FOOTBALL LEAGUE expert Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) runs the rule over Sunday's League Two play-off semi-final first leg between Blackpool and Luton.
Blackpool v Luton | Sunday 18:30 | Sky Sports
Luton spent just one week in January outside of the top-seven positions of League Two this season and seven weeks inside the automatic promotion places but the Hatters start the play-offs as favourites to clinch a place in League One.
In a campaign that promised plenty, Town were made to pay for a sloppy 12-game spell through February and March (W3-D6-L3). Despite losing two fewer games than all their fourth-tier rivals, Nathan Jones’ men were handicapped by their inability to turn stalemates into victories.
Jones – linked with the managerial vacancy at Wigan – sighted his side’s poor clean sheet return when analysing his team’s performance and having shutout only six opposition sides since Boxing Day, it’s easy to understand the coach’s frustration.
Luton’s defensive question marks
Luton have conceded an average of 1.20 expected goals (xG) per-game this term – comfortably superior to their top-six rivals – and the Hatters have shipped the second-fewest goals in the division. But Jones believes his defence are losing focus when it matters most.
So expect the visitors from Bedfordshire to arrive primed and ready to play for 90 minutes on Sunday. With key striker Danny Hylton back from a ban, plus attackers Isaac Vassell and Jack Marriott in goalscoring form, Luton’s success will surely depend on their ability to stay focussed.
The Hatters were too naïve when going down 3-2 to Oxford in the semi-finals of the Checkatrade Trophy but that big-game experience should prove pivotal over two legs, as will their recent memories of meeting Blackpool.
Luton did the double over the Tangerines this term but the most recent encounter at Kenilworth Road was a close affair, settled by a last-minute Hatters winner. Although the guests are unbeaten in seven (W5-D2-L0) I’m sure Jones would settle for a share of the spoils before going again next week.
Highly-rated full-back James Justin is a major doubt but Alan Sheehan should return to bolster the ranks with the Luton boss still pondering whether to persist with his new 3-5-2 system or return to a flat-back four should Justin miss out.
Blackpool battling back
Six years ago, Blackpool were battling for Premier League survival. Turmoil on and off the pitch resulted in back-to-back relegations for the Seasiders and the size of the task facing Gary Bowyer when he accepted the manager's job last summer appeared enormous.
While the off-field issues do not look like being resolved any time soon, with a major court case looming, the 45-year-old has stabilised things on the pitch and Blackpool are preparing for the play-offs after a solid campaign in League Two.
Although the hosts only punctured the top-seven for 51 days across the campaign, they also appeared capable. There’s a strong spine to the side and should the likes of Brad Potts, Nathan Delfouneso and Neil Danns provide the ammunition, in-form Mark Cullen could prove decisive in the final-third.
Blackpool have beaten both Doncaster and Plymouth during the run-in and have taken top honours in six of 12 meetings with top-seven sides so the warning signs are already their for Luton.
Bowyer’s boys have W5-D8-L1 in their last 14 with their penchant for draws – like their visitors – proving their downfall in their bid to progress this season. The Lancashire have picked up a point on 16 occasions during the regular campaign and another is likely to be on the cards here.
Blackpool do have forward Jamille Matt back and top scorer Kyle Vassell also fit enough to feature and so I’m well tempted by the 10/13 (10BET) available on Both Teams To Score but instead I’ll keep my eggs in the one basket and back the draw at 49/20 (Marathon).
Blackpool v Luton – Draw (49/20 Marathon)