Cup Win Can Aid Crucial Christmas Run for Rovers
Darren Ferguson referred to Sunday's 3-0 victory over local rivals Scunthorpe in the FA Cup as "the complete performance" from his team, and Doncaster Rovers can look ahead to the next slate of league games with a strong degree of confidence on the back of that excellent win.
Having lost our last three meetings with the Iron in league fixtures without scoring a goal, there was understandable apprehension going into the game from fans, particularly as the visitors were on a hot streak, accumulating six successive wins to become the form team in the division. Perhaps the standalone nature of the FA Cup helped get Rovers mentally up for this fight, or maybe it was a desire to put right the failings of September's 1-0 home loss against key rivals that did the trick. Whatever it was, everything went right for the men in red and white on a satisfying afternoon at the Keepmoat.
A major difference between this display and many others we have seen this season was the excellent level of pressing that the Rovers team maintained off the ball. It directly led to the opening goal and allowed Fergie's boys to dominate much of the first half. Tommy Rowe, rightly awarded the Man of the Match accolade for his performance afterwards, typified this pressing masterclass when closing down the retreating Scunthorpe defenders from an Iron corner, forcing the ball back to the goalkeeper and continuing to chase it down until experienced stopper Matt Gilks puffed his clearance straight into Rowe, with the midfielder then demonstrating his prowess to deftly finish into the corner with his left foot.
Rowe added a high-quality second after the hour mark, taking the ball on from Alfie Beestin's lay-off and doggedly running through three Scunthorpe defenders before rifling in a superb right-footed shot from a difficult angle. That goal came as a sucker-punch to the visitors, who had pressurised Rovers' defence for 20 odd minutes after the interval only to fall further behind. If Rowe was the star of the show, then John Marquis was more than an able deputy. The press paid dividends again in injury time when Marquis, who ran down everything within the realms of possibility all afternoon, kept that tireless tenacity going to block a defensive clearance that led to James Coppinger playing in substitute Liam Mandeville to slam home the exclamation point on a fine win. Marquis led from the front all game and showed why, when playing at his optimum level he is too much for most to handle, even top-six League One defences.
Arguably our most impressive league win of the season came at Blackburn in August, when a resilient Rovers pulled off the perfect smash-and-grab, winning 3-1 away to a team who, on paper at least, should have had the beating of us quite easily. That was in no small part down to the way Rovers pressed a nervous defence from the front, with Marquis spearheading that charge as well. It clearly works and is a style of playing that our squad is capable of executing well, so it's to be hoped that Ferguson recognises it as our best way of beating teams higher up the table than us going forward.
Rovers are yet to register back-to-back league wins this season, but the FA Cup success against Scunthorpe means confidence should be high heading to the Kassam Stadium for Saturday's meeting with Oxford off the back of that result and the previous home win against MK Dons in League One. Oxford haven't registered maximum points at home in four league outings, so it isn't an impossible task to come away with three points, but the U's do possess quality in their line-up and a draw would not be seen as a bad result for us. Currently 17th in the table, Rovers face a potentially defining month as far as our aspirations for the season are concerned, with a good opportunity to put some daylight between ourselves and the bottom four materialising between now and New Year.
Six of the seven sides currently below us play each other this weekend, so a win at Oxford could put us clear of that relegation zone before a run of fixtures that suit a Rovers side coming into form as we head for the festive period. Three home games in two weeks come next, all against sides sat in that pocket of clubs below us - Richie Wellens returns with his Oldham side first, then it's back-to-back home games over Christmas against Northampton and Rochdale following a trip to Bristol Rovers, who were below us as well until winning their outstanding league game last weekend as the rest of the division focused on the cup. Finding our feet again at home has come at the best time with these matches ahead of us, and building up a head of steam at the Keepmoat could be the difference between looking nervously over our shoulder in January and daring to think of troubling the top half and Play Off contention.
Attacking Options Returning
Suddenly, a so-called striker crisis is a thing of the past. In addition to John Marquis' return to form of late, Liam Mandeville has begun to show signs of the quality that marked him out as a future star a year ago, taking his goal very well off the bench against Scunthorpe, whilst the emergence of young Alfie Beestin has also been a welcome boost. Beestin added an assist in the FA Cup win to a pair of assists in the comeback win over MK Dons, those coming in a substitute display that totally changed the game in Rovers' favour. Add to this the imminent return to the squad of Alfie May, back in training after a pesky hernia injury ruled him out for much of the last two months, and things are looking a lot healthier at the top end of the field.
Matty Blair notched the winner against Milton Keynes and was excellent before having to come off with a calf strain against Scunthorpe, his width and explosive pace a much-needed facet of our counter-attacking tactics that has been missing when he has been unavailable. Those attributes are the same ones that led Fergie to sign Alex Kiwomya in the summer, with his unfortunate illness thus far entirely curtailing his Rovers career. Word is that Kiwomya is progressing nicely towards full fitness and could be back in contention as little as six weeks from now, which would be a huge boost to the ranks as Fergie looks to assess his squad needs in the January transfer window.
Things are looking up at DRFC after a bit of a dicey patch in the autumn, but how well we maintain that momentum and newly renewed hope will go a long way to determining whether 2017/18 will be a successful campaign or not for the fans, the players and particularly the manager.
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