Which set of fans will enjoy a Good Friday and which will be cross? EFL pundit Gab Sutton picks his six best bets in his EFL Good Friday Preview.
Norwich to win to nil
Preston North End v Norwich City
Norwich City’s nine-game winning streak was interrupted by a 1-1 draw at home to Blackburn last time out.
With Swansea and Brentford failing to win last time out, though, that result does nothing to harm their lead in the automatic promotion race and could only be significant when it comes to the title showdown later in the campaign.
The Canaries, even when not at their best, put together some delightful attacking moves, including the one involving Emi Buendia, Kieran Dowell and Kenny McLean, from which the latter put them ahead with a neat finish.
Earlier in the season, some fans would have been worried about how they could perform without Buendia, their key playmaker in the final third. But Dowell came into the XI and starred in the 2-0 victory at Nottingham Forest.
For the following game, Dowell kept his place at Lukas Rupp’s expense and linked up superbly with his teammates, making the former Wigan man a potent asset in the run-in – even if injuries have stunted his progress until now.
Norwich lost 3-1 in their last league trip to Deepdale but, on that night, Preston North End were a side full of energy, life and vigour, which is a real contrast to how they have looked for much of this campaign.
Alex Neil was dismissed after a run of one win in nine, but it is hard to say with any real confidence that Frankie McAvoy – whom Neil brought to Lancashire in 2017 – will fare much better with limited experience as a number one.
📺 "I've had fantastic times here with Alex. He's been great for #Preston and we just need to learn the good bits we've had with him and put our own stamp on it"
— BBC Lancashire Sport (@BBCLancsSport) March 23, 2021
Norwich are at a completely different level to Preston North End at the moment and I expect that to show on Friday.Gabriel Sutton
Millwall to score under 0.5 goals
Millwall v Rotherham United
The quality of Gary Rowett’s work at Millwall depends on your perspective.
Results and performances alone suggest Rowett is doing an outstanding job: on a bottom six budget, he delivered a top 10 finish after taking over midway through the previous campaign and is set to repeat the feat this term.
The Lions have kept 28 clean sheets in 71 games under the former defender, who has coached the very best out of centre-backs like Shaun Hutchinson and Jake Cooper.
That, though, is partly because Rowett employs a conservative approach and, unlike his predecessor, never fields more than one out-and-out striker in the same starting XI.
Millwall fans identify best with sides that play aggressive, front-foot football with a high-line, flying into challenges then getting the ball quickly into a big striker, which is not the blueprint of this current side.
It is suggested that the Londoners, more so than others, have missed supporters. But if they were present, there would be a lot more pressure on the team to take a different approach to the one Rowett favours.
Being the lowest scorers in the Championship’s top half, Millwall may not have quite enough in attack to trouble the Play-Offs this season, having scored the same number of goals as games they have played – 38.
Relegation strugglers Rotherham, in fact, have scored the same number of goals in four fewer encounters and have given themselves fresh hope of beating the drop with a 2-0 victory at Bristol City.
Michael Smith continued his excellent individual campaign in that match by heading home Wes Harding’s excellent right-wing cross, taking his tally to eight goals in his last 18 games.
It’s not just goals that determine “Smudga’s” value to this Millers side, because he also runs the channels selflessly, battles with centre-backs, wins aerial duels and brings others into play.
The question for Paul Warne is whether to partner the 29-year-old with Freddie Ladapo, who is capable of a marvellous solo goal as he showed against Sheffield Wednesday and Watford, or Matt Crooks.
The latter could start in midfield behind a front-two of Smith and Ladapo if Warne fancies a 3-5-2, or he could operate just behind Smith in a 3-5-1-1 if ball-winner Jamie Lindsay is fit enough to start.
Either way, the South Yorkshire outfit have looked much improved since moving to a wing-back system, not least because it gets the best out of Richard Wood.
The veteran centre-back, who wears a magic hat according to natives, is an excellent organiser but hates getting drawn into wide areas, as tends to happen when playing in a back-four.
