FOOTBALL LEAGUE expert Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) reveals his favourite selections from this weekend's EFL action.
Middlesbrough v Luton | Saturday 15th February 2020, 15:00
Middlesbrough are averaging the seventh most points in the Championship since the end of November and Boro head into Saturday’s home showdown with Luton having been beaten just five times in their past 20 league outings. Frustratingly for Jonathan Woodgate’s outfit, a plethora of stalemates have held the Teessiders back (W6-D9-L5) during that upward streak.
Nevertheless, I’m happy to support the Reds this weekend at the Riverside. Middlesbrough have showed a degree of tactical flexibility under Woodgate and the rookie head coach deserves credit for putting Boro back on the right path following a difficult opening stanza, especially so considering a spate of defensive injuries that are easing by the week.
Daniel Ayala might still be sidelined but the Reds expect to have George Friend and Ryan Shotton in contention for the clash against the relegation-haunted Hatters. Ayala’s absence has been softened by the January signing of Cameroon international defender Harold Moukoudi on-loan from Saint-Etienne, giving the group a reasonably solid spine.
The Teessiders have been well supported in the markets in recent weeks and that’s testament to their impressive turnaround in performance levels. During that aforementioned 20-game sample, Middlesbrough have been returning a 61% Expected Goals (xG) ratio with the Reds now operating as a top-10 rated side across the whole campaign.
Visitors Luton will be buoyed by their midweek win when welcoming Sheffield Wednesday, a result that pushes the Bedfordshire boys to within seven points of Championship survival. However, just six (22%) of their 27-point tally has been earned on the road with Town losing their last 11 games as guests, as well as 14 of their 16 away days since promotion.
Graeme Jones’ group kept their first clean sheet since October – and only their second this season – on Wednesday night with both shutouts arriving at their Kenilworth Road base. Luton have leaked a huge 41 goals on their travels, conceding 1.86 xG on average – 1.15 of which was generated from open play – as well as facing over 10 shots in the box per-game.
Middlesbrough have taken top honours in each of their six when hosting clubs in 16th and below, leaking a solitary strike, and I anticipate Boro breaking their recent winless run with an unfussy home success here. The Teessiders are too short to support so I’ll chuck in Under 4.5 Goals for a 20/21 (Coral) shot – it’s a mark the Reds have beaten just once at home under Woodgate.
Southend v Coventry | Saturday 15th February 2020, 15:00
“We shouldn’t really have this many U23s in the same side” claimed Southend manager Sol Campbell after seeing his young Shrimpers side bravely beaten 4-0 by a rampant Peterborough in midweek. After an uneventful first 45 minutes, in-form Posh piled on the pressure after the break to push the Essex outfit closer to League Two.
The Blues – recommended at 4/1 for relegation in our ante-post previews – were forced to hand debuts to defender Miles Mitchell-Nelson, winger Terrell Egbri and striker Matt Rush at London Road due to a severe lack of available bodies. Eight players departed Roots Hall in January, with none arriving in the opposite direction as Southend cost-cut for the drop.
Campbell revealed the Shrimpers were unable to bring in any new faces during a deeply frustrating window and will have to continue to rely on the club’s youngsters between now and May. The Blues’ apparent recognition that relegation is now inevitable should play into the hands of opposition sides and Coventry are well placed to take advantage on Saturday.
The Sky Blues secured a very impressive 1-0 success against winning machine Portsmouth on Tuesday night and Mark Robins’ men are now firmly in the frame for promotion. City sit two points behind table-topping Rotherham with a game in-hand and still have to host the top four at St Andrew’s where Cov have proven very capable operators this season.
The visitors have been beaten just three times in League One this term, and whilst their road record appears underwhelming on first glance (W4-D8-L2), the Sky Blues have secured maximum points in their last four away trips at Bristol Rovers, Tranmere, Doncaster and Wycombe as part of an eye-catching W7-D2-L0 run since mid-December.
Considering Southend have already been beaten 20 times in 30 League One outings in 2019/20, sit 13 points off safety with a -43 goal difference, it’s difficult to ignore the generous odds on offer for the away win. Four of the past six visitors to Roots Hall have gone off at 3/4 quotes or shorter so 4/5 (Sportingbet) seems more than fair on Cov.
Portsmouth v Shrewsbury | Saturday 15th February 2020, 15:00
Portsmouth’s club-record nine game winning streak across all competitions – and spell of scoring in 24 consecutive games – was ended by Coventry on Tuesday night but Pompey can bounce straight back into the Winners Enclosure by dispatching Shrewsbury on Saturday.
The Blues were unusually lacklustre on Tuesday, although the decisive goal came when Pompey were on top following a double substitution that saw Harrison and Marcus Harness replace John Marquis and Ryan Williams. Indeed, the winner arrived just moments after Steve Seddon skied an effort over the bar, whilst Harrison had earlier missed from point-blank range.
Manager Kenny Jackett was undeterred by the defeat, a result that leaves Portsmouth five points adrift of the automatic promotion places. Even so, Blues can climb back into major title contention with a series of games in-hand over teams above them in the table.
No League One team has earned more points than Pompey since mid-September (W13-D5-L4) and the hosts should be more than strong enough to secure three more points in their push for promotion here against Shrewsbury. The Match Odds market is just a smidgen too short to support in this column, although there are alternatives to get a nice price onside.
Taking Portsmouth to triumph alongside Under 4.5 Goals gives us a tidy 4/5 (Coral) shot. Only three of the Blues’ Fratton Park fixtures have featured five or more goals in 2019/20, whilst Jackett’s overseen 60 regular league games here with the hosts and 52 (87%) of those encounters have produced no more than four goals in front of the club’s home fans.
Portsmouth top the Expected Goals (xG) ratio rankings in League One, are second when viewing xG from open play ratings and top again when inspecting shots attempted from inside the box, highlighting Pompey’s strength in both boxes. And this weekend they’re welcoming a Salop side that’s appeared drained by recent FA Cup exploits.
Shrewsbury are winless in league football since mid-December (W0-D4-L5) with some supporters letting their feelings known to manager Sam Ricketts following the midweek home reverse to Accrington, booing the boss as he applauded them at full-time.
The New Meadow club are now closer to the relegation zone than the top-six, have failed to score in 13/29 (45%) League One matches, notching a paltry 25 goals across the league campaign. To make matters worse, Shrewsbury were dealt a hammerblow when captain Ollie Norburn was ruled out for the remainder of the season with a knee injury in midweek.
By Ricketts’ own admission, Shrewsbury’s league form has faltered further due to FA Cup distractions and Portsmouth are unlikely to take any prisoners if Salop aren’t on their game at Fratton Park. Goals are relatively scare in Town games – averaging just 2.03 goals – with just two of their 29 crossing the Over 4.5 Goals barrier thus far – so I still anticipate a competitive contest.
Middlesbrough v Luton – Middlesbrough to win and Under 4.5 Goals (20/21 Coral)
Southend v Coventry – Coventry to win (4/5 Sportingbet)
Portsmouth v Shrewsbury – Portsmouth to win and Under 4.5 Goals (4/5 Coral)