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Saturday, 31 January 2015, 15:00

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The chasing pack

Hats off to bright young boss Chris Wilder whose Oxford side sit top of a ridiculously close League Two table.

Last Updated: 13/12/13 at 17:56

Wild thing: the Oxford chief has got his men firing

Wild thing: the Oxford chief has got his men firing

Wilder has profited from continuity, keeping the nucleus of his squad from last term and doing the vast majority of his transfer dealings early on in pre-season, thus allowing any new additions more time to bed in and gel with their team-mates.

The U's special Constable, James, has once again delivered the goods in terms of goals and his pairing with ex-Reading star Dave Kitson has proved a real handful for their opposition.

There are many misconceptions about the money available at Oxford but the reality is that Wilder's budget is outside the top 10, which underlines just what a brilliant job he is doing.

The Yellows have two excellent widemen and Chris will have everything crossed whilst trying to keep hold of exciting Fulham loanee Ryan Williams; the 20-year-old has produced mazy dribbles, terrific crosses and four goals in his 18 appearances making a loan extension a priority.

However, Oxford have many promotion-chasing rivals, including:

Chesterfield

The Spireites, one of five teams looking to close the one-point gap on Oxford, have a plethora of talented players, with Paul Cook's men thrilling at the start of the season and threatening to run away from their rivals. Cook's newly-assembled squad won seven of their eight games, scoring 14 goals and keeping six clean sheets, but they have won just two of their last 11 to bring them crashing down to earth with a bump. Several players have struggled with injury, including talismanic chief creative force Gary Roberts, who is out for another month with a hamstring problem. This tricky period has included local derbies and fixtures against their main promotion rivals, so Cook will be looking to enter the New Year with a few confidence-building displays.

Southend

Phil Brown's boys have been the major movers over recent weeks, climbing into the third automatic-promotion spot on the back of seven wins, a draw and just two defeats in their last 10 games, and the start of that sequence saw them beat Oxford, Burton and Fleetwood, all teams who were above them at the time. The Shrimpers are very solid, earning eight clean sheets already, but they still have to hit the heights in the final third, though one player benefitting from Brown's appointment is winger Kevan Hurst, who after being a top assist man over recent seasons is now proving a real goal threat. Brilliant away form speaks volumes about the confidence oozing through the team at the moment, too.

Scunthorpe

Scunny sacked Brian Laws for a third time a few weeks ago after recording zero wins in three and, more poignantly, a cup defeat to bitter rivals Grimsby. Scunthorpe were five points off the top at the time and two points off the play-off places in 13th position but nine points from nine, including two away wins, has seen them climb up to fourth and just one point from the summit. The recalled Dave Syers has scored three in three, while ex-Wolves youngster Sam Winnall has five in his last eight and is keeping Chris Iwelumo on the bench. Plus, exciting starlet Hakeeb Adelakun could prove to be a game-changer for the Iron with his pace and trickery worrying defenders during his late cameos from the bench.

Rochdale

Keith Hill and the Spotland side are a match made in heaven as far as the Dale fans are concerned and they are one of the best footballing outfits in the division. However, Keith will be disappointed at the goals against column and one clean sheet in 10 - whilst conceding three against Portsmouth and Dagenham and being thumped 4-0 by Scunthorpe - will not sit well. Keith loves to entertain but will know that his team's chance of earning an automatic-promotion place will not be realised if their defending doesn't improve drastically. Hill has backed his team and apportioned some blame to refereeing decisions but ultimately if Dale take their eye off the ball they will be punished. In Scott Hogan, Peter Vincenti and Ian Henderson, they possess real quality but the away form must get better if they are to avoid a month of madness in the League Two play-offs.

Burton

Albion are one of the teams in the play-off places to have won seven out of the last 10 games. After suffering their effects of play-off heartache last term, Gary Rowett's group have awoken from their slumber and enter the festive period on the back of three 1-0 wins with three home games out of four before the turn of the year. Top scorer Adam McGurk's concussion is untimely as the striker/winger has been a revelation since his move from Tranmere; his pace and energy are pivotal to Burton's style of play but with Rene Howe, Billy Kee, Dominic Knowles fit and Michael Symes back in training, the Brewers' armoury looks potent. They will be looking to substantially increase their points tally before New Year's Day.

Fleetwood

Alongside Chesterfield, Town have invested heavily but wisely in their squad and have fine blend of youth and experience and players who have had successful promotion campaigns before. Recent defeats to Northampton and Accrington and a draw against high-flying Oxford means a paltry four points have been recorded from a possible 12 and the Cod Army have lost more games than any of their top-seven rivals. With that in mind, it may be a case of some of their players curbing their enthusiasm and remaining a bit more disciplined, and I feel Ryan Cresswell and Mark Roberts need to take more responsibility and talk to the guys in front of them in order to organise when the opposition overturn possession and break quickly. Going forward they have the pace and directness of Gareth Evans and the dribbling ability of Antoni Sarcevic, while any two of Jon Parkin, Jamille Matt and David Ball up front are a real force in this division, so can Graham Alexander find the right balance and, ultimately, the winning formula that leads to promotion?

With just over a third of the season gone, there is just a piece of fine tracing paper between the top 10 teams and with 81 points for each team to play for you can guarantee more ups and downs than a game of snakes and ladders. It promises to be one of the most closely-fought years in League Two's history, so please let me know what you think will happen...

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