When “Woody” is flanked by aerial specialists Michael Ihiekwe and Angus MacDonald, though, it is near-impossible to isolate him as opponents want to do and Rotherham can be a very difficult side to break down.
Without Matt Smith, Millwall do not have a target man capable of winning duels against a stern back-three, but nor do they have the ball-playing potential to find other ways of getting forwards like Jed Wallace and Tom Bradshaw on the ball.
#rufc No 2 Richie Barker on Richard Wood: "Captains like him are a bit of a dying breed. He's vital to the team, he's vital to the dressing room, he's vital to what we stand for."
— Paul Davis (@paulm_davis) March 20, 2021
Millwall don’t have quite enough goals to maintain their Play-Off challenge and, given how solid Rotherham have looked since moving to a back-three, I could see the visitors recording a clean sheet.Gabriel Sutton
Double Chance: Draw/Wimbledon
Plymouth Argyle v AFC Wimbledon
Mark Robinson is a very process-driven manager.
He praises his players for good performances, even when the results are not there, yet will stay coy about victories if he is not entirely happy with what he has seen.
Robinson’s AFC Wimbledon side went into Saturday’s 1-0 win over Northampton after a run of three consecutive draws, during which the showings had steadily improved. Yet arguably the worst performance of the four-game unbeaten run was the one that gained three points.
In a parallel universe, the bizarre goal in which an opposition clearance cannoned into the net via Joe Pigott could very easily have flashed wide, while the penalty, though dubiously awarded, could very easily have been guessed incorrectly by Nik Tzanev.
The fine margins favoured the Wombles at those key moments, but Robinson will know that his players need to up their game if they are to back up that result when they travel to Devon.
Plymouth Argyle boss Ryan Lowe has recently arrested a five-game losing streak by switching from the 3-1-4-2 he has deployed throughout his managerial career to a 4-4-2.
In fairness to Lowe, that shift has seen his side beat Bristol Rovers 2-0 then draw 2-2 at Blackpool, but it does change the way Argyle play.
Their game for much of the season has been about intricate, triangular passing sequences in wide areas, whereas with their current system, they play the ball forward earlier.
That worked against a high-pressing Blackpool side, but Wimbledon will be more compact and could prove difficult to dislodge.
"I said don't give me the job if you want a big sticky plaster and another great escape."@AFCWimbledon head coach Mark Robinson explains his ambition to make the club "sustainable and successful moving forward".
— BBC London Sport (@BBCLondonSport) March 26, 2021
I’m a big fan of Mark Robinson which is why I think he’ll keep Wimbledon up – I expect them to get something at Home Park, too.Gabriel Sutton
Lucas Akins: Anytime Goalscorer
Accrington Stanley v Burton Albion
Every meeting between Accrington Stanley and Burton Albion carries a certain amount of romance, because the two clubs met in the Northern Premier Division back in the 2001-02 campaign.
John Coleman managed Stanley back then but his next opposite number, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, was matching Alan Shearer and Ruud van Nistelrooy’s Premier League goal returns for Chelsea.
Hasselbaink’s managerial career has been mixed, with difficult stints at QPR and Northampton sandwiched by two good pieces of work at Burton.
The Dutchman inspired the Brewers to League Two promotion in 2014-15 then led them into contention in League One the following season before moving, and his impact this time around has been just as strong.
Having been eight points adrift when Hasselbaink took the reigns, Burton are now five points clear despite successive defeats to MK Dons and Shrewsbury.
One man the former striker has got the best out of is Lucas Akins, who has formed an impressive attacking trio with the fleet-footed Jonny Smith and tall front-man Kane Hemmings.
Akins, though not quite as quick as he was when he first signed from Stevenage in 2014, still carries power in his running and brings quality around the edges of the penalty-area.
The wide forward could thrive against Burton, who lost 7-0 at Peterborough last time out, missing six players – talented goalkeeper Nathan Baxter, athletic centre-back Ross Sykes, technical wing-back Tariq Uwakwe, flying wing-back Joe Pritchard, reference point Colby Bishop and persistent poacher Dion Charles – all of whom would get into their XI.
