The awkward form continues and the title is turning into a dogfight. Whilst Weymouth et al may harbour ambitions of the title; in reality the chances of them overhauling the 14 points that would be needed to overturn the top two are limited.

We should not beat ourselves up about this. Walsall have had a similar run of form to us in League 2 and have a 7 point lead. It’s Dagenham‘s quality, not our dip in form, that means the title is still so open. It’s true our form isn’t good but Dagenham themselves have hit a rough couple of games.

It looks like we’ll go to the turn of the season on top and there are reasons to be cheerful; we’ve played two more away games than we have home, Dagenham’s fixtures have worked out the other way around. We’ve played all but three of the top 10 away, and meet two of the other three before Valentine’s Day, and taken points from all but one. The Daggers are set to lose a couple of key players in the transfer window, which is set to put considerable strain on their already small squad. I maintain that March is the key month for the season.

Nobody would complain about an upturn in away form, which strengthens the argument for taking the Lewes game seriously. We might as well take the Trophy seriously; arrogantly fielding a weakened team misses the opportunity to rediscover our rhythm and there is no point in limping along from round to round until we meekly slip out. I think we need to go out to win the trophy, even if it isn’t our primary objective.

Sticking to the knitting

Strange games happen in a season, and its not really possible to draw any conclusions from the Stevenage game in the context of the rest of the season. What is a slight concern is that Jim Smith‘s decision making has become foggier. He seems to have been genuinely spooked by the Gravesend result and seems to be looking for a new winning formula at a time when we need to hold firm.

Against Tamworth he dropped Pettefer and we lost dynamism in the middle of the park, today, he moved Andy Burgess upfront and Barry Quinn into midfield. But this simply served to expose our otherwise miserly defence.

He’s clearly concerned about the midfield, and has said that he’ll look to strengthen in the transfer window. I have reservations about both Hargreaves, who lacks control, and Hutchinson, who lacks consistency. But both have shown to be more than capable in this division. My belief is that its the lack of Brevett and inconsistency of Anaclet to supply balls into the box that is putting unnecessary pressure on the midfield and arresting Burgess‘ creativity.

However, whilst Smith may be right to say that he wants to strengthen in this department; there is still too much quality in the squad to mess around with the system that was working so well earlier in the season.

The run up to January is hard enough; eight away games and just four home games between October 3rd and Boxing day. This is as big a factor in the our current form as anything. We need to hold firm until January. There’s opportunity to put clear space between us and the rest in March when we play six home games and just three away. In fact, this is when the title is likely to be decided; as we play both Dagenham and Burton before the month is out.

With the fixtures against us, we may concede the lead before the New Year but the job between now and January has to be to stick to what we know and pick up the points where we can.

Lambs to the slaughter

I’m not a cricket fan, I share a view that its all a bit slow, goes on for days and always seems to end in a draw. However, I wasn’t alone in obtaining a temporary membership of the cricket fan club during the 2005 Ashes.

There was one moment, at Edgbaston, I think, which was a microcosm of great cricket. England were toiling and a wicket seemed a distant wish. Flintoff bowled an over which increased in pressure with every ball, he conceded runs whilst he did it but finished the over with two wickets and a momentum that turned the game on its head. In football, conceding goals is considered cataclysmic, in cricket you concede runs for the greater good.

It reminded me of yesterday’s winning penalty. Whether the foul itself was a penalty or not is disputable, but the pressure that had built up to that moment made a penalty almost inevitable.

I’m not the kind of person who will make claims about Oxford having the greatest fans in the world but Oxblogger’s brother-in-law is a Tamworth fan and observed the way Oxford fans appeal for everything; “like Liverpool in the seventies”. The pressure put on the referee by the play itself and the fans was as big a component on the award as the challenge on Pettefer.

Difficult to know whether this is unfair, or whether like in cricket, it’s an oft overlooked depth of a game. It’s certainly something Jim Smith seems aware of it; several players have remarked that they don’t need to win games in the first five minutes, it’s been repeated on a number of ocassions, and can only have come from one man.

Grave end

Whoever it was who invented the league table could not have anticipated the genius of his concept. It seems that no matter how many games are played in any league season; the title is rarely resolved until very late and even then after more than forty games, by a margin of not much more than a couple of wins. That’s a dodgy offside, pulled hamstring or divot in the turf between victory and nothing.

A league defeat, an off day, at some point, was inevitable. Notions of invincibility had been nonsensical. We were always going to be at our most vulnerable either playing a lesser team or, as in this case, straight after our FA Cup exit. Don’t be surprised if we have an uncomfortable game against Tamworth on Saturday, or another defeat in the coming weeks. A stumble was, at some point going to come, and although I don’t think it’s over, I still expect us to recover a rhythm that should take us to the title.

We’re not going to win every game by five goals and the championship won’t be secured by February. We’re two points clear and therefore on schedule for the title by five points. Now is not the time to panic.