A chasm has begun to open up in the relegation battle as sides aim to avoid the drop from League One…
Barring Accrington Stanley, led so reliably by John Coleman in 20th spot, everyone else in the third tier outside the bottom four is five or more points above it.
So where does that leave Forest Green Rovers, Burton Albion, Morecambe and Milton Keynes Dons – the four sides currently sat in the division’s four lowest positions?
EFL pundit Gab Sutton discusses the relegation situation in League One and shares his predictions for how the race for survival will pan out…
Forest Green look in danger of getting cut adrift.
Injuries haven’t helped them, but they look at times timid and passive, which has meant that the likes of Barnsley and Wycombe have picked up a comfortable three points against them, without having to get out of second gear.
Sure, the Green Devils have Luke McGee, Udoka Godwin-Malife, Jordan Moore-Taylor, Baily Cargill, Ben Stevenson, David Davis, Reece Brown and Matty Stevens still to return.
And, once they get a few of those back, performances could quite expectedly pick up.
At the same time, they have a Head Coach in Ian Burchnall who is so calm and process-driven that one questions whether he has the right skillset to lead a team into a dogfight with streetfighters like Dino Maamria, Derek Adams and John Coleman.
Since Maamria took charge of Burton Albion, they’ve taken 12 points from 11 games.
Extrapolate that return over a full season and they’ll end up with 44 points, the mathematically projected requirement for survival.
The situation is complicated further, though, by the likelihood that Morecambe, Accrington Stanley and MK Dons will all pick up.
The Shrimps have put in some incredibly competitive performances recently against the better sides in the division.
They took six points off Barnsley, Wycombe, Derby and Portsmouth, and could comfortably have taken eight, nine or ten from those showings.
Adams’ side only drew with Pompey, when they could have won comfortably with more clinical finishing, but this is the crux of their problem.
Cole Stockton bagged a whopping 26 goals in all competitions last season, but is yet to find the net this year, after a summer in which he had angled for a move.
If Morecambe can get Stockton back on form, or cash in on him in January and make the right signing up top, then a ruthless goalscoring presence could make all the difference.
Accrington Stanley will also be in the market for a centre-forward come January, having sold Colby Bishop in the summer and had issues with injuries in that department.
Matt Lowe, Josh Woods and Alhagi Touray Sisay have all been sidelined, so too Nathan Delfouneso and Korede Adedoyin, although the latter two have recently returned to the bench in recent games.
A makeshift duo of Shaun Whalley and Tommy Leigh is unlikely to keep Stanley up, with the best will in the world, so winter business could be pivotal.
MK Dons, meanwhile, should have the quality to pick up.
Their away form hints at resurgence, with a victory at Charlton and a point at Cheltenham, where they created the better chances and were unlucky thanks to a top performance from the opposition goalkeeper.
Liam Manning’s side have been strong in other competitions too, thrashing Taunton Town 6-0 in the FA Cup and comfortably dispatching Morecambe in the EFL Cup.
While the Buckinghamshire outfit won’t live up to their pre-season billing, they should find a formula to climb the table, whether or not that comes under Manning’s guidance.
In that scenario, the task for Forest Green, Burton and Morecambe would be to find two teams to reel in, rather than one, which looks challenging, although the most obvious team to target is Cheltenham.
The Robins are not exactly above the drop zone by fluke: victories over Cambridge, Shrewsbury, Bolton and Morecambe were deserved, while the one at Exeter was a dogged defensive display.
However, there have been some damning defeats for Wade Elliott’s side and the atmosphere has at times been fractious.
There were post-match scenes at Burton where players were having conversations with angry supporters, and Elliott felt he had to walk over and intervene.
However, not to acknowledge the fans, but instead drag Charlie Raglan and Lewis Freestone away.
The fighting spirit at Ipswich, where Town picked up an unlikely, hard-earned point, dispelled some of the notion that the players weren’t behind Elliott after their FA Cup defeat to seventh-tier Alvechurch.
But that’s not to say that it may not take too much for things to turn sour once again.
Recent injuries to key players like Alfie May and Caleb Taylor haven’t helped, and Town aren’t blessed with too much depth, so if the problems persist they could be the most vulnerable of the sides above the drop zone.
It’s hard to see Accrington Stanley or Cambridge United, with Coleman or Mark Bonner in charge respectively, going down under such reliable leadership.
Bristol Rovers have 10-goal man Aaron Collins, who has helped make them the fifth-strongest attacking side in the division, having scored 29 goals in 18 league games.
Another young, high-energy side are Fleetwood Town, who have lost just four of 18 games under new boss Scott Brown.
On early evidence, the Celtic legend and former Scottish international looks a flexible tactician capable of being proactive with in-game management.
Darrell Clarke has cultivated a fighting spirit at newly-promoted Port Vale, and the depth of their squad could be a real strength over the festive period, especially if recruits Ellis Harrison and Dan Butterworth continue to impress.
Shrewsbury Town, though, don’t have quite as much depth, and could be the one team in the lower-midtable pack likeliest to plummet if anyone does.
Salop are solid in Steve Cotterill’s 3-4-1-2 system and if Tom Bayliss turns on the style, they have a formula to get results, but nullify the PNE recruit and they can be left short of alternative ideas.
Injuries haven’t helped the Shrews, and returns for Elliott Bennett, George Nurse, Carl Winchester and Daniel Udoh would certainly help.
But the football at New Meadow has been uninspiring at times, irrespective of their presence either in or out of the team.
They have a tough run of fixtures, too, so post-Christmas meetings with Cambridge and Cheltenham may become more important than they look currently.
Equally, 23 points is a very healthy tally to have at this stage and it would take a significant drop-off for Shrewsbury to descend into trouble.
There is plenty of work ahead for those in the drop-zone – especially if either finds themselves needing more than one team currently 20th or above to get dragged into it.
Forest Green, Burton, Morecambe and Cheltenham all to go down.
Accrington Stanley and Cambridge hovering just above the drop zone, joined by Shrewsbury.
I doubt MK Dons will win the league with 100 points, but I instead fancy them to elevate themselves into a safe, mid-table position.
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