ITEN Match Preview: Gillingham (A)
It felt like a relief to close out Tuesday night’s win over Bolton, surviving a second half fightback from the ailing visitors as well as the snowy conditions, but it looks set to be another difficult game this weekend at Gillingham as Storm Dennis gets set to hit the UK.
Darren Close to Knowing Best XI
Manager Darren Moore made four changes to his team for the Bolton game after a disjointed draw against Rochdale a few days prior, restoring the tried-and-true midfield duo Ben Sheaf and James Coppinger. Both players have a positive influence on the game, with Sheaf displaying his usual passing prowess despite a calamitous backpass leading to the Bolton goal in the second half, whilst Coppinger returned from his recent ankle trouble to play a sublime cross that Niall Ennis headed home for what proved to be the winning goal.
Those two should keep their place for this game at the Priestfield Stadium, particularly as the expected deluge of rain will make ball retention difficult, a facet of the game that is crucial to Rovers’ preferred method of playing. Fejiri Okenabirhie surely did enough to keep his place up front with an assured and high quality display, bagging his first home goal on his full debut and finding himself unlucky with another effort from a similar position in the second half that was well stopped by keeper Remi Matthews.
One enforced change will be at left back with Reece James out injured. James suffered an awful gash to his shin just before half time in a collision with Joe Dodoo and spent two nights in hospital, but will only miss around a month having avoided a bone break. Cameron John is a capable replacement despite his attacking limitations, but that is something that may not be an issue in a game like this and besides, John did a fine job as a counter-attacking outlet from left back in the 3-0 win away to Peterborough on Boxing Day.
Transformed Gills a Tough Nut to Crack
Although these teams last met only two months ago, Gillingham are quite a different prospect to the one that saw off an experimental Rovers side 3-0 in the FA Cup. January brought changes to the squad most notably in attack, with top scorer Alex Jakubiak cutting short his loan spell to move to Scotland, replaced by two players who have made an immediate impact for Steve Evans’ side.
John Akinde is a familiar name to most lower league fans, his brand of physical centre forward play earning him plenty of praise over the years, whilst he also shared the Golden Boot with Rovers’ John Marquis in the 2016/17 League Two season. Fellow new arrival Jordan Roberts has made a hot start since signing on loan from Ipswich, and the duo have netted three goals between them in only four games, whilst Brandon Hanlan will have received a confidence boost from his dramatic late winner at Blackpool in midweek.
Evans expects to have midfield playmaker Olly Lee back from illness for Saturday’s clash whilst Stuart O’Keefe is also pushing for a recall in place of Jordan Graham in the middle of the park. O’Keefe came on at half time on Tuesday night, spurring on a Gills comeback after a change of shape that resulted in that late 3-2 win, an outcome that cost Blackpool manager Simon Grayson his job. Gillingham are unbeaten in the league since before they faced Rovers in the FA Cup, an impressive run now encompassing a dozen matches which has seen them into the top half of the table.
Akinde’s physicality is one of the main reasons why Gillingham fans have reason to be more optimistic about their attacking prowess going forward, and he will no doubt be a handful for Tom Anderson and Joe Wright on Saturday. The defensive duo have dealt well with experienced strikers of late, most recently the sizeable task of quietening Daryl Murphy and Chris O’Grady against Bolton, whilst Ian Henderson was also kept quiet in the Rochdale clash and Anderson made Sunderland’s Charlie Wyke look practically useless at the Stadium of Light last month.
Whilst the game may be won and lost in that defensive area for Rovers, the ability of Ben Whiteman to dictate play on what is likely to be a sodden Priestfield pitch will also be crucial. Olly Lee’s return to the Gillingham side might help to nullify Whiteman but the support that he gets from Ben Sheaf may be the deciding factor against the robust central core of Stuart O’Keefe and Tommy O’Connor.
If the law of averages meant a thing in football, Rovers might be expectant of a win in the third match against Gillingham this season, having drawn 1-1 at home on the opening day before losing 3-0 in the Medways in the cup. That means nothing in the world of sport however, and Rovers have a traditionally poor record against the Kent club, losing 33 of the 65 all-time meetings.
The visitors did however win in the league at the Priestfield Stadium last season, triumphing 3-1 with goals from John Marquis, Mallik Wilks and Danny Andrew. That is the only victory in ten attempts for Rovers, with Sean O’Driscoll the last manager before Grant McCann to successfully navigate what is always a tricky away tie. Late goals from Jason Price and Brian Stock earned a 2-0 win in January of 2007 with both sides ultimately finishing in mid-table before going out of the division in different directions the following year.