FOOTBALL LEAGUE expert Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) reveals his favourite selections from this weekend's EFL action.
Tranmere v Lincoln | Saturday 14th March 2020, 15:00
Defeat at Wycombe three weeks ago painted a bleak picture for Tranmere. Eight points adrift of safety and winless in 11 games, Rovers were seemingly sleep-walking their way to relegation back to the fourth-tier.
However, three successive league victories have transformed Tranmere’s campaign, leaving the Wirral club just three points shy of survival. The Great Escape is most definitely on and Micky Mellon’s men can continue their upward trajectory with a positive performance against Lincoln at Prenton Park on Saturday.
The Whites rode their luck a little during a midweek triumph against Blackpool but the confidence, belief and resilience built up in such high-pressurised performances should stand Rovers in good stead for the final run-in. For the first time in forever, Mellon has a fully fit squad available, as well as options across the park to rest and refresh.
A savage treatment table and fixture congestion wreaked havoc with Tranmere’s plight through the winter months, although savvy January business by Mellon to bolster the squad with experience has had a huge bearing in their revival. Veteran forward James Vaughan has provided goals with Peter Clarke and Mark Ellis providing leadership from the back.
Tranmere are now a confident outfit, well capable of collecting at least a point this weekend, so take the hosts at 21/10 (BetVictor) with a +0 start on the Asian Handicap, a section that works in the same way as the Draw No Bet market.
The Birkenhead boys have lost just six times in 19 against teams outside of the top-10 (W7-D6-L6) and are up against a Lincoln side with little left to play for, as well as a wretched road record.
The Imps have taken top honours just twice and been beaten in 13 of their 18 away days this term, shipping the opening goal in 14 of their most recent 17 games as guests, trailing at the interval on 12 occasions. Michael Appleton’s men have won once in eight since mid-January and are short on forwards through injuries and January departures.
Morecambe v Plymouth | Saturday 14th March 2020, 15:00
If League Two started in late September, Plymouth would be eight points clear. The Pilgrims took time to adjust to life back in the fourth-tier having overhauled their squad and coaching team following the arrival of Ryan Lowe.
It took Lowe time to put his identity and ideas across to Argyle and naturally the Greens lost ground on the leading pack. Nevertheless, the Devon giants rarely strayed from the overall picture and a strong promotion challenge has since followed with Plymouth averaging 2.07 points per-game from their last 27 league outings (W17-D5-L5).
The Pilgrims’ form at Home Park has been exceptional in that sample but Argyle can also boast a solid W6-D2-L2 return when travelling to teams outside the top-nine. And so the visitors appear slightly underrated for their trip to lowly Morecambe this weekend where Lowe’s charges can be backed in the Draw No Bet market at 7/10 (Marathon).
Plymouth kicked March off with back-to-back 3-0 victories over Grimsby and Macclesfield at their Devon base and deserve to be worthy favourites at the Globe Arena considering they’ve already taken top honours in four of five unbeaten away days at the bottom-eight.
Morecambe – not yet out of the relegation shake-up in League Two – are winless in four and have tabled only three triumphs against the top-14 this term. The Shrimps have improved immeasurably under Derek Adams’ watch although they’re weakened this weekend with the absence of on-loan Burnley attacking midfield Adam Phillips through suspension.
The Green deserve to be much shorter for their trip to the Lancashire coast considering promotion rivals Crewe went off at odds-on quotes here only a fortnight ago.
Macclesfield v Walsall | Saturday 14th March 2020, 15:00
Walsall were a League One mainstay for 12 years but the Saddlers dropped out of the third-tier on the final day of last season following a dour 0-0 draw at Shrewsbury. The club’s board issued an apology to supporters and also promised the club will look to rebuild it’s football philosophy and soon appoint a new manager.
Darrell Clarke – formerly courted by Leeds during a successful stint with Bristol Rovers – was given the gig and set about overhauling the squad. As with many reconstruction projects, growing pains existed and Walsall diehards understandably began to question the direction and process as the Saddlers slumped to 22nd before the November international break.
Six defeats on the spin put Clarke’s position in jeopardy, however, the team regrouped, refocussed and have since enjoyed a largely positive upturn in performance level, as well as results. The Black Country boys have posted W9-D5-L5 in their following 19 encounters – only the top five sides in the division have banked a larger points return in that sample.
Clarke has built from the back with the central partnership of Mat Sadler and Dan Scarr growing in importance, offering the platform for a more youthful midfield to add bite, thrust and tempo. Liam Kinsella has excelled in a variety of roles, whilst Wes McDonald has begun to put in consistent displays from the left wing of Walsall’s largely 4-4-2 system.
Goals had been hard to come by during the Saddlers’ lean spell – notching more than a solitary strike just once in their opening 17 fixtures – but Josh Gordon, Caolan Lavery and Elijah Adebayo have all contributed in the final-third to good effect in recent weeks with Clarke’s charges now firing blanks just three times in that 19-game spell since November.
And Clarke insists there’ll be no let-up with the final furlong in sight. The Walsall chief is keeping his players on their toes, eager to stave off complacency as he encourages competition within the squad, whilst also dampening expectations when questioned about the potential for a late play-off push. So I suspect the Saddlers will be at it on Saturday.
Walsall’s road record is the eighth best in the division (W7-D3-L7) with W7-D1-L3 of that being earned against clubs in seventh and below. Clarke’s side are set up well to absorb pressure, breaking forward and cause opponents problems on the counter, and 4/5 (Marathon) quotes on the visitors in the Draw No Bet market have to appeal here.
Macclesfield boss Mark Kennedy described his side's 3-0 loss at Plymouth last week as ‘an unbelievably harsh result’. The Irishman felt his side, one position off the bottom, played ‘some outstanding football' against the promotion-chasing Pilgrims and was full of admiration for their display considering players had not been paid their February wages.
However, it’s now just two points from a possible 27 for the cash-strapped strugglers (W0-D2-L7), firing blanks in six of those fixtures and keeping a solitary clean sheet since November. The Moss Rose men have been tough opponents in Lancashire but have still managed only five victories here this term and it’s difficult to see that figure enhance here.