Goal Drought Over As Stags Halt Winless Run

Mansfield ended a five game winless, goalless run as they put Hartlepool to the sword with a 3-1 victory. There were two key catalysts for the win. The outstanding wing display of Nathan Thomas, starting his first league game in eight weeks, adding much needed bravery to the Stags attacking quartet. The second ingredient was that Mansfield finally took the chances that came their way, in particular Matt Green, who bundled the ball over the line for the opener and calmly passed the second into the net to wrap the game up. Apart from that, the Stags were their usual patient selves but today were rewarded with the goals their all-round play deserved.

Adam Murray made five changes from the side that were beaten at Oldham on Tuesday night in the FA Cup. Brian Jensen, Mitch Rose, Chris Clements, Reggie Lambe and Craig Westcarr replaced Scott Shearer, Lee Collins, Jamie McGuire, Matty Blair and Jack Thomas. Before the game, it was announced that captain Nicky Hunt would be out for up to two months with a hamstring injury. Mitch Rose filled in at right back with Lee Collins perhaps wondering what he has done wrong to be back on the bench. Adam Chapman took the captains armband. The visitor's starting line-up included Rakish Bingham, Mansfield's joint top scorer from last season.

The Stags started the game like a team low on confidence. There was little tempo when moving the ball and a lack of options for the man on the ball. Hartlepool had set out with two pacey strikers, a few balls over the top causing Mansfield's back line to retreat.

Hartlepool were unlucky not to take the lead with 11 minutes on the clock. A ball from the left back found Bingham on the penalty spot, in between Pearce and Tafazolli, and his goalward volley was tipped onto the bar by Jensen. 'The Beast' showed fantastic reflexes, using every inch of his colossal frame to prevent the opening goal.

As seems to be the case of late, it took the home side a quarter of an hour to get going. When the Stags broke forward, it was through Thomas on the left, which was to become a recurring theme. He drove a ball across the face of goal between awaiting Stags players. Green retrieved the cross on the right and laid it back to Rose who was backing him up. After a neat move involving Clements, Chapman and Lambe, the full back cut inside and fired high over the bar with his weaker foot from inside the box.

Mansfield were millimetres away from taking the lead as Thomas created a second chance. He was picked out on the left by Green after Westcarr had dispossessed a defender, he looked up and curled a delicious cross towards Green at the back post, but the striker in desperate need of a goal could not get his toe-end onto the cross.

The Stags won a corner on 21 minutes and went close again. Chapman delivered the set piece towards the head of Tafazolli, but the towering defender could not quite meet the cross. Rose controlled at the far post, wriggled away from his marker, only to see his shot deflect to Westcarr free in the area, but Westcarr's volley was rushed and rolled harmlessly wide of the target.

Mansfield took the lead on 23 minutes. Again, it was that man Thomas on the left who whipped in a low cross. The delivery was met by Matt Green at the same time as the Hartlepool goalkeeper, but Greens contact was the stronger and the ball looped over the line and into the net. Various sources have stated that it might take one to go in off Green's backside to get the ball rolling. Whilst it wasn't quite as fortuitous, it was certainly a scrappy finish, but no less precious for Green and Mansfield alike. Green had gone eight games without a goal.

The weight had been lifted from the Stags shoulders as they went looking for a second. Nathan Thomas was on his bike again down the left and chose to attempt to turn scorer after providing so many chances. His low left footed shot seemed to be heading towards the bottom corner before a Pools defender blocked the effort. A few minutes later, Jensen's long kick was flicked on by the head of Thomas into the left channel, releasing Westcarr. Westcarr stopped play momentarily to encourage support, and produced a cross towards the back post which narrowly evaded Green.

Despite Mansfield's 20-odd minutes of domination, Hartlepool found themselves level in bizarre circumstances. The referee awarded the visitors a free-kick following an innocuous challenge by Chapman on the left. The ball was whipped in with pace by Jake Gray towards the back post. Pearce met the ball, but only planted his header against Adams, the ball ricocheting passed Jensen and into the net. Adams could do nothing about it and it was indicative of the Stags luck as of late.

After so much positive play, and the sheer relief of registering on the scoresheet, Mansfield headed into half time with the scores level. Almost everything good had been created through Nathan Thomas, with Craig Westcarr in particular having been quiet, one good cross aside. A huge test of character awaited the Stags, having shaken the proverbial monkey off their back they were straight back under the cosh.

Mansfield came out fighting for the second half, and forced a corner on 51 minutes after Thomas' pass was just too short for Westcarr to get onto and intercepted by a defender. The corner came to nothing but a couple of minutes later, Thomas was causing problems again. He skinned Harrison, who must have been sick at the sight of Thomas' name and number disappearing passed him, and drove a cross-cum-shot inches wide of both advancing Mansfield boots and the far post.

On 54 minutes, the Stags switched to 4-4-2 as Adi Yussuf replaced the disappointing Westcarr. He was to have an almost immediate impact.

Two minutes later, Yussuf headed the ball forwards towards Green but a defender managed to intercept the pass. No matter, as Yussuf latched on to the loose ball 20 yards from goal on the left, 
just ahead of Nathan Thomas who was shaping to shoot, and smashed the ball right footed into the top left-hand corner of the net. A fantastic goal by Yussuf who celebrated in customary style, running full force towards his own personal fan club in the Ian Greaves Stand. 

