MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) analyses Sunday lunchtime’s League One play-off semi-final first leg between Bradford and Millwall.
Bradford v Millwall | Sunday 12.15 | Sky Sports 1
A stunning surge in the final third of the season saw Bradford steam into the top-six and with a 25,000-capacity crowd at Valley Parade behind them here, the Bantams look like major contenders for promotion in the play-offs.
The meticulous Phil Parkinson is the fifth longest-serving manager in England and has brought about year-on-year improvement since taking charge of the Yorkshire club. Finishing in fifth was Bradford’s highest-placed effort since 2004 and the club are keen to continue on their current exploits by beating Millwall.
Only five League One clubs scored fewer goals than the Bantams – three of those sides were relegated – but Parkinson’s built a rugged and resolute squad that’s supremely organised squad at the back. The direct and physical approach won’t win prizes for aesthetics but crucially the group buy-in to the plan and their previous 18 games have gone swimmingly.
No third-tier club picked up more points since early-February (W12-D3-L3) whilst their Valley Parade base has been the benchmark with Parkinson’s charges picking up seven successive home wins – their best run of results since 1968 – shipping just a solitary goal in that spell.
Again, no League One club won more often as hosts (W14-D5-L4) and only Scunthorpe conceded fewer goals on home soil than the Bantams. But Bradford boasted the second-best defensive record in the division and kept 12 clean sheets in those aforementioned final 18 league outings, including seven in their most recent nine.
Even when posed with the league’s leading lights, City have flourished at Valley Parade (W3-D1-L1) whilst Millwall, Walsall, Burton and Scunthorpe have all been dispatched ‘to nil’ across the past two months.
Although the hosts scored more than two goals on just three occasions this season, it’s not like they’ve been scraping victorious in that outstanding 18-game streak. Bradford’s shot ratio figure is above 56% in that sample with their shots-on-target ratio figure at a whopping 67% – now that’s mightily impressive!
But it’s not all sweetness and sunshine. Parkinson is without forward Billy Clarke for at least the first leg whilst talisman striker James Hanson has not trained this week because of his calf problem. Jamie Proctor, Steve Davies and Filipe Morais will all be hoping to get given the nod in Bradford’s preferred 4-4-2 whilst centre-back Reece Burke is another concern.
Visitors Millwall required a last-minute penalty last Sunday to secure fourth-place and the home second leg tie and the Lions will be buoyed by the trend that’s seen four of the last five fourth-placed finishers win promotion via the play-offs in League One.
Like Bradford, the Londoners made a slow start to life in the third-tier but Lions legend Neil Harris managed to get the club firing around mid-October and bar a sloppy five-week spell across December, Millwall have competed competently this term.
The visitors arrive in decent nick with that late strike against Gillingham on the final day making it five successive triumphs and their longer-term form almost match that of Bradford’s – both clubs have picked up six wins in eight but the Lions accumulated one point more than their hosts in 2016.
When taking to the road, the capital club W11-D6-L6, scoring 37 times and only firing blanks on three occasions – again, more than impressive statistics. But there are a few facts that might concern visiting supporters on Sunday.
Millwall only won once in 10 showdowns against fellow top-six sides (W1-D4-L5) and it’s curious to see that the guests collected 84% of their points total against teams in 10th and below. Against the top-nine, the Lions W3-D4-L9 including W2-D2-L4 on their travels.
Harris has a relatively young and enthusiastic side that’s disciplined in their 4-4-2 formation, similar to that of Bradford. The Londoners look to break fast but there’s an accusation they rely too heavily on Steve Morrison and Lee Gregory in attack with the pair responsible for 45% of Millwall’s goals.
Fantastic right-back Mahlon Romeo is missing through suspension this weekend but otherwise the away side should be able to field near-enough a full strength XI. However, I’d expect the guests to play on the counter with defences dominating, as they did in the two previous league meetings.
Just a solitary goal separated the two teams with Bradford’s 1-0 success in March following on from October’s 0-0 stalemate and the similarities in approach, mind-set and physicality could leave to another cancelling-out encounter.
Since 2000/01 home teams have W7-D14-L9 in League One play-off semi-final first legs with just 4/20 (20%) wins in matches since 2005/06. It’s an unsettling statistic if you’re feeling pro-Bradford and with the risk of both first-choice strikers and a key centre-half missing, I’m happy to leave the hosts alone.
Instead, the 0-0 half-time correct score again stands out at 31/20 (Coral). It’s proven profitable in 14/30 (47%) of League One play-off semi-final first legs whilst Bradford have shipped just three first-half home goals all season, and Millwall have trailed at the break in just three of their away days this term.
If you’re still keen on backing Bradford, consider the Draw-Bradford option at 5/1 (BetVictor) or the 1-0 correct score at 6/1 (BetVictor) – 11/46 (24%) of the Bantams’ regular season matches ended in 1-0 wins.
Bradford v Millwall – 0-0 half-time correct score (31/20 Coral)