Date: 12th October 2010 at 11:35pm
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While the Championship takes a back seat this week for international fixtures, Ipswich Town have probably been rather enjoying a well-earned break following a gruelling September programme. Seven matches in the space of 21 days was likely to prove a challenging proposition for any team, and for Roy Keane’s side – who have yet to truly convince everyone of their promotion potential – there were always likely to be some slip-ups.

Cast your mind back to before the last international break. At the end of August, Town had the proud honour of sitting joint-top of the table – on points, at least – with only Dave Jones’ Cardiff City and Neil Warnock’s QPR able to match their impressive start to the campaign. Now, with the page turned on September 2010, QPR and Cardiff still sit in the top two, but the Blues find themselves a little bit off the pace in fifth. QPR have left everyone in their wake having strode 6 points clear at the top as the division’s only unbeaten team, while Cardiff hang on to second albeit only 2 points ahead of Town.

Many have probably foreseen that QPR and Cardiff are likely to be the pace-setters this year. As such, any team that can keep up with them at all is hopefully in with a good chance of a place in next year’s Premier League. Despite the crammed schedule and the fairly thin squad, Town have so far managed to just hang in there on the Bluebird’s coat-tails, though doing so hasn’t exactly demanded top-notch results. Away draws at Portsmouth (0-0) and Scunthorpe (1-1), whilst not against the best opposition, were respectable enough results to maintain the unbeaten away run until the brick wall of Simon Church’s late winner handed the Blues their first away defeat at Reading as September drew to a close. However, also amongst the month’s trips was the hard-fought 2-1 victory over Millwall in the Carling Cup which earned the Blues a place in the 4th Round of the competition for the first time in 8 years – as well as hope of further progress after drawing a home tie to Northampton.

While away matches have made up the bulk of Town’s diet so far (8 of 13 matches in all competitions), the real meat has come from opposition visiting Portman Road. If QPR and Cardiff are anything to gauge Championship credentials by, one week in the middle of September proved a particularly appropriate indicator. Sadly, it demonstrated just how far ahead QPR have soared, in-form Jamie Mackie making the Blues look positively dreadful as Warnock’s team became the first to take three points from Ipswich with a crushing 3-0 victory. If Town had flopped in the face of the favourites however, they showed real character to come back with a deserved 2-0 triumph over Cardiff, even if Jones’ side were somewhat weakened by injuries. Indeed, with the exception of the QPR game, Portman Road is looking that little bit more ‘Fortress-y’ so far this campaign, with a 2-1 win over Leeds opening October to make it 3 wins from 5 and just 2 goals conceded – if you’re not counting Rangers’ visit, of course…!

All of this keeps Ipswich right where they want to be – in the mix. After two years of not reaching the playoff places at any stage, the Blues have so far only spent 4 days outside of them since this season began. To what therefore could this change of fortunes be credited?

What it hasn’t really relied upon is goals. To be blunt, the age old problem is still there, albeit its effects not quite so evident these days. Whilst 13 goals in 10 matches is far from the worst rate of return in the division, at 1.3 goals per game it is certainly not the best. QPR hold that accolade (among all their others) with 24 so far this campaign, while their closest competition in the scoring stakes is, bizarrely, 4th-placed Watford. Indeed, Town’s tally ranks joint-14th in the division alongside the likes of Portsmouth and Leicester.

This less than impressive tally seems to be further indication that the challenge of replacing the firepower of the Bent & Kuqi days remains, over five years down the line. Indeed, the current strikeforce has between them managed just 5 of the Blues’ 13 league goals so far. Admittedly it is still early days; with Priskin still gathering his confidence, new man Scotland still getting back to fitness after little action last year and Wickham not long back from injury, the current men up front could yet come up with the goods. However, the tendency to waste far too many good chances has lingered on from last season – and arguably the season before that – with the disappointing results at Scunthorpe and Reading demonstrating the consequences. It says much that all of the other teams in the top six, and quite a few outside of it, have recorded at least one four-goal haul so far this season – something Ipswich haven’t managed since Magilton’s team beat Crystal Palace 4-1 in January 2009. Of course, we aren’t exactly expecting to be smashing half-a-dozen past everyone we play, but it is a far cry from the days of Joe Royle’s free-scoring promotion chasers, and it will be harder and harder for us to keep up with the top teams if we continue to miss chances.

Some would argue that the ongoing lack of finishing quality demonstrates a need for further additions at the front of the field (a view which seems pretty widely held among Blues fans, according to our recent poll). Whether such reinforcements are likely to materialise is debatable – having signed Scotland back in August, Keane’s progress in the loan market appears to have been severely limited despite plenty of rumoured targets and negotiations, with Tottenham’s Jake Livermore the only man as yet to have come in during the current window. Livermore certainly added some attacking potential in Town’s last outing, setting Scotland up for the opener against Leeds, while Livermore’s old team-mate Andros Townsend has also impressed with his pace going forward. However, if reports are to be believed, any further additions between now and Christmas are more likely to come further back.

Perhaps it is interesting to note therefore that Town’s saving grace – and the main reason why our scoring record has not proved costly so far – has been the defence. Considering the number of injury problems within the backline with Damien Delaney, Darren O’Dea, Shane O’Connor and Mark Kennedy all having spells on the sidelines, the players that have been available any given week have proved remarkably solid. In particular, the partnership developing between internationals Gareth McAuley and Tommy Smith has been very promising, while Jaime Peters continues to gain experience in the full-back position. This has all been helped further by the undoubtedly imposing presence of Marton Fulop in goal, a keeper who at this level Town are surely privileged to possess.

The result of this strengthening at the back has been significant to the success of Keane’s team this campaign. Town’s miserly defence has conceded just 9 goals in their 10 league matches, a rate of 0.9 per game. Only QPR (3 conceded), Cardiff and Burnley (both 8) have conceded fewer, while Reading and Nottingham Forest have matched the Blues. This is a major improvement on this time last year when the embarrassing 4-0 thrashing by Newcastle had contributed to Ipswich leaking an absurd 22 goals. More significantly, the number of goals conceded after 10 games this year is lower than that of any of the last 8 seasons Ipswich have spent in the second-tier since relegation in 2002. It seems, therefore, that maybe we have actually learned something in that time!

In sum, the current state of affairs leaves Ipswich fans with some cause for concern, but greater cause for optimism. The lack of convincing firepower might continue to cost us on occasions and is unlikely to see us manage much of an impressive goal difference – indeed, the current margin of +4 is the joint-lowest in the top six (tied, regretfully, with Norwich!) whilst QPR have set the pace at the top with an astonishing +21. However, a defence as tight as this should ensure that this difference does not tip into the negative figures – and much more importantly, it should ensure that further points continue to be won. At the current rate of accumulation, Town could be setting themselves towards a final tally of 82 points. And while such a statistical calculation is rather simplistic and meaningless at this stage, it does offer hope that Town might already have enough to keep up with the Joneses after all…

Darren Campbell

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