MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) analyses the odds ahead of the Championship play-off semi-final first leg between Derby and Hull.
Derby v Hull | Saturday 12.30 | Sky Sports 1
Both Derby and Hull supporters will be ruing ‘what could have been’ had their respective teams displayed the consistency required to finish in the top-two of the Championship having carved out table-topping positions.
The Rams led the second-tier on Boxing Day but a peculiar season saw novice manager Paul Clement sacked in early February following an eight-match winless streak.
Starting the season as ante-post favourites, for the third successive season they fluffed a promising position to find themselves in the play-offs. Darren Wassall eventually rallied the troops sufficiently to cement a top-six place but Derby’s W8-D3-L4 form since mid-February hasn’t always convinced.
The Rams fielded their best XI in the campaign concluder against Ipswich last weekend and suffered a rather bland 1-0 home loss. However, influential holding midfielder George Thorne broke a leg in that Ipswich defeat, a result that interrupted the hosts’ five-match winning streak at the iPro as well as potentially knocking confidence in the Rams’ ranks.
Still, there are plenty of positives. For starters, Derby dispatched Hull 6-0 across their two regular season meetings, including a 4-0 stuffing handed out here last month. And with only four goals conceded across their last nine when entertaining Championship opposition, their possession-centric structure gives the side a solid base.
County have W2-D4-L0 when playing against play-off rivals but their ball-keeping 4-3-3 system does have its negatives. As seen against Ipswich, the Rams can often struggle to breakdown teams who defend deep and put numbers behind the ball, so the blueprint has already been laid out for Hull.
When the Tigers were outclassed at the iPro 39 days ago (and in Hull’s home defeat to Derby earlier in the season), the Rams enjoyed the upper hand in midfield because their energy and movement was better, allowing their expensively-assembled side to feed their aggressive front-three.
The visitors are sure to offer more resistance this time around with both Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore are experienced and competent performers patrolling the Tigers midfield. However, the Humbersiders will need to shake-off a series of below-par performances.
Only nine of Hull’s 24 triumphs have come on their travels and City have W1-D1-L4 in their most recent six games as guests. Go back further and Steve Bruce’s side have been beaten in eight of their most recent 14 on the road whilst notching only 22 goals in away league dates all season.
Hull managed just a solitary goal in six (W0-D3-L3) at fellow play-off sides and returned just two shutouts in 14 across all competitions but in fairness to Bruce’s boys, the boss has tinkered with his team a little too often in recent weeks.
The Tigers bounced back with a bang last weekend, demolishing Rotherham 5-1 with their best XI on show and with a squad packed full of experienced international performers, the pressure shouldn’t really be an issue for the visitors.
Hull are at their best when they attempt to keep things tight and compact and I’d be surprised if Bruce let his squad off the leash on Saturday.
Like in the majority of the Tigers’ matches against leading Championship lights, the guests may wish to drop deep and focus on keeping their sheets clean before backing themselves to get the job done in the second leg.
First legs of Championship play-off semi-finals do tend to be tight affairs and with Hull seeing a huge 17/23 (71%) of their away dates delivering fewer than three goals and Derby following suit in 15/23 (65%) (as well as nine of their most recent 11) at the iPro, goals could be in short supply.
One goal could well be enough to settle this fixture so rather than take teeny odds on fewer than three goals, I’ll have a bite on Under 1.5 Goals at 13/8 BetVictor). In the regular season, the pair produced 16/46 (35%) winners in this market in their respective home/away matches so with the added tension of the play-offs, I reckon this could prove a profitable avenue.
And again, I’m a fan of supporting the goalless first-half at 29/20 (Coral) considering Hull have scored just five first-half goals on the road whilst Derby have led at the interval as hosts on just eight occasions.