FOOTBALL LEAGUE expert Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) reveals his favourite selections from the weekend's EFL action.
Christmas party scene has gotten the better of me so this weekend’s Football League column will be a little more compact than usual. Here’s hoping for back-to-back full houses, and of course, Merry Christmas to all WLB readers and thanks for your support in 2019!
Oxford v Wycombe | Saturday 21st December 2019, 15:00
Oxford were fantastic against Manchester City in the EFL Cup in midweek but Wednesday night’s encounter against the Premier League champions is bound to have taken its toll on Karl Robinson’s chargers. The U’s have just two days to rest, recover and prepare for the visit of league leaders Wycombe at the Kassam Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Top scorer James Henry, skipper John Mousinho and right back Chris Cadden were left out of the starting line-up against City, whilst striker Matty Taylor was withdrawn 15 minutes from time as Oxford looked ahead to the weekend’s contest. However, I’m still of the belief that the quick turnaround can be considered a negative against well-rested opponents.
Wycombe were 100/1 outsiders for the League One title in August – only crisis-ridden Bolton were a bigger ante-post price for the third-tier crown – yet Gareth Ainsworth’s side have surged into a remarkable seven-point lead at the top of the table. The Chairboys have lost just once this term, yet pre-match odds give the guests only a 55% chance of avoiding defeat.
Wanderers have silenced each of their last six League One adversaries and kept nine clean sheets in 11 outings dating back to mid-September. Despite relatively underwhelming underlying metrics, Wycombe are amongst the divisional leaders for denying open play opportunities and have already returned from five top-10 outfits with at least a point.
The Chairboys might not win prizes for aesthetics – often wrongly dubbed long-ball merchants – but they’re a mightily difficult team to overcome and appear underrated for Saturday’s showdown considering potential fatigue being suffered in the Oxford camp. However, I’ll boost the 5/6 available on Wycombe with a +0.50 Asian Handicap start.
Instead, I’m taking the 21/20 (Bet365) on Wycombe Double Chance and Under 4 Goals. Wanderers’ road trips have averaged just 1.33 goals per-game with only one of nine away days producing at least three goals; Oxford aren’t quite so prolific when opposing goals, although the U’s can also call upon a well-structured and organised defence.
Bradford v Salford | Saturday 21st December 2019, 15:00
Joint ante-post League Two favourites Bradford and Salford lock horns at Valley Parade on Saturday, although only one side has looked anything close to promotion material.
Bradford have settled inside the top-six following a topsy-turvy August and Gary Bowyer’s boys can be considered genuine outright contenders despite the seven-point deficit to table-topping Swindon. The Bantams might not have found complete consistency since returning to the fourth-tier but City can at least call upon a strong home record.
Superbly-supported Bradford have churned out six successive victories at Valley Parade since the start of September, including taking top honours against Swindon and second-placed Exeter. The Bantams feature prominently in performance data rankings and deserve major credit for their ever-improving efforts in denying opposition outfits opportunities.
City have recorded cushy back-to-back clean sheets, however, Bowyer believes there’s still more to come from his troops in attacking areas. Bradford have not netted more than one goal in a game in their last seven attempts and the Bantams boss expects the tide to turn sooner than later as his squad swells following the return from injury of key personnel.
Salford were considered League Two jollies for much of the summer and it’s fair to say the Class of 92 club have fallen below expectations. The Ammies have marooned themselves in mid-table no man’s land by appearing flat-track bullies as 23 of their 25-point tally has been collected against clubs outside the top-10 (W6-D5-L1).
Graham Alexander’s group have toiled when taking on League Two’s leading lights (W0-D2-L7) – W0-D0-L6 when looking purely against sides in the play-off positions – and the Greater Manchester club head across the Pennies on the back of a troubling run of results. Salford have failed to score in three of their most recent four outings, picking up a solitary point.
Underlying data suggests the Ammies are a bottom-half outfit and therefore Bradford should be targeting maximum points from this contest at a very fair 5/6 offering. However, I’ll bolster the odds against to 11/10 (Coral) by chucking in Under 4.5 Goals, owing to the fact the Bantams are unlikely to rack up three goals for only the second time since August.
Exeter v Walsall | Saturday 21st December 2019, 15:00
Three wins on the spin has propelled Exeter right back into the automatic promotion hunt in League Two. The Grecians have shutout four of their past six opponents and their fine performance data, plus their excellent return at St James Park, make Matty Taylor’s troops a tasty proposition at home to Walsall this weekend.
In fairness, Exeter weren’t anywhere near their best when dispatching Salford 1-0 away last weekend, although the Grecians had faced a taxing week with a trip to Hartlepool that went to extra-time just days prior to the Salford success. Taylor admitted his squad were a touch fatigued but praised the character, effort and application from his promotion contenders.
A full week’s rest will have worked wonders for City and back in front of their raucous home support, the Devon club should be well capable of justifying their position as odds-on favourites here. Exclude their top-three rivals and Exeter boast a W6-D1-L1 return here this term, as well as a 55% St James Park win-rate across all league fixtures under Taylor’s watch.
Walsall are in the midst of a minor upturn in fortunes after a dreadful opening stanza following relegation. Darrell Clarke finally appears to have steadied the ship with the Saddlers starting to provide more attacking threat following the emerging partnership of Caolan Lavery and Josh Gordon, plus Elijah Adebayo and Rory Gaffney in reserve.
However, the Black Country club continue to lag behind in the chance creation stakes and Walsall’s opportunities are bound to be limited by a watertight Exeter backline. Clarke’s charges are still returning negative supremacy figures for both Expected Goals (xG) and xG from open play and travel to a Grecians team with a divisional-best 10 clean sheets.
I don’t anticipate anything close to a shootout and considering I expect Exeter to edge proceedings, I’m happy to take the 11/10 (Coral) available on City to succeed in a fixture featuring Under 4.5 Goals. Nine of the hosts’ 11 triumphs have followed this pattern, as have all Walsall’s 10 defeats since returning to League Two.