SOUTHEND United’s push for the play-offs was dented by a disappointing 1-1 draw with struggling Port Vale on Saturday.
Vale came to Roots Hall sitting 22nd in the League One standings without a win in 2017.
Yet the Shrimpers struggled to carve them open in a below par display and only a late equaliser from Anthony Wordsworth prevented them from suffering an even greater setback.
Blues have now taken four points from the last 12 on offer and were below par in Saturday’s drab and dreary encounter which did not really come to life until Chris Eagles headed the visitors in front 12 minutes from time.
The manner of Vale’s goal made it even tougher to take as a lack of organisation and poor marking enabled Eagles far too much time and space to head home a routine ball into the box from Sam Foley.
The only saving grace for the Shrimpers was that they were able to fight back to secure a share of the spoils as Wordsworth slid home a left wing cross from Ben Coker to ensure the game ended all square.
Wordsworth was not at his best in the centre of the park but still provided a goal threat and hit the back of the net for the 10th time this season.
In doing so, Wordsworth became the first Shrimpers central midfielder since Nicky Bailey in the 2007/08 season to reach double figures.
The achievement is even more impressive considering Wordsworth missed the first seven weeks of the season with a hamstring injury and he will be looking for even more strikes during the remainder of the season.
But, as he attempts to threaten, Blues may look to alter the shape of their midfield to become more of an attacking threat.
On Saturday, the quartet selected across the centre of the park lacked creativity and, although width was often provided by attack minded full-backs, Blues may have been better suited to field more forward thinking players in a bid to break down the opposition.
The Shrimpers have often struggled to shine against teams who opt to put men behind the ball and they have now collected 18 points from a possible 42 against the bottom 10 teams in League One.
In comparison, Southend have taken 29 points from a possible 51 against the 10 teams joining them in the top 11.
But, with nine of the Shrimpers’ remaining 11 matches coming against teams in the bottom half of the table, Southend must find a way of working their way past stubborn opposition.
With that in mind, the impending return of Stephen McLaughlin will be a huge boost for Blues providing the winger can immediately recapture the form he was in before suffering an ankle injury at the end of December.
McLaughlin will add an extra goal threat and more balance to the Shrimpers and could be a key figure in the forthcoming matches which will decide their destiny this season.
The next two – away at Bristol Rovers and AFC Wimbledon – will both be particularly key as they will be played before sixth placed Millwall next face a league game.
A maximum six points would see the Shrimpers heap real pressure back on the Lions at a crucial time of the campaign and move them back into the play-off positions. albeit having played more games than their rivals who will now be switching their attention to an FA Cup quarter-final at Tottenham Hotspur.
In contrast, Blues will doing battle with Bristol Rovers in their most important encounter of the season so far.
Victory would show the Shrimpers mean business and put them right back in the race for promotion whereas defeat would continue a small blip in form and make it incredibly tough to secure a top six finish.
Southend will therefore be desperate to pick up three points but for that to happen Blues will need to vastly improve on Saturday’s disappointing display.