FOOTBALL LEAGUE fanatic Tom Love (@TomLove_18) runs the rule over the runners and riders in the League One play-offs ahead of the semi-finals, sharing his views on who might be celebrating promotion at Wembley later this month.
Charlton (5/2 Blacktype)
Lee Bowyer was finally appointed full-time gaffer of Charlton a few months ago, it was fully deserved. He’s got his side playing with discipline and class and they’ve arguably been the most impressive side in the league since the turn of the year.
The Addicks eventually ended up best of the rest in third with an eye-opening W13-D6-L2 record since New Year’s Day. They’ve won seven of their last eight, including each of their past three. The capital club come into the play-offs all guns blazing and it’s no surprise that they’ve seen the cash come for them for promotion.
Majestic Midfield – Charlton’s excellent diamond in the middle of the park has been a major reason why the Addicks are where they are. It allows them to overpower teams in the middle of the pitch and because of the quality available they can play through tight spaces.
I’m convinced Arsenal loanee Kristian Bielik will be playing in a top league in the next two years; he’s been the best defensive midfielder in the league this year and with him at the base it gives a solid foundation for the likes of the enigmatic Jonny Williams and the calm assurance of Josh Cullen.
Charlton prodigy Joe Aribo has received admiring glances from some of the European elite and it’s no surprise why. The rangy youth product has chipped in with nine goals breaking into the final third. He’s fleet-footed and possesses strong dribbling and finishing qualities – his all-round game is continuously improving and he’s certainly one Bowyer will hope to hold onto.
Terrific Taylor – How centre forward Lyle Taylor was not included in the League One Team Of The Year is a complete mystery, to me. He’s been a constant nuisance for opposition defences and his goal record speaks for itself.
Twenty one goals the former Wimbledon man and with the supply coming from that strong midfield it’s no surprise. He’s an ice cold finisher and scores both with his feet and his head. He loves the big occasion so he could be one to look at in the goalscorer markets for the upcoming games to fire Charlton to glory.
Short on Strikers – If Taylor gets injured or misses any of these games for whatever reason then Charlton will be left light up top. Especially with Karlan Grant moving to Huddersfield in January. Igor Vetokele is the obvious back up but he’s only notched three times this season.
I’m a big fan of this side, they have a beautiful balance in their team and arguably have the most desirable opponents in the semi-finals with Doncaster. As well as that, Charlton are the most in-form side out of the four. I’m not surprised that they’re therefore favourites to secure promotion with most bookmakers.
Blacktype, however, have stuck their neck out and gone 5/2, which is a similar price to Portsmouth and Sunderland. I’d favour the Addicks over all the other sides though.
Value Rating – 4/5
Sunderland (13/5 Blacktype)
Sunderland were favourites to win the league ante-post and I was instantly keen to oppose them at the quotes. The Black Cats were even-money to secure promotion back to the Championship at the first time of asking which did seem a bit short but they’re still in with a chance via the play-offs.
Jack Ross has done a decent enough job considering the tumultuous few years the Wearside club have had to endure. Sunderland also had to cope with injuries to main signing Charlie Wyke, as well as losing top score Josh Maja in January to Bordeaux.
Mercurial McGeady – I’m sure Aiden McGeady didn’t expect to be playing his trade in League One anytime soon but he’s not shirked responsibility and his individual genius has won the Black Cats many a point.
His jinking runs and skill on the ball can mesmerise defences, not to mention his ability to score stunning goals from distance. Play-off games are notoriously tight and quite often separated by the finest of margins – he can be the difference-maker.
Constant Threat – Sunderland have scored in all but one game this season – an amazing stat – the only team to keep a clean sheet against them was promoted Barnsley. With the likes of McGeady, Wyke and Will Grigg among their ranks, it’s hardly a surprise. If they can keep it tight at the back they’ll have a good chance. Having said that, they’ve also conceded in 72% of games they have scored in.
Ropey Road Record – It’s been all the talk between the data nerds (myself included) that Sunderland have been posting less than impressive underlying numbers. To be fair, at the Stadium of Light they are third in the Expected Goals (xG) standings. However, if we look at the same metric away from home it’s a different story altogether.
The Black Cats sit 16th in the away xG standings, posting a meagre 48% ratio, only a smidgen above rock-bottom Bradford. It’s an interesting quirk and you feel they’ll have to go into the second leg at Fratton Park with a lead in tact.
Damaging Draws – Sunderland have lost the least amount of games in League One, coming off worst just five times. So why didn’t they go up automatically? Well, it’s because they’ve drawn a mammoth 19 games this term. Failure to turn one point into three has been their detriment all season long and that’s a worry if they find themselves in a position where they have to push for a win.
