THE stakes couldn’t be higher ahead of the East Anglian derby on Saturday. Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) takes a look at the best bets on offer as Ipswich prepare to entertain Norwich in the Championship play-off semi-final first leg.
Ipswich Town v Norwich City | Saturday 12.15 | Sky Sports 1
If we’re all being honest, we were hoping to see these two teams fighting it out at Wembley in the play-off final, right? The play-offs are never shorn of drama and excitement but throw a derby into the melting pot and you’ve got the ingredients for something very special. Add a dollop of Wembley and you’ve the recipe for a neutral’s dream.
Back to the real world then and Portman Road’s the venue for the first of the two bloodthirsty semi-final ties between the two bitter rivals. Home boss Mick McCarthy claims no one gave his Ipswich side “a cat-in-hell’s chance” of making the top-six but his shrewd stewardship has steered the Tractor Boys superbly and I’m genuinely gagging to see how he’ll manage his crop of rough diamonds on Saturday.
Town picked up 50 of their 78-point haul in front of their home supporters, losing just three games at Portman Road all season. No side picked up more points at home but there are a number of sticking points before getting too seduced by the bulbous 9/4 (Bet365) on offer for the hosts to take a first leg lead.
For starters, Ipswich’s 2015 form has been far from consistent (W9-D4-L9) with their record at HQ the only outstanding feature this calendar year. Mick’s men have kept just three clean sheets across those 22 fixtures (none in the past 10) and may also need to overhaul their approach if they’re going to realistically trouble their regional rivals.
The Tractor Boys have lost their last four against their Norfolk visitors (their worst ever run), failed to stop the Canaries scoring in any of their previous 10 bouts at Portman Road and were comfortably second-best in both Championship fixtures this campaign. Their direct and aerial threat was nullified by Norwich’s experienced centre-halves Sebastien Bassong and Russell Martin at Carrow Road in March and I just get the impression more might be required if the Suffolk side are going to edge ahead.
McCarthy will be hoping to keep things tight and ensure the home side are still in the mix for the return leg in seven days time and although Freddie Sears’ pace alongside the Championship’s top goal-getter Daryl Murphy can ruffle feathers, there’s just not enough redeeming positives to put my faith in an Ipswich-led selection.
Opponents Norwich make the short journey south well aware of their favourites tag with impressive young manager Alex Neil keen to build on a marvellous 2015. The Scot has guided the Canaries to 15 wins in 22 fixtures with the Norfolk club unbeaten in 11 on the road (W8-D3-L0); no surprise then that the visitors boast the joint-best record on their travels in the division either.
Neil rested a number of key players on the final day of the season and the 33-year-old can call upon a fully fit squad for this duel bar the suspended Lewis Grabban. It’s also the Championship’s strongest squad that fired in an average of 12 shots-per-game. There are goals from a threatening midfield, solidity at the back and in Gary Hooper and Cameron Jerome, two capable goalscorers.
The Canaries won four of their six trips to top-six teams and look primed for a return to the Premier League at the first time of asking. However, the best price of 6/4 (William Hill) on an away success this Saturday lunchtime is hugely unappealing despite their strong claims.
So how do we approach this fixture from a betting perspective? Both regular season battles featured fewer than three goals and as I suggested in the preview of Brentford’s clash with Middlesbrough on Friday, the lack of goals in the first legs of Championship play-off semi-finals is hard to ignore.
Over the past six seasons, Over 2.5 Goals has banked on just 2/12 (17%) occasions with Both Teams To Score proving profitable in 3/12 (25%) matches. The average goals-per-game across those 12 fixtures was just 1.16. Immediately the 4/6 (BetVictor) sticks out for Under 2.5 Goals but I’m going to be bold and head back to one of my favourite low-scoring markets.
BetBright have chalked up Both Halves Under 1.5 Goals at 11/10; it’s a substantially better value bet which won in both regular season meetings between the two teams and should have a decent chance of landing again on Saturday in what’s expected to be a tight, feisty encounter.
Ipswich Town v Norwich City – Both Halves Under 1.5 Goals (11/10 BetBright)
What’s your best bet for the play-offs? Are you expecting the goals to flow at Portman Road?
We’d love to hear your views so let us know in the comments box below.