FOOTBALL LEAGUE expert Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) returns to share his favourite fancies from Saturday's coupon.
Barnsley v Wolves | Saturday 13th January 2018, 15:00
Wolves made six changes for their FA Cup tie against Swansea last weekend and the runaway Championship league leaders were the better team for large swathes of the encounter despite playing for almost a third of the match with 10 men.
Nuno Espirito Santo’s side were held to a 0-0 draw by the Premier League strugglers but played with the same style and swagger in their standard 3-4-3 formation to suggest even their second-string would be good enough to compete in the upper echelons of the second-tier.
The Old Gold are clearly going places; we’ve all written Wanderers off as Championship title winners already – they’re 12 points clear of second-place and 14 points clear of third and on course to surpass the all-time Championship points record of 106 amassed by Reading in 2005/06.
And the odds-makers agree that Nuno’s side are a cut above the rest. Swansea were as big as 5/1 to beat Wolves at Molineux seven days ago – that’s the biggest-ever price for a Premier League team against lower-league opposition in the FA Cup this century and suggests Wanderers would be at home in the top-flight.
The way in which Wolves swept an impressive Brentford aside in their last Championship outing served as a reminder to what they’re capable of and the Old Gold have strengthened their squad further with the addition of Rafa Mir. His signing will lessen the load on Leo Bonatini and provide yet more attacking options for Nuno between now and May.
Naturally, I’m big on Wolves to pick up maximum points here. The visitors have W8-D2-L0 in their last 10 Championship clashes and secured nine victories from 13 road trips already this season. Exclude the top-seven and Wanderers have recorded a mightily impressive W15-D3-L1 in league encounters.
It would be harsh to describe Wolves as flat-track bullies but Nuno’s men possess far too much quality for what’s been a weak Championship renewal. Unfortunately the 8/11 on the away win has been hovered up but add Under 4.5 Goals to the equation and we can back the Wolves win at 9/10 with BetStars.
Only five of Wanderers’ matches this season have produced five or more goals whilst only one of their games as guests has been similarly high-scoring, unsurprising with the table-toppers silencing seven of their 13 hosts thus far.
Beleaguered Barnsley are keeping their heads just above water but head coach Paul Heckingbottom was critical of his team’s defending as they exited the FA Cup with a 4-1 thrashing at Millwall last time out. The Tykes took the lead and played well for half an hour before crumbling under the Lions pressure.
Joe Williams saw red in that contest and will now be banned for the Reds who also have Andy Yiadom and Ryan Hedges missing through injury. Elsewhere, Harvey Barnes and Ike Ugbo have returned to their parent clubs following loan spells so Barnsley’s options are limited coming into the weekend.
Kieffer Moore has been signed to provide overdue firepower for a side that’s failed to score in six of their last 10 matches with Barnsley’s form from Bonfire Night reading a worrying W1-D4-L6.
With the Reds losing all seven meetings with top-seven teams this term – firing blanks in five – and only Sunderland and Burton (8) collecting fewer home points than Barnsley (13) – I’m not holding out too much hope for Saturday.
Doncaster v Plymouth | Saturday 13th January 2018, 15:00
We profited from Plymouth’s remarkable resurgence last weekend and there’s absolutely no reason why we should desert the Pilgrims for this weekend’s trip to Doncaster either.
Derek Adams’ army were rock-bottom of League One less than a month ago but a seven-match unbeaten streak (W5-D2-L0) alongside only two defeats in 15 (W8-D5-L2) have lifted the Greens into the top-half of the table after a wretched start to life back in the third-tier.
Argyle have found their range in forward areas with Ryan Taylor linking superbly with silky Ruben Lameiras and wondergoal specialist Graham Carey in support and the visitors have now found the back of the net in their last nine outings following last weekend’s excellent 3-0 stuffing of Bury.
Toumani Diagouraga signed off his short-term deal with a goal in that success and although the powerhouse midfielder will be missed, Plymouth deserve much more respect in the market than their current odds of 5/1 to win this fixture.
Goalkeeping woes and a lack of luck clouded their opening stanza whilst poor performance data has put off professional punters but that’s the Plymouth way under Adams. The Pilgrims have remained mightily competitive under the Scotsman’s watch and their big price gives us wriggleroom to support the Greens here.
Plymouth can be backed with a +1 start on the Asian Handicap line at 8/11 (BetVictor) and that’s just too generous to overlook. Basically, if Argyle are beaten by a solitary strike, we’ll see our stake returned with a draw or away victory paying-out as a winner.
