FOOTBALL LEAGUE expert Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) has enjoyed a profitable fortnight in domestic action. Here he highlights his favourite three Boxing Day selections.
Barnsley v Blackburn | Boxing Day 15:00
Ryan Williams scored his first goal for Barnsley in the 95th minute to seal a dramatic 4-3 win for the Tykes at Cardiff last Saturday.
The Reds had led 3-1 until 10 minutes from time but were pegged back to 3-3 before Williams’ intervention. The victory was Barnsley’s fifth on their travels this season with only Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle scoring more away goals.
Paul Heckingbottom kept the same side that lost at Sheffield Wednesday four days earlier and it paid dividends. Although the South Yorkshire team were well beaten in the shot count 22-10, the Tykes proved a real menace when they ventured forward creating three golden goalscoring opportunities.
The newly-promoted side – who were rock-bottom of League One on 1st December 2015 – were rampant during the early stanza of the season before Heckingbottom introduced a more pragmatic style of play.
Barnsley packing a punch
Barnsley aren’t quite the same gung-ho outfit that started the campaign but the Oakwell outfit still pack a knockout punch when it comes to the final third, particularly through Conor Hourihane’s wicket set-piece delivery.
Twelve (32%) of the Reds’ Championship goals have arrived via headers with all three of their goals at Birmingham recently arriving via headers and dead-ball situations.
Captain Hourihane is subject of much speculation with his contract expiring in the summer and the Irishman has played a leading role in eight goals in only 15 appearances from midfield.
Meanwhile, star striker Sam Winnall – also out of contract in June – has found his goalscoring touch. The ex-Scunthorpe hitman has bagged two braces in the past fortnight to take his tally to nine for the season, and five in his last five.
Back Barnsley to bag a couple
Barnsley have only won once at Oakwell since August but instead of backing the Tykes to topple Blackburn, I’m much more interested in the 6/5 (William Hill) available on the Reds to score Over 1.5 Goals on Boxing Day.
Exclude the top-six and Heckingbottom’s men have notched at least twice in 13/16 games this season. Only Newcastle have scored more goals in the second-tier and Barnsley’s 1.39 expected goals rate is well above the divisional average
What’s more, only Fulham, Bristol City and Newcastle have fired in more shots than the Tykes with the hosts also averaging a strong 7.90 shots from inside the opposition penalty box since promotion.
Rovers’ defensive woes
Only Nottingham Forest and Rotherham have returned a higher expected goals rate against than Blackburn’s 1.54 per-game, with Rovers also facing the league’s second-highest number of shots from inside their own penalty box.
Owen Coyle’s charges are conceding over two golden opportunities per-game and arrive at Oakwell following three successive 3-2 defeats. The Scottish boss is adamant his team aren’t far away from clicking but continues to bemoan basic defensive errors.
Blackburn have played the Championship’s top-four in their last five outings and have certainly improving upon their abysmal early season efforts. All but one of Rovers’ last 22 games have been decided by a single goal but the Lancashire side’s inability to stop conceding goals is halting progress.
Rovers have now used 10 different central defensive partnerships, albeit mainly down to unavailability and on Boxing Day the visitors will be without captain Jason Lowe in midfield through suspension, Danny Guthrie, Elliott Ward, Adam Henley and Tommie Hoban.
Charlie Mulgrew and Corry Evans are hoping to be fit in time and whilst I’d fancy Blackburn to make a game of it, I’d be very keen in keeping Barnsley onside, especially in the goals markets.
Fleetwood v Bury | Boxing Day 15:00
Bury boss Chris Brass was left exasperated after seeing the Shakers extend their club-record losing streak to 12 matches last weekend against Oxford.
The men from Manchester twice surrendered a lead before an own goal 19 minutes from time handed the U’s victory. Brass promptly pleaded for patience as attempts to plot a way out of the dreaded bottom-four.
Individual errors have been a key factor in Bury’s nightmare run of results. With no clean sheet in 24 outings, Brass dropped goalkeeper Ben Williams – who had started every game this season – and handed reserve stopper Paul Rachubka his Shakers debut.
But a sixth successive Gigg Lane revere – another club-record losing streak – has left Bury in 22nd just three months after sitting pretty in second in September.
Shakers struggling at the back
Boxing Day’s visitors to Highbury have shipped 34 goals in their run of 12 defeats and are facing an average of 14.83 shots per-game in the sample. No wonder they’ve only managed to stop their opposition scoring in two of their 28 games this term.
Having shipped at least three goals in six of their past seven League One dates, it’s difficult to find the faith in Brass plugging those gaps here and Fleetwood are understandable odds-on favourites here.
Bury have been beaten in 20/34 (59%) of away days since promotion, averaging over 2.00 goals per-game against. Meanwhile, this term the guests have played 11 fixtures against top-half teams, losing on each occasion.
What’s more, impressive teenage defender Jacob Bedeau and star midfielder Danny Mayor were forced off against Oxford, adding to Brass’ current injury and suspension woes for Monday.
Fleetwood flying high
In contrast, the morale and mood at Fleetwood couldn’t be better. Uwe Rosler has taken the Cod Army up to eighth despite only arriving three days before the start of the new season.
