In the mix at the halfway point, winning ugly and continuing strong home form - Matt Scrafton's verdict on Blackpool's hard-earned victory against Northampton
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After a summer of upheaval, the Seasiders claimed just seven points from their opening nine league games. Six of those games ended in defeat.
It’s been an impressive turnaround from Neil Critchley and his men, who now find themselves six points off the top six with a game in hand.
But we shouldn’t be too surprised. There’s been significant investment in the squad and, even when things were conspiring against Pool at the start of the campaign, it was clear to see there was still plenty of quality on show.
If Blackpool are going to sustain a genuine challenge, chances are their home form will be key.
Tuesday night’s hard-earned three points against Northampton Town continued their strong run at Bloomfield Road, where they’ve not tasted defeat since October.
Granted, they’ve not played as many home games as initially expected due to their FA Cup run and postponements, but they’ve still won six of their last seven on home turf in all competitions.
With seven of their next 11 games coming at home, the Seasiders have every chance of improving on their current position of 12th and putting themselves right into the mix.
For that to be the case, Blackpool need to be beating sides like Northampton. That’s no disrespect to the Cobblers, who did provide a threat, but they were limited and will do well to avoid relegation straight back to the fourth tier.
Beating Northampton and Wigan back-to-back might not send shockwaves through the division, but it’s imperative Blackpool are able to collect points against sides at the bottom. That’s something they struggled to do earlier in the season, the losses to AFC Wimbledon, Bristol Rovers and Shrewsbury Town the most obvious low points.
So to score seven goals against Northampton and Wigan, keep two clean sheets and record consecutive victories shows clear signs of improvement.
This latest win wasn’t as straight-forward as it perhaps could have been. Pool were made to work hard for their tenth victory of the campaign and had to dig in and show a different side to their game.
They did it well though, repelling Northampton’s long throws and set-pieces and enjoying an element of control for the lion’s share of proceedings.
They lacked a little bit of composure on the ball at times but, in fairness, it was a frenetic encounter. It was blood and thunder, but the Seasiders were well up for the battle.
Critchley’s side came firing out of the blocks early on in what was an entertaining, end-to-end first 15 minutes or so.
They almost opened the scoring inside the opening 60 seconds when Jordan Thorniley, starting his third game on the spin, stabbed narrowly wide from Sullay Kaikai’s dangerous free-kick.
Blackpool had to be careful at the other end though, as Northampton’s Ryan Watson, who was their main threat with his direct, mazy runs into the box, saw a volley on the turn well saved by Chris Maxwell.
Ellis Simms, starting his first game for the club fresh from his late double off the bench against Wigan, looked dangerous early on and saw a low shot well saved by Cobblers keeper Jonathan Mitchell.
Given Northampton’s direct style and their height advantage, it was somewhat of a surprise to see Blackpool take the lead from a 12th-minute corner.
Kaikai’s delivery was partially cleared back to him, the winger standing up a floated cross that beat Mitchell and his defenders to fall kindly for Marvin Ekpiteta, who scrambled it home at the back post through a sea of bodies.
Remarkably, Ekpiteta now has two goals in as many games having failed to find the back of the net prior to last week’s win at the DW Stadium. The centre-back deserved the goal for another fine display.
At this point, you were looking for Blackpool to build on their early breakthrough and enjoy a spell of sustained pressure, but it didn’t really happen.
Instead, the game became a scrappy, stodgy affair, with neither side able to build up too much momentum. This is where Blackpool had to roll their sleeves up and fight.
With a central midfield partnership of Kevin Stewart and Kenny Dougall, that isn’t a problem for the Seasiders. Stewart enjoyed an impressive first start for the club while Dougall was his usual combative self on his return from Covid, albeit a little rusty which led to him coming off early on during the second-half.
Stewart could have put the game to bed on the hour-mark, when he clattered the post from close range (although he claims the keeper got a touch!).
It followed a lightning-fast counter, Kaikai leading the charge before unselfishly laying it into the path of Stewart who was denied by the woodwork.
Why Northampton opted to leave no players back from long throws and set pieces against a side that likes to break quickly, I’m not so sure…
The hosts survived a late scare two minutes from time when Bryn Morris was left unmarked, but could only head straight at Maxwell from a teasing, inswinging cross.
Thankfully Blackpool’s nerves were settled in stoppage-time when Jerry Yates, who had endured something of a frustrating night in the final third despite his non-stop pressing and closing down, produced a moment of magic to make sure of the win.
Unleashed down the left by Maxwell’s superb quick throw, the in-form striker – who now has 10 goals in his last 18 games – showed dazzling footwork to beat a couple of defenders before shifting the ball past Mitchell, before finding the back of the net from a tight angle.
It was a stunning way to end what was a fairly ugly affair, but Blackpool won’t be too concerned about that if the wins continue to come their way.
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