FOOTBALL LEAGUE expert Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) reveals his favourite selections from this weekend's EFL action.
Ipswich v Coventry | Saturday 7th March 2020, 15:00
New League One leaders Coventry returned to the top spot for the first time in any division post-Christmas in 53 years, after beating Sunderland 1-0 at St Andrew’s last Sunday. The Sky Blues extended their remarkably consistent campaign with a resolute display against the Black Cats to emulate the legendary side from Jimmy Hill ’s ‘Sky Blue Revolution’ in 1967.
The Midlands club have suffered only three defeats in 33 league fixtures this term and survived a few scares against Sunderland to make it 33 points won from their last 39 available since mid-December (W10-D3-L0). Mark Robins’ men have kept six clean sheets in that 13-game streak, leaking twice or more on only six occasions across the full season.
Cov are underpinned by three outstanding centre-halves in Michael Rose, Kyle McFadzean and Luke Hyam with wing-backs Fankaty Dabo and Sam McCallum providing width in Robins’ 3-4-2-1 system. Liam Walsh and Liam Kelly are valuable in the holding midfield roles whilst Jamie Allen and Callum O’Hare offer support to leading scorer Matty Godden.
It’s a mightily effective unit and Godden’s return to form and fitness has given the Sky Blues the bite and clinical edge in the final-third to turn positive performances into three points on a regular basis. Coventry have now scored in all bar one of their past 20 League One matches and should fancy their prospects of enhancing that record at Ipswich on Saturday.
Ipswich’s nosedive has been quite spectacular. The recently-relegated outfit were topping the table with 33 points from their first 15 games before November’s international break, however, Paul Lambert’s troops have since earned just 19 points from their following 20 games – winning only four times – to drop to ninth and seemingly out of the top-six race.
The Tractor Boys’ chief suggested Town’s two home ties this week against Fleetwood and Coventry were “must win” occasions if the Blues were to force themselves back into the promotion shake-up, although the Suffolk side slumped to a 1-0 reverse at Portman Road on Tuesday night in the first of those two tussles amidst a barrage of abuse and protests.
Chants of ‘Sacked in the morning’ were clear as mud throughout Tuesday’s tussle with owner Marcus Evans also the subject of Town fans' frustrations as they vocalised their displeasure at a slow decline which has seen the club slide from Premier League promotion contenders to the middle of League One under his ownership.
Ipswich were without Cole Skuse, Emyr Huws and Flynn Downes in midweek – Downes remains suspended but Lambert is hopeful of having at least one of Skuse or Huws available here – with leading scorers Kayden Jackson and James Norwood still out. That’s hardly ideal considering the toothless hosts have fired blanks in five of their past eight league outings.
The Suffolk outfit come into this contest having been beaten by Oxford, Peterborough and Fleetwood in three of their last four Portman Road matches, whilst losing six of their last eight (W1-D1-L6) at any venue. Ipswich have pocketed a wretched W1-D7-L7 against fellow top-10 teams and have scored just twice in eight when welcoming the top-nine this term.
It’s hard to have any faith in the hosts in their current clime against a Coventry side well-versed in collecting points across the whole campaign. The Sky Blues have suffered just three league losses in 2019/20 and are great value 4/5 (BetVictor) shots with a +0.25 start on the Asian Handicap line.
Fleetwood v Blackpool | Saturday 7th March 2020, 15:00
The eighth Fylde coast league derby between Fleetwood and Blackpool takes place at Highbury on Saturday afternoon and I’m expecting a full-blooded battle as the Cod Army look to consolidate their promotion challenge in League One, whilst the Tangerines begin a new brand era under former Liverpool U23 boss Neil Critchley.
Fleetwood’s well-earned 1-0 victory at Ipswich on Tuesday boosted Town’s top-six aspirations and Joey Barton’s boys now enter the weekend only four points off second-placed Rotherham. The Cod Army currently have ownership of the final play-off place, but the sixth-placed side still have a game in-hand over three clubs directly above them.
Barton admits he’s still learning on the job although the tempestuous Fleetwood boss has displayed plenty of tactical acumen in recent weeks to keep the Cod Army right on-track despite a devilishly difficult schedule. With Ched Evans and Paddy Madden often hogging the headlines, it’s Town’s ability out of possession that perhaps often goes unnoticed.
