As is always the case at this time of year, after waiting months for competitive football to return, you suddenly have three games within a week. That is no different this term.
Having started the 2023/24 season on the road, Bristol Rovers play in front of their own fans for the first time this campaign as they host Barnsley in League One this afternoon.
With the fixture sandwiched by trips to Portsmouth and Ipswich Town as well as Charlton Athletic and Cambridge United, Rovers haven’t been handed an easy start with the vast majority of their first month coming on the road.
However, in both of their tests thus far, they’ve shown promising signs as well as plenty of room for improvement, drawing 1-1 in the league at Pompey before being knocked out of the Carabao Cup following a 2-0 defeat at Championship side Ipswich.
In Barnsley, Joey Barton’s side take on a team that narrowly missed out on an immediate return to the second tier last season, losing the play-off final to Sheffield Wednesday in extra time. They are also under new management with Scotsman Neil Collins coming over from the United States to fill the vacancy left by Michael Duff who joined Swansea City.
Additionally, the Tykes won their league opener 7-0 at home to Port Vale last weekend before being knocked out of the Carabao Cup by League Two Tranmere Rovers on Tuesday night on penalties following a 2-2 draw at Oakwell.
With coach Andy Mangan leading the side for one final time as Barton’s ban comes to an end, few changes from the team that started at Ipswich are expected with the Gas making just three alterations from the side that started at Fratton Park last Saturday.
Here is how Bristol Live expects Rovers to line up.
Goalkeeper and defence
The fact that James Belshaw didn’t get the nod to start in the cup on Wednesday was a surprise after losing his number one credentials to loanee Matt Cox with the youngster starting, and impressing, at Portsmouth.
However, Cox maintained his place as Mangan and co. look to give the 20-year-old the chance to win minutes and integrated himself into the team.
Two of the three changes at Ipswich came at centre-back with Tristan Crama and Connor Taylor replacing James Wilson and James Connolly. Crama was excellent on his Rovers debut and we expect him to start alongside Wilson at the Mem.
Taylor hasn’t had much time to settle back into the club having signed permanently last Thursday whilst Connolly will still be knocking on the door for a start given that he’s the only currently available centre-back that was at the club last season.
Crama and Wilson paired up the last time the Gas played at home in the 2-0 friendly win over Chesterfield two weeks ago and looked excellent. With the former on the left and the latter on the right, it could prove to be a promising partnership.
On the outside, with limited options still available, full-backs Lewis Gordon and Luca Hoole retain their places after good starts to the season.
There could be some argument for a change with Antony Evans yet to start a match this season but, realistically, there isn’t much need to change the pairing of Sam Finley and Grant Ward.
Defensive midfield is probably the area that needs addressing the most before the transfer window closes with options still rather light but the duo are forming a decent partnership with Finley in particular vital to the side given his experience and presence as captain.
Additionally, Luke McCormick got his first minutes of the season off the bench at Ipswich but doesn’t seem ready to start a match having trained for just one day before the cameo at Portman Road. As for Josh Grant, he will have to be eased back into the side given his track record with injuries.
There is likely to be at least one change in the front line but, realistically, it seems as though the coaching staff know their preferred combination at this moment in time.
Out of the forward four, Luke Thomas has looked the best combined over the two matches, scoring the goal at Portsmouth and being the biggest threat in grey at Ipswich.
Jevani Brown has shown his quality too and will be keen to get on the scoresheet on his home debut, as will Aaron Collins who will undoubtedly be targeting, although difficult to achieve, an improvement on last season’s tally of 16 goals and 12 assists.
John Marquis comes back into the side for Scott Sinclair with his presence felt after coming on at half-time in Suffolk. His hold up and link up play as well as his physiciality and experience are invaluable when leading the line. Rovers have played their best stuff this season with Marquis on the pitch.
Two changes from Ipswich and one from Portsmouth seems justifiable at this stage of the season. Once more transfers come in, the decision making might start to get harder. Let’s see at 2pm.
Bristol Rovers (4-4-2): Cox; Hoole, Wilson, Crama, Gordon; Ward, Finley, Thomas, Collins; Marquis, Brown