FOOTBALL LEAGUE expert Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) returns to share his favourite fancies from Saturday's coupon.
Oxford v Bury | Saturday 20th January 2018, 15:00
Oxford have been a frustratingly inconsistent side to follow in League One this season. Although the U’s have lost key components of their successful side over the past 18 months, the well-run club have remained competitive and within striking distance of the top-six.
Pep Clotet’s charges started the campaign brightly and looked like genuine promotion candidates in mid-October but injuries began to bite and United’s small squad became stretched. Naturally, results dropped off.
However, a number of first-team players have returned to the fray and Oxford’s unsurprisingly, results and improved performances have returned. MK Dons were swatted aside 3-1 on New Year’s Day here before Blackpool were edged out 1-0 and Cloet’s men really didn’t deserve to go down 2-1 at Walsall last weekend.
The U’s fired in 18 attempts – seven of which were on-target – and won the Expected Goals count 2.76-1.72 at the Bescot but to this visitors’ frustration, they were denied by a Man of the Match display from young Saddlers stopper Liam Roberts.
Much has been of Jack Payne’s recent move to Blackburn, however, his departure might not be so damaging after all. Over the Christmas period Clotet switched to a 4-4-2 system with Wes Thomas and Jon Obika starting up front. Having previously preferred to play Thomas in a lone striker role with Payne in the hole, the playmaker wasn’t proving anywhere near as influential from a wide position.
The signing of winger Isaac Buckley-Ricketts and midfielder Cameron Brannagan certainly bolsters the squad and the addition of highly-rated Reading defender Rob Dickie was also eye-catching from the club who are now trying to ward of interest in Ryan Ledson.
Anyhow, the hosts have been chalked up at 11/10 (Bet365) to beat rock-bottom Bury and I’m happy to overlook the performance data to back Oxford here. They’ve picked up maximum points in three of their past four at the Kassam, as well as five of seven when welcoming teams below them in the table.
Surprisingly, there isn’t a huge amount of difference between these two clubs in my performance data ratings but it’s difficult to find any faith in a Bury side that are now 12 points from safety having suffered seven successive defeats.
It’s been a car-crash campaign for the Shakers, picking up victories in only four of 27 outings. Club legend Chris Lucketti was unable to stem the bleeding and was given his P45 on Monday following a home reverse to a Charlton team that travelled to Gigg Lane with only 12 fit players.
Ryan Lowe has given temporary charge again and he’s hoping to inject some positivity to the troops ahead of Saturday’s contest. But Bury have really missed the injured Jermaine Beckford, losing 12 of their past 15 and managing a single goal in 10, and only three goals in over 21 hours of league football.
The data may suggest these two aren’t two dissimilar but the reality is they’re streets apart and for that reason, I just can’t ignore the odds-against offering on a home triumph.
Bristol Rovers v Bradford | Saturday 20th January 2018, 15:00
Eight defeats in 11 before Christmas saw Bristol Rovers drop perilously close to the League One relegation zone with some Gas supporters calling for Darrell Clarke’s head. But the Pirates boss deserves credit for adapting his approach in recent weeks, particularly on the road.
Rovers have never been reliable performers away from the Memorial Stadium but Clarke has taken on a more pragmatic game-plan when playing away and the Gas have recorded three consecutive draws on their travels from Boxing Day, as well as beating high-flying Portsmouth 2-1 here.
The hosts remain only four points clear of the relegation zone although their improvements at the back should provide the basis to climb the table despite the loss of influential forward Billy Bodin earlier in January. Bernard Mensah has been signed as his replacement and should feature on Saturday.
Elsewhere, Rovers should relish their return to the Memorial Stadium and with plenty of threat provided by the likes of Rory Gaffney and Elliot Harrison, there’s no doubt the Gas pack a punch in the final third, scoring at least twice in nine of their 13 fixtures on home soil this season.