Both strikers were causing problems for Hartlepool as the game reached the hour mark. Clements curled an excellent pass into the right channel which set Green free. He picked up the ball with acres of space to the right of the goal, but just waited too long to find a teammate in the middle as his cross was blocked for a corner. On 63 minutes, Lee Collins replaced Reggie Lambe. Mitch Rose pushed up to perform as a winger with Collins slotting in at right back as Mansfield looked to consolidate their lead.

On 67 minutes, Chapman unleashed a rasping 35 yard drive which nearly took the head off a Hartlepool defender. Chapman was involved again three minutes later, as his vision allowed him to play Rose through on goal. Rose was caught in two minds with Yussuf waiting for a square ball and Jake Carroll produced a goal saving challenge to prevent the Stags from increasing their lead.

Mansfield made their final change as prime creator Nathan Thomas was replaced by Matty Blair. A few fans around me booed the substitution but it was obvious that Thomas was beginning to tire, and even when fully fresh his defensive work is not as strong as it could be.

Tension could be sensed around the stadium as the Stags began to sit a little deeper, although the team were never really under any sustained pressure from Hartlepool. On 76 minutes, it was this time Blair's turn to roast Harrison as he burst down the left and into the area. Green and Yussuf both made the same run towards the penalty spot and Blair's cross was blocked for a corner, which came to nothing.

The Stags secured all three points on 80 minutes following a nine pass, patient, probing move. After the ball was worked over to the right by a combination of Blair, Adams, Chapman and Clements, Lee Collins dribbled inside from the right touchline towards the edge of the area before slipping the ball into the feet of Yussuf with his back to goal. Yussuf held off the defender, turned the ball around the corner for Green who passed the ball calmly beyond a static keeper. Question marks remain as to whether Green was a yard offside but when your luck is in, the flag stays down. A great, incisive move by Mansfield.

Hartlepool had hardly threatened the Stags since Bingham hit the bar in the opening ten minutes, apart from their goal which was not really of their creation. With the game slipping away from them, Naismith came close to providing a nervy last ten minutes when his left footed free kick went behind off the angle of the crossbar. It looked to me as if Jensen had it covered in any case.

With the visitor's now resigned to defeat, the Stags strikers were still looking to cash in. Adi Yussuf picked up the ball 25 yards from goal, moved the ball onto his left foot with a step-over before his low shot was blocked. Matt Green of course was on the hunt for a treble, accelerating away from a huddle of defenders before shooting from just outside the box straight down the keepers throat. A yard either side and Green would have been walking away with the match ball.

At the final whistle, with perhaps the exception of the unfortunate own goal, it was hard to imagine pre kick-off a more perfect afternoon. Mansfield and Matt Green broke their goalscoring drought, and also ended their wait for a win to keep the Stags looking up the table rather than down. Nathan Thomas was a constant threat down the left and produced a man of the match display. He provided the spark the Stags have been missing, showing the courage to beat a man and open up space rather than keep possession for the sake of it. Of course there are going to be occasions where he is going to lose the ball, but he is certainly an exciting option and deserves to be starting games.

It would be remiss of me not to give a special mention to Matt Green. There has been plenty said about his lack of goals, and perhaps rightly so given the amount of chances he has failed to take in recent weeks. There has also been a lot of rubbish talked about how Murray's system does not suit Green and that the style of play needs to change, but it was always a case of injecting confidence into his game and the goals would flow. He continues to get into goalscoring positions and can now hopefully push on and achieve a tally we all know he is capable of.

Exeter visit the One Call Stadium on Tuesday night for the first evening fixture of the season at home. They arrive on the back of a win over table-topping local rivals Plymouth so will fancy themselves to cause a further upset. It's hard to foresee to many changes, although the team may benefit from Jack Thomas replacing Craig Westcarr in the number ten role, or given Exeter's result at the weekend we may see Jamie McGuire introduced in front of the back four. It feels good to say that the Stags have stopped the rot so to speak and can hopefully secure back to back home wins for the first time since February 2015, and prior to that, September 2014.

Player Ratings :
Jensen - 7.5 - Brilliant save to deny Bingham early on. Not troubled after that.
Rose - 7.5 - Performed very well, offered more of an attacking threat than Hunt. May lost out to Collins against tougher opposition.
Pearce - 8 - Great to see him back in the side. Although Collins did nothing wrong the defence looks better with him in it.
Tafazolli - 8 - Not a foot wrong all afternoon.
Adams - 7 - Did well.
Clements - 7 - Steady display. One very good pass for Green.
Chapman - 7 - As with Clements. One very good pass for Rose.
Lambe - 7 - Some good footwork, holds onto the ball well.
Westcarr - 6 - Quiet game. Going back a while now since he made a telling contribution.
Thomas - 9 - Terrific game. Four brilliant deliveries, must keep his place for Tuesday. Offers the X-Factor Murray so often alludes to.
Green 7.5 - Similar display to recent weeks but took his chances today. First touch also better than of late.

Subs : 
Yussuf (Westcarr 54) - Stunning strike to give the Stags the lead and showed more to his game than just goals when setting up Green. Did look knackered at the end and perhaps explains why he is yet to start.
Collins (Lambe 63) - Very good on the ball for a defender, displayed in build up to third goal. Can consider himself unlucky to be benched but I'm sure he will play against tougher opposition.
Blair (Thomas 73) - Tough boots to fill on the day but showed promise with two strong runs. May have slipped down the pecking order after Thomas' performance today.