Fleetwood have a strong and study centre-half partnership between Harry Souttar and Everton loanee Lewis Gibson and are complimented by experience and guile in the holding midfield roles following the arrival of Glenn Whelan to sit alongside controller Paul Coutts. Meanwhile, Barrie McKay’s arrival has given the midfield and attack a welcome shine.
At Highbury, the Cod Army have suffered a solitary defeat in 23 League One outings stretching back to last season, with the hosts beaten just six times here since Barton took charge (W19-D15-L6). Curiously, the home team has never previously been beaten in seven derby dates with Blackpool (W5-D2-L0) and it’s difficult to oppose Town on Saturday.
Blackpool recently recorded back-to-back 2-1 wins against Ipswich and Bolton under caretaker David Dunn but the Tangerines’ form on the road has been poor with the visitors claiming top honours just twice this term on their travels. Critchley’s appointment promises plenty although it’s hard to see the Seasiders being up to speed in the space of four days.
Even so, you’d presume Blackpool’s players will be keen to make a positive impression, particularly during the derby environment. This fixture has a solid history of producing card-heavy contests with five of the previous seven meetings delivering at least five cards, including each of the most recent four head-to-heads. Two of the last three also saw a red brandished.
John Busby has been given the gig and the referee has averaged 4.00 cards per-game in 2019/20 with 43.91 Bookings Points dished out during the same 23-match league sample, suggesting the high-stakes encounter could lead to a heavy card count. That view is solidified when seeing both Fleetwood and Blackpool amongst the top-10 for CPG and BP.
There are a number of ways we can attack this contest from a cards perspective but my favourite avenue of attack is to back Over 39.5 Bookings Points plus Blackpool to collect Over 9.5 Bookings Points at 21/20 via William Hill’s Build Your Odds function. More adventurous punters should also look at the duo both collecting Over 19.5 BP at 2/1 with bigger odds possible by chucking in Fleetwood to avoid defeat.
Swindon v Forest Green | Saturday 7th March 2020, 15:00
Table-topping Swindon should be backed to produce another strong County Ground display on Saturday when the League Two pacesetters welcome out-of-sorts Forest Green to Wiltshire. The Robins extended their excellent home efforts on Tuesday evening with a pretty comfortable 2-0 triumph against Scunthorpe, a 13th success from 18 outings here.
More recently, Town have taken top honours in 10 of 12 unbeaten league fixtures in front of their home supporters since September with Ritchie Wellens’ troops uber-consistent when taking on the division’s lesser lights. Across all venues, Swindon have posted an exceptional W16-D2-L2 when faced with clubs in 10th or below.
The Robins top League Two’s Expected Goals (xG) and xG open play ratio rankings with Town’s share increasing from impressive 65% figures close to 70% at the County Ground. Wellens is expecting to have Rob Hunt back in action on Saturday and with goal machine Eoin Doyle finding his range once more in midweek, it’s hard to find faults in the league leaders.
With the domineering data Swindon project, the consistently impressive home displays, kind team news, and the fact this side has enjoyed welcome rests in recent weeks due to postponements, suggests they should be fit and ready to fire. I’m amazed Town haven’t already been clipped into much shorter quotes than their current 4/5 (Sportingbet).
In the opposition dressing room, the mood has been moody in recent months. Forest Green’s fans have started to turn on manager Mark Cooper after a rotten run of results has seen the Green Devils slide into mid-table obscurity. The Gloucestershire group have won twice in 20 across all competitions and been beaten in nine of their last 16 league games.
Rovers have been hindered by key injury absentees in 2020 but the team appears to have lost its identity under Cooper. The visitors have earned two points from their most recent eight encounters (W0-D2-L6), have taken just five points from a possible 27 against the top-seven (W1-D2-L6) and recorded three clean sheets in 19 since the start of December.
The cash has come for Swindon pretty significantly at the County Ground in recent months and I expect a similar scenario before Saturday with the Robins well capable of justifying the money move with another strong display at their Wiltshire base.
Ipswich v Coventry – Coventry +0.25 Asian Handicap (4/5 BetVictor)
Fleetwood v Blackpool – Over 39.5 Bookings Points and Blackpool to receive Over 9.5 Bookings Points (21/20 William Hill)
Swindon v Forest Green – Swindon to win (4/5 Sportingbet)