FOOTBALL LEAGUE expert Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) reveals his favourite selections from this weekend's EFL action.
Birmingham v Nottingham Forest | Saturday 1st February 2020, 15:00
Joe Lolley's deflected first-half goal helped Nottingham Forest move up to third place in the Championship with a crucial 1-0 victory at fellow promotion hopefuls Brentford in midweek. The Tricky Trees were ahead inside 15 minutes at Griffin Park and refused to relinquish their advantage in a feisty fixtures, inflicting the Bees’ first home league defeat since November.
Sabri Lamouchi’s men had chances to extend the lead through Lewis Grabban, although the Reds’ defensive discipline and organisation was the decisive factor with goalkeeper Brice Samba rarely tested despite Forest surrendering almost 70% of possession in the capital.
The Tricky Trees gave up just 0.61 Expected Goals (xG) and conceded a solitary on-target effort from inside the penalty area against the division’s hottest front three. Lamouchi, understandably, played down the significance of the success post-match but Forest are now unbeaten in seven (W5-D2-L0) and just two points shy of the automatic promotion places.
At the time of writing, the club are in the midst of numerous transfer deals – in and out of the club – with the overall aim to give the Reds the best possible chance of securing Premier League football after a 21-year absence. However, on the field I like the idea of the Reds continuing their steady progress with a positive performance at Birmingham on Saturday.
Since Lamouchi’s arrival, the visitors have suffered only six Championship defeats (W14-D9-L6), collected the second-most clean sheets (10), leaked the third-fewest goals (28) and fired only four blanks in 29 league outings. West Brom (29) are the only side to earn more away points than Forest (27) with just Brentford (12) shipping fewer goals than the Reds (13).
Birmingham are back in action after their curious FA Cup clash with Coventry at St Andrew’s last weekend. Blues have bagged Scott Hogan on-loan to bolster their attacking options but the Second City club have, as yet, failed to strengthen in defensive areas; Pep Clotet’s troops have kept their sheets clean on only four occasions this term and only twice as hosts.
Blues come into this contest with only two league wins to their name since the start of November (W2-D6-L7) and if we exclude the bottom-eight, Birmingham have pocketed just three victories in 19 this season (W3-D5-L11), suggesting Clotet’s charges might find the going tough against such robust opposition.
Unremarkable performance data ensures the pre-match price on Forest remains reasonably appealing but I’ll take the added insurance of supporting the guests in the Double Chance market alongside the Reds also scoring Over 0 Goals at 8/11 with Bet365. Blues have conceded in all bar one Championship contest since early September.
Leeds v Wigan | Saturday 1st February 2020, 15:00
Leeds scored three times in 15 second-half minutes as they came from two goals down to beat in-form Millwall and return to the top of the Championship in midweek. Marcelo Bielsa’s men conceded from a corner inside the opening five minutes, and then again from the penalty spot midway through the first-half to send shockwaves around Elland Road.
Nevertheless, the Whites regrouped at the interval and made their pressure pay almost immediately as under-fire Patrick Bamford pulled one back, before a deflected Pablo Hernandez strike saw Leeds level. Bamford’s second secured the side’s first win in 2020 soon after and Bielsa’s boys even had opportunities to extend their advantage thereafter.
Game state obviously played a part in the eye-catching numbers from Tuesday’s tussle but few could argue with the final score considering Leeds generated 3.99 Expected Goals (xG), landed 11 efforts on-target and took 17 strikes at goal from inside the penalty area. With new signing Jean-Kevin Augustin waiting in the wings, conversion rates should only increase.
Bielsa still has key midfielder Kalvin Phillips suspended for Saturday’s match-up with Wigan, although Gaetano Berardi’s return bolsters the Argentine’s defensive options, whilst Tyler Roberts and loan addition Ian Poveda are available to keep things fresh. And you can only presume Leeds’ midweek comeback will have engendered a surge of collective confidence.
Leeds are a mid-table Premier League side in-waiting and I fully expect the Whites to emphatically dismiss potential ‘choking’ claims between now and May, starting with this weekend’s encounter with the Latics. The hosts are too short to support in the Match Odds market but if we add Wigan to collect Over 19.5 Bookings Points we can back Leeds at evens (William Hill).
