EFL pundit Gab Sutton picks his best bets for the ups and downs ahead of the penultimate weekend of matches in the Championship and League Two – and the final day in League One.
“I think Blackburn have the personnel to deal with Kieffer Moore where Swansea didn’t, so for me it’s Ben Brereton Diaz who is the one to watch in what will be a crucial game: both in the Play-Off scramble and in the automatic promotion race.”Gabriel Sutton
Blackburn Rovers v Bournemouth
Ben Brereton Diaz to score anytime
Bournemouth’s 3-3 draw at Swansea in midweek meant Nottingham Forest – their rivals for second place – gained two points on them in the automatic promotion race.
It could easily have been three, though: the Cherries fell three down in South Wales, but the introduction of Kieffer Moore changed the game in their favour.
Because the Dorset outfit had the obvious aerial outlet, something Dominic Solanke doesn’t provide, they had the freedom to punt the ball forward speculatively rather than try to build intricate passages of play, something defenders like Nathaniel Phillips try to do with some discomfort.
This made the team play with a lot more confidence and gave them a route back into the match, so Moore will surely start in Saturday’s trip to Ewood Park.
Blackburn have promotion hopes themselves and, to reach the Play-Offs, will need to either gain three points on Sheffield United between now and the end of the season, as well as go level or ahead on goal difference depending on goals scored – GD and GF between these sides are both separated by a one-goal margin.
On top of that, Rovers will also need to collect more points than Middlesbrough, so no tally can suffice if they or United win their remaining games.
Tony Mowbray’s side, though, did give themselves an outside chance by winning 4-1 at Lancashire neighbours, with pride, passion and fight on display.
Mowbray has deployed a 3-4-3 for much of the campaign but the switch to 4-2-3-1 worked perfectly, with the presence of target man Sam Gallagher giving John Buckley more creative freedom, interchanging seamlessly with Joe Rothwell in the advanced midfield position ahead of Lewis Travis.
On top of that, Ben Brereton Diaz grabbed two assists and showed signs of getting back to form after a long-term injury; the Chile international’s presence gives Blackburn a chance.
It could be ‘Breo’ that thrives in this match, as opposed to Moore, because while the latter thrived against a Swansea defence lacking aerial prowess after Ben Cabango was forced off, Blackburn have the likes of Darragh Lenihan and Jan Paul van Hecke who are much stronger in that regard.
Conversely, Brereton Diaz has the quality to cause problems on the counter-attack and Rovers have the creativity to set him free on goal.
🏆 Player of the Season: Van Hecke
❌ Flop of the Season: Ayala
💪 Most Improved Player: Brereton-Diaz
👏 Unsung Hero: Scott Wharton
👕 Signing of the Season:
— Chris Heyes 🌹brfc 🇺🇦 (@ChrisHeyes78) April 19, 2022
“Riley McGree was a good addition for Middlesbrough and I see him bringing bags of energy and drive to the midfield in this game, as Chris Wilder’s side seek the victory they may need to stay in the Play-Off hunt.”Gabriel Sutton
Middlesbrough v Stoke City
Middlesbrough win to nil
Middlesbrough’s 2-0 win over Cardiff on Wednesday, thanks to goals from Marcus Tavernier and Riley McGree, means the Teessiders are two points off the final Play-Off spot, occupied by Sheffield United.
Boro must either gain three points on the Blades in the final two games season to leapfrog them, or gain two on them with a two-goal swing.
Realistically, Chris Wilder’s side must finish the season by beating fallen Play-Off outsiders Stoke and Preston North End, then hope his former club drop points either at QPR or at home to champions-elect Fulham.
Wilder had been linked with a move to Burnley, not helped by a refusal to deny the speculation in the media and one or two tetchy answers in press conferences, but since meeting Steve Gibson he has confirmed his allegiance to Middlesbrough, regardless of the outcome of this campaign.
With that matter settled, for now at least, the hosts are hoping to build on the victory over Cardiff.
Their manager admitted it wasn’t a flowing performance, with star wing-back Isaiah Jones – somebody on whom Boro have come to rely all too heavily this term – a tad below-par since returning from injury.
On the flip side, they kept a clean sheet and restricted their opponents to just six efforts all game, with solid performances from Anfernee Dijksteel, Sol Bamba and Paddy McNair in defence, as well as steady showings from Jonny Howson and Riley McGree in midfield.
McGree was set to go to Celtic in January before a late change of circumstances, but he has brought energy and drive to the Boro midfield and could be an asset in the final two games, against a Stoke side playing for a top-10 finish.