I’m still not sure all is well behind the scenes at the Stadium of Light and they fail to really back up their league position with the stats. They have the home leg first, which is usually something you’d choose to have second. They’re also not in any kind of form, winning just once in seven. They will be backed by a magnificent crowd but I think that there are more convincing sides in this play-off mix.
Value Rating – 2/5
Portsmouth (5/2 SkyBet)
Portsmouth have been mainstays of the top four for most of the season and they will look back on a dodgy spell over January and February as what killed their automatic hopes. It’s another big club with weighty expectations but they do have a lot of alternative threats going forward and they have arguably the most experienced manager in the league.
Meritorious Manager – Gaffer Kenny Jackett is very good at his job and always gets his teams competitive. He’s shown tactical nous and clever recruitment again this season and he knows what it takes to get out of this division.
He took Millwall up via the play-offs in 2009/10 after a 1-0 win over Swindon, he also took Wolves up automatically in 2013/14. That experience could prove pivotal as none of the other three play-off managers have prior experience of this stage in League One.
Attacking Arsenal – Pompey have plenty of options going forward and they are adaptable too. Brett Pitman started the season as the main man but Jackett then opted to play Ollie Hawkins at the top, which was a surprise call. It did pay off though as the former Dagenham man proved a perfect foil for attacking wingers Ronan Curtis and Jamal Lowe.
Ireland U21 international Curtis was on fire earlier in the season but again he’s dropped out here and there as Jackett tinkers with his team to keep everyone on their toes. Lowe however has been a constant and his pace, runs into the box and ability to finish from tight angles has impressed many an onlooker. He also has a good record scoring against Sunderland so he could be one to watch.
Defensive Doubts? – Although the south coast side are strong going forward, they have proved to be susceptible at the back. They’ve seen both teams score in each of their last eight games and their leaky nature will give opposition hope.
They certainly have a chance of making it back to the Championship. They pass the data test, have plenty of options, have the second leg at home and a manager who’s been there and done it.
I was surprised to see that they’re ranked as the outsiders to qualify against Sunderland. Pompey rank third in the overall xG standings whereas Sunderland are eighth on the same metric. I’d have them joint-favourites with Charlton and have the Wearside club a bit longer in the betting.
Value Rating – 4/5
Doncaster (5/1 10BET)
I’ll hold my hands up and say I backed Doncaster for relegation back in August. I’ve been left with egg all over my face as not only have the comfortably avoided the drop zone but they’ve consistently been in and around the top six.
My main reservation was over rookie gaffer Grant McCann. After pulling up no trees with Peterborough it looked like his appointment was one on the cheap side but how wrong I was. McCann has got the most out of a relatively thin squad and he opted to keep the majority of players from the previous campaign, and that trust has been repaid by an outstanding season from the South Yorkshire outfit.
Solid Spine – One thing that’s notable about this side is it’s flow through the pitch. It’s one based on experience with former Walsall centre half Andy Butler commanding the back four, ahead of him you have the evergreen James Coppinger who still plays a vital role for Rovers. He may no longer be the quickest across the ground but his brain works quicker than most in the division.
Coppinger’s leadership qualities cannot be overlooked either. Then up from him you have the goalscorer John Marquis, a real nightmare for defenders.
Lively Loans – They have delved into the loan market with some smart captures that have brought a degree of youthful exuberance to compliment the aforementioned experience, most namely Herbie Kane (Liverpool) and Malik Wilks (Leeds). The pair offer bounds of energy, dribbling qualities and extra ability going into the final third. Kane has bagged seven in all competitions from midfield whereas wide attacker Wilks has managed to notch 16 times.
Form since February – After a flying opening few months in the league, Donny have slightly tailed off. Since the 23rd February they’ve lost as many games as they’ve won, which naturally is a concern. It could be due to their lack of squad depth compared to the other sides up there.
Away Day Blues – They have been far more convincing at their Keepmoat base than when on their travels. Holding a W7-D5-L10 road record, Donny tends to play in a slightly more subdued style. Their only away win in their last 10 was at lowly Bradford and even that was by the single goal in a game the failed to really convince in.
It looks an almighty challenge for probably the smallest club out of the four. However, McCann has regularly spoke about what he expects from this team and that is promotion. If they don’t win the first leg against Charlton then it will be hard to see them getting anything at The Valley given their less than convincing away record.
5/1 quotes might tempt a few in but they’ve probably got the hardest semi-final and then will run into another big team if they get to the final.
Value Rating – 2/5