MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) tackles the Football League card on Saturday.
Birmingham v Fulham | Saturday 15.00
Gary Rowett admitted this week that his Birmingham City side are having to ‘work so hard’ for every Championship goal.
The Blues were held to a 0-0 draw at Wolves last Sunday, the fifth away game in a row in which they haven’t scored; Jacques Maghoma, Clayton Donaldson and Jon Toral all spurned chances as Birmingham created several opportunities to claim a vital victory.
So it’s back to St Andrew’s on Saturday as Blues bid to get their play-off push back on track against a Fulham side they thumped 5-2 at Craven Cottage in November. The bookies have chalked Rowett’s charges up as 5/4 shots here and there’s definitely a bit of mileage in those quotes.
The ex-Burton boss has built a solid yet unspectacular and uncompromising side that’s thrived under his astute leadership – few Football League managers are capable of squeezing more out of so little with a meticulous tactical approach to planning and preparing his squad.
Rowett relishes plotting a path for victory, working tirelessly to figure out his opposition’s weaknesses, drilling his squad on the training paddock to convey and implement his ideas ahead of game day. There’s probably no better in the division and gaining a tactical edge.
The Midlanders are regularly underrated by the layers due to their below-par performance data – Brum are averaging 1.57 points-per-game during Rowett’s tenure (W28-D20-L19) but they’re averaging a league-low 45% of possession and only six clubs are firing in fewer shots-on-target this.
Again, just seven sides have enjoyed a lesser share of the total shots-on-target in matches compared to Blues’ figure of 46.69% but City just refuse to buckle. We’re now in the depths of March and Saturday’s hosts sit just four points off the top-six with a game in hand.
Brum have been brilliant at St Andrew’s under Rowett (W18-D7-L8) – including six wins from seven – and I’m keen to jump on that bandwagon once more. If we priced up Blues based on their home results alone, we’d be looking at a 5/6 shot so the 5/4 from Netbet certainly stands out from the crowd.
And their backline performances aren’t far too bad, either. Rowett’s troops have kept their sheets clean in seven of their last 10, as well as 15 overall. Tomasz Kuszczak’s conceded just 34 goals in 36 matches this term – only five sides can boast better defensive records.
Meanwhile, Mike Holden (@Ratings_Mike) recently pinpointed Birmingham’s knack for getting early goals. Exclude the nine 0-0s during Rowett’s tenure and Blues have netted first-half goals in 32/59 (54%) of their Championship fixtures – that figure increases to 19/30 (63%) when viewing non-goalless home games.
Birmingham’s half-time home record as hosts reads W15-D13-L5 and 12 of those 33 matches have ended in W-W double results – that 36% success-rate implies odds of 7/4 so seeing 11/4 available from BetVictor holds plenty of appeal too.
A wee word on Fulham, then. The Cottagers have sunk to just one point above the relegation zone following a horrid run of results since November (W3-D8-L12). Frustratingly, my own QPR have given the Whites 16% of their 37-point haul this season.
Slavisa Jokanovic proved himself as a tactical master when alternating between two different systems depending on the opposition during his Watford days and the Serbian has mixed and matched between 4-4-2 and variations of 4-5-1 since pitching up at Fulham (W3-D4-L7).
But still, the Cottagers just can’t seem to get over the line with their ramshackle defence proving very costly. Only Charlton have shipped more goals and although the visitors are the top scorers on their travels, they’ve only bagged three road wins all season.
Since relegation, Fulham have been beaten in 20/41 (49%) of their away days in the second-tier with a W1-D2-L13 record when visiting top-10 clubs – in 10/16 (62%) of those encounters the Cottagers suffered L-L double results.
Crewe v Blackpool | Saturday 15.00
Both Crewe and Blackpool’s managers have highlighted this match as an essential three-pointer if either is to escape the relegation mire in League One.
Crewe’s urge for victory is far greater than Blackpool’s with the Railwaymen trailing seven points adrift of safety and realistically requiring 2.00 points-per-game to keep their third-tier status alive.
Steve Davis’ side are regularly quoted at pub team prices, which is a harsh reflection on a young side that’s not too far off the right side of a coin toss, at times. Sure, Saturday’s 3-0 slump at Gillingham was richly deserved following a frightful defensive show but The Alex aren’t yet down and out.
Five of Crewe’s final 10 fixtures see the hosts face relegation rivals and with the Seasiders sitting just two places and five points above ahead of their trip to Gresty Road, it really is do-or-die for Davis’ troops.
