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Stalemate but plenty of room for optimism for Southend United
EVERYTHING was extremely positive for Southend United against Port Vale on Saturday – apart from the end result.
Blues produced a pleasing and impressive performance against one of the top teams in League Two.
And only some outstanding goalkeeping from visiting shot-stopper Chris Neal denied Paul Sturrock's side what would arguably have been a well deserved three points.
Southend shaded what was a very entertaining 0-0 draw but Vale, the league's top scorers so far this season, also had their opportunities in front of goal.
Blues shot-stopper Paul Smith therefore had to be alert between the sticks to continue his side's recent good defensive record.
For, after Saturday's stalemate, Southend have now secured five clean sheets in their last eight outings and have not conceded a goal at Roots Hall in 270 minutes of action.
Things have also started to improve at the other end of the field too with Blues scoring six goals in the two games leading up to the game against Port Vale where the hosts again created a hat full of chances.
Gavin Tomlin was particularly unfortunate as he was twice denied by the woodwork and also had two efforts well saved by Neal, who also did well to keep out another two efforts from Britt Assombalonga.
But, although the efforts did not hit the back of the net, Southend would have been pleased to carve open such a large number of opportunities.
That was simply not happening at the start of the season when Sturrock was forced to chop and change his starting line-up in order to conjure up the correct formula.
However, the arrivals of Marc Laird and Tamika Mkandawire in midfield have made a massive different to Blues who now look stronger than they have since the start of the current campaign.
That bodes well for the next few weeks when Blues will be a tough test for any team they come up against but then will come the problem of loan deals expiring.
Mkandawire is only contracted with Southend until the beginning of December, while Laird and top goalscorer Britt Assombalonga have an extra four weeks on their spells at Roots Hall.
If their deals can be extended then Blues will be still be able to maintain a settled side which is crucial to success at this level.
But, if as seems likely, either Mkandawire or Assombalonga return to their respective clubs, then Sturrock will be forced to break up the team and find replacements who would then take time to settle in which could unsettle the side.
With that in mind, it may well be wise to get players already in the squad accustomed to the new style of play to try and ensure a smoother transitional period come the start of the New Year.
Alex Woodyard has shown his talents in small glimpses in the last few weeks and he could well be primed to replace Mkandawire in a defensive midfield role if he soon returns to Millwall.
Laird's boots would be harder to fill but he remains the most likely of the loan trio to remain at Roots Hall.
Further forward, Assombalonga's future is in doubt after Watford denied him permission to play in the FA Cup.
Despite his recent barren spell in front of goal, the youngster has been a revelation for Blues this season with his pace, power and fine finishing adding an extra dimension to his side's play.
Assombalonga would therefore be sorely missed if he was to depart and Southend will be hoping that by then both Freddy Eastwood and Barry Corr can be far fitter to maintain a real threat in the final third.
Such a scenario would increase Blues' chances of pushing for promotion and, after the two last matches, that does at last seem a serious possibility.