THE new Football League season kicks-off on Friday night as Fulham entertain hot ante-post favourites Newcastle. Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) picks out the best value betting options.
Fulham v Newcastle | Friday 19.45 | Sky Sports 1
It’s been 67 long days since Adebayo Akinfenwa sealed AFC Wimbledon’s League Two play-off final victory over Plymouth at Wembley, bringing the curtain down on another enthralling Football League season.
Yeah, 67 days that has probably felt like 1,067 weeks to some following a pretty mediocre European Championships but we’re back in business from Friday night.
Nothing less than an immediate return to the Premier League will suffice for Newcastle fans and the Toon Army look an attractive option at 11/10 (Coral) to begin life in the second tier with a victory when they visit Craven Cottage.
Understandably, the Geordies have hogged the Championship headlines this summer so I won’t spend too long highlighting the positives in supporting the Magpies here.
No second-tier side has ever been chalked up at a shorter ante-post price than Newcastle and Rafa Benitez’s decision to stay on with the Tyneside outfit has thrilled the fans – the club has reportedly sold more season tickets this summer than they managed at the same time last year.
Pre-season (not that I give two hoots about pre-season results) has been the Magpies’ most successful since 1995 and the Toon have signed an impressive array of Championship-ready talent that appears set to debut here.
However, Aleksandar Mitrovic misses out as he begins the first of a four-match ban carried over from last year. The Serbians suspension should leave the door open for Dwight Gayle – top Crystal Palace goalscorer in the past three campaigns – to partner Ayoze Perez in attack.
In 2009/10 Newcastle hacked up, finishing the second-tier with 102 points and many pundits are predicating a similarly one-sided title race.
When Benitez took charge at St James’s Park on 11th March, the Magpies were already staring relegation in the face but the Champions League winner did guide the club to a decent return of W3-D4-L3 – over the course of a full campaign, their points-per-game return would have seen the Geordies finish 11th.
Of course, the squad has undergone a degree of surgery over the summer but we should assume the Spaniard has put the necessary steps in place to ensure Newcastle are primed and ready for business.
As for Fulham, the hosts are looking to improve on two poor campaigns following Premier League relegation. The Cottagers have posted 17th and 20th-placed finishes since dropping down, shipping an eye-watering 162 goals in the process – that’s 1.76 goals-per-game.
Slavisa Jokanovic has worked tirelessly to address the defensive shortcomings over the summer, bringing in Tomas Kalas on a season-loan from Chelsea and Michael Madl on a permanent deal but I’m not at all confident the boss has managed to plug those leaks just yet.
If Fulham were a shambles at the back, they often impressed going forward. Ross McCormack and Moussa Dembele formed one of the Championship’s deadliest partnerships last season but neither will be wearing the white in 2016/17.
The duo notched 36 of Fulham’s league goals between them – that’s 55% – and moved on to pastures new this summer. Sone Aluko and beanpole Michael Smith will takeover the goal-getting duties but neither can be classed as prolific.
Elsewhere, David Button and Kevin McDonald are tried-and-tested additions in goal and central midfield whilst Floyd Ayite has the potential to make his mark. The ex-Bastia speedster can play from wide or up front but it may take time to adjust to the rigours of English football.
So it's fair to say that Fulham are significantly weaker going forward and it’s still far too early to presume the backline woes are fixed. Only relegated MK Dons lost more home fixtures than the capital club in 2015/16 and with rumours circling that a virus struck down a number of their squad, the Cottagers just have to be opposed.
Fulham v Newcastle – Newcastle to win 1-0, 2-0 or 2-1 (21/10 SkyBet)
Blimey, no messing about from BetBright for the Football League opener.
The Irish firm are offering all new customers a huge 25/1 on Newcastle to beat Fulham on Friday.