WHO will seal their place in the League Two play-off final? After a thrilling 2-2 draw at Fratton Park, Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) analyses the Sunday night odds.
Plymouth v Portsmouth | Sunday 18.00 | Sky Sports 1
We couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the 2015/16 Football League play-offs as Portsmouth and Plymouth played out a fabulously thrilling 2-2 first leg draw at Fratton Park on Thursday night.
The fixture had it all – early goals, plenty of goalmouth action, crunching challenges, controversy, dust-ups and eye-catching goals. Who said the first leg of the Football League play-offs tend to be tight and tense affairs? Guilty.
Both camps spoke positively post-match regarding their prospects of reaching Wembley but neutrals will know it was Portsmouth who looked the most likely. Having seen their early lead wiped out, Pompey restored parity in the second-half and looked much the more likely to seal a winner.
Manager Paul Cook was seething with the referee but still found time to praise his team in the aftermath although their ponderous and narrow first 45-minute display wasn’t quite what the doctor ordered. After the interval, Portsmouth injected pace and width to their game, pushing Plymouth back.
Whilst Argyle counter-attacked in bursts through the impressive playmaking abilities of Graham Carey during a vibrant first-half performance, the Pilgrims more or less shut up shop in the second with boss Derek Adams admitting home full-backs Ben Davies and Enda Stevens kept the guests pinned back.
Coming into this contest, the intriguing trend that caught most pundits eyes were the abilities of both teams to perform better on the road, especially when facing top-seven clubs. Argyle managed 10 points on their travels to the top-seven (W3-D1-L2) but only five when welcoming the same opposition to Home Park (W1-D2-L3).
In fact, Plymouth’s record in front of their home fans has been a little off colour since mid-November (W6-D2-L7) and the hosts have returned rather unflattering W3-D3-L7 figures when taking on teams in 14th and above at Home Park.
In League Two play-off semi-final second legs, the home side have W10-D9-L11 since 2000/01 and although a large partisan crowd will back the Pilgrims on Sunday night, I just get the impression they could be in for a night of disappointment.
Like Argyle, Portsmouth failed to deliver consistently at home to the top-seven (W1-D2-L3) but Cook’s charges displayed a real mean streak when pitching up at the same clubs, taking 16 points from a possible 18 (W5-D1-L0) away.
Pompey W7-D3-L1 at top-half teams and make the journey west on the back of a hot W5-D1-L1 streak on their travels. And Cook’s confidence in his troops can be seen in his pre-match dealings with the press with the Portsmouth gaffer promising to go on the offensive here.
Cook said, “Plymouth have got a big decision to make. Either come on to us or sit off. It’s not my call. I don’t manage them.
“We’re going to play. We’re going to go off our front foot and we’re going to attack. We’re going to take the game to them from the first minute. Let’s get on with it.”
I’m not a big fan of the chubby Scouser but I admire his bullish nature and that can only rub off positively on his expensively-assembled squad. Having scored in each of their last eight away days – as well as 11 games on the spin at all venues – and having triumphed 2-1 at Home Park already this term, I’m favouring Pompey (2/1 SkyBet).
But considering the last six meetings between these two teams have featured Over 2.5 Goals winners, as well as nine of Plymouth’s past 10, adding the goals angle to the away hunch for a 7/2 (Paddy Power) shot is more of an appetising play.
After all, there is a slight 16/30 (53%) bias towards Over 2.5 Goals winners in second leg play-off ties at this level and neither side have been particularly proficient at keeping clean sheets in recent weeks – just six across the previous 20 cumulative fixtures and five in 23 on Pompey's travels.
Finally, the white-host first fixture at Fratton Park could easily have seen two Argyle players sent off on Thursday. Still, Pilgrims assistant manager Paul Wotton and Cook were both dismissed for a touchline confrontation and there’s real potential for another ill-tempered tie here.
There was a strong under-current in the build-up to the semi-final first leg that Portsmouth felt Argyle ‘over-celebrated' when they won 2-1 in the regular season meeting at Fratton Park back on 16th April.
So with only four sides receiving more yellow cards than Plymouth this term and Portsmouth picking up a league-high seven red cards, a wee interest in a Sending Off at 17/5 (William Hill) could well prove profitable as the tie enters the dying embers and passions run high.
Plymouth v Portsmouth – Portsmouth to win and Over 2.5 Goals (7/2 Paddy Power)
Plymouth v Portsmouth – Sending Off In Match ‘Yes’ (17/5 William Hill)