Mark O’Haire’s weekend debrief: Struber’s side starting to strut

Barnsley to stay up
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Great Escape is on for battling Barnsley

Barnsley were nine points adrift of Championship safety on Valentine’s Day but back-to-back victories over promotion-chasing Fulham (3-0) and relegation-rivals Middlesbrough (1-0) have put the Tykes right back into the fight for survival at the bottom of the second-tier.

Gerhard Struber’s side are now just five points shy of survival and that’s the perfect fillip for the Reds ahead of trips to bottom-half dwellers Hull and Reading this week. The South Yorkshire club impressively won the shot count 18-5 on Saturday with Boro failing to muster a single shot on-target at Oakwell as the hosts snuffed out all threat in a dominating display.

Struber said his team’s strong and unified performance represents the template for survival for the Reds. Barnsley recorded their first clean sheet on home soil at league level since the opening day of the season with centre-halves Aapo Halme, Jordan Williams and Michael Sollbauer excelling in the Tykes’ tenacious 3-4-1-2 system employed by the Austrian.

As Struber correctly opined, duels were won all over the pitch. The Reds were defensively sound, diligent and displayed all the energy and urgency. The hosts also had the game’s class act in Alex Mowatt, whilst the blossoming partnership of Conor Chaplin and Jacob Brown kept the Boro backline occupied and under pressure throughout the contest.

Post-match Struber said, “We created a very good performance together. In every single duel, we were the winners. The attitude and energy together was amazing. We were very clear with our plan on the ball. Every single player trusted each other and it makes it a little easier. I think the best moment is coming. We have a good feeling for the next games.”

Under Struber’s watch, Barnsley have W6-D4-L8 in league action with seven clubs picking up fewer points, suggesting the Great Escape is quite possible. The Reds are 13/5 (BetVictor) to preserve their Championship status this season.

Middlesbrough back in the mire

Middlesbrough appeared to be moving in the right direction only a matter of weeks ago. However, eight games without a win, plus successive losses against the Championship’s bottom two clubs have pushed the Teessiders right back into the relegation mix.

Awful against Luton, fortunate to escape with a point at Wigan, Boro were atrocious at Oakwell and devoid of ideas, energy and purpose. The 4,000 travelling contingent made their displeasure known at the final whistle as Jonathan Woodgate and his under-fire squad headed for the tunnel amid audible chants of ‘You’re not fit to wear the shirt’.

Britt Assombalonga and Ashley Fletcher were non-existent throughout, although the supply line was also appalling. Boro – whose sole effort of note saw Lewis Wing see a free-kick deflect wide – looked ripe for the taking and the punishment they merited eventually arrived. Despite the introduction of Rudy Gestede, the tide never looked like turning.

In back-to-back games against the bottom two, the Teessiders have failed to muster a single shot on-target and what was once a healthy 10-point cushion from the drop spots has been whittled away to just three. Understandably, panic and alarm is setting in amongst supporters with the side still lacking identity and riddled with inconsistency.

Sluggish Boro have suffered an alarming drop off in levels of energy and pace and that has cost them dearly. The strugglers don’t have the athleticism, power or muscle to win a toe-to-toe midfield scrap and they also don’t have the well-drilled rigid defensive discipline to soak up pressure and grind it out. It’s a concerning concoction at the Riverside.

Middlesbrough have seven of their remaining 12 league tussles against top-half teams with 15th-placed QPR the only side outside of the top-10 yet to visit Teesside this term. It’s a tricky run-in to negotiate and quotes of 6/1 (Bet365) on Boro falling out of the Championship are probably a little bit too big based on their recent efforts.

Coventry contenders for the League One crown

The promotion race in League One looks set to go right down to the wire but Coventry have put themselves into a serious position of strength following a fantastic run of winning form. The Sky Blues have collected nine triumphs from their last 11 outings with Mark Robins’ men proving excellent operators at producing victories by the narrowest of margins.

Twelve of Coventry’s 16 wins this term have been delivered by a single-goal, as was Saturday’s 2-1 success at Rochdale. But Robins dubbed his side’s second-half defending a “disgrace” after the Sky Blues made hard work of beating their relegation-threatened hosts, particularly when caught napping for Dale’s goal via a simple long ball over the top.

Robins was possibly aiming to refocus minds ahead of Tuesday’s mouthwatering match-up with table-topping Rotherham. The Millers won October’s reverse fixture 4-0 but the Sky Blues’ improvement means the return should be a far tighter contest between the two clubs currently locked together on 60 points as we enter the final furlong.

A contest with Sunderland awaits Coventry thereafter whilst matches with Wycombe, Peterborough, Ipswich and Oxford are on the menu before the regular campaign closes. The Sky Blues have suffered only three league losses in 2019/20 and therefore deserve to be taken seriously in the intriguing race to secure automatic promotion this term.


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