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EFL pundit Gab Sutton discusses which teams could be celebrating with champagne this Valentine’s weekend and which could be bruised

Scott Hogan to score anytime

Birmingham City v Luton Town

2/1

Birmingham dropped into the Championship relegation zone with a 3-2 loss at Bournemouth last time out.

Blues have won just one of their last 11 games to prompt fears of third-tier football for the first time in 26 years, but the last two performances give them at least something to build on.

Aitor Karanka’s side would have won at Wycombe but for an opposition goalkeeping masterclass and, at Bournemouth, they created the better chances in the first half.

Inverted wingers Ivan Sanchez and Jeremie Bela produced some bright moments, along with box-to-box midfielder Gary Gardner, while Scott Hogan provided a reliable goalscoring presence.

Hogan showed the opportunism to tap home after the opposing goalkeeper spilt Gardner’s centre and, in the second half, got on the end of Sanchez’s floating delivery to delicately glance home.

The former Brentford striker has struggled in isolation for parts of this season when Blues have gone long from deep and he has lacked the aerial prowess to adapt, but when Gardner starts he is asked to push forward from goal-kicks and be the reference point, which takes some of the pressure off.

Birmingham have a squad that, on paper, should not be in the Championship relegation zone. The fact they do occupy a bottom three berth dictates that questions must be asked of Karanka.

Captain Harlee Dean, though, was emphatic in his public support of the Spaniard and if the B9 outfit can create at the same level they have in the previous two games – which they have the quality out wide to do – then Hogan is more than capable of continuing his positive individual form.

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Birmingham will hope their end of the road is not League One – but Scott Hogan is in form with three goals in his last four games and could remain hot against Luton.

Gabriel Sutton

Norwich to win and under 3.5 goals

Norwich City v Stoke City

Norwich are goalless in three league games after a 2-0 loss at Swansea last time out but it’s far from crisis point at Carrow Road.

The Canaries were snatching at their efforts in Wales and suffered at the other end from a combination of misplaced passes, a dodgy moment from goalkeeper Tim Krul and an opposition wonder-strike, but it was not as if they were completely dominated.

Todd Cantwell still looked bright and creative and Oli Skipp still produced a dynamic midfield showing. It will not take much for them to rediscover their form.

The dip has coincided with the absence of Emi Buendia, who was sent off in last month’s draw with Middlesbrough and the Argentine – an acute technician with a combative edge – can make a real difference when he returns.

There is the temptation for Daniel Farke to bring Mario Vrancic in for Lukas Rupp, then push McLean into a more advanced role.

McLean, at the Liberty Stadium, was collecting the ball off the defence and operating deeper than may come naturally to somebody with his direct attacking instincts.

Vrancic, meanwhile, has often been used as the attacking midfielder in Farke’s 4-2-3-1 but may feel more comfortable in a deeper role, where he will enjoy more involvement in general play.

The “Bosnian Beckham” caresses the ball with a delicate touch, his decision-making is sublime – even under pressure – and could hold the key to Norwich maintaining their composure after a mini-blip.

The good news for the Canaries is that they face a side that have been out of form for much longer: Stoke are winless since Christmas.

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Emi breath you take: Norwich and Buendia are stronger together than apart and the Argentines return could make a massive difference in this one.

Gabriel Sutton

Wimbledon to win and both teams to score

AFC Wimbledon v Rochdale

Mark Robinson has made a positive impact as interim manager of Wimbledon.

The former youth team coach, who has worked with the first team under Wally Downes and Glyn Hodges, has impressed Wombles fans with his measured, reflective management style.

Robinson was open about the fact that he did not feel much emotion during the crucial 3-2 win at relegation rivals Wigan, his first league game in charge, because he was always obsessed with the next step.

“Robbo” takes on a lot of responsibility to see immediate achievements in the context of the bigger picture – and the challenge of keeping Wimbledon in this division – which is why he never gets swept away with euphoria or consumed by despair.

The caretaker gaffer sees scenarios like throw-ins and kick-offs, which many would consider to be mundane, as key opportunities to assert control on games, meaning he is very self-contained after a goal for either side.

The bulging of the net means Robinson’s sides have 30 seconds to prepare for the next kick-off and it’s that – rather than the implications of the goal – that they can influence, so it makes sense to focus more on that.

Robinson has a lot of belief in the ability of his players – Nesta Guinness-Walker provides an attacking threat from left-back, Jack Rudoni and Ethan Chislett bring flashes of skill and flair while Joe Pigott gives the Wombles a reliable goalscoring presence – and sees it as his role to make his players believe in themselves to the same extent.

Robinson is certainly doing that and, after a long winless run, Wimbledon now have an opportunity to complete back-to-back wins with victory over Rochdale, who have won just one of their last 10 league games.

Dale have been beaten emphatically in their last two games and have shipped 54 goals – far too many of them have been avoidable.

