MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) runs the rule over his favourite Football League fancies this weekend.
Sheffield Wednesday v Brentford | Saturday 15.00
“If you want to be big, you must think big.”
So said Carlos Carvalhal after a hard-fought home draw with Burnley 10 days ago. The Sheffield Wednesday boss has continued to play down the Owls’ promotion prospects but confirmed the club is keen to progress.
Owner Dejphon Chansiri has put his money where his mouth is and Wednesday are now attracting a higher calibre of player due to their lofty league position and increased playing budget.
The £3m fees the Owls forked out on Fernando Forestieri and Gary Hooper are the club’s biggest financial outlays since the late Nineties. Forestieri and Hooper have netted 18 goals between them and look shrewd investments. The recent loan addition of Aiden McGeady wouldn’t have come cheap, either.
For the first time in 20-odd years, there’s a serious feel-good feeling back around Hillsborough. The club have smashed their all-time record in the first phase of season tickets going on sale and sit in the play-off positions following last weekend’s thrilling come-from-behind win at Birmingham.
The Owls remain unbeaten in the league this calendar year and Carvalhal’s men now only trail the automatic promotion places by six points.
This weekend Brentford arrive with the hosts seeking to maintain their fine form at Hillsborough. Only Middlesbrough have defeated Wednesday in their own backyard and that came back in August. When welcoming teams below them in the Championship standings, the Owls have W9-D1-L0.
Wednesday are scoring at a rate of almost two goals-per-game on home soil and in Hooper, they have a striker who’s now netted nine goals in his last 10 appearances, as well as claiming seven of the club’s last nine goals in league action.
The hosts have enjoyed a 60% share of the total shots-on-target in their Hillsborough outings and although midfield marauder Sam Hutchinson is a doubt this weekend, the Owls look a little on the large side at 11/10 (BetVictor) to secure a seventh Championship success in 11.
Brentford sit on the right side of the top-half but Dean Smith’s side have struggled in recent weeks (W1-D1-L5). Although the Bees boast the league’s best away attack with 23 goals, 19 of those came against bottom-half dwellers and the Londoners have been second-best against the division’s leading lights.
An incredible 38 of Brentford’s 40 points have been accrued against clubs in 10th and below. The capital club have managed just W0-D2-L11 against the top-nine as they’ve shipped at least two goals in 10/13 fixtures.
Only six sides have faced more on-target efforts on their travels and the Bees’ 46% shots-on-target ratio on the road is on the wrong side of average. Only once since Boxing Day have Smith’s troops fired in more efforts on-target than their opponents and last week’s convincing defeat at Brighton reinforces my feelings the Bees are going nowhere soon.
The Londoners were bullied by Brighton, out-fought and out-thought. So I’m still scratching my head at the reasoning behind colossal holding midfielder Toumani Diagouraga’s sale. Chuck in the departures of James Tarkowski, Andre Gray, Moses Odubajo, Stuart Dallas and Jonathan Douglas and the side that impressed so many under Mark Warburton is no more.
Rochdale v Millwall | Saturday 15.00
I’m a fully paid up member in the Keith Hill Appreciation Society and the Rochdale boss deserves accolades and acclaim for the fine work he’s achieved since returning to the post in January 2013.
On a restrictive budget, the Dale manager prefers to nurture and develop players in a structure suitable to the club as opposed to forking out on new blood or expensive loan signings. Sustaining the club is paramount to Hill’s approach and the Lancashire outfit continue to upset the odds in League One.
Just a fortnight ago Rochdale downed league leaders Burton at Spotland – the fourth top-10 team to leave Dale’s home with a point this season – and their strong record in front of their supporters (W7-D2-L4) makes Hill’s side dangerous opponents for Millwall this weekend.
Frustratingly for Hill, his side were in charitable mood last time out at Crewe. Rochdale gifted The Alex two goals in a scrappy encounter despite creating numerous opportunities to stake a claim for a point at a drenched Gresty Road. And it’s that inconsistency that’s hampered Dale’s campaign.
Bar four consecutive draws in October, Rochdale haven’t produced the same results three times on the trot all season. A potential reason for that is their lack of a killer instinct in front of goal – since Matty Done’s departure, Ian Henderson has been shouldering the offensive responsibility with Calvin Andrew, Lewis Alessandra and Donal McDermott all failing to produce or struggling with injury.
Over the past few years, Rochdale have gleaned a reputation for being one of the most entertaining, attacking, free-scoring teams in the bottom two divisions of the Football League. Their scoring streaks have slowed this season but seven of their last nine matches have produced three or more goals, as have 9/13 at Spotland.