The state of the pitch at the Memorial Stadium is unlikely to allow free-flowing football although I still feel goals will be on the agenda, so much so, I’ll take the 21/20 (Coral) for Over 2.5 Goals and Both Teams To Score.
It’s a selection that’s proven profitable in 18/26 (69%) of the two teams’ combined home and away matches this term, implying odds shy of 1/2. The pair have scored in 24 of those ties and recorded only six shutouts.
Bradford’s chairman has put on free coach travel for away supporters, possibly to ease the apparent doom and gloom that’s descended over Valley Parade in recent weeks.
Top scorer Charlie Wyke's injury absence among others, the uncertainty surrounding Tony McMahon and the lack of transfer-window recruits has raised concerns over whether the Bantams can last the pace in the play-off places. And three defeats in their last five outings has certainly caused plenty of angst amongst City followers.
Bradford have lost their last three that Wyke hasn’t started. Nevertheless, Bradford boast a remarkably strong away record and even if the striker does miss out again, I’d count on the visitors to at least grab a goal.
The guests have found the back of the net in all 13 of their away days this campaign and Stuart McCall is hoping to have Dominic Poleon and Jake Reeves up to speed for the trip to the south-west. Full-backs Adam Chicksen and Tony McMahon both remain sidelined, mind, so another high-scoring encounter could be on the cards.
Crewe v Wycombe | Saturday 20th January 2018, 15:00
Wycombe manager Gareth Ainsworth celebrated his 250th league game in style with his 100th league win after the 3-1 victory over Colchester. Goals from Adebayo Akinfenwa, Paris Cowan-Hall and Luke O'Nien cemented the Chairboys’ place in the play-offs.
That result kept Wanderers level on points with third-place Accrington and Ainsworth was keen to heap praise his players, especially debutants Tafari Moore and Nathan McGinley. The pair started in Wycombe’s back-four along with youthful Dan Scarr and producing very encouraging performances.
Beating old rivals Colchester made it five victories in seven (W5-D0-L2) for Saturday’s visitors – the exceptions defats against Mansfield and Coventry – and although Wycombe have claimed a sole success in seven away days (W1-D2-L4), they boast a formidable record at the lesser lights.
The Chairboys have won eight of nine games against bottom-eight outfits this term, netting at least twice in all but one of these triumphs. With that in mind, plus the Blues’ superb road record under Ainsworth – avoiding defeat in 71% of away games since 2014/15 – I’m happy to back Wycombe double chance and Over 1.5 Goals at 4/6 (188BET).
The Buckinghamshire boys are seeing an average of 2.77 goals per-game on the road with 62% featuring at least three goals. Crewe’s encounters at Gresty Road have produced 2.86 goals per-game on average with a healthy 79% surpassing the magical Over 1.5 Goals line.
The Alex sold young and talented attacking midfielder George Cooper this week but the arrival of Paul Green on-loan should add some much-needed bite and experience in midfield. Elsewhere, Perry Ng misses the second of four games through suspension in defence and top scorer Chris Porter should be able to shake off a knock to start with Chris Dagnell in attack.
The Railwaymen are certainly in need of some final-third inspiration. The hosts suffered their 21st defeat of the season last weekend at Crewe, failing to score for the 12th occasion.
Most frustratingly for David Artell, the team actually performed with aplomb, especially so in the first 45 minutes. Callum Ainley was outstanding from deep, Jordan Bowery twice went through one-on-one, and Crewe found themselves in threatening positions but failed to find the back of the net.
Alex managed one effort on-target despite their reasonable offensive performance, suggesting they’re not too far away.
Nevertheless, it’s been famine or feast since August with Artell’s troops not being involved in a draw in their past 25 League Two matches (W9-D0-L16). And considering they’ve only once beaten a team higher than 14th, losing 10 of their last 11 encounters with top-half sides and conceding at least twice in five of their six hosting top-eight outfits, I’m happy to oppose them here.