at right-back.
With regular right-backs Brendan Moloney and Aaron Phillips currently injured, Page either has to make a last-minute signing or play someone out of position, perhaps Paul Anderson who’s shown he is capable of playing a more defensive role on a few occasions this season.
The fixtures have not been kind to Northampton during this poor run and there’s not much respite in the immediate future with the trip to Rovers followed by the visit of title-chasing Scunthorpe United to Sixfields next week.
But, after that, they do have a more favourable run with five of the current bottom seven to play by the end of February, including four at Sixfields.
If they are to salvage something from their stuttering season, the next month will surely hold the key.
Prediction: Bristol Rovers 3 Northampton Town