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Top on goal difference, unbeaten in eight, 20 points from a possible 24… the start to this season couldn’t have gone much better for Ipswich Town.
We’ve been here before, of course, in both 2019/20 and 2020/21 – and we know what happened next.
As I keep saying though, it *feels* different this time around. On and off the pitch, the foundations look much more solid.
When Ipswich won 1-0 at Fleetwood back in October 2019, manager Joey Barton questioned whether there was enough substance behind the Blues’ burst out of the blocks. He was ultimately proven correct. This week, after his Bristol Rovers team were seen off 2-0 at Portman Road, he admitted Town had ‘showed why they are everyone’s tip for promotion’.
Various progress boxes have been ticked in recent weeks. Be more ruthless against newly-promoted sides – check (Forest Green and Bristol Rovers). Dig in and ground out results on the road against physical opposition – check (Burton and Accrington).
All that said, there is still understandably a nagging doubt in the backs of many supporters’ minds.
After more than a decade of false dawns, cynicism is understandably deep-rooted and difficult to fully shake off.
A little voice whispers ‘look at who we’ve played so far’ (five of the six wins have come against teams currently in the bottom seven).
It irritant would then highlight Town’s abysmal record against the division’s better better teams over the previous three seasons (v final top 6: P35 W6 D13 L16, v final top 8: P47 W7 D18 L22, v teams that finished above: P54 W9 D21 L24).
Sheffield Wednesday finished last season like a train, winning 15 of their final 22 games to finish fourth before losing to Sunderland in the play-off semi-finals.
Since then, you’d have to say an already impressive squad has been upgraded.
Joe Wildsmith, Sam Hutchinson, Massimo Luongo, Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and Saido Berahino may have departed, but in has come David Stockdale, Michael Ihiekwe, Mark McGuinness, Reece James, Will Vaulks, Tyreeq Bakinson, Michael Smith, Mallik Wilks and Alex Mighten.
In midfield magician Barry Bannan, the Owls have, in my opinion, the third-tier’s best player. It’s a squad packed a wealth of Championship experience and promotion know-how.
The pressure is on manager Darren Moore to find the right formula. Eight games in and it looks, from the outside at least, like he’s still searching for that.
Yes, they’ve beaten MK Dons, Charlton, Bolton, Forest Green and Morecambe, but they’ve also dropped points against Portsmouth, Peterborough and Barnsley.
A 2-0 home loss to the latter, in a South Yorkshire derby, prompted some soul-searching. The system switched from 3-5-2 to 4-2-2-2 for Tuesday night’s midweek trip to Morecambe in order to accommodate fit-again striker Smith and deadline day signing Mighten, a livewire attacker on loan from Nottingham Forest. Wednesday had 29 shots on goal at the Mazuma Stadium and, eventually, sealed the win thanks to three late goals (two coming from corners).
Will that be enough for them to rediscover their moji in front of a big home crowd? Or could the atmosphere get edgy? We’ll see
There’s probably only one real question mark when it comes to the Town team – who replaces Cameron Burgess in defence?
The centre-back requires surgery to facial fractures after being caught by a knee when executing a thunderous slide tackle in midweek. It’s a cruel blow for a player who, having had to bide his time, was hitting top form.
It’s also bad timing for Town losing their most dominant player in the air.
“They have outstanding set-piece delivery through Barry Bannan and they have a very high number of 6ft plus players who are good at attacking balls in the air,” said McKenna.
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“We know that physically this is a big challenge. The physical stature of Sheffield Wednesday is a really big point for them. They have an advantage, in that respect, over every team in the league.
“But we have a different type of athleticism in our group and we have to use that and make it the type of game that will stand out in.”
Dominic Ball was the man who replaced Burgess for the latter stages against Bristol Rovers, but that was only because both George Edmundson and Richard Keogh hadn’t been included on an attack-heavy bench. You’d imagine one of the latter two will step in for this game.
I’ll also chuck in a wildcard option… Greg Leigh. He’s looked really good as Leif Davis’ left-sided understudy so far this season and made a real impact off the bench in midweek. The 27-year-old has played in a back three before and his aerial strength might be needed.