Defensive weakness could well prove costly for Rovers

Forest Green Rovers will not lack incentive when they renew acquaintance with Sky Bet Two rivals Exeter City in Tuesday’s Emirates FA Cup second round replay at St James’ Park.

The stake is a potentially money- spinning home tie against Premier League West Bromwich Albion in the New Year.

Rovers chairman Dale Vince and his Board of directors will be acutely aware of the potential financial benefits of hosting top-flight opposition in a tie that will demand the attention of TV bosses seeking the possibility of a major giant-killing act.

Despite the pressing need for the ‘little club on the hill’ to accumulate points in the on-going quest to retain their hard-won Football League status, it seems inconceivable that manager Mark Cooper and his players will not prioritise victory over the Grecians in the world’s most famous domestic club knockout competition.

Certainly, Rovers will make the relatively short trip along the M5 confident in their ability to finish the job, having been less than a minute away from winning last week’s first meeting, which finished in a thrilling 3-3 draw at the New Lawn.

But the Green Devils will have to improve their performance in one particular aspect if they are to get the better of a Grecians side that will surely fancy their chances of progressing in front of their home support. Bedevilled by defensive frailties since stepping up from the National League earlier this year, Rovers cannot afford any continuation of the trend that has seen them ship soft goals from crosses played into their penalty area.

Having done their homework beforehand, Exeter exploited this long-standing weakness in the first tie to help themselves to three goals that were all equally preventable.

A lack of conviction at the heart of Forest Green’s defence was evident as the hosts passed up a golden opportunity to progress at the first attempt.

Cooper acknowledged the prob- lem when he commented: “We need goalkeepers who can come and punch the ball and defenders who can head it. The goals we gave away were criminal.”

Conceding goals from crosses has become a recurring theme this sea- son and, having tried to address the issue through selection and tactical tweaking, the manager has now reached the point whereby he feels he has little option other than to seek a remedy in the transfer market once the window opens in January.

Player of the month Christian Doidge

Whatever their deficiencies at the back, Rovers will always back themselves to win games while star striker Christian Doidge continues to enjoy his current rich vein of form. Last season’s top-scorer has picked up where he left off this term and his brace against Exeter took his tally for the campaign to 13 in all competitions.

With a mere three weeks of the year remaining, the 25-year-old Welshman is the only player in the four English professional leagues to have scored more goals in 2017 than Tottenham and England centre forward Harry Kane.

Scoring at better than a goal every two games, Doidge has found the back of the net on 33 occasions this year, four more than his more illustrious rival from North London.

An impressive return of eight goals in his last six outings has alerted scouts from a number of League One clubs, some of whom might be prepared to declare their interest formally when the transfer window reopens.

While Doidge continues to act as an attacking fulcrum for Rovers, Cooper’s side will fancy their chances of defeating any team in the basement division and Exeter will be well aware of the clear and present threat to their Cup ambitions posed by a striker who is enjoying the best form of his career.

Oxford United tried and failed to sign Doidge last summer and, given his goal-scoring exploits this term, it seems reasonable to expect other potential suitors to beat a track to Cooper’s door in the New Year.

If and when that happens, they will find that Rovers hold all the cards, having persuaded their leading marksman to pen a new three-year deal during the close season.

Doidge is a playing at the height of his powers and, as such, will not shy away from the challenge of test- ing himself against Premier League opposition on a one-off basis should the opportunity arise.

But for that to happen in the near future, it is incumbent upon his team-mates to find a means of keeping cleansheets, starting in Devon on Tuesday.

This article first appeared in the Independent. To get the latest articles when they appear, buy the print edition every Sunday or subscribe to our online edition HERE.