“Sheffield United have been stronger defensively of late, keeping