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Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Inside Line: Walsall v Bristol City (04/10/2014)

Things just keep getting better, don’t they? A good win against a strong MK Dons side strengthened City’s position at the top of the table and meant we scored three goals for the fourth consecutive match – a quite amazing run of scoring prowess.  What odds a 0-0 draw this weekend?!

The promotion charge is well and truly on now and the support City will get in the West Midlands this weekend marks the first true sign that the fans are genuinely starting to believe.  More than 1,800 will head up the M5 on Saturday morning and try to avoid the obtuse provocation of the infamous West Midlands constabulary.

The Saddlers are a team on the up though after a poor start to the season and will represent a tough challenge, with ex-City no.2 Richard O’Kelly seemingly working well with young boss Dean Smith to mould a slick, passing side with long-term goals very much to the fore.

So what lies ahead of us? Can Walsall be the first side to take maximum points from the unbeaten league leaders this weekend?  Stu Radnedge spoke to Bescot Banter columnist Scott Brotherton (who you can follow on Twitter, here: www.twitter.com/@ScottBrothertn) to find out more…

"Well, where to start with Walsall? 

I suppose with the fact that things been far from perfect at the Banks's Stadium so far!  It took until the seventh league game for Dean Smith's men merely to register a win, albeit a convincing one, against an underwhelming Preston side.

Things have begun to look slightly more promising after that home victory, culminating in an impressive 3-0 triumph over Doncaster last Saturday.  As a fan you never want to have the league leaders on the horizon. But after two home wins, including six goals, the Saddlers are beginning to build some momentum. It's as good a time as ever for them to face the Robins.

Barring any injuries, I would expect an unchanged team from the win over Doncaster. James Baxendale really took his chance out on the wing, scoring the opener, and young Reece Flanagan also played well alongside captain Adam Chambers in the middle of the park.  The manager may opt to draft in Mal Benning (wing) or Billy Clifford (centre-midfield) but these are likely to be the only changes if indeed there are any.

It was a difficult summer for Walsall's frontline. They lost their top scorer Craig Westcarr, as well as influential wingers Febian Brandy and Milan Lalkovic. But the inspired signing of striker Tom Bradshaw has been the perfect antidote.  Bradshaw has netted five times in eight league starts and is undoubtedly the danger-man as far as City are concerned. The former Shrewsbury man is an instinctive finisher, with the majority of his goals coming from first-touches inside the area.  It is not just the goals but his effort for the team that sets Bradshaw apart from the crowd. The 22-year-old's energy and work rate are first-class. He constantly puts the opposition's back four under pressure and has the engine to keep running all game. Only this week, Dean Smith described him as a 'manager's dream' and Bristol City will need to keep tabs on the busy striker.

The defence has been Walsall's other major plus point. In 2013/14 they conceded just 49 goals, 18 fewer than the Robins, with only their lack of goals at the other end preventing a play-off push.  The solid defence has continued where it left off this season, especially since the resigning of last year's club captain Andy Butler. The no-nonsense centre-back has had a turbulent time at Sheffield United after joining them in the summer, so the Saddlers have him back on loan for a month.

This means that, aside from new right-back Jim O'Connor, they are back to the defence that was so impressive last season. It seems to be working - Walsall have only conceded ten in ten games and that includes a 4-0 blip at Rochdale.

Injuries are no longer such a big issue but the Saddlers are still without midfielder Sam Mantom. The 2013/14 Player of the Season has been out since July with knee ligament damage. Youngsters Flanagan and Clifford have done well in his absence, but Mantom's passing range and shooting ability make him a key player and he has been missed.

Bristol City may have double the number of Walsall's points at this early stage, but it might surprise you that I would fancy the Saddlers to win regardless of form or injuries. The reason is that they always show a certain spark when playing against the top teams. You should never take them lightly.

They have the capacity to, and regularly have, caused upsets in League One that you wouldn't really have thought possible. Take last year. Wolves tore through the league and became Champions with 103 points, but somehow lost 1-0 at the Molineux to Walsall. Peterborough were also stunned by the Saddlers last season as they were well beaten 2-0.

It goes back quite a while. I can remember when they held on for an unbelievable 1-0 win over Southampton the year they were promoted. The Saints team included Lallana, Lambert and Oxlade-Chamberlain so that victory was something of a miracle!

In terms of style of play, you should expect Walsall to stick to their passing game. The club's football philosophy hasn't altered with Dean Smith in charge - he is working on a long term project. The plan seems to have stalled a bit of late but the boss will still keep faith in his way of playing.

Youth development is another big part of Walsall FC. Working on a shoestring budget, the Saddlers rely on their academy and youngsters released from the bigger Midlands clubs. The side that beat Doncaster contained six players under the age of 23, including all of the front four.

The Robins definitely come as worthy favourites on Saturday and should be expected to win. I think they will dominate Walsall but it should be tough to breach a well-organised defence.  A repeat of City's thrilling 3-2 win at MK Dons is unlikely - this should be a low scoring game. However, if there is an early goal for the Steve Cotterill's men it will be hard for the Saddlers to respond."

My sincere thanks to Scott, Bescot Banter & Stu for an excellent preview of what should be another excellent match.


The Exiled Robin

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