Town Visit Gillingham Looking to Return to the Top
Friday, 20th Sep 2019 15:22
Town visit Gillingham hoping to return to the top of League One, looking to continue their unbeaten start to the season and also aiming to equal their successive league clean sheets record.
The Blues are currently second in the table, a point behind leaders Coventry with a game in hand, as well as a superior goal difference, and the Sky Blues not in action this weekend. The Midlanders had been due to face Bury at Gigg Lane.
Paul Lambert’s side haven’t conceded a goal for four league games with five a club record last achieved in March and April 2013 and also at a similar stage of the 1996/97 campaign.
Town’s current run of nine league games unbeaten - eight this season and the Leeds match on the final day of 2018/19 - is their longest since an 11-match streak during November and December 2014.
The Blues, who will be joined at the Priestfield Stadium by more than 2,000 Town fans, also have the best away record in League One having won three and drawn one of their four games on the road so far.
Despite the excellent start, does manager Lambert believe there is still more to come from his squad? “We can try and do everything we can and hopefully throughout the season that’s what’s going to happen.
“We’re there to be shot at and everybody wants to beat us because the support behind the football club is phenomenal, and at the minute everybody wants to beat us.”
While still early days, he says the players have to try to maintain the unbeaten run for as long as they can.
“If we can get that right to the end of the season, then we’ll get up, that’s the bottom line,” he added.
“We’re playing well and if the lads can handle the pressure of playing for this club then great, and so far so good.”
With Saturday’s match the third in eight days, Lambert is likely to make changes - he made four for the 1-0 midweek win against the MK Dons - and so far the policy has worked seamlessly.
“They’ve been brilliant, they’ve been really good,” he reflected. “As I said before, there’s a lot of belief there, a lot of drive, a lot of energy, excitement and you’re right, whatever team I pick and whatever personnel I play they seem to perform.
“I trust them all, and you need everybody to win you a league. It’s not 18 guys, you need everybody, and everybody has been really really good and if we can keep that we’ll see where it takes us.”
Having made such a promising start to the season, Lambert was asked whether the League One title is now very much the aim.
“After eight games?” he said, eyebrows raised. “No, we try and win every game we can, we know what the prize is at the end of it.
“But in this moment we’re playing really well and there are a lot of good things happening and the start has been really good.”
Striker James Norwood revealed that Town are looking at the season in “little blocks” but Lambert didn’t want to be drawn into discussing the way they are dividing up the campaign: “That probably stays in-house.”
Gillingham are managed by the much-travelled fellow Glaswegian Steve Evans, although Lambert says they’ve not crossed swords too often.
“No, not too many,” he recalled. “I don’t really know him that well or anything like that, I know him a little bit but not that well. It’s a hard game, but it’s a hard game for them as well.”
The Gills, who are 15th, are also in decent form at present having been undefeated in their last four in the league. In their four home League One matches so far they have won two, drawn one and lost one.
"As I said before, we’re a big club and everyone wants to beat us,” Lambert added. “But if we go there and play hopefully the way we can, we can come away with a win.”
Tomas Holy will continue in goal but Lambert may again look to switch one of his central defenders with skipper Luke Chambers perhaps missing out and Luke Woolfenden joining James Wilson, the man of the match at Stadium MK on Tuesday.
Toto Nsiala could also be in contention for a return to the travelling squad at least having played a second game for the U23s earlier in the week.
At full-back Kane Vincent-Young is likely to continue on the right, but Lambert could look to switch Luke Garbutt for Myles Kenlock with the on-loan Everton man having been out for a month prior to Tuesday’s match.
Lambert has more decisions to make in midfield with the diamond system utilised against the MK Dons - after briefly starting in a 3-5-2 - very effective in the first half before a number of the personnel who were returning from injury ran out of steam in the second.
Cole Skuse is likely to keep his place but Lambert appears certain to rest Emyr Huws having started his first league game since the final day of 2016/17 on Tuesday.
