Joe Dunne’s Cambridge United will welcome an extremely potent Bury outfit to the Abbey Stadium tomorrow, which I will be watching in person, hopeful (but not expectant) of a performance akin to their last four outings, which have yielded 16 goals across three competitions.
Prior to last weekend’s 3-1 reverse away at Oldham Athletic, they had been on something of a mini-revival in the league, having claimed 10 points from a possible 12, kickstarted by an extremely creditable 1-1 draw at then-leaders Lincoln City before bagging three impressive wins in a row. That spell aided their hitherto paltry efforts in attack that had them flirting dangerously with the bottom two places.
Dunne will doubtlessly be wary of the Shakers’ recent exploits, but can ill-afford to simply instruct his charges to sit back, especially at home and with three sides below them (and Cheltenham Town looked to have turned a corner).
There have been plenty of rumblings over the form (and even the condition) of custodian David Forde, and the identity of the #1 on the teamsheet at around 14:00 tomorrow is far from certain. Bulgarian Dimitar Mitov has seemed a little more assured in the recent matches he has featured in, but the problems are wider than just in goal.
The full-backs are tasked with providing all the width in the side. Jake Carroll, who Bury fans might recall during a brief loan spell five seasons ago, hasn’t been wholly convincing on the left flank this campaign, as is evidenced by the multitude of chances created down that channel (the 4-3 upset caused by Guiseley in the FA Cup a fortnight ago only reinforced that concern). On the opposite wing, Brad Halliday probably won’t be fit in time, and you can perm one from three individuals as to who will replace him if that comes to pass; I’ve gone with Liam O’Neil, who has only just returned from the treatment table himself. He should have the stamina to get forward, as well as being able to track Danny Mayor.
George Taft bemoaned the Amber & Black Army’s ‘collapse’ after the Latics defeat, as he and his teammates were made to pay for very basic errors in their own third. The tall centre-back will almost certainly triumph in any aerial duel with the likes of Nicky Maynard and Dom Telford. How much his strength in that area will be called upon, however, is another matter entirely. Unusually, both likely starters in the heart of defence are left footed, which may or may not result in an unconscious shift several yards to that flank, and they will need to ensure the gap between the right-back and the other three doesn’t become too wide, as their adversaries have the right mix of attackers that enjoy running into space with the ball.
Captain Gary Deegan takes no prisoners as the pivot in midfield, and will have his work cut out to stem the onslaught, unless his compatriots drop back when possession is lost to recover it in a timely fashion. When he does regain it, he’ll look to recycle it to the ‘wider’ players in the narrow diamond.
Like O’Neil, Reggie Lambe might re-enter the fray from the outset. The Bermudan can play anywhere across the middle of the park, has plenty of pace and good balance, which will help no in end in repelling Bury’s advances centrally. George Maris will be hoping the Shakers’ coaching staff have overlooked what he can do with time and space outside the area, as he showed to devastating effect last time out. Jevani Brown will sit off the front two when they’re out of possession, and join in quickly whenever there’s a turnover. Top scorer in the league with four to his name, he’s bound to make the visitors’ midfield two think twice about galloping forward with abandon.
Ade Azeez is yet to recapture the form he showed at AFC Wimbledon several years ago, and has not netted this term since a brace on the 11th of August. Nevertheless, he cannot be ignored as a threat, and he’ll always look to beat any offside trap, using his agility to take on a defender in a one-on-one situation. Jabo Ibehre, far from prolific either, has the physicality that the back three in dark and light blue tomorrow have struggled badly with thus far. If the target man can bring the likes of Azeez and Brown regularly into play, it will totally interrupt the Lancashire outfit’s gameplan.
The conundrum for Lowe to ruminate on will be whether to include Neil Danns in the XI; ‘fresh’ from scoring for Guyana in the CONCACAF Nations League as Tuesday turned into Wednesday back in England, there will be some doubts about how fit (and jet-lagged) the veteran midfielder will be. Celebrating his 36th birthday today, his omittance would be a small shot in the arm for Cambridge, because although Callum Styles deputised ably (but not spectacularly) in his absence against Stevenage, he just doesn’t have the same presence in the centre of the pitch, despite his tackling improving considerably in the last few months.
The rest of the starting lineup will almost certainly be unchanged from the four-star victory, apart from perhaps up top. Eoghan O’Connell’s cameo and quality finish probably won’t be enough by itself to shift any of the defence (or Styles), but he might be called into action from the bench once more, especially if the physical advantage for the U’s is getting too much for the loanee and Jay O’Shea.
Nicky Adams will have plenty of opportunities to run at (and beyond) Carroll, and although Maynard’s hot streak in front of goal has cooled a touch, neither his work-rate nor contribution in the final phase have. I imagine Lowe might favour Telford or Byron Moore over Chris Dagnall for this game, given the bedlam in the amber backline when faced with quick runners on the dribble.
As for a prediction, I believe this will be another instance in a long line, where Bury’s opposition sit back to a degree and pay a kind of tactical respect. I can’t see a way of the Shakers not peppering the goal with good quality shots (and scoring), but stranger things have happened. Lowe has done his damnedest to squash rising expectations in public, but in private, he must be quietly confident of notching another win if the dual threat of Maris lurking with intent outside the area, and the hold-up stylings of Ibhere can be nullified. That might give rise to the mentality of the squad being called into question by their manager publicly again.
I have seen five live games to date this season in one fashion or another, but have yet to witness a single victory. I think that will belatedly change, but the scoreline will be a closer one than what has characterised an extremely fruitful November to date. 4-2 to the Shakers.