WILL Walsall bounce back from their crushing 3-0 defeat to Barnsley in this League One play-off semi-final second leg? Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) takes a look at the odds.
Walsall v Barnsley | Thursday 19.45 | Sky Sports 1
It’s no groundbreaking statement to say the Football League play-offs are a cruel mistress. This week alone we’ve seen Brighton and Accrington fall at the semi-final hurdle despite finishing a superb regular season on the fringes of automatic promotion.
Walsall, coming off their best campaign in over 10 years, now look like joining the Seasiders and Stanley in suffering a sodden summer, wondering about what could have been after falling to an emphatic 3-0 reverse to Barnsley in the first leg of this League One play-off semi-final.
No team in play-off history has ever overturned a three-goal first-leg deficit and that damaging defeat has left the Saddlers hopes of reaching Wembley dangling by the tiniest of threads. Interim manager Jon Whitney remains wonderfully optimistic but odds north of 10/1 on Walsall qualifying appear flattering.
Former gravedigger Whitney sent out a tweet asking for the fans to ‘ramp up the heat’ at the Bescot on Thursday night and although Derby displayed ample battling qualities on Tuesday in their own efforts to wipe out a 3-0 deficit, it’s difficult to see the Midlanders follow suit.
Only twice this season have the Saddlers scored at least three goals on home soil and their four fixtures against fellow top-six finishers this calendar year have seen the hosts go down by an aggregate score of 1-13.
Indeed, since Dean Smith departed, the Saddlers have dropped off when taking on the league’s elite – just six points have been picked up from a possible 24 against top-eight clubs and W2-D3-L6 recorded against top-half teams this year.
League One teams at home in the second leg of the play-offs do boast an impressive W16-D6-L8 return going back over the years, losing just once since 2008/09. But Walsall’s Bescot form in 2016 against all league opponents reads a far from impressive W4-D3-L4.
Whitney’s unrelenting positivity and motivational attributes will give the side confidence but it remains to be seen whether he’ll opt to change a system that failed so convincingly on Saturday. Walsall’s 4-1-4-1 with Milan Lalkovic, Romaine Sawyers, Kieron Morris and Anthony Forde behind lone striker Tom Bradshaw left the forward isolated and the Midlanders frail up top.
The Saddlers had their chances but their free-flowing offensive football and dynamic link-up play was limited as they failed to deal with Barnsley’s aggressive high press that encouraged Whitney’s charges to go long. Bradshaw’s not a target man and the Tykes got their tactics spot on.
It’s remarkable to think the visitors were rock-bottom of the League One table at the start of December – especially considering Walsall were table-topping at Christmas – but Barnsley’s rise has shown no sign of stopping.
Paul Heckingbottom looks likely to field the same starting XI for the fifth straight match with the Yorkshire outfit bidding to extend their unbeaten streak to eight here (W4-D3-L0). Barnsley have W16-D5-L3 this calendar year and across their final 23 regular season fixtures, posted shot ratio figure above the 63% mark.
Saturday’s 3-0 success saw the visitors swift counter-attacks kill Walsall in the final third as forwards Sam Winnall and Ashley Fletcher caused havoc amongst the Saddlers defence. The Tykes enjoyed just 41% of possession yet dominated proceedings at Oakwell.
The 2015/16 Football League Trophy champions have especially thrived on the road, losing just once since November, and that dates back to February. The guests have claimed top honours five six of their most recent eight away days (W5-D3-L0), shutting out five of their hosts along the way.
Only once in 12 seasons has the team finishing sixth in the third tier gone on to win the play-offs (2008/2009) but Barnsley look destined for a date at Wembley at the end of the month with the Tykes more than capable of riding out an expected Walsall storm on Thursday night.
Home boss Whitney suggested Walsall fans should be watching Bambi and listening to Ellie Goulding in preparation for the encounter but I just feel Barnsley’s extra nous and momentum will aid their chance of a counter-attacking sucker-punch and give the guests a strong platform to avoid defeat here.
Barnsley +0.25 (22/23 BetVictor) appeals – we’ll be paid out in full should the visitors clinch a second leg victory but also bank half of that potential profit if the game ends all square.
And I’ll also have a nibble on Over 2.5 Goals at 7/10 (BetVictor) – it’s proven a successful formula in 17/30 (57%) of second leg League One play-off ties with 9/30 (30%) also creeping over the four-goal threshold.