By Matt Rowson
There's one topic of conversation in Cov-land this week, and that's goalkeepers. Or lack of. Or lack of those that are any cop.
The conversation arises because of an ill-timed red card meted out to on-loan Ian Bennett at home to Stoke City last weekend for handling outside the area - provoking a suspension which an optimistic and slightly desperate appeal failed to overturn this week. Experience does suggest that you've only a fifty-fifty chance of revoking these things when you have a cast-iron alibi proving that you were out of the country at the time, so debating a subjective judgment regarding an open goal (or not) never looked like a winner.
"Unfortunate timing" because Luke Steele, City first choice for much of the season, is also out with an injury and had been looking increasingly nervy in any case. Steele is one of nine loan signings that City have taken out this season - five of which are still at the club. Aren't there limits to these things? Anyway, with untried youngster Richard Brush also out, Scott Shearer has been recalled from his own loan at Rushden and Diamonds to plug the gap during Bennett's one-game ban. That the rights and wrongs of this decision given the circumstances merited some debate on City messageboards tells something about the esteem in which Shearer is held - an early bombardment might be in order. Wonder if Heidar's fit yet...
The fortunate aspect of Bennett's dismissal from Cov's point of view, if there can be one, is that it came against Stoke City, the most constipated side in the division and probably the side least capable of modifying their gameplan to accommodate the fact that their opponents were playing with a midfielder, Stephen Hughes, in goal for half the game... insert your own pun about lack of running around, must be good at something, and so forth here.
But as an aside, you have to wonder about strategies in this situation. Thinking back to 1987 and Villa Park... would we have been better off sticking a pair of gloves on Steve Terry and sending him out there as an extra centreback with the ability to pick the ball up or shove it over the bar if he got the chance? Twelve outfield players who knew their roles in their natural positions and a bloody-mindedness borne of adversity rather than a nervous ex-goalkeeping wine bar owner with the rest of the team apprehensive and primed to collapse if the situation proved as hopeless as feared? Okay, so a Cup Semi-Final would have been a lofty stage on which to experiment, but surely there's scope for City to adopt "rush goalie" for one game... another example of the playground game being tactically far advanced of the professional.
It's not entirely clear how Micky Adams will line his charges up in front of Shearer on Saturday, as the Sky Blues have fielded both a five-man and four-man defensive line-ups in recent weeks. Last Saturday saw an experienced two man central pairing of Adrian Williams and Steve Staunton cope admirably with Stoke's attack, although they might find Danny Webber, Hameur Bouazza and Chris Eagles ask more of their aging legs than Gifton, Michael Ricketts and Kenwyne Jones did at the weekend. Marcus Hall also comes back into consideration, having missed the Stoke game due to a gentleman's agreement made on Hall's free move from the Potters a fortnight ago. Hall impressed on the left of a central three at home to Wigan on his second City debut.
A further option may be Robert Page, needing no introduction, who signed for City following an unhappy spell in Cardiff and is recovering from a knee injury. Page won't be able to make next Saturday's game back in Cardiff due to another one of those gentleman's agreements and will be desperate for another run-out and welcome at the Vic, but the smart money is probably on him not being risked.
Andrew Whing is likely to line up at right back, with versatile nineteen year-old Pompey loanee Richard Duffy on the left in the absence of popular hamstring victim Stuart Giddings. Richard Shaw is also out with knee ligament damage.
In midfield, the ever-charming Stephen Hughes becomes the first of Vialli's paid-off mercenaries to make a return to Vicarage Road. He should play in the centre, with Mickey Doyle charging around to occasional effect alongside him. Claus Jørgensen has reappeared on the right hand side of midfield having generally failed to establish himself since arriving from his prolific spell at Bradford. Gary McSheffrey plays on the left, a withdrawal from a striking role which seems to have gone down well. Andy Morrell is another striker more recently deployed in midfield, but he's more likely to be on the bench. Cruncher Isaac Osbourne could join him there, whilst Graham Barrett and Neil Wood are further options. Christian Negouai's month loan from Manchester City expired during the week, but he spent most of it injured so Adams was hoping to extend his stay this week. Tim Sherwood, another ex-Hornet, is out for the season.
Up front, Micky Adams recently picked up former Leicester charge Trevor Benjamin on a free from Northampton, a fairly blunt instrument in an attacking battery that already features Dele Adebola and could still be added to before Saturday with Carl Asaba's elbows supposedly following Marcus Hall down from Stoke City. This would probably need to be precipitated by Stern John's mooted move to Sheffield United; the one-time almost Watford striker hasn't had a terribly happy time of it at Coventry, and although the goals are beginning to flow he seems set on a move. Eddie Johnson is another option, but the young Manchester United loanee hasn't found the net since October.
Coventry are in a precarious position but, like Tuesday night's opponents, have a corner to fight their way out of and can't be taken lightly. Saturday's clean sheet, albeit against Stoke, suggests a degree of fighting spirit that had seemingly been lacking earlier in the campaign. However, only Crewe have shipped more goals than Cov this season, and with a nervous keeper between the sticks, and necessarily brittle confidence, there's a soft underbelly there to be bludgeoned.