The first league game of any season is always something of an unknown, yet for the majority of football fans up and down the country it is that uncertainty that holds so much of the excitement of an opening day. Writing a match preview therefore is somewhat difficult given a lack of recent matches to base opinions on, although the shifting of the League Cup 1st round to inaugurate the season does help a little. Nonetheless, let’s look ahead to this weekend’s curtain-raiser and see what The New Den has in store for Blackpool.
1. The Build-Up
Blackpool 1-2 Morecambe
Before the Capital One Cup tie, the mood around Bloomfield Road had been fairly buoyant. Most fans were optimistic in expecting a strong campaign given that most of last season’s side had been kept intact, bar the departures of loan players and those on short-term contracts – Roman Bednar and Lomana Lua Lua. Keith Southern had left but plenty of midfielders had come in to bolster the ranks. The majority still felt ‘Pool were short of a couple of strikers, but other than that, the atmosphere was positive.
Ian Holloway picked a safe team against the Shrimps, opting not to include any of his new acquisitions and instead rely on his experienced group. A rare Stephen Crainey mistake just five minutes into the game gifted Morecambe the lead and the match barely improved thereafter. Holloway, clearly not impressed with the performance of Ludo Sylvestre, introduced Elliot Grandin for his countryman at half-time, yet before long Blackpool saw their deficit doubled when Morecambe split the home side’s defence wide open – television pictures suggest the linesman was correct not to raise his flag.
Blackpool scrambled to get back in the game, Ian Evatt being deployed as an emergency centre forward highlighting the need to reinforcements in this part of the pitch. With around 10 minutes to go, Blackpool did pull one goal back through Alex Baptiste to set up a frenetic finale, but couldn’t find the breakthrough with Matt Phillips being denied by the post for the second time in the match,
All in all, it didn’t exactly provide the best warm-up for the start of the season. ‘Pool looked like a team going through the motions – the first half in particular – and the visitors were good value for the win. Morecambe rode their luck at times, as any lower league side to away to a team two divisions above them will need to in order to progress, but they missed some good chances of their own too which could have made the score look even more embarrassing for Blackpool.
Millwall 2-2 Crawley Town (Crawley won 4-1 on penalties)
The consolation from a Blackpool perspective is that this weekend’s opponents didn’t exactly have things all their own way either, as Millwall too crashed out to lower league opposition at home. Millwall had to come from behind twice in order to take Crawley to extra time – goals from Darren Ward and Shaun Batt for the hosts. However, with neither team able to find a winner in 120 minutes, it went to spot-kicks and the League One new boys emerged victorious.
Kenny Jackett had named a strong side for the match – essentially his first team, injuries and international duty notwithstanding. However, the inability to beat Crawley in normal time could hamper the Lions. Millwall could well go into this somewhat leggy having not only played two days later than the Seasiders, but also playing for 120 minutes before the season has even really begun.
2. How Blackpool Will Line Up
If Blackpool had eased past Morecambe, then Holloway’s team selection could not have been more straightforward. As it happens, the defeat throws up quite a few questions in a number of areas. For instance Holloway was quoted post-match as saying “Craig Cathcart will be rubbing his hands and thinking he must have a chance now.” If Cathcart was brought in, then Neal Eardley is the most obvious choice to miss out, as the former Oldham man has swiftly become the target of some fans before the league season has even begun.
The other main position to be contested is in midfield. Angel Martinez and Barry Ferguson look certain to start, but who gets the final place in that area is unclear. Sylvestre appears to have given up his place with his first half performance against Morecambe, so his replacement Grandin should be favourite to get the nod. The rest of the side should pick itself, as illustrated below.
While Holloway’s comments suggest the potential for more wholesale changes – “I wanted to start with the players I had last year. I did that and now I owe no-one anything” was another statement the manager made – I suspect he will largely stick with the tried and tested. There is a distinct danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and panicking after one undercooked cup defeat could result in a unnecessarily unsettled start to the campaign. The make-up of the bench is anyone’s guess, but Kevin Phillips could be fit enough to take one of the seven spots. Elsewhere some of the new signings should be available to make their league debuts from the bench, but given the size of the squad it’s hard to predict who will be left at home. Holloway would no doubt like more attacking options, but elsewhere there is plenty of cover.