Since promotion to the third tier, goals have been a common theme in Rochdale’s home fixtures. A hunky 22/36 (61%) have broken the Over 2.5 Goals line with 19/36 (53%) games featuring Both Teams To Score winners and so it’s a goals-theme I’m keen to follow here.
Towards the end of January, Millwall pierced the top-six for the first time this term and Neil Harris’ troops have returned excellent W5-D1-L1 results since Boxing Day. The Lions ran out deserved 3-0 winners at Walsall last time out and confidence, consistency and familiarity is now growing in the camp each week.
Lee Gregory was ruthless while centre-backs Byron Webster and Sid Nelson were uncompromising and determined in a patched up back-line last week as Millwall made it eight wins n their travels (W8-D3-L4).
Scunthorpe are the only side to stop the Lions from scoring on the road and you’d fancy their chances of enhancing that record at Spotland.
But it’s goals we’re after and Millwall excel in this department when playing away – 12/15 (80%) of the capital club’s games as guests have seen Over 2.5 Goals backers collect and a repeat is offered at even-money with Bet365. That’s big.
Portsmouth v Bristol Rovers | Saturday 15.00
Last midweek I was accused of having ‘an agenda’ against Portsmouth, which seems strange considering they haven’t featured in any of my Football League columns this season and I’d outlined Pompey for a second-placed finish in my pre-season predictions.
I’ve regularly gone in studs-up at the south-coast club over the past few seasons regarding their embarrassment underachievement but for the most part, I’ve watched encouragingly from afar during Paul Cook’s reign.
That was until I made a comment on Twitter that read, “Pompey level on pts with Accrington despite playing 2 games more. Kinda embarrassing when you see their 18 tonight” following their draw at Morecambe on the 2 February. Fair enough, no?
Well, Kevin Nolan’s Leyton Orient left Fratton Park with a 1-0 victory on Saturday and for the first time this season, Pompey find themselves outside the top-seven. Now would obviously be the appropriate time to launch a fair attack on their recent woes.
For starters, Portsmouth are beginning to earn an unwanted tag as flat-track bullies. A huge 77% of their points tally at Fratton Park has come against clubs in the bottom-seven – their return against teams in 14th and above? W0-D4-L3 – failing to even score in six of those seven encounters.
Sure, no side has a better defence than Cook’s charges and no team has kept more clean sheets on home soil than Pompey’s nine. But 22 of their 24 goals as hosts have come across just six fixtures – it’s got a bit of the Cristiano Ronaldo about it.
Anyhow, I’ll strip it right back and the long and the short of it is, Portsmouth are not winning as many football matches as they should. They’ve inflated squad stocked full of well-paid and talented individuals but they’re struggling to turn their supremacy into points, especially on the south-coast.
Pompey’s W5-D7-L3 record at Fratton Park is bettered by nine clubs and since mid-October, Cook’s men have returned a dreadfully poor four wins from 15 League Two fixtures. They’re now 16 points off top spot despite starting the season as hot 9/2 favourites with one of the biggest budgets League Two has even seen.
So of course, I’m opposing Portsmouth this weekend. Bristol Rovers can be backed at 9/10 (BetVictor) with a +0.50 Asian Handicap start – the equivalent of a Double Chance selection but at better odds – and that holds plenty of appeal.
The hosts have failed to record maximum points in 10 of their 15 outings at Fratton Park and the Pirates arrive refreshed and rested following last weekend’s postponement. The visitors have fared well on their travels (W8-D3-L4) and avoided defeat in five of their seven sojourns to top-half teams.
Darrell Clarke is earning rave reviews for his tactical acumen – the Gas have switched between a back four and three this season – and although Matty Taylor’s goals have slowed in recent weeks, Rovers have the guile, brains and brawn to frustrate their more illustrious hosts here.
Pompey do have a superbly strong 71% share of the total shots-on-target at Fratton Park, allowing their guests a paltry average of just two attempts on-target per-game. But even so, their 33% win rate as hosts, combined with Rovers’ 27% loss rate as visitors, makes opposing overrated Portsmouth and continuing ‘my agenda’ against the south-coast club a logical selection.
Sheffield Wednesday v Brentford – Sheffield Wednesday to win (11/10 BetVictor)
Rochdale v Millwall – Over 2.5 Goals (1/1 Bet365)
Portsmouth v Bristol Rovers – Bristol Rovers +0.50 Asian Handicap (9/10 BetVictor)
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