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Cook: Oxford Game Probably a Really Good Benchmark
Friday, 12th Nov 2021 11:58

Boss Paul Cook says Saturday’s home game against sixth-placed Oxford United will probably be a benchmark of where Town are at this stage of the season. The Blues are expecting a crowd in excess of 21,000 for the visit of the U’s.

The 4-1 win at Wycombe 10 days ago saw the Blues climb to ninth in the table, four points behind Oxford in the final play-off spot.

Oxford have made a decent start to the campaign as they look to reach the play-offs for the third successive season. Last year they were beaten by Blackpool, who were ultimately promoted to the Championship, 6-3 on aggregate in the semi-final and in 2019/20 they lost 2-1 to Wycombe in the final at Wembley.

The U's are unbeaten in their last five in all competitions, winning of them aside from last Sunday’s 2-2 FA Cup draw at home to Bristol Rovers, scoring 13 goals in that time. In the league, they have lost one only of their last seven, winning five.

The match is the main game on Saturday evening's EFL on Quest highlights show and is also being shown live in the US on ESPN+ and in other nations.

Manager Paul Cook says he has a lot of time for Oxford manager Karl Robinson: “I’ve got the utmost respect for Karl, I’ve got the utmost respect for Oxford and the job Karl has done there.

“You only have to watch them to realise how well coached they are and how they believe in what they’re doing and they are a really good side.

“In my opinion they are definitely one of the best teams in the division, I think anyone who comes across Oxford will be tested at times without a shadow of a doubt. They are very, very good in possession of the ball and it’s going to be a good game tomorrow.

“We want Portman Road to be a fortress. We have to respect the opposition, but we also have to impose ourselves on the game and I think tomorrow will be a really, really good game for supporters to see. It will probably be a really good benchmark to see where we are at this time.”

Robinson has said he doesn’t anticipate the game being as open as many believe it might be and that Town will “be a little bit cautious as they’ll know on the turnover we’ll be very good”.

Asked about those comments, Cook laughed: “No comment! I’ve got the utmost respect for Karl Robinson, I’ve known Karl a long time. Karl brings his team here tomorrow in a very good place, they’re a good side, they’ve got good players, they’ve got a really good style of play and we’re in for a very, very difficult afternoon. But so are Oxford.”

Oxford’s visit is the first of three league games against sides in the top six with a visit to fifth-placed Sunderland next weekend and then Rotherham, who are third, visiting Portman Road on the following Tuesday.

“I’m sure we’ve just faced Wycombe and Plymouth, haven’t we? You guys [the local media] are good, by the way, you don’t give us managers a breather, do you!” Cook joked.

“The fixtures are what they are. I think once you get to the end of the [first half of the] fixtures, the first 23, the league table will take solid shape and you’ll then be going towards a transfer window where people will be doing whatever they think is correct going forward.

“We’ll be halfway through the season and there’s so much football to be played. I understand the question and I understand everything that comes with management today, but for me I just keep going from game to game.

“We’ve got a really tough game tomorrow against Oxford and I won’t look forward ahead of that.

“After that, we’ll prepare for Oldham, after Oldham we’ll prepare for Sunderland. Football management is just about the next game and I understand that you have to ask the questions, but you’ve got me speaking about Rotherham, Sunderland and Wigan.

“So I’ll let those lads look after themselves and I’ll let those clubs look after what they’re doing, and we’ll do the best we can to keep our supporters happy.”

After the performance of the season so far to win 4-1 at Wycombe, the same XI was under par as they drew 1-1 at home with Oldham in the FA Cup last Saturday, before Cook praised a number of players’ performances during the Papa John’s Trophy tie with Colchester, which ended 0-0 with the Blues winning 4-3 on penalties.

Have the last two games given him headaches when it comes to team selection? “We’re 16 league games into a campaign with a new team. Two of our best performances have seen us knocked out [of the Carabao Cup] against Newport, where we were fantastic on the night, we had 26 attempts on goal, our highest number this year, and we couldn’t score. And Tuesday night we were excellent, and that’s what it’s about, competition for places.

