FOOTBALL LEAGUE expert Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) reveals his favourite three selections from the opening weekend of the new 2019/20 season.
Blackburn v Charlton | Saturday 3rd August 2019, 15:00
Consolidation was the key word around Ewood Park 12 months ago as Blackburn returned to the Championship at the very first time of asking. Tony Mowbray’s men enjoyed a largely positive campaign – finishing 15th – and even flirted with the play-offs before injuries and a rotten road record caught up on the club during the depths of winter.
Mowbray has opted to keep the core of the squad he inherited in February 2017 intact. There’s a likeable stability surrounding Rovers right now and, whilst the arrivals of Sam Gallagher and Bradley Johnson could be considered more functional than flashy, there’s an air of optimism and positivity amongst supporters suggesting progression can be achieved.
Looking to implement a more possession-based game, as well as eliminate the soft underbelly that plagued Blackburn’s defensive performances so often in 2019, the early signs suggest Blackburn could be ready to take the next step forward and trouble the top-half. The Lancashire club will certainly be targeting a fast start on Saturday.
Well-stocked across midfield and up top, Rovers still look a little light in defensive areas despite the capture of Tosin Adarabioyo. Full-back is a particular area of concern – highlighted when Stewart Downing was a surprise choice at left back for the final friendly at Blackpool – although Amari’i Bell is expected to feature here after returning from injury.
Mowbray’s issues are nothing quite like the quandary experienced in the opposition dugout with Lee Bowyer feeling Blackburn could be catching his Charlton team at just the right time. The Addicks boss has made several references to working with the lowest budget in the league and is still wanting five new signings before the transfer window closes.
The visitors saw five of the side that started their play-off final victory over Sunderland depart in the off-season with midfield trio Krystian Bielik, Josh Cullen and Joe Aribo part of the exodus through expiring loans or summer sales. To add injury to insult, Bowyer will also be without Chuks Aneke, Lewis Page and Macauley Bonne, none of whom are deemed fit.
Charlton have had a vigorous pre-season, taking in a training camp to Portugal before six friendlies in the space of 15 days. Bowyer believes Athletic are fitter and more organised at the back to attack the campaign than 12 months ago but has admitted his resources are stretched this weekend and therefore I’m happy to oppose the newcomers at Ewood Park.
Blackburn returned W10-D7-L4 when excluding the top-two at home and so the 5/6 (Coral) on offer for the hosts here should be snapped up.
Burton v Ipswich | Saturday 3rd August 2019, 15:00
Burton were one of the League One teams I targeted from an outright perspective in May. Albion made a slow start to life back in the third-tier in 2018/19 – four defeats from their first five outings – but eye-catching EFL Cup victories against the odds over Aston Villa, Burnley, Nottingham Forest and Middlesbrough helped the Brewers rediscover their identity.
Nigel Clough’s charges threatened a late play-off push with their efficient and effective brand of football paying dividends before injury and fatigue extinguished hopes of a top-six berth. Aspirations remained high around the Pirelli Stadium in early summer, however momentum has been hindered following a flurry of key departures from the club.
The exciting Marcus Harness, centre-back Kyle McFadzean, goalkeeper Bradley Collins and midfield terrier Jamie Allen have moved on. Budgetary constraints have made like-for-like replacements tough to find, although Burton should remain as tough as ever to overcome this term. The hosts certainly look a little underrated for their opener against Ipswich.
Albion projected as a top-10 team last term and Clough has said, “we are much better prepared, mentally and physically, than we were 12 months ago, and we just sense there's a determination now with the players, certainly to get off to a better start than we did this time last season”. Encouraging words from the Brewers boss coming into this weekend.
Burton could have plenty of joy in the final-third. The versatile Lucas Akins finished last season with a flourish in a more central attacking role, whilst striker Liam Boyce has been a regular goalscorer in pre-season. The hosts have also added to their options this week with the arrival of Montenegro U21 striker Oliver Sarkic after a successful trial period.
Contrary to Burton’s flush forward options, recently relegated Ipswich arrive in the midst of a major selection crisis, particularly in defence. Luke Chambers’ suspension and Toto Nsiala’s injury mean this week’s capture James Wilson is set to start alongside the youthful Luke Woolfenden in the heart of Town’s backline. Myles Kenlock should be fit at left-back.
Elsewhere, Paul Lambert’s troops will be without Gwion Edwards, Jon Nolan, Jack Lankester, Teddy Bishop, Tristan Nydam and Freddie Sears. Flynn Downes could also be taken out of the firing line after his red card in last weekend’s friendly fixture, leaving the guests without a whole host of potential first XI starters in their preferred 4-2-3-1 system on Saturday.
Star signing James Norwood and key playmaker Alan Judge will provide the attacking arsenal for the Tractor Boys but I’m unconvinced Lambert is capable of turning the Ipswich ship around immediately considering so many frontline players are unavailable. With that in mind, it makes sense to take Burton with a +0.25 start at generous 8/11 (BetVictor) odds.
Those new to Asian Handicap betting, our selection will see us make a full-stakes profit should Burton take maximum points with a full-stakes win paid-out should the match end in a draw. The only way this bet won’t make us money is if Ipswich run out victorious.
Exeter v Macclesfield | Saturday 3rd August 2019, 15:00
Having recommended a play on Exeter in the Outright market in the WLB Season Preview, as well as endorsing Macclesfield to suffer in the Relegation offering, it makes complete sense to support the Grecians in Saturday’s curtain-raiser between the pair, especially so with City available to support at odds-against quotes of 11/10 (Ladbrokes).
Exeter were expected to endure a season of regression following the departure of long-term boss Paul Tisdale last term. However, Matt Taylor made an almost seamless transition into the hot-seat, subtly tweaking City’s tactics to engineer a more forward-thinking approach. The adjustments worked well and the Grecians were a game away from a top-seven finish.
The Devon club are a results-driven operation under Taylor, putting full focus on both boxes. His desire for a battle-hardened squad has seen almost all new arrivals stand taller than 6'0 bar the exciting capture of hitman Nicky Ajose. Nigel Atangana is a great replacement for Hiram Boateng, whilst Alex Fisher can fill the target man void in attack.
Exeter will be looking to improve upon a poor return against the league’s leading lights (W2-D3-L9) last term and Taylor’s troops should have the perfect opportunity to kick that habit on Saturday with Macclesfield manager Sol Campbell still putting the finishing touches to a squad that’s lost plenty of quality over the summer months.
The Silkmen signed Theo Archibald and Jay Harris earlier this week with both coming straight into contention for the weekend’s contest. The pair are arguably the pick of an otherwise underwhelming transfer window that’s seen the Cheshire side lose their two key attacking weapons from last term: Harry Smith and Scott Wilson.
Off-field distractions, including unpaid wages and regular winding-up orders, have plagued Town’s path in the past six months and with a bare squad, minuscule funds, questions regarding the club’s sustainability, plus the potential for Campbell to be lured away, another season of struggle surely awaits, starting on Saturday.