AFTER the international break, Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) gets his teeth into Saturday’s full Football League program, sharing his three favourite fancies.
Cardiff v Derby | Saturday 15.00
Despite tailing 2014/15 off with seven wins from their final 14 fixtures, Cardiff still finished in their lowest league position (11th) since 2007/08 and 16 points off the play-off positions.
Performances were rather mediocre, supporters were whinging about the style of boss Russell Slade and the mood surrounding the club seemed rather despondent. All things considered, I’d outlined another unsettled campaign for the Bluebirds this time around.
But credit to Cardiff and credit to Slade; not since opening their season with three successive draws have the capital club been outside the top-half of the Championship and coming into this weekend’s contest with Derby, the Welsh outfit are just three points and one place outside the top-six.
Slade survived the sack following Cardiff’s embarrassing FA Cup exit at home to Shrewsbury in January and the former Leyton Orient manager moved away from the rigid 4-4-2 in a final roll of the dice.
Previously favouring a target man and a long-ball approach, the Bluebirds boss decided to stick Anthony Pilkington in attack with Peter Whittingham drifting in from the left. It worked a treat first time out against Wolves (3-1) and the system has stuck, if only adapted ever so slightly.
The ‘lopsided 4-4-2' now features Leicester loanee Tom Lawrence or Dutchman Lex Immers alongside Pilkington with the trios tireless work rate and movement complementing a more on-the-floor style from the hosts.
Fans are beginning to return too. The club are expecting over 20,000 for the weekend’s game – their highest attendance of the season – and there’s confidence now in the camp that Cardiff can usurp the league’s biggest-hitters once more.
The Bluebirds have managed just W2-D3-L4 against the top-six but since Slade introduced the new approach, Cardiff thumped Brighton 4-1 on home soil but followed up with a drab 3-1 loss at Middlesbrough. The Brighton performance was one of their best in some time, mind, and at the City Stadium, the capital club have been a very tough nut to crack (W10-D7-L2).
And so I’m expecting that strong home record to return us a few quid on Saturday. BetVictor have chalked the Bluebirds up as 4/6 shots with a +0.25 Asian Handicap start and that’s just too good a price to turn down.
With this selection, we’ll make a half-stakes profit should the game end all-square and we’ll land a full-stakes profit should Cardiff come out on top. Putting it simply, we’ll make money if the hosts avoid defeat, a feat they’ve achieved in 17/19 (89%) of this season’s home matches and 29/37 (78%) since Slade arrived on the scene.
Derby went into the international break off the back of a timely derby win over Nottingham Forest (1-0) but I’m still far from willing to trust the Rams.
The visitors have spent over £25m in their bid to return to the top-flight for the first time in eight years but with flippant owner Mel Morris behind the scenes, the club is anything but stable and we’re able to see that in their recent results.
Derby have taken just 16 points from their 14 fixtures in 2016 (W4-D4-L6) and that includes chucking away a three-goal advantage at Rotherham with only seven minutes to play. Only six second-tier sides have taken fewer points this calendar year.
Rams head coach Darren Wassall will favour the usual 4-3-3 with Chris Martin as the lone striker, with Tom Ince and one of Bradley Johnson or Johnny Russell cutting in from the flanks. The guests will look to monopolise possession with the full-backs asked to bomb forward.
But only four teams have shipped more goals in 2016, just seven have scored fewer and the ghosts of 2014/15 are threatening to disturb what was a rather impressive first five months under Paul Clement’s tutelage.
Derby have only W3-D4-L5 when travelling to teams in 15th and above and with only 27% of the 453 Championship games played this season returning an away win, it’s worth reiterating, this selection only requires Cardiff to pick up a point to return us a slice of profit.
With that in mind, I’m more than happy to oppose the Rams here at generous Asian Handicap prices.
Rochdale v Doncaster | Saturday 15.00
Ahh… my Football League NAP.
Rochdale are even-money (BetVictor) to take maximum points from their clash with dire Doncaster and that’s a price that just cannot be left alone. It’s time to get down and dirty with the Dale, folks.
Unfashionable and unassuming, Rochdale have risen back into the top-half of League One thanks to W6-D0-L2 since mid-February. Keith Hill’s charges are once again making a mockery of their meagre budget and just last week they almost gave title-chasing Wigan more than just a fright.
Skipper Ian Henderson was sent off for the second time in two games for appearing to kick out after a bad challenge by Jason Pearce but even without their talisman, Dale put in a resolute performance that saw their resistance only broken with scrappy 67th-minute goal.
It was only the sixth occasion that Rochdale’s organised outfit had been breached in eight matches and Hill was understandably enthused by his side’s showing. He was less impressed with Henderson who now faces a four-game suspension.
Obviously it’s disappointing not to have Henderson leading the line but the skipper was absent in Dale’s last Spotland outing when they trounced Southend 4-1 thanks to a tremendous second-half display. Veteran Grant Halt has proven a worthy replacement since returning to the club.
Hill has spoken about the positivity in the dressing room and even though realistic play-off prospects are out the window, the Rochdale head believes his side are a formidable League One force when everyone’s singing off the same hymn sheet.
Hill said: “It’s about making sure that there’s no complacency and that we continue to try and strive to be as successful. That’s our aim from now until the end of the season.
“I think we’re a match for anyone on any given matchday when we’re performing like we are doing at this moment in time.”
He’s not wrong. Confident by nature, the hard-nosed northerner has excelled since returning to the club and after winning promotion to League One, Dale have made Spotland a mighty tough destination for opposition sides.