The Potters might be out of the Play-Off mix but they have won three in four and are not to be underestimated, especially with the energy Jacob Brown brings in attack and the presence Lewis Baker offers in midfield.
Goodnight to everyone except people who doubted Riley Mcgree 🇦🇺 UTB x
— rnoble1112 (@rnoble1112) April 27, 2022
“Gillingham will want to keep things tight early on, but it’s later in the game where they may have to push forward for the victory – especially if Fleetwood are drawing or Morecambe are losing – and I think it’s in the latter stages that the game could open up for Rotherham.”Gabriel Sutton
Gillingham v Rotherham United
Rotherham came within two minutes plus stoppages of holding out for a crucial victory at Sunderland in midweek, which would have propelled them one giant step closer to an instant Championship return.
After an unfortunate sliced clearance from Michael Ihiekwe landed in his own net, however, Paul Warne’s side had to settle for a point on Wearside.
Make no mistake: the Millers are still very much in the driving seat going into the final day.
They can secure promotion if they match or better MK Dons’ result at Plymouth Argyle, who are playing to attain a Play-Off berth (more of which anon).
Plus, even if Rotherham were to lose and MK Dons were to draw, they would still almost certainly finish second by virtue of goal difference – unless the defeat comes by a six-goal margin, which seems an unrealistic scenario.
Saturday’s game, though, will have ramifications at the other end of the table, where Gillingham must avoid defeat to have a chance of staying up (realistically speaking, this is – technically, they could on goal difference, but Fleetwood won’t lose 16-0 to Bolton, we don’t think).
If Fleetwood are victorious in their Lancashire clash, then the Gills could still stay up with a win if Morecambe lose to Sunderland – or, if the Shrimps draw their final day encounter and Neil Harris’ side beat Rotherham by three goals, which would be difficult.
The Gills, we can expect, will look to start the game with a solid structure and might be content to go in at half-time goalless, with the intention of applying more pressure after the interval once they have established that platform.
For that reason, the smart money could be on the scores being level at the break, with Rotherham then picking Gillingham off in the second half – especially if results are such that only victory will do for the hosts.
The Millers can go direct to target man Michael Smith, but they also have a pressing midfielder in Oli Rathbone who is effective at forcing turnovers, as well as a ball-carrier in Ben Wiles and a speedster in Cheo Ogbene who can make the most of them.
Last night Rotherham produced one of the best and most complete performances I’ve seen. The own goal was so cruel. Play like that on Saturday and it’ll be job done.
Get down to Gillingham boys and girls for one final push. UTM. #rufc
— Mark (@markrufc95) April 27, 2022
“It is improbable that a draw will allow Argyle or MK Dons to achieve their targets, a Play-Off spot and automatic promotion respectively. With that in mind, this could be an enthralling, end-to-end game with both sides giving everything for the three points – don’t rule out this being a crazy final day encounter.”Gabriel Sutton
Plymouth Argyle v Milton Keynes Dons
Over 4.5 goals
If MK Dons win and Rotherham fail to do so, Liam Manning’s side will secure automatic promotion.
If one of those scenarios does not occur, it would take an unlikely sequence of events including a drastic swing of goal difference for the Dons to finish in the top two.
Technically, the Buckinghamshire outfit could go up with a draw if Rotherham lose by five goals to Gillingham, or at the expense of Wigan rather than the Millers if they gain three points on the current leaders, who travel to Shrewsbury, as well as a six-goal swing.
While the latter two scenarios are within the realms of possibility, it’s easier to focus on the top line, to avoid over-complicating things before we’ve got started: after all, there are complex permutations affecting their hosts, too.
Argyle will qualify for the Play-Offs if one of three of the following sets of scenarios occur:
Scenario one – Wycombe lose AND Argyle are not defeated by a margin three or more goals bigger than that scoreline
Scenario two – Argyle avoid defeat AND Sunderland lose OR Wycombe fail to win
Scenario three – Argyle win AND one of the following happens… Sheffield Wednesday fail to win, Sunderland fail to win, Wycombe are unable to win by a margin of victory that’s greater than Argyle’s by two goals
In the anticipated scenario that seventh-placed Wycombe win at Burton and fifth-placed Sunderland avoid defeat at Morecambe, Argyle must secure victory on Saturday to have a chance of extending their season.
The matter then gets thornier still, because Wednesday, Sunderland and Argyle all have identical goal difference at +25, while Wycombe are +23 and could be capable of stretching that further on the final day if required – it’s plausible that what separates sixth from seventh is goals scored!
On top of that, MK Dons will be in a position of having nothing to lose – a draw does nothing to improve their position whereas a win could change everything – so this is set up for a high-scoring encounter.