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Mark Robinson already has the affection of supporters and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Wimbledon take their relationship to the next level by giving him the permanent job – especially if he oversees victory against Rochdale.

Gabriel Sutton

Oxford to win -1 handicap

Oxford United v Wigan Athletic

7/5

Oxford accrued an eighth league victory in nine on Tuesday night, winning 2-0 at Bristol Rovers thanks to goals from Elliot Lee and Brandon Barker.

Lee struggled to deliver at Championship level with Luton, but the diminutive forward did play a big part in getting the Hatters to that level in 2018-19 and should perform well in League One with Oxford, who employ a similarly expansive style.

Barker, another January recruit, added quality from the bench and manager Karl Robinson felt the substitutes were crucial to the victory.

Robinson was able to replace in-form right-back Sam Long, when injured, with Anthony Forde, a winger by trade who looks at least equally impressive as an attacking right-back.

James Henry was also forced off but that only encouraged the former MK Dons boss to go two up top by bringing on a proven League One goalscorer in Sam Winnall, who has an excellent spring and a strong work rate.

Mark Sykes also came on to bring energy and dynamism from the right while Liam Kelly added Championship knowhow in midfield, meaning Oxford had the means to grow as the game went on.

The OX4 outfit will expect to do likewise on Saturday when they face a Wigan side who have little depth by contrast and remain hamstrung by off-field woes, despite a 1-0 victory at Northampton last time out.

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Have a little faith in Lee: it’s been love at first sight for Oxford and the on-loan Luton forward, who scored in his second game for the club last time out – the 26-year-old could do further damage against Wigan.

Gabriel Sutton

Salford to win

Bradford City v Salford City

Salford asserted their promotion credentials with a 4-1 victory over leaders Cambridge last time out.

The Ammies had threatened that kind of display in their previous game, where they lost 2-1 at Oldham having dominated the first half, the crucial difference being that in the more recent contest, they extrapolated their high levels over the full 90 minutes.

Richie Wellens’ 3-4-2-1 setup has huge potential, with wing-backs – Tom James or Ashley Hunter on the right and Ibou Touray on the left – pressing deep into the opposing half.

Touray, in particular, has built-up an excellent understanding with Robbie Gotts, who operates as the left-sided number 10; the Leeds loanee starts moves on the touchline but, as play progresses, drifts infield to create in central areas for serial goalscorer Ian Henderson.

The former Rochdale front-man is not just a finisher, either – the first two goals against Cambridge last time out came from the veteran hassling an opposing defender on his own – and he brings plenty of creative qualities too, as he showed in his assists for Gotts and Richie Towell.

The former Brighton man completes the front-three by triggering the press and latching onto passes down the line, thus stretching opposition rear-guards and creating more space for Gotts and “Hendo”.

Salford have an excellent squad at this level – one arguably capable of picking up some points in the Championship – and all they have missed in League Two has been a coherent system.

With that now in place, the Greater Manchester outfit have a great chance of going on a long winning streak to elevate themselves into the thick of the automatic promotion mix.

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Richie is the man Salford were looking for: the Ammies boss has taken some time to devise it, but he now has a system capable of inspiring his side to sail on to top spot.

Gabriel Sutton

Tranmere to win to nil

Grimsby Town v Tranmere Rovers

5/2

Tranmere’s five-game winning streak came to an end on Tuesday night with a 1-0 home defeat to Stevenage.

Keith Hill’s sides like to play out from the back and that has worked for him in the main, but the former Rochdale boss admitted his side did not play the conditions well enough in midweek.

Rovers have adapted to the terrain well enough though in previous games because they have, in Jay Spearing, a midfielder with higher league pedigree who does the basics – covering ground, spotting danger and putting challenges in – very well.

Spearing’s defensive work allows Tranmere to get away with having two attacking full-backs in Otis Khan – a more advanced technician who was converted into a right-back by Hill – and Calum MacDonald.

Khan and MacDonald hold the width to allow incisive forward Kaiyne Woolery, box-to-box man Paul Lewis, silky playmaker Ali Crawford and intelligent forward Danny Lloyd to rotate and interchange behind James Vaughan.

The vigorous veteran is the spearhead for Tranmere’s attack and, not only is he excellent in the air, he still runs and tracks back at 32 with the exuberance he showed when he became the youngest ever Premier League goalscorer for Everton back in 2005.

Vaughan and co. have a great chance of doing damage to Grimsby, who have accrued just two points from their last nine league games.

The performance was improved at Newport last time out but still, the Mariners conspired to lose 1-0 having played 53 minutes with a man advantage.

Results elsewhere on Tuesday night leave Paul Hurst’s side rooted to the bottom and in grave danger of the unthinkable return to non-league football.

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Tranmere have won five of their last six and could put a Spearing through hearts of Grimsby, who – on current form at least - keep on falling.

Gabriel Sutton
Odds are correct at the time of posting

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