FOOTBALL LEAGUE expert Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) reveals his favourite selections from this weekend's EFL action.
Luton v Cardiff | Saturday 8th February 2020, 15:00
Not for the first time this season, Luton boss Graeme Jones was disappointed with the manner in which the Hatters gave promotion-chasing West Brom a head start in last Saturday’s 2-0 defeat, bemoaning avoidable errors and preventable goals at The Hawthorns.
With the game approaching 15 minutes, Town appeared to have settled into the contest, before James Bree's attempted dink forward was cut out and Donervon Daniels deflected an Albion cross into his own net. The Baggies second goal could also been averted, with full back Dan Potts out-jumped by towering centre half Semi Ajayi 20 minutes from time.
The result leaves rock-bottom Luton seven points adrift of survival and requiring a Great Escape. The Hatters have lost 20 of their opening 30 Championship matches – 24 of the last 25 sides in England’s top four tiers to be beaten 20 times or more at this stage of a season have gone on to be relegated with Dagenham (2011/12) in League Two the exception.
Still, I don’t expect Jones’ group to give up the ghost anytime soon. The hosts have captain Sonny Bradley back available for a berth at centre-half, plus classy midfielder Izzy Brown is pushing for a start with Brendan Galloway and Eunan O’Kane the only confirmed absentees. The Luton supremo has suggested the squad is in their best nick now for over 10 weeks.
The Hatters rarely take a backwards step at Kenilworth Road, and so whilst Town prop up the Championship’s performance data ratio rankings when viewing both Expected Goals (xG) and xG from open play, the home side paint a different picture when playing at their Bedfordshire base. Here Luton boast a 48% xG ratio, winning the xG battle seven times.
Town have tabled at least two goals in half of their 14 Kenilworth Road encounters (W5-D4-L6) this term – averaging 1.64 goals – and I’d expect Jones’ troops to at least get on the scoresheet on Saturday. However, Luton are really struggling to keep the back door closed since promotion, conceding 65 goals, nine more than any other second tier side.
Under Jones’ leadership, Luton have kept a sole shutout and shipped at least two goals on 21 occasions. No divisional rival is giving up a higher xG from open play figure than the Hatters’ 1.06 per-game average, and likewise the Hatters head the list for the largest xG average against, as well as the most shots faced from inside the penalty box.
Cardiff have fired only six blanks since returning to the Championship and have notched twice or more in seven of their 15 away days. The Bluebirds have been a little underwhelming during Neill Harris’ reign yet head to Bedfordshire on the back of only two league losses in 14 (W5-7-L2) as they look to close the seven-point gap on the top-six.
The Welsh outfit were taken to extra time and penalties during their FA Cup exit in midweek and City have kept their sheets clean only twice in 15 league contests now since the start of December. Joe Ralls is still sidelined through injury and so there’s still little desire to get involved in 7/5 (Unibet) quotes on the visitors considering their unflattering road record.
Instead, I’m surprised to see Over 2.5 Goals trading around the 4/5 (Marathon) mark. Both clubs are aware maximum points is vital in their bid to reach their pre-season targets and this selection has already copped in a Football League-high 25/30 (83%) fixtures involving Luton, including 12/14 (86%) at Kenilworth Road, with games averaging 3.36 goals.
Surprisingly, away days featuring Cardiff average the second-highest figure in the league for goals per-game (3.40) with 7/14 (47%) breaking the Over 3.5 Goals barrier. The duo also combine to keep only three shutouts in their collective 29 home/away outings thus far, with 22 of those tussles seeing Both Teams To Score backers paid out.
Tranmere v Portsmouth | Saturday 8th February 2020, 15:00
It’s eight wins on the spin across all competitions for upwardly-mobile Portsmouth after Kenny Jackett’s team overcame Sunderland 2-0 at Fratton Park last weekend. Following a fairly contested first quarter, Pompey turned the screw against a fatigued Black Cats outfit and dominated exchanges after the interval, winning the second-half shot count 12-1.
Pompey now have the opportunity to repeat the feat when taking on a tired Tranmere side this weekend on the Wirral. Saturday’s showdown will be the hosts 14th fixture in the space of seven weeks, with Rovers playing nine of the previous 13 in that sample on their heavy Prenton Park pitch, which is bound to have an effect on the struggling Birkenhead boys.
In their current guise, toiling Tranmere are seemingly heading for relegation and Micky Mellon’s men have been unable to stem a worrying tide in recent weeks. It’s zero victories inside 90 minutes from their most recent 13 outings – including eight defeats – and over the course of the League One campaign, Rovers have registered 16 losses in 28 matches.
The Whites’ most recent outing saw Mellon’s charges suffer a convincing 3-0 defeat to Doncaster here in midweek, losing the shots on-target count 8-1 and giving up seven big chances. That reverse came hot on the heels of a disastrous 2-0 defeat at rock-bottom Bolton last weekend where Tranmere were out-scored 1.70 to 0.38 on Expected Goals (xG).
The playing surface is an obvious concern, although Portsmouth’s approach should ensure the pitch it isn’t a game-changer. Jackett’s 4-2-3-1 system is suited to going long to John Marquis or Ellis Harrison, and whilst Pompey’s road record is also potentially unsettling to some punters, the Fratton faithful head here following commanding back-to-back away wins.
No League One team has earned more points than Pompey since mid-September (W12-D5-L3) and the title challengers should be more than strong enough to secure three more points in their push for promotion. The Match Odds market is now 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 21/20 (Coral) shot. Jackett’s overseen 59 regular league games away from Fratton Park with the visitors and 51 (86%) of those fixtures featured fewer than five goals.
Scunthorpe v Cheltenham | Saturday 8th February 2020, 15:00
Cheltenham appear undervalued for their trip to rudderless Scunthorpe on Saturday. The Robins weathered a bout of sickness in the camp to overcome Morecambe last weekend to keep their promotion push alive and kicking; boss Michael Duff wasn’t impressed with his side’s display but a full week off should allow Town an opportunity to rest and refresh.
The Gloucestershire group have suffered only five defeats in 29 League Two outings this term, including only three losses from 15 away days. Cheltenham have been beaten just twice against teams in 10th and below, boast the division’s best defence and have shipped just nine goals on their travels. Few EFL sides are as robust or difficult to breakdown.
All available data metrics make the visitors slight favourites at Glanford Park yet the layers have marked up Scunthorpe as the most likely victors, a sentiment I just can’t get onboard with. The Iron sacked Paul Hurst last week following disagreements with chairman Peter Swann over transfer business and were atrocious in a 3-1 reverse at Crawley last time out.
Russ Wilcox has taken caretaker charge of Scunny and was angered by the team’s display in Sussex as United slipped into a 3-0 half-time deficit with disastrous set-piece defending largely to blame. However, the Iron are short of fit and available bodies at the back to make widespread changes and that’s a concern coming up against such well-drilled opposition.
The hosts have shipped at least two goals in eight of their past nine league fixtures, leaked the third-highest goal tally, taken top honours just four times in 15 matches at Glanford Park, and also reside inside the bottom-six for all three major data points. With that in mind, a canny Cheltenham outfit look well capable of clinching at least a point from this fixture.
Take the visitors in the Double Chance market alongside Under 3.5 Goals for an attractive even-money poke with Betfair. It’s provided profit in 12 of Cheltenham’s 15 away days already this season with the Robins’ road trips averaging only 1.53 goals, none of which have as yet produced four or more strikes.