Charles is back from international duty but it could be a while before Stanley are at full strength, so Burton will sense a massive opportunity to distance themselves from the bottom six and Akins could be key to that.
I've been watching #asfc for a living for 18 years and I'm struggling to think of one worse than that…
— Dan Jewell (@danjewellmedia) March 27, 2021
Lucas Akins has scored three goals in his last five meetings with Accrington Stanley and I fancy him to do damage once again, as Burton look to ease themselves away from relegation danger.Gabriel Sutton
Bolton to win
Bolton Wanderers v Colchester United
Eoin Doyle showed his value to Bolton last Saturday, when the Irishman’s razor-sharp finish was the only goal of the game at promotion rivals Forest Green.
Some have questioned the performance from the Trotters, who did not create a great deal of chances besides the one Doyle converted, but defensively they were excellent.
Matt Gilks was rarely stretched between the sticks, because anchor man MJ Williams did some excellent work to protect centre-backs Ricardo Santos and Alex Baptiste, who were imperious.
Bolton could have created more chances because, prior to the goal, they had long spells of possession, many of which conducted by midfielder Kieran Lee – balletic, classy and elusive – which wore their opponents down.
Once Ian Evatt’s side got their lead, they knew that their opponents are a crossing team without a focal point, which meant they could drop deeper and soak up pressure, trusting Santos and Baptiste to dominate their box.
The right-sided partnership of Nathan Delfouneso and Gethin Jones is also developing well, because the duo work well in tandem in and out of possession, likewise Oladapo Afolayan and Declan John on the left.
Bolton will be tough opposition, therefore, for Colchester, who have won just one of their last 20 games following a 2-1 loss to Bradford last time out.
Form under Wayne Brown, who was in charge for nine of those encounters, has seen chairman Robbie Cowling move to appoint former West Ham utility man Hayden Mullins until the end of the season.
Neither Steve Ball nor Brown were able to turn things around, so this will be a difficult opening assignment for Mullins in permanent senior management.
Club statement: Hayden takes the reins. 👇 #ColU
— Colchester United FC (@ColU_Official) March 31, 2021
Bolton unbeaten in 13, Colchester with one win in 20. I don’t think there will be too many games in the EFL this season that pair teams in such contrasting form and, if the visitors get anything, it will be a massive, massive shock.Gabriel Sutton
Under 1.5 goals
Cheltenham Town v Tranmere Rovers
Cheltenham enter this key promotion clash with much to fix.
Alfie May, who made a massive impact after signing in January last season, has not been able to maintain that league form this term despite his heroics in the FA Cup.
His strike-partner, Sam Smith, has provided a physical presence since joining in the winter window but often, when the Reading loanee wins an aerial duel, May is not there to pick up the scraps because he is so often dropping into midfield.
That implies a lack of confidence from the former Doncaster striker, who hit his big chance in the 1-0 loss at Morecambe last time out straight at the goalkeeper.
One option for Cheltenham is to shake up their attack by bringing experienced poacher Andy Williams into the XI, or even raw speedster Alex Addai, who would at least scare defenders with his direct running in behind – but is out-of-favour with manager Michael Duff.
The Robins could struggle to find the net against Tranmere Rovers, who are in the top three for the first time all season following a five-game unbeaten run.
Rovers were denied all three points against Mansfield, controlling much of the game and creating by far the better chances, but their failure to add to Kaiyne Woolery’s first half opener was the reason they ultimately fell short.
With former England international David Nugent and the youngest ever Premier League goalscorer James Vaughan absent, Keith Hill’s side do not have a reliable focal point, so we could be looking at a low-scoring encounter.
Thunderous shot from Benjamin Mendy 💥
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) January 23, 2021
Neither side have looked great going forward recently, so I’m expecting this promotion clash to either be goalless, or decided by a solitary strike.Gabriel Sutton