The Devon outfit have been beaten just once on the road since September – by a solitary goal at play-off chasing Portsmouth – as well as winning at high-flying Bradford and holding Blackburn at Ewood Park. Only four of their 27 matches have ended in defeat by two goals or more.
Doncaster have been on a decent run themselves, in fairness. Darren Ferguson’s group were only beaten twice in 11 league dates since October to climb into the top-half of the League One table and last weekend’s FA Cup exit at home to Rochdale disappointed supporters.
Rovers were suffocated by Dale’s 3-6-1 formation with the Lancashire outfit allowing Doncaster no time on the ball. Playmaker Jordan Houghton, at the base of Donny’s 4-4-2 diamond failed to have any influence and Alfie Beestin, at the tip, was ineffectual with little room to breathe in possession.
Ferguson, famed for his flexibility in terms of his formations, stuck to 4-4-2 for the vast majority of this game and the Reds lacked width and penetration. The boss bemoaned poor finishing but there was a suggestion his side appeared a little jaded too and Argyle are unlikely to give Donny a moment’s rest.
Loan star Ben Whiteman completed a move to the Keepmoat Stadium in midweek, a welcome permanent arrival, but the hosts are still lacking a little at left-back whilst their record on home soil is also questionable.
Doncaster have only five of 13 outings here, four of which arrived against clubs occupying 17th position or lower. Their return of W1-D4-L2 against the rest suggests they struggle when coming up against League One’s finest and Plymouth have the potential to diminish that record further.
Gillingham v Rochdale | Saturday 13th January 2018, 15:00
Gillingham meet Rochdale on Saturday keen to avenge a 3-0 thumping at Spotland back in September. That dire performance resulted in Ady Pennock’s reign as manager coming to a close and the Kent club appearing doomed in their battle against relegation.
Director of Football and club legend Peter Taylor took charge temporarily but after picking up a sole point from a possible nine, the ex-England coach decided to walk away. First-team coach Steve Lovell was given supervision of the first team with Gills chairman Paul Scally reiterating his desire to bring in someone “a little bit off the wall”.
It turned out, the star candidate had just been given his big break. Lovell first applied for the Gillingham job back in 1993; Glenn Roeder was given the nod ahead of him and although he’s been interested ever since, a break never came.
His first fixture in control came against an enterprising Peterborough side in mid-October. The Gills won 1-0 and the good form has continued with the Kent club recording W6-D6-L2 under Lovell’s tutelage; the excellent turnaround has seen the hosts rise from rock-bottom to 16th and three points off mid-table.
Last time out (on New Year’s Day) Gillingham recorded their maiden success at Charlton with Lovell’s meticulous planning and preparation receiving rave reviews from the inside of the Priestfield Stadium. The Gills boss (now permanent manager) is happy to tweak his formations several times during matches and such influence has had an overwhelmingly positive effective.
The Gillingham supremo is aware their return of only two home league victories isn’t good enough but the hosts have W1-D5-L1 in their last seven here and such improvement means supporting the home side with a +0.25 Asian Handicap at 3/4 (BetVictor) is the way to go.
We’ll make money should Gillingham avoid defeat – they’ve lost twice in 14 fixtures under Lovell – with a half-stakes profit made should the game end all-square and a full-stakes win paid out should the Kent club pocket the points. The home side have won this game ‘to nil’ in the last three renewals.
Ten-goal leading scorer Tom Eaves is expected to shrug off a knee injury to start whilst Scott Wagstaff should partner Bradley Garmston in midfield following the expiration of Sean Clare’s loan deal. Elsewhere, Josh Parker’s fine form has brought interest from more established clubs.
Rochdale were spot-on with their tactics at Doncaster in the FA Cup last weekend, securing a surprising 1-0 triumph on their travels. As mentioned above, Keith Hill’s troops suffocating Rovers in midfield and pinched a winner from a set-piece to record an overdue success.
However, the Dale boss was deeply dissatisfied by his team’s defeat to Lincoln in the Football League Trophy in midweek. Hill’s troops have been besieged by sloppy defensive errors and poor concentration at key times and the Lancashire club paid the price for it against the Imps.
Hill has attempted to remedy things with the addition of 21-year-old defender Ryan Delaney from Burton this week whilst former Gills man Billy Knott has arrived on-loan from Lincoln. Both are expected to take their place in the visiting XI on Saturday.
Nevertheless, I’m happy to oppose Rochdale here. The side are 23rd and six points from safety – they’re also one of only three Football League clubs yet to win a league fixture on the road this season (W0-D5-L8). Dale have conceded at least twice in nine of those 13 games as guests.