Town are only two points shy of the play-off places and the German boss was pleased with his side after they ground out a third successive away draw to extend their unbeaten streak to eight (W4-D4-L0).
Fleetwood may have won only twice on their travels this season but at Highbury the hosts are a different beast, winning each of their past seven outings on the spin. In League One action, the Cod Army have W7-D3-L1 on home soil, scoring at least twice on nine occasions.
Rosler’s troops are the only side in the four English divisions to score in every game and their return of seven victories in nine when welcoming bottom-six opposition looks even better when you consider Town bagged six of those triumphs by at least a two-goal margin.
Attack the goals alongside a home win
But rather than back the straight home win, I’m attacking two different angles – Fleetwood to win and Over 1.5 Goals (11/10 BetStars) plus Fleetwood to win and Both Teams To Score (12/5 BetVictor).
Only two third-tier teams have scored more goals than Fleetwood’s 34 but it’s worth noting that eight of their last nine league fixtures featured both sides notching. Overall, 16/22 (73%) of League One outings have delivered for Both Teams To Score backers.
It’s a similar theme for Bury. Despite their dreadful run, the Shakers are scoring goals. James Vaughan and Tom Pope are a strong pairing in attack and the visitors have notched an impressive 32 goals already this season with the same 16/22 (73%) figure rewarding BTTS hunters.
We’ll make money should Fleetwood win by any score other than 1-0 – collectively only 4/44 (9%) of league games this season involving the two clubs have concluded with Under 1.5 Goals and each of the Cod Army’s last 17 home victories produced at least two goals.
Stevenage v Cambridge | Boxing Day 15:00
Cambridge made their worst ever start to a Football League season (W0-D3-L5) and were rooted to the bottom of the League Two table in late September when letting a 1-0 lead slip against fellow strugglers Morecambe. The U’s were three points adrift and Shaun Derry’s position was under serious threat.
But huge kudos to the Cambridge board and Derry himself – the club have dramatically transformed their season and move into the play-off positions just 12 games later.
Last Saturday’s 2-1 victory over Crewe illustrated the confidence and mental fortitude in Derry’s ranks with Cambridge buying their time before beating The Alex with two ruthless second-half strikes, including a wonder goal from defender Greg Taylor.
The three points was the U’s ninth success in 13 League Two outings – only four clubs have picked up more points than Cambridge (28) in a 13-game spell and their current run of four consecutive triumphs is their best in the Football League since 1999.
System change has worked wonders
Boxing Day’s hosts have scored 14 goals in their past four fixtures when excluding the guff EFL Trophy and Derry’s reaping the rewards for being brave enough to tinker with his systems before finding the right approach.
Luke Berry’s been moved into a number 10 role with the unplayable Uche Ikpeazu dominating defences as a lone striker in Cambridge’s 4-2-3-1. Derry also reserved special praise for James Dunne’s contribution to the transformation in a defensive midfield role.
Cambridge haven’t been shy in picking up positive results on the road, either. The U’s have suffered only eight defeats in 25 road trips under Derry (W11-D6-L8), collected 16 points from a possible 18 outside of The Abbey and W5-D2-L3 away this term overall – two losses arriving at Plymouth and Doncaster.
The visitors have conceded either one or no goal at all in eight of their 10 away days and boast an outstanding W9-D3-L3 record when taking on teams outside of the top-seven this season. All in all, Cambridge look excellent value at 4/5 (Bet365) with a +0.25 Asian Handicap start.
There’s no doubt Stevenage have improved drastically on last season and Darren Sarll deserves special praise for such progress. The 33 year-old has raised the professional standards at Broadhall Way and his cavalier approach to matches has reaped rewards, especially in games as guests.
Stevenage’s home horrors
However, Stevenage have struggled with inconsistency as hosts. Under Sarll, the home side have claimed only five victories in 19 at Broadhall Way, keeping only five clean sheets in that sample.
The Hertfordshire club have W3-D1-L6 at home this season but failed shutout any of their opposition, shipping at least two goals in seven of those 10 encounters. Only struggling Morecambe have conceded more home goals.
In fact, only three League Two sides have leaked more often than Stevenage, just four teams have faced more shots and only five clubs have returned a worse shot ratio return than Boro’s 45.43%.
Sarll’s welcomed the return of Steven Schumacher to the midfield after a year out of action and Matt Godden’s arrival from Ebbsfleet in the summer has added much needed firepower to the attack but Stevenage’s inability to stop the flow of goals going the other way could prove their undoing here.
Sure, Boro have bagged a remarkable six successive away wins but they’ve been beaten in six of their last 10 when welcoming top-half teams and we only need Cambridge to pinch a point to make money on Monday.
Barnsley v Blackburn – Barnsley to score Over 1.5 Goals (6/5 William Hill)
Fleetwood v Bury – Fleetwood to win and Over 1.5 Goals (11/10 BetStars)
Fleetwood v Bury – Fleetwood to win and Both Teams To Score (12/5 BetVictor)
Stevenage v Cambridge – Cambridge +0.25 Asian Handicap (4/5 Bet365)