Mark O’Haire’s Weekend Debrief: Cov and The Potters on the up

Coventry to win League One
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Stoke excelling under O’Neill’s watch

Stoke took another step towards Championship safety as they hammered fellow strugglers Hull 5-1 at the Bet365 Stadium on Saturday. Nick Powell and Sam Clucas led the way with two goals each as Michael O’Neill’s men leapfrogged the Tigers and climbed into 17th, three points clear of the dreaded drop-zone with nine games to play.

The Potters are still in the relegation shake-up but Saturday’s five star display suggests City are on the right track to consolidate their position in the second-tier. However, the victory did come at a cost with Wales international Joe Allen carried off on a stretcher before half-time with an injury that will unfortunately rule the midfielder out of Euro 2020 contention.

Stoke were already in complete control when Allen departed. A three-goal blitz inside the opening 18 minutes put the Potters in command and O’Neill’s outfit kept their foot on the Tigers’ throat thereafter, dominating the encounter with embarrassing ease in every single facet of the game. Despite Hull’s own woes, this felt like a statement display from City.

Now enjoying their highest position all season, it’s been an eye-catching turnaround under O’Neill’s watch. The Northern Irish boss inherited a sorry situation in November with Stoke rock-bottom with just two Championship triumphs to their name. The Potters have since returned W10-D4-L8 with only six clubs pocketing a better points per-game average.

On Saturday, City scored five goals in front of their home supporters for the first time in five years, boosting the Potters’ goal difference to at least four better than any of their relegation rivals. Stoke had not scored more than twice in a game for 88 matches before O’Neill was appointed – but have now managed it six times in his first 22 league games.

No other bottom-half club has now scored more goals than Stoke this season and the club’s home form under O’Neill has been especially impressive (W7-D2-L2) considering the Potters had picking up just two victories in their previous 13 before he arrived at the Bet365. Clearly, City are moving in the right direction and are one to keep tabs on through the summer.

Once O’Neill is able to take full control of proceedings without international distractions, further improvement could be on the cards, and a first real push for promotion since arriving back at this level shouldn’t be discounted. But for now, Stoke look to be the strongest suit in the battle for Championship survival.

Coventry in command at League One summit

Coventry consolidated their position at the League One summit with a scrappy 1-0 success at Ipswich on Saturday. Matty Godden’s first-half strike proved decisive for the Sky Blues in a victory that helped push Mark Robins’ men five points clear at the top of the table with title rivals Rotherham surprisingly falling to defeat at Rochdale.

Robins was naturally delighted to take maximum points away from Portman Road, extending City’s current unbeaten league streak to 14 (W11-D3-L0), but admitted afterwards that his side need to play a lot better if they are to achieve their promotion ambitions. After a strong start to the contest, Cov were far from dominant thereafter.

The downturn could have been caused by a little illness in the Sky Blues camp last week so the table-toppers will be happy to have a full midweek to rest and recover for the first of their final 12 tests against Shrewsbury. However, it’s hard not to feel pretty confident in City’s chances now with just three of those remaining fixtures coming against the top-10.

Coventry are enjoying top spot for the first time in any division post-Christmas in 53 years and Robins’ robust outfit continue to churn out resolute and efficient displays. The Midlands club have remarkably suffered only three defeats in 34 league fixtures despite playing away from their regular home ground in 2019/20. Progress has been built from the back.

The Sky Blues are underpinned by three outstanding centre-halves in Michael Rose, Kyle McFadzean and Luke Hyam with wing-backs Fankaty Dabo and Sam McCallum providing width in Robins’ 3-4-2-1 system. Liam Walsh and Liam Kelly are valuable in the holding midfield roles whilst Jamie Allen and Callum O’Hare offer support to leading scorer Godden.

It’s a mightily effective unit and Godden’s return to form and fitness has given Cov the bite and clinical edge in the final-third to turn positive defensive performances into three points on a regular basis. Coventry have now scored in all bar one of their past 21 League One matches and kept seven clean sheets in their unbeaten 14-game streak.

There’s little to get excited about with best odds of 4/6 (Betway) available on Coventry taking gold between now and May but you could even argue the unexpected league leaders could and should be shorter. Robins’ troops boast a game in-hand on their challengers and with a seven-point cushion over third, deserve immense credit and our utmost respect.


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