Bielsa’s outfit enjoy a divisional-high 60% average possession per-game and unsurprisingly are amongst the league leaders for free-kicks awarded. Eleven of Leeds’ 14 visitors to Elland Road have received at least two cards this season and overall the Whites’ opponents have seen the cards part of this selection cop in 21 (72%) of 29 league matches in 2019/20.
Wigan are second in the Championship for fouls committed and are amongst the leading pack for cards and tackles this term. Paul Cook’s outfit have picked up 20 or more Bookings Points in all bar three of their 15 away days this season and since returning to this level, the same angle of attack has landed in 30 (79%) of Athletic’s 38 road trips.
The Latics’ record in games as Championship guests is infamous and the visitors travel to West Yorkshire having returned W3-D29-L26 since the beginning of 2018/19, silencing only two home sides, shipping 1.84 goals on average and failing to score themselves in 16 (42%) games. Meanwhile, this term alone, Wigan have been beaten in eight of 11 duels with top-eight teams.
Crawley v Scunthorpe | Saturday 1st February 2020, 15:00
Crawley boss John Yems has signed a new deal with the League Two side until the end of the 2022/23 campaign after enjoying a fruitful second spell in charge. The 60-year-old took over the role alongside Lee Bradbury at the start of December following Gabriele Cioffi’s sacking, and the Sussex club have enjoyed a welcome resurgence.
Ollie Palmer headed home a stoppage-time equaliser for the Reds to secure an against-the-odds 2-2 draw at in-form Plymouth on Tuesday evening, a result that means Town have suffered only two defeats in 11 league outings (W3-D6-L2) under Yems’ charge, although goalkeeper Glenn Morris was called upon to make a few spectacular saves at Home Park.
Even so, a return to their Broadfield Stadium base should invoke another positive performance from Crawley. Take out results against the top-three and the Reds’ return in front of their home supporters is a very respectable W7-D4-L1 with an average of 1.75 goals scored per-game, which falls in-line with the hosts’ 1.87 Expected Goals (xG) average here.
A push for the play-offs is probably beyond Yems’ powers but there’s still plenty to like about Crawley this weekend. The Reds top the shot count charts in League Two, and should get plenty of chances to impress against a Scunthorpe side that’s conceded at least two goals in seven of their past eight league encounters, and dismissed Paul Hurst in midweek.
The 45-year-old, who won 12 of 38 games as Iron boss, departed following Tuesday's 3-0 defeat by Northampton with a breakdown in relationships to blame for the axing, rather than footballing reasons. Hurst apparently held different views to his chairman Peter Swann on how Scunny should approach the transfer window and the marriage suffered.
The club has confirmed that Russ Wilcox will take caretaker charge on Saturday with Swann now searching for a ninth first-team manager in six years. The lack of stability, plus a bloated squad that lacks direction, can only be seen as a negative, especially this weekend with the Iron chasing just a fifth road success in League Two this season.
Over the course of the campaign, Crawley are ranked higher than Scunthorpe across all the major performance data metrics that matter, yet pre-match odds suggest the visitors are the stronger suit and would be favourites if this fixture would be played at a neutral venue. That’s an assumption I just can’t buy into right now and I’m happy to oppose the Iron.
Considering the hosts’ recent draw bias, I’ll ignore the straight play on the Reds and instead back Crawley in the Double Chance market, as well as Scunthorpe to collect Over 19.5 Bookings Points. The visitors have totalled 20+ Bookings Points in all bar four of their 15 away days thus far, and with Rob Lewis at the whistle, cards could certainly flow.
Birmingham v Nottingham Forest – Nottingham Forest Double Chance and Nottingham Forest to score Over 0 Goals (8/11 Bet365)
Leeds v Wigan – Leeds to win and Wigan to collect Over 19.5 Bookings Points (1/1 William Hill)
Crawley v Scunthorpe – Crawley Double Chance and Scunthorpe to collect Over 19.5 Bookings Points (11/8 William Hill)