It’s not a sympathy vote but I do believe the Railwaymen are much better than their pre-match prices and 21/10 on a home victory here isn’t far off scandalous. With such chunky odds on offer, I’m willing to delve deeper and get stuck into the 5/6 from BetVictor available on Crewe with a +0.25 Asian Handicap.
With this selection, we’ll make money should the hosts avoid defeat. We’ll pick up a half-stakes win should the match end all square and collect a full-stakes victory should Crewe come out on top.
Why am I avoiding the Match Odds? Well, as well as the bulbous odds on offer in the Asian Handicap because their inflated Match Odds, it’s worth noting that The Alex have bagged just 18 home wins from their last 64 League One outings across three seasons – that’s not ideal.
It’s true too that Crewe have recorded a solitary success in four months and you could still argue that they’ve yet to recover from the summer exit of the aggressive and physically-imposing Anthony Grant in central midfield. The lack of muscle has often proved Crewe’s undoing.
However, there are positives. The Railwaymen fluffed chances on Saturday but that was only their third blank in 19 games and long-term absentees Harry Davis, George Ray and Billy Bingham are all back and available again. Brad Inman should also return here.
And since late November, Crewe have suffered just three defeats in 11 – seven of those encounters were drawn but with goals being scored and stalemates being recorded, a reminder that we’ll make money if The Alex don’t lose here.
Blackpool’s season has turned into a bit of a rollercoaster, with patches of decent form punctuated by demoralising losing runs. The Seasiders have taken two points from a possible 18 with boss Neil McDonald blasting his side’s ‘rubbish’ second-half display against rivals Oldham last time out.
It was yet another toothless display from McDonald’s men, who have scored just once in five matches. And this week the Tangerines boss admitted his troops face a “massive” task to avoid relegation and must win five of their final nine League One games to do so.
Blackpool’s total of 33 goals is the lowest in League One with the guests failing to register a goal in 17 of their 37 games, including exactly half of their 18 road trips. A W2-D4-L12 effort in those away dates doesn’t exactly provide the travellers with a whole amount of confidence and so I’m happy with a pro-Crewe punt.
Leyton Orient v Morecambe | Saturday 15.00
Kevin Nolan’s guided Leyton Orient to 19 points (W6-D1-L3) from his first 10 matches in management to put the O’s in top-seven contention once more.
The Londoners are outside the play-off positions on goal difference and will hope to strike another blow in their battle for an immediate return to League One by seeing off Morecambe this weekend.
The hosts are rated 4/6 shots to pocket the points but that looks much too short for a side that’s lost three of their last for at Brisbane Road. With Morecambe ending their 10-match winless streak with an excellent away success at Wimbledon, I’m more than happy to walk away from the Match Odds.
Instead, it’s Both Teams To Score that catches the eye here. 888 have made the bet an 11/12 shot and that appears kind when comparing the two teams’ goals and shot data in 2015/16.
Between them, Orient and Morecambe have played 72 league fixtures this term and accumulatively they’ve notched in 61/72 (85%) of those matches. The duo have recorded just 15/72 (21%) clean sheets and that’s led to 48/72 (67%) winning Both Teams To Score selections.
If we drill down to respective home and away records, the O’s and Shrimps have scored in 28/36 (78%) outings, shutting out their opposition in only 8/36 (22%) – 22/36 (61%) of those matches featured successful BTTS bets.
Both clubs feature in the top-10 of League Two’s shots-on-target table in the offensive stakes whilst only Notts County have faced more efforts on-target than Morecambe.
The hosts have captain and defender Mathieu Baudry starting the first of a four-match suspension but can still call upon the league’s top marksman in Jay Simpson.
The visiting Shrimps haven’t kept a clean sheet since January, shipping 23 goals in 13 and are definitely without Aaron Wildig and Adam Dugdale whilst while Chris Doyle and Andy Parrish are doubtful. Nevertheless, Jim Bentley’s boys will fancy their chances of scoring having done so in 63 of their past 82 away days.
Birmingham v Fulham – Birmingham to win (5/4 Netbet)
Birmingham v Fulham – Birmingham/Birmingham Half-Time/Full-Time (11/4 BetVictor)
Crewe v Blackpool – Crewe +0.25 Asian Handicap (5/6 BetVictor)
Leyton Orient v Morecambe – Both Teams To Score (11/12 888)
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