With raw runner Ryan Hardie, poacher Luke Jephcott, dribbler Danny Mayor and athlete Ryan Broom bringing the quality for the hosts, then final third maestro Scott Twine, grafting striker Troy Parrott and ball-carrier David Kasumu doing likewise for the visitors, this game is not one to miss.
Actually bonkers to think #mkdons could (although highly unlikely) still win the League One title going into the final day. Whatever happens now the two Liam's and everyone associated with the club deserve huge respect.
— Paul Dixon (@dicko1886) April 27, 2022
“I often find that when a team playing for promotion faces a side already promoted and going for the title, it’s the latter that plays better. They have that swagger having achieved their objective, but they also have that element of motivation. I see that being the case with Exeter.”Gabriel Sutton
Northampton Town v Exeter City
Exeter to win
Exeter secured promotion to League One on Tuesday night, when they came from behind to beat Barrow 2-1.
The result, combined with Forest Green’s defeat by the same scoreline at Swindon, means the Grecians are level on points with the leaders.
While top spot may not be the first thing on City minds after the promotion celebrations, they will be keen to finish a dream campaign in style and perhaps put the cherry on top of the cake.
For Northampton, it’s about having the cake in the first place: but Jon Brady’s side find themselves at the front of the queue, occupying the final automatic promotion spot as things stand.
If the Cobblers win their remaining two games, they will be playing in League One next season and with the trip to already safe Barrow looking a favourable final day fixture, Saturday’s game is all-important.
There is an outside possibility that Teyn finish the job by Monday if they win, but that would take an unlikely sequence of results: Port Vale and Mansfield losing two days after, Bristol Rovers failing to win at Rochdale and Sutton being unable to beat Bradford.
However, Brady’s troops could put themselves in a position to mathematically clinch the deal with a victory on the final day: even a point would accomplish that objective if Port Vale and Mansfield fail to win on Monday.
Alternatively, if they lose, they would need Vale to also lose to be in the driving seat, as well as the Stags and Bristol Rovers to fail to win and Sutton to not win by a margin that would put them ahead on goal difference.
While there is greater incentive for Northampton to win, it’s possible that the pressure of being the team playing for promotion will affect them, whereas Exeter still have the motivational element with the title up for grabs – but they don’t have a fear of missing out.
If Josh Key, Archie Collins, Jevani Brown and Matt Jay play with a swagger, I think City could win: even having achieved their main objective for the campaign.
Never going to get tired of watching these scenes!
THE REDS ARE GOING UP ❤️#ECFC #OneGrecianGoal pic.twitter.com/97zGpAlwXB
— (P) Exeter City (@OfficialECFC) April 28, 2022
“When I checked the price list, I expected Bristol Rovers – still in the mix for third – to be odds-on at already safe Rochdale. I’ll take that 11/10 gleefully: if Elliot Anderson brings his A-game, the Gas could even win this at a canter.”Gabriel Sutton
Rochdale v Bristol Rovers
Bristol Rovers to win
Although Northampton are in pole position for the final automatic promotion spot, because they are the team that can control their own destiny, their job is made harder by having to face an Exeter side going for the title.
Bristol Rovers, on the other hand, have two favourable fixtures: a trip to Rochdale, already safe, before a final day hosting of relegated Scunthorpe – no guarantees, but it’s highly likely they will win that game.
The Gas are likely to win their final two encounters, which would put them on 80 points, and if they can get their goal difference up across those matches, then there is a chance of pipping Northampton even if the current incumbents of third take four points.
However, Joey Barton’s side are reliant on them, Mansfield and Port Vale all failing to acquire maximum points from the closing fixtures to have a chance.
A goalless draw with Forest Green on Saturday was a reasonable result in theory, given what was at stake for their visitors, but with Elliot Anderson unable to produce his usual magic they needed to lean on the solidity of defenders Connor Taylor and James Connolly to add to their points tally.
Taylor and Connolly, as well as in-form goalkeeper James Belshaw, could be called upon once again for the trip to Lancashire, but Rochdale’s 2-0 loss at Exeter last time out proved they are still some way off the best in this division.
Conor Grant and Stephen Dooley started in midfield at St James’s Park in the absence of alternatives, but both would see their natural positions elsewhere: there is every chance of Paul Coutts, Sam Finley and Antony Evans running the show for the visitors.
A lot of people getting a bit nervous with tonight's results and I completely get why. To be honest its simple. Win the last two and see what happens. Nothing else we can do about the rest #UTG
— Ben (@Ben_H90) April 26, 2022