Championship Play-Off Final: Michael Owen’s View
After high-profile cup ties with Premier League opposition for Burton and Gillingham in the last week, it’s back to the nitty-gritty of League One.
The Brewers, 10 points off the top six, are hoping to mount a play-off challenge, while their visitors are hoping to put more distance between themselves and the bottom four.
Although Burton Albion lost 9-0 in their EFL Cup Semi-Final ‘First Leg’ at Manchester City on Wednesday, one cannot be as critical of them as would be standard after a defeat of that scale.
On the one hand, they were perhaps guilty of switching-off at split seconds by not tracking the assigned runners, which is partly why they conceded as many as they did.
On the other however, it was almost impossible for them to keep up with the intensity of City’s play throughout the whole 90 minutes.
Strange though it may sound, large aspects of their defensive work was in fact not especially terrible, it’s just that whenever experienced right-back John Brayford or teenage left-back Reece Hutchinson took up a position that was the slightest bit questionable, their opponents exploited that space with a level of ruthless incision they had hitherto never faced.
While it might hurt to ship nine, reaching that stage of the competition is something the club should take immense pride in.
The performance of Scott Fraser, who made some jinking runs between the lines that led to three of Burton’s better first half openings, suggested he could have some joy against League One opposition.
The same could be said of Marcus Harness, who hit their best chance over the bar at 1-0, four days after bagging a hat-trick in the 4-0 win at Rochdale.
When Harness first came through Burton’s academy, he was something of a bit-part player, often used as a substitute to fill in on the left-hand side.
Nigel Clough though saw bits and pieces of what his left-foot is capable of during last season’s loan spell at Port Vale – this term, he has shifting him over to the right of a front three, enabling him to cut inside and threaten goal.
Gillingham deserve immense credit for last week’s 1-0 FA Cup Third Round victory over Premier League Cardiff.
Elliott List showed excellent composure to slot home the second half winner, having been teed up by typically strong hold-up play from Tom Eaves, but what stood out most about their performance was that they defended and attacked in unison.
Connor Ogilvie, a left-back by trade, adjusted admirably to a wide centre-back role next to the assured Alex Lacey and the powerful Gabriel Zakuani.
The trio were protected by Mark Byrne, who displayed the leadership qualities that saw him named Player of the Year in 2017-18 and Callum Reilly, who showed the tenacity we associated with him during his time at Birmingham.
While the Gills were well-organized, limiting their high-class opponents to only four shots on target, they did not play defensively and perhaps the intensity of their pressing flummoxed Neil Warnock’s side.
Fine deliveries from wing-backs Luke O’Neill and Bradley Garmston led to two of their better openings – the back-post header that Eaves narrowly missed contact with and the near-post chance that Josh Parker fired over.
Although Steve Lovell’s troops saw their opponents hit the bar and needed Tomas Holy to make himself big on two occasions, they can take great confidence from the performance.
The display highlighted their best system, which should lend itself to more tactical consistency than we have seen earlier in the campaign.
The question now is whether the Kent club – who have done the double over leaders Portsmouth but lost at home to bottom club Wimbledon – can deliver a modicum of consistency.
Burton have failed to win six of their 13 league encounters at the Pirelli Stadium, which means they have a 46% chance of either drawing or losing the average game there.
Gillingham have avoided defeat in six of their 13 league encounters on the road, giving them the same chance of drawing or winning the average away fixture.
BetVictor’s 5/4 on Gillingham adding to their current points tally in the East Midlands implies a probability of 44%, which is slightly lower than the bare statistics imply – plus the Gills have had more time to prepare since their last cup clash as well as the psychological advantage of a victory.
Double chance: Draw/Gillingham – 5/4