“We walk into an Oxford team tomorrow that is very, very well groomed together, have been together for a number of years, have got a manager who is very, very good and they’ve got a style of play and an identity.

“And that’s something that we’re searching to get towards. But it’s only games and time that can bring that.

“Our lads are giving everything they’ve got for this club at the minute, team selection is, as you can imagine, difficult when we go from the highs of Wycombe to the lows of Oldham with the same team. So you can imagine the problems that that causes a manager.

“Do you stay loyal or do you make changes? And that’s something I’m paid to do. So along with the coaching staff I’ll make those decisions.

“We’re looking forward to a really good game tomorrow, it’s one of the fixtures I look forward to because you know you’re going to get two teams on a football pitch trying to win a game and that normally means you’re going to get a great game.”

Christian Walton will almost certainly be in goal having been one of Town’s top performers in recent weeks and after saving a penalty from Dylan Bahamboula in the Oldham match.

Hayden Coulson will return at left-back if over the injury he suffered at Wycombe, although Matt Penney having been omitted from the squad for the Colchester game may suggest that the on-loan Boro man will not be involved.

Janoi Donacien is likely to be at right-back whether Kane Vincent-Young is fit enough to be included or otherwise following the shoulder injury he suffered against his old club Colchester on Tuesday. George Edmundson and Toto Nsiala look set to be the centre-halves.

In the middle of midfield, Sam Morsy and Lee Evans look the probable pairing with Cook having options regarding the three who start behind lone striker Macauley Bonne.

On the left, he could choose Scott Fraser or Kyle Edwards, on the right Sone Aluko or Wes Burns and in the middle Bersant Celina or Conor Chaplin.

Fraser, who has returned from a knee problem, may get the nod on the left to allow Edwards to make an impact from the bench, while Aluko was among the standout performers on Tuesday and could join him in the starting XI.

Celina, who asked the Kosovan FA if he could stay with the Blues during the international break despite being called up, may start ahead of Chaplin as the number 10.

Oxford are away against leaders Wigan next weekend, following their FA Cup replay at Bristol Rovers, and manager Robinson believes his side is facing two of their toughest opponents.

“It’s probably the two biggest teams in the league that we’re going away to, they’re probably two of the most demanding ones,” he told the Oxford Mail. “We know we’re in a very difficult moment.

“When you come into these moments, you just have to embrace it, you can’t change it so you’ve got to be excited by it. It’s what we want, going away to Portman Road and Wigan.”

Regarding Town specifically, he added: “Everyone knows the quality of staff that they’ve got and the players they have, you can see the flow of what they’re trying to do. This is the best team we’ll probably have faced at their place.

“It won’t be as open as maybe we foresee, they’ll be a little bit cautious as they’ll know on the turnover we’ll be very good.

“They’ll also know our ball retention will be very good and we know they’re exceptional, they truly are. I’m so looking forward to this game, more than most in some ways.

“People talk about changing managers and really heavily investing in recruitment – we’ve done it.

“We’re going to Ipswich, who have been at the top of our industry, and we’re seen as we should be going there and getting a positive result.

“Ipswich see us as a big challenge, I can guarantee this week Paul Cook will have been saying this is one of the hardest games of the season. This is a remarkable place we find ourselves in.”

Oxford will have James Henry and Herbie Kane back involved after they missed last week’s FA Cup draw with the Pirates.

On-loan Cardiff midfielder Gavin Whyte misses out as he is away with Northern Ireland, while fellow midfielder Alex Gorrin is set for a long spell on the sidelines with an ACL injury.

Striker Sam Winnall is out with an ankle injury and keeper Jack Stevens has been ill and is not expected back in training until next week. The same is the case with midfielder Ben Davis following an ankle problem.

Historically, the Blues have had the better of the U’s, winning eight (six in the league) of the games between the teams, drawing eight (eight) and losing six (six).

Three of the last four games between the teams have ended goalless with the other having ended in a 1-0 U’s victory at Portman Road in February 2020.

Town’s last win against the U’s was back in February 1999 when goals from Matt Holland and Mark Venus, from the penalty spot, saw George Burley’s Kieron Dyer-inspired side to a 2-1 win at Portman Road.

The teams last met in February when Town recorded their second goalless draw at Portman Road in five days.

The Blues had the better chances against the U’s, at the time the division’s form side, with James Norwood hitting the post in the second half and Troy Parrott and Keanan Bennetts also going close.

Town and Oxford played out another 0-0 at the Kassam Stadium in December last year with the home side coming closest to breaking the deadlock during a dull game.

Blues keeper David Cornell pushed a Henry cross on to the post in the first half, while Town, who hit their first effort on target in the 90th minute, went nearest to scoring when Jon Nolan shot over on 75.

Town winger Wes Burns spent time on loan at Oxford during the 2014/15 season, making six starts and three sub appearances, scoring once.

Blues CEO Mark Ashton previously held the same position at Oxford, while Mike O'Leary was a director at the Kassam Stadium.

Saturday’s referee is Scott Oldham from Poulton-le-Fylde who has shown 41 yellow cards and two red in 16 games so far this season.

Oldham’s last Town match was the 4-1 defeat at Doncaster in October last year in which he awarded Rovers a penalty after Nsiala felled Josh Sims. He also yellow-carded the centre-half as well as James Wilson and Andre Dozzell.

Before that, Oldham coincidentally refereed the 1-0 home defeat to Oxford in February 2020 in which he red-carded Jackson for a stamp on visitors’ defender Rob Dickie in the final minute and booked Luke Woolfenden, Luke Garbutt and one U’s player.

Prior to that he was in charge of the 1-0 win at Rochdale in November 2019 in which he yellow-carded only Norwood.

Squad from: Hladky, Walton, Holy, Donacien, Vincent-Young, Clements, Penney, Edmundson, Nsiala, Burgess, Woolfenden, Morsy, Evans, Harper, El Mizouni, Fraser, Burns, Chaplin, Edwards, Bonne, Pigott, Barry, Jackson.

Photo: Matchday Images

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ArnieM added 12:33 - Nov 12
Come on Town, lets do this ......

Barty added 13:06 - Nov 12
Must win game really and I am sure we will.

Bazza8564 added 13:25 - Nov 12
21,000 roaring behind our boys what could we possibly have to fear?

We tend to play well against the better footballing sides, mainly because not having to wait for the ball to come down from 20' in the air every 30 seconds helps a proper style.

But most importantly, and quoting Phil, "On the left, he could choose Scott Fraser or Kyle Edwards, on the right Sone Aluko or Wes Burns and in the middle Bersant Celina or Conor Chaplin"

LOOK AT THOSE CHOICES AND THE QUALITY WE HAVE, 6 players who will be the envy of the league fighting for three places. Please don't tell me guys we've had this sort of depth in recent times...... Our bench would walk into any side in this division, time to get behind these boys like never before and make PR absolutely Rock !!!! :)

ringwoodblue added 13:45 - Nov 12
Bazza - agree with your comments about the quality and choice we have in the squad but with a few notable exceptions, most are not showing that quality consistently enough throughout and between games atm. Those lapses in concentration are still happening and costing us too many points right now.

Ipswichbusiness added 15:13 - Nov 12
If you look at that table our home form has just not been good enough; too many draws, not enough wins.

IpswichT62OldBoy added 15:31 - Nov 12
We will have a very good idea of where we stand by the end of November .
It's great to have a sense genuine optimism again, for the first time in years.

chepstowblue added 15:57 - Nov 12
I saw someone say "it's a must win" game and I went cold. We never win "must win" games. Personally I dont think it is, and if we dont... I'll be more than content with a point, because I honestly think we'll go to Sunderland and win. 6pts would be fantastic, 4pts would be very very acceptable. I expect this to be a really difficult game. An ultra critical Oxford fan that I know has assured me that apart from the odd blip they are excellent this season. Much like us. I expect two very evenly matched teams and probably the best opposition we've faced so far. Hopefully we edge it.

rgp1 added 16:02 - Nov 12
Less soundbites and more consistency please Mr Cook this is Oxford we are playing not Real Madrid!

runningout added 16:21 - Nov 12
Every game as tricky as the next against anyone, with no room for naivety

Bazza8564 added 16:39 - Nov 12
ringwoodblue, totally agree, but Im personally really happy with the front 8 (ie two lots of front 4) options, those six plus Bonne and Pigott. Morsy and Evans too, Carrol and Harper are decent enough options backing them up.
We still lack that quality in depth at GK (Walton probably but Hladky probably not) and the back Four in my opinion is still in need of investment, especially at CB where frankly Burgess seems to have fallen behind Toto, and that probably says everything.
But that's what January is for, its not perfect yes, but when you consider we are at home, ill get my faith from the front 2/3rds of the squad and pray for the back 1/3rd :)
Lets not kid ourselves this squad will march straight to Old Trafford in two years, but to do whats its been assembled to do, to get competitive enough to get us out of this division and give us the basis around which to build in the Championship, maybe its got promise enough to head us that way?

therein61 added 17:47 - Nov 12
We need a win to set the benchmark for the next two C.O.Y.B.

jas0999 added 18:24 - Nov 12
It’s a home game. It’s a game we ought to win. Good luck lads!

KiwiTractor added 21:17 - Nov 12
Good luck lads - 100% effort and 100% concentration. COYBs.

FrankMarshall added 23:12 - Nov 12
I'd take a scrappy 1-0 win. COYB!

ThaiBlue added 04:41 - Nov 13
Cut out poncing about playing at the back leading to mistakes and we should be ok,3-1 town.

shakytown added 06:20 - Nov 13
A real season defining moment ahead. Win and we are top 6 possibly lose and we are also rans. Time to put up or shut up. No room for the complacency and weakness we have shown in the past. Men or boys time and no excuses allowed and that includes Cooks future at the club. Lose and we are nothing period!!!!!!!

shakytown added 06:30 - Nov 13
Thaiblue re this team capable of not poncing about????? Red letter day ahead no doubt.

Saxonblue74 added 07:20 - Nov 13
Fraser or Edwards? Aluko or Burns? Chaplin or Celina? Nice problems to have aren't they! 3 points today and things are looking serious!

Saxonblue74 added 07:22 - Nov 13
....switch the first 2, but you get the idea!

ChrisFelix added 09:32 - Nov 13
With the exception of Doncaster none of our home games have been convincing. Remove Bolton which was a one of our performances have been littered with mistakes, missed chances & a bit of bad luck.
Maybe now we reach a crucial time of the fixture list our fortunes will change for the better. NB the record of the ref worries me a little especially with Toto in the side

gosblue added 10:13 - Nov 13
Time to stand up and be counted. Tuesday night told me a lot about the squad players. Celina’s speed of thought and ability to pick out a pass or create a chance was there for all to see. One or two are slightly behind that but one or two are nowhere near. We are capable of beating anyone on our day but I’m going for 2-2 as I don’t think we’re quite the finished article yet. I love the way Robinson is bigging his team up. That suggests to me he’s a bit nervous about Town. COYB

Ebantiass added 11:14 - Nov 13
Best of luck for today lads. Go into this with real optimism and belief we can doi this. Just hope we get the first goal. By halftime i want Oxford to be only thinking about consolidation and the Wigan game plans.

dirtydingusmagee added 12:47 - Nov 13
AAAH Benchmark ! well you said it PC, HOPEFULLY it will be a good result and not another ''blip''.We have been doing the PC Two step for too long , need to put a decent run together. COYB

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