Rochdale have won 22/42 (52%) league fixtures since arriving in the third-tier but even more enticing is their record when entertaining the bottom-half in Lancashire. Dale have W15-D3-L3 against clubs in 13th and below, scoring at least twice on 15 occasions and recording 10 clean sheets. Wallop.
Double defeat to relegation rivals Colchester and Blackpool over the Easter weekend has left Doncaster four points from safety with only seven games to go. The two sides directly above Donny in the table – Oldham and Fleetwood– both hold games in hand over Rovers, who head west on the back of the worst 12-game run in the club’s history (W0-D1-L11).
The initial bounce incurred after Darren Ferguson’s arrival has long since dissipated and now Doncaster have W7-D5-L16 during the Scot’s tenure, failing to even score in 12 matches. The 44-year-old insists he’s the right long-term man and has urged supporters to stick by him but belief is waning, rapidly.
Ferguson called his players’ character into question following their capitulation in the Good Friday defeat at Colchester (1-4) and although he’s admitted confidence in the camp is at rock-bottom, he’s now insisting they do have the impetus to escape.
Performances against Scunthorpe and Colchester were unacceptable and although Rovers were a tad unlucky to lose out against Peterborough and Blackpool, I’m just not confident enough they’re able to turn this sinking ship around in time.
Ferguson will be sticking by his favoured 3-5-2 wing-back system after an unsuccessful attempt at 4-4-2 but he was dealt a major blow in midweek following the news that midfielder Paul Keegan is out with a torn hamstring. Defender Gary MacKenzie is also unlikely to feature leaving Doncaster short in key areas.
Since relegation back to League One, Donny have W4-D8-L11 at top-half teams and this season they’ve failed to find of the net in 10 of their 19 road trips, losing 11. If Rochdale fancy it, they should be able to brush Rovers aside consummately.
Bristol Rovers v Crawley | Saturday 15.00
There’s a serious feel-good factor around Bristol Rovers right now despite their pulsating 3-2 defeat at Carlisle on Easter Monday ending a recent six-game winning run.
The Pirates twice came from behind to level proceedings before a decisive blow was struck just five minutes from time. Rovers’ loss saw them leapfrogged by both Plymouth and Accrington to end the day fifth in the race for automatic promotion.
But new club owner Wael Al Qadi took to Twitter to praise his side’s successful points haul in March with the Gas seeing off Hartlepool, Notts County, Wimbledon, Mansfield, Newport and Cambridge. Rovers are just two points adrift of the top-three.
Chairman Steve Hamer reckons the Pirates are a club with huge potential and suggested they could easily follow in the footsteps of Swansea in years to come and supporters have flocked to the Memorial Stadium and beyond to support their vibrant and exciting side.
But manager Darrell Clarke wasn’t joining in the backslapping on Monday. Celebrating his second anniversary in the Rovers hot-seat, Clarke bemoaned “diabolical” defending for his team’s defeat and his will to win ensures a response against Crawley on Saturday should be on the cards.
Clarke’s a methodical man who doesn’t deal in defeat well. He’ll have spent the five-hour coach journey home from Carlisle pondering over what went wrong, how he can fix it and what’s next up in a tireless pursuit of perfection.
A modern football manager, Clarke also knows the benefits that come alongside a risk-taking attacking style to football fixtures in order to pick up points. The Pirates are just one game away from a club record-equalling 11 away victories and that’s a return that doesn’t come through a pragmatic approach.
The Gas have notched 19 goals across their last seven games and only shutout their opposition on three occasions; four of those fixtures featured at least four goals and Clarke’s charges have struck at least twice in 14/19 (74%) of their Memorial Stadium matches.
Rovers are understandably and prohibitively short in the pre-match odds but lets be straight about this – if the Pirates are going to justify their strong favourites tag, they’re unlikely to record just a 1-0 success. In fact, only two of Bristol Rovers’ 21 triumphs since promotion have been by the 1-0 correct score.
So adding Over 1.5 Goals into the home win angle and 5/6 (Paddy Power) is on offer. Now that’s a bet and price worth investing in.
Exclude contests against top-six rivals and the Gas have W11-D1-L2 when welcoming League Two opposition. Clarke’s men have W16-D1-L5 when taking on clubs in 12th and below and only three of those 22 outings produced fewer than two goals. They’re pretty damming trends.
Visitors Crawley are safe for the season and so the pressure is off the Red Devils with manager Mark Yates free and able now to focus on a more stable summer for Town after a rather tumultuous off-season following League One relegation.
Top scorer Matt Harrold should make a return to the squad and both Lyle Della-Verde and Lanre Oyebanjo have returned to training this week to bolster the ranks but there’s still lingering negativity surrounding the squad.
Simon Walton’s had his weight questioned, goalkeeper Callum Preston was Crawley’s standout star in defeat at home to Exeter last week and Yates was forced to whinge and whine at the local press for potentially stalling a possible incoming transfer.
The Red Devils can prove more than a match for fourth-tier opposition as hosts but on their travels, Crawley are a different animal. Town have already lost 11/19 (58%) of their road trips, have taken a solitary point from 21 at the top-10 and seen their defence breached at least twice on 13 occasions as guests.
Nevertheless, they do possess an attacking threat having scored in 15 away fixtures, 14 of which have produced winning Over 2.5 Goals selections. It all points to a high-scoring home success for buoyant Bristol Rovers.
Cardiff v Derby – Cardiff +0.25 Asian Handicap (4/6 BetVictor)
Rochdale v Doncaster – Rochdale to win (1/1 BetVictor)
Bristol Rovers v Crawley – Bristol Rovers to win and Over 1.5 Goals (5/6 Paddy Power)
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