JUST like the reds down in Westminster, the Reds of Barnsley are about to embark on a crucial period that is likely to go a long way to deciding their immediate future.
Not only do head coach Daniel Stendel’s men travel to Portsmouth, one of their main promotion rivals, on Saturday, but next month brings back-to-back meetings with third-placed Sunderland and a Doncaster Rovers side still eyeing the automatic promotion berth currently occupied by Barnsley.
It is a tough run made that little bit tougher by the knowledge that a slip or two in these next 22 days could inflict considerable damage on those hopes of returning to the Championship at the first attempt.
This much was clear on Tuesday night when a frustrating goalless draw against Burton Albion at Oakwell allowed Sunderland to narrow the gap to four points with their own victory over Gillingham. The Black Cats also have a game in hand.
Hearteningly the Reds – in contrast to Jeremy Corbyn’s mob down in Westminster following this week’s exodus of Labour MPs – look in fine fettle to cope with the challenges that lie ahead.
A 13-game unbeaten run that has yielded 31 points, even allowing for the lacklustre display against Burton, contrasts sharply with the form shown by Saturday’s opponents Pompey.
Kenny Jackett’s men last tasted victory in the league on New Year’s Day to leave Stendel in hopeful mood ahead of the long trip to the south coast.
“Portsmouth is a game we are looking forward to,” said the German. “They also did not win (on Tuesday at home to Bristol Rovers) and we have a big chance on Saturday.
“The gap can be increased to eight points and that is a big chance. We also play against Sunderland at home (on March 12); we have a lot of chances to achieve our goal.
“We take the point from Burton into Saturday. We had chances to win, but that is over now and all we think about are Portsmouth.”
Barnsley will again be without Kieffer Moore at the weekend. The club’s top scorer remains out with concussion, meaning the onus for finding the net is likely to fall again on Cauley Woodrow.
He had been in fine form going into the midweek encounter with the Brewers with six goals in as many games.
But a first-half shot that brought a flying save from Bradley Collins apart, Woodrow struggled against a disciplined Burton side.
Jacob Brown, such a refreshing addition to the starting XI in recent weeks, also found the going tough and it was noticeable how the Reds’ threat fizzled out the longer the game went on with the introduction of Mamadou Thiam and Victor Adeboyejo from the bench failing to provide the necessary spark.
Much of this was down to the diligence of the visitors, Nigel Clough’s game plan of deploying a shield of midfielders in front of the back four ensuring space was at a premium in areas where Barnsley are usually so dangerous.
“It is difficult to play at a high level all the time,” added Stendel. “It is not always possible. Against Burton we missed fresh legs a little bit, but we have a few days to recover.”
Moore’s absence was keenly felt. His presence up front would likely have given Burton more of a problem.
Stendel, who admitted Jordan Green’s omission from the matchday squad of 18 was not down to injury, added: “Kieffer is our top scorer and an important player.
“We need other players to take responsibilities. In the last games that was Cauley. Maybe him or another player can do this on Saturday.”
There can be no doubting how testing Barnsley’s schedule over the next few weeks will be.
The flipsid of playing so many promotion rivals so soon is that the run-in looks much more favourable.
After travelling to the Keepmoat on March 15, the Reds do not face another club in the top six. Stendel’s men also finish the season with a run of four games that includes three of the sides currently embroiled in the relegation scrap.
Third-placed Sunderland, meanwhile, face Doncaster and Peterborough during the same period along with a potentially pivotal game against Portsmouth at the Stadium of Light on the penultimate weekend.
“We were disappointed after Burton,” admitted Stendel, whose side last lost on December 8 at Wycombe Wanderers.
“We did not have too many chances. In the second half we could not find the solutions to break the Burton defence down.
“First half we had one or two chances, but Burton defended very well. Our team did not have the best day.
“I was disappointed, but not dissatisfied. The players have done very well in the last weeks and are unbeaten in 13 games.
“It is okay. We wanted to win. The players were in the dressing room dissatisfied, as if we had lost the game. But I am still very proud of my team and their performances over the last weeks.”