FOOTBALL LEAGUE expert Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) shares his selections from Saturday's EFL card.
Fleetwood v Wimbledon | Saturday 15:00
Barcelona produced the greatest European football comeback in history last midweek, only to fall on their sword by sleepwalking to a 2-1 defeat at Deportivo La Coruna a few days later.
Now AFC Wimbledon must attempt to motivate themselves for a devilishly difficult trip to Fleetwood just 90 hours after clinching their first league victory against MK Dons, the club that tried to steal the Wombles’ rich history.
Manager Neil Ardley led his side on a lap of honour around Kingsmeadow after the game as goals from Lyle Taylor and Jake Reeves secured a memorable 2-0 success at the 000-plus capacity crowd.
Speaking post-match, Ardley said “I put a lot of pressure on myself,. I know how everyone feels. We try and play it down like it’s a normal game. The first time here is always going to be tough. There is always going to be a lot of emotion on the night.”
The Wimbledon boss also spoke of the significance of reaching the 50-point mark in AFC’s debut campaign at third-tier level. Ardley reiterated his desire to hit at least 52 points but it’s only natural for the Dons to see standards drop-off as the emotional exertions of Tuesday take their toll.
Fleetwood may have never beaten Wimbledon in the Football League W0-D3-L2 but the Cod Army won’t have a better opportunity to end that record. And Uwe Rosler’s charges are back on track following last weekend’s loss when welcoming fellow promotion-contenders Bolton.
Town were bullied by the Trotters and defended poorly from set-pieces but they bounced back with a 1-0 triumph at Walsall in midweek to keep the hosts in second spot, a point clear of Bolton
Cian Bolger overcame illness to head home the winner in a Man of the Match display with Liverpool loanee Cameron Branngan impressing with his dead-ball deliveries. Rosler was understandably delighted by his team’s performance.
Fleetwood are 11/10 (Bet365) to win here – their shortest-price in 2017 but there’s an argument to suggest they should be even skinnier. No side has collected more League One points in 2017 (30) whilst Town have returned W13-D6-L1 across their past 20 league outings.
The Cod Army have kept clean sheets in five of their past seven games, been beaten just twice in 19 at Highbury (W11-D6-L2) with nine victories recorded in their most recent 13 encounters in front of their home supporters.
Only Sheffield United have dominated the expected goals data more than Fleetwood over the past 16 League One games and they should have enough despite a lengthily injury list to see off a Wimbledon side with one win in 11 road trips (W1-D5-L5).
Rochdale v Gillingham | Saturday 15:00
Rochdale’s winless run now stands at 10 league games (W0-D5-L5 following a stoppage-time loss at Scunthorpe on Tuesday night.
Dale created the best chances in the first-half and could have been a couple of goals in front before Ian Henderson gave Keith Hill’s the lead. However, promotion-chasing Scunthorpe were back on terms nine minutes after the interval before pinching the points late on.
Since a 10-match winning streak at Spotland expired at the end of December, Rochdale have W0-D3-L1 on home soil, shipping 10 goals in the process. Include away matches and Dale have leaked at least twice in each of their last five fixtures.
A play-off push has long since extinguished but another campaign at this level is a certainty and Hill deserves huge credit for keeping the Lancastrians punching above their weight in League One.
On Saturday they welcome a Gillingham outfit that was whacked 4-0 by Bolton on Tuesday evening. That result extended the Kent club’s run without a clean sheet to 16 games; the Gills have only actually shutout their opposition twice all season.
Gillingham were without midfielders Chris Herd, Scott Wagstaff and Josh Wright in midweek and all three are set to miss their trip north. To make matters worse, midfielder Ollie Muldoon picked up a knock in the heavy loss and is also expected to miss out here.
Head coach Ady Pennock refused to blame his players for their Bolton debacle but he’ll have been alarmed at the ease at which the Trotters players enjoyed the upper hand. Three first-half goals were headed efforts from crosses, two of them from corners.
The Gills were 2-1 winners at Bury in their last away day but having suffered nine defeats in 14 road trips recently, I wouldn’t be backing the visitors to repeat the feat here. Instead, a focus on goals looks our best avenue of attack.
Rochdale have seen eight of their last nine at Spotland break the Over 2.5 Goals barrier with seven of their past eight when welcoming bottom-half teams following suit. Meanwhile, Gillingham have surpassed the two-goal line in each of their most recent seven outings, as well as 16 of their last 20 away.
Collectively the pair have rewarded Over 2.5 Goals backers in 46/71 (65%) games this season, including 26/36 (72%) when viewing only home and away matches. Over 2.5 Goals can be backed at 8/11 (BetVictor) – odds that imply a 58% chance of success.
Hartlepool v Wycombe | Saturday 15:00
Hartlepool have lost nine of their last 10 league games against Wycombe but the Monkey Hangers appear underrated for Saturday’s assignment and deserve our support with a +0.50 Asian Handicap start at 8/11 (BetVictor).
Pools have picked up three wins from their last four fixtures (W3-D0-L1) to give their hopes of playing League Two football a huge boost. Before the recent resurgence under Dave Jones, the hosts had accrued only three triumphs in 17.
On Tuesday night the Teesiders ended their rotten road record with a first success in 14 attempts away from Victoria Park, beating Cambridge 1-0; it was Hartlepool’s first points in seven games as guests and naturally, the mood and morale around the club has lifted significantly.
Crewe (4-0) and Exeter (3-1) were well beaten here in recent weeks and only a narrow reverse at Notts County blogs the copybook of Jones’ revived troops over the past month. The hosts have now fired blanks in only four of their 15 outings since Boxing Day and there’s players hitting form across the park.
Lewis Alessandra, Michael Woods and Padraig Amond are all capable of hurting opposition defences, skipper Nicky Featherstone’s been superb in recent weeks and Brad Walker has forged a solid partnership alongside Scott Harrison at centre-back.
Hartlepool are nine points ahead of the dreaded drop zone but Jones wants his team to kick-on, demanding his side to keep their foot on the gas. With players potentially playing for their futures under the veteran boss, we should expect another committed display.
Wycombe have overcome a sticky patch following their FA Cup exit and are unbeaten in four (W1-D3-L0) but it’s just one victory in nine League Two dates (W1-D3-L5) for the Chairboys who continue to be troubled by injuries to key personnel.
Aaron Pierre returned to the team on Saturday with no ill effects but Marcus Bean has joined Paul Hayes, Matt Bloomfield, Scott Kashket and Anthony Stewart on the sidelines ahead of their trip to Teesside.
Gareth Ainsworth’s small squad is looking stretched as they bid to close the five-point gap on the top-seven. However, with just a sole shutout to their name in 10 fixtures and Wanderers averaging just 1.16 goals per-game on their travels, I’m happy to oppose Wycombe this weekend.