If Lambert opts to stick with the same system, that could see Alan Judge return to the XI at the top of the diamond with Flynn Downes and Jon Nolan behind him and ahead of Skuse. Norwood and Kayden Jackson will continue up front.
Alternatively, he could rest another of his central midfield men and play Judge or Anthony Georgiou on one flank and Danny Rowe or Gwion Edwards on the other in a more orthodox 4-4-2.
Gillingham defender Barry Fuller is a doubt due to a dead leg which forced him off in the 13th minute of Tuesday’s 1-1 draw at Bristol Rovers, while midfielder Matty Willock is not expected to return for another fortnight due to a knee problem.
Gills boss Evans is in no doubt that the Blues will go straight back up at the first attempt.
“They will get promoted to the Championship again,” Evans told the Kent Messenger. “You can’t have 32 outstanding first-team players in the squad and not have enough options.
“They have a fantastic manager in Paul Lambert, a brilliant manager who has experienced another level with Norwich.
“He is getting brilliant support from Marcus Evans and you only have to look at the options he has available.
“It will be a real tough test and they will bring big support. It is a big test for us but you want to test yourself against the best, I certainly do.
“Paul Lambert has been in the Premier League for many years and I love coming up against him.
“Paul has used his contacts and his knowledge. We are both Glasgow boys and the difference between me and him is that I had more holes in my shoes than he did! I don’t forget that.”
Keeper Holy joined the Blues from Gillingham in the summer after the Czech had spent two years with the Kent club, for whom he made 107 appearances.
Evans is a big fan: “He is a top goalkeeper. I gave a fantastic recommendation [when] he left.”
The Gills boss also has a lot of time for Town’s strike partnership: “The front two are exceptional. I was at Posh last year and we bid over £1 million for Kayden Jackson.
“He is an outstanding talent and is playing up front with the boy James Norwood, who is a fantastic finisher, so we know it will be tough for us.
“We will perhaps have a different shape than Tuesday, a different system [they started 4-2-3-1 before moving to 4-4-2 and then later to 3-5-2] and one or two changes in personnel to make sure we are fresh.”
While Holy is the only man in the Town squad to have played for the Kent club, Gills midfielder Stuart O’Keefe, who joined them from Cardiff in the summer, was an academy schoolboy with Town.
Their squad also includes former loanee Ben Pringle, who signed earlier this month after leaving Preston.
Pringle, 30, made nine starts and one sub appearance, scoring twice, for the Blues in a loan spell from Fulham between February and April 2016.
Historically, Town have the upper hand on the Gills, winning eight games between the sides (six in the league), drawing 10 (10) and losing just two (two).
The teams last met competitively in March 2005 when they drew 0-0 at the Priestfield Stadium in the Championship.
It was a scruffy game with the home side coming closest to scoring when they hit the bar late on via future Blues midfielder Jonathan Douglas.
At Portman Road on the opening day of that campaign, Town got off to a victorious start, coming from behind to beat Gillingham 2-1.
The visitors went in front through Paul Smith but the Blues struck back via Richard Naylor and Dean Bowditch.
Town have visited the Priestfield Stadium in pre-season on a number of occasions in the intervening years, most recently the summer of 2017 when a Gills side featuring current Blues keeper Holy won 2-1.
Danny Rowe pulled one back for Town after the home side had gone in front via a Tom Eaves penalty and Scott Wagstaff’s strike from distance.
Saturday’s referee is Christopher Sarginson from Staffordshire, who has shown 16 yellow cards and no red in six games so far this season.
Sarginson’s only previous Town match was the 2-0 home victory over Brighton in September 2014 in which he booked Skuse, Jonny Parr, Paul Anderson and three of the visitors.
Squad from: Holy, Norris, Vincent-Young, Donacien, Kenlock, Chambers (c), Wilson, Woolfenden, Nsiala, Skuse, Downes, Dozzell, Huws, Nolan, Judge, Edwards, Garbutt, Rowe, Georgiou, Jackson, Norwood, Keane.
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