Feb 24 2014 by Nick Hilton, Main WIR
THINGS LOOKING UP FOR ROVERS
COVENTRY CITY gave Prenton Park a convincing impression of a team who have lost their way, on an afternoon when Tranmere looked like they know where they want to go and perhaps more importantly, how they are going to get there.
The Sky Blues are making hard work out of finding a way forward without Leon Clarke and Callum Wilson, the strikeforce whose 33 goals powered them into a position to shake off a 10-point deduction and threaten the promotion chasers at the halfway point of the campaign.
Clarke left to join Wolves in January and Wilson sustained a dislocated shoulder during the same month. Without them, Coventry are struggling to put a cutting edge on their football. They lined up at Prenton Park without a recognised striker.
The story is a familiar one to followers of Tranmere, who watched their own team labour in much the same punchless way after the spine was ripped out of last season’s table topping team at around about the halfway point of the campaign.
Very little went right for Rovers over the following 12 months. But since the turn of the year, performances have begun to reflect the fact that Tranmere’s most gifted players are overcoming injury and fitness issues and approaching the top of their game.
The strengths and virtues that can lead this team away from trouble near the foot of the League One table were on show on Saturday, and for once a home audience got to enjoy them.
The central midfield trio of Steve Jennings, James Wallace and Jason Koumas were the architects of Rovers’ fourth home victory in 16 outings at Prenton Park.
Wallace took the eye with some driving runs past opponents, Koumas made a few passes that other players on the pitch could not have imagined, let alone play, and Jennings did a highly effective job in forcing the opposition into early submission.
Whenever the visitors looked as if they might be able to work a way through Tranmere with their legion of midfielders, Jennings, more often than not, was the player who stopped them.
The 29-year-old read the play so well, and broke up so many Coventry moves, that you might have wondered if he was reading the minds of the opposition players. Jennings knows some of them of course, having played close to 50 games for the Sky Blues last season.
Jennings’ game is to play it simple and sensible when he wins the ball, and the ethos was reflected through much of Saturday’s team performance.
Tranmere kept the ball impressively, so much so that during a spell midway through the second half, the home crowd were cheering ‘Olé!’ at the procession of passes.
The fans were entitled to indulge themselves. They’ve had precious little to cheer at home this season and here was a glimpse of the kind of positive football the team have more often produced on the road.
Caretaker manager John McMahon picked the same line-up and formation – call it 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 – selected by the suspended Ronnie Moore for the 2-2 draw at Bristol City the previous weekend.
Tranmere played well at Ashton Gate and last week McMahan signalled his own selection intentions by talking about playing a system that accommodates all of the squad’s best players.
Those players responded by coming fast out of the blocks and seizing the initiative, then defending with diligence and some resourcefulness at important moments.
Bright, brisk and businesslike from the kick-off, Tranmere may have gained some confidence from defeating the Sky Blues 5-1 when the teams met at the Sixfields Stadium in November.
They might have gone ahead as early as the seventh minute when centre-back Steve Arthurworrey won Koumas’ right-wing free-kick with a powerful header at the far post, which forced a sharp reaction save from keeper Joe Murphy.
The first goal followed five minutes later when Matthew Pennington, breaking into the box on the run from the right, was caught by the challenge of Billy Daniels. A penalty award looked a little harsh from the back of the stand but referee Andy Madley, who was right on top of the incident, pointed to the spot immediately.
Ryan Lowe was just as decisive in firing the spot-kick into the bottom corner, bringing his tally of goals against the Sky Blues this season to four and his season’s total to 18.
Lowe might have added a second goal when he was played into space on the right of the box by a pass from Kennedy, but his rising shot went into the side netting.
Coventry had other escapes. A Koumas corner from the left beat Murphy in flight and struck the far post while winger Matthew Kennedy could not get on top of a header from Pennington’s cross and sent the ball above the target.
Coventry showed some enterprise after falling behind, even if they could not always find a natural target for the ball into the box.
Goalkeeper Owain Fon Williams made a good reaction save, tipping over a rising shot from Karl Baker, who did some enterprising work is an unnatural striking role.
Fon Williams also made blocking saves from Baker and Franck Moussa in the 33rd minute, during a scramble in which the defenders threw their bodies in front of the ball to keep it out of the net.
The defensive heroics were rewarded when Tranmere doubled the advantage three minutes after the break through a Conor Thomas own goal.
There wasn’t much the midfielder could do to get out of the way of a wicked free-kick delivered from the right by Koumas, which struck his chest and bounced into the net.
Lowe, feeling a pang of discomfort from his hip, departed the action on 57 minutes to be replaced on the right flank by Jake Kirby.
The 19-year-old may be more of a winger than a striker but he showed he has some of Lowe’s predatory instincts on 64 minutes when Kennedy, seizing on a loose ball after Murphy had saved resourcefully from Jake Cassidy, whipped a cross into the goalmouth from the left. Kirby got ahead of the defender to push the chance home from close range.
Coventry pulled back a well-worked goal on 78 minutes when Michael Petrasso ran onto a pass from substitute Mark Marshall to fire a low angle shot past Fon Williams from just inside the box. Tranmere, however, did not look in any serious danger of allowing the visitors back into the game.