Although most U’s eyes will be on their upcoming trip to Wembley to face Coventry in the EFL Trophy final on Sunday, they know that anything other than a win against Bury will likely scupper any remaining play-off hopes and a chance of successive promotions. It is fair to say that a lot of scepticism greeted Michael Appleton’s appointment after a pretty dismal track record at clubs higher up the pyramid at the time. He led them to 13th in League Two in his first season before employing an exciting brand of football (and some very astute signings) to roar them to promotion last term, although not without ridiculously boasting that the Yellows were “the best side in the league” despite finishing a full 13 points behind runaway leaders Northampton.
He has, however, continued to build on their success and could rest one or two players (such as striker Kane Hemmings) whilst still carrying threats to sully the visitors’ streak of clean sheets.
Exciting talent and EFL Young Player of the Year nominee Ryan Ledson remains with England U20s, so will miss out tonight. Both full backs who might start (Joe Skarz being yet another familiar face to Shakers’ fans) are adept at tucking in and nullifying direct dribbling and running into the channels. Again, an interesting battle will be Greg Leigh versus either Christian Ribeiro or Phil Edwards. Both Oxford right backs can physically dominate their men and the former Man City wing back will need to continue his rapid improvement to best his opponent.
If physical strength is the hallmark of the U’s defence, passing range is the centre of midfield’s calling card. Both John Lundstram and the versatile Josh Ruffels are very happy to sit in front of their back four and dictate the tempo, while Joe Rothwell and Liam Sercombe will provide only nominal width and are likely to cut inside at every opportunity to give the hosts numerical advantage in the middle and cut off Bury’s means of picking out the wing-backs at the source.
Robert Hall might play off Toni Martínez and could even constitute the fifth midfielder in their XI when out of possession. The former Bolton misfit has found his home further south and possesses electric pace, comfortable dribbling and shooting with either foot and an end product to boot and will be the biggest danger regardless of where he plays.
Should James Vaughan not recover from a tight hamstring in time, expect to see Ryan Lowe leading the line with Hallam Hope working the channels. Antony Kay might make more forays into midfield to deal with Sercombe in particular and help Bury gain vital possession of the ball.
As for a prediction, I’m going with a 1-1 draw – this might be the best time (if there is such a thing) for Bury to play Oxford – some players will doubtlessly be looking to stake their claim for the Wembley trip but others might go into it with the mentality of protecting themselves just a little to prevent injury. It’s hard to say for certain but it should be a more flowing game of football than of late for the Shakers; Exile Jr. also thinks it will be a draw but 2-2. It’s difficult to see Joe Murphy concede more than one but he’s been correct before with such a prediction…