In terms of style of play, the aim will be for a mix between short, sharp passing and swift counter-attacks. The inclusion of Ferguson and Angel should provide the defence with more cover, as demonstrated by the number of clean sheets Blackpool achieved towards the end of last season when these two were paired up. Tom Ince and Matt Phillips will likely start as inverted wingers, with the option of switching if things aren’t quite working. Gary Taylor-Fletcher will be key to linking the whole system together, and he needs to combine well with Elliot Grandin in a similar fashion to the partnership he struck up with Stephen Dobbie.
3. The Millwall Perspective
For the inside track on this weekend’s action, I asked a Millwall fan for his opinions on how the Lions are shaping up this season, how their summer recruitment has gone, and his prediction…
Last season was a weird one for us. Blackpool managed to catch us at the tail end of two good runs of wins when they played us effectively killing us in our stride. We started the Championship season believing that fringe and loan players would fill the Steve Morison void and we were wrong. By the time we played you at The Den we had fully settled and were well clear of the relegation zone we hovered above for the majority of the season. That’s largely thanks to signings Kenny Jackett had made.
Andy Keogh signed from Wolves in January seemed to be the steal of the season. Not only did he bang in 10 goals in 17 appearances, he showed that he was willing to battle to the final whistle in the middle of the park. However, a large part of his success was due to him linking up with Tottenham loanee Harry Kane. Kane has now returned to his parent club and we’ve been told that he’s no longer available so the task for Millwall is to find a partner for what is shaping up to be our best player we’ve had at the club. The ideal partner would be Darius Henderson.
Despite spending most of his time at home last season with injuries, he managed to chalk up 19 goals. But the issue is that he doesn’t seem to be able to link up with Keogh who I think will start the season alongside Shaun Batt. Batt is relatively unknown in this league after picking up a serious injury in pre-season two years ago. He looked like a potential star before and seems to look even stronger since coming back. In the pre-season games I’ve seem him play he’s been a fantastic complement to Andy Keogh’s playing style and the two seem to connect.
Our midfield looks exciting this season. James Henry is always a threat and when Josh Wright and Jimmy Abdou are keeping a potential Premier League player of the future, Liam Trotter, on the bench, you can see how strong we can be in this area. Our weak point was out on the left wing, which seems to have been sorted with new signing Chris Taylor. He’s being backed up by fellow new boy and left back Scott Malone. Our two biggest holes seem to have been filled and finally we have a couple of left side players who have a bit of flare in attack.
Our main concern at the start of the season is with the centre of defence. Both first-teamers Paul Robinson and Shane Lowry have missed most of pre-season with injury and we played our friendlies with a makeshift paring of Jack Smith, who usually plays right back, and new signing Karleigh Osborne. Osborne hasn’t had a great pre-season. He looks slow, shambolic and could be a real liability against a Championship side. In light of this Kenny Jackett is looking to make a final signing before the season starts and at the time of writing it looks likely that Danny Shittu might be joining the ranks (Ed – the former ‘Pool loanee has now signed a one year deal).
As ever with season openers, we’re not quite sure what to expect. With so many new faces this makes things even more difficult to predict. One thing’s for sure, a draw would be a good result for us.
4. Predicting An Outcome
Opening day results weren’t Blackpool’s strong point for a number of years, but under Ian Holloway the Seasiders are unbeaten on the first day of the season – a draw away at QPR was followed by away wins at Wigan and Hull. Millwall is a clichéd ‘tough place to go’, yet with ‘Pool’s ambitions this season, three points has to be the aim against a side tipped by many to struggle.
That said, getting off the mark with a draw would provide a decent enough platform going into two home games in the opening week. ‘Pool should have no problem getting on the scoresheet, but there will be concerns at the other end with the defending on show in the Capital One Cup. I would anticipate a score draw – Millwall 1-1 Blackpool.