Southend v Walsall: another goalkeeping wonder-show?

Shrimper Daniel Bentley left for Brentford in the summer

These teams met in the Black Country at a similar stage last season when Daniel Bentley, then of Southend, put in one of the best goalkeeping performances this blog has ever seen. So good, he was applauded off the field by Walsall fans as well as travelling Shrimpers.

Sadly, a late Jordi Hiwula goal rendered his heroic efforts in vein and gave Walsall a narrow chance of automatic promotion. This time, Southend are the only team with the faintest chance of seeing Championship football next year, but even their credentials had been thrown into question after a 2-0 defeat at Bristol Rovers.

Phil Brown had stuck with the same, tiring team for a few weeks and that showed at the Memorial Ground, particularly in the first half. He made five changes for the midweek trip to Coventry and to his credit, his side did look fresher for it.

John White came in for ex-Saddler Jason Demetriou and added some defensive protection, including a firm block late on. On his return from suspension, Ryan Inniss did the basics well at centre-back alongside a classy Anton Ferdinand. Wide man Stephen McLaughlin, who had been out with an ankle problem, was named in the starting line-up for the first time in 2017 and looked back to his speedy, game-stretching best. Nile Ranger came in for Marc-Antoine Fortune and dominated at times alongside strike partner Theo Robinson, who offered more pace than the out-of-form Simon Cox.

So, did that performance present to us revamped Southend team, capable of making a late play-off charge? Or was it merely a reflection on the inadequacies of a doomed Coventry side? More evidence will come in Saturday’s hosting of Walsall, who have looked steadier since the turn of the year.

They would need to win almost every game to reach the estimated 6th place final points tally of 76, so it’s fair to say Tuesday’s 1-0 defeat to Fleetwood ended their play-off hopes. However, Jon Whitney felt they competed reasonably with one of the best teams in the league and the team has made significant strides.

Earlier in the season, their better results came in smash-and-grab performances against the top sides with goalkeeper Neil Etheridge often man-of-the-match. Now, we can see that centre-back Eoghan O’Connell has added some composure, though the Celtic loanee could be a big miss on Saturday. Right wing-back Jason McCarthy is getting better every game and his left-sided counter-part Joe Edwards continues to show boundless energy.

The two wing-backs do various sides of the game with equal efficiency. Firstly, they can be disciplined in the first half and deny opposing teams space in wide areas. Secondly, when gaps open up later on in games, they have the ambition to steal the ball and fly forward, causing confusion in opposing defences.

Their efforts are helped by a special, diminutive talent in Erhun Oztumer, whose deft touch, fine vision and 14 goals has been central to Walsall’s attacking efforts. Oztumer and co. will face Ted Smith in the net for Southend, who may need another fine goalkeeping display to keep their play-off hopes intact.

The Football Lab’s Verdict: 1-1
Betting tip: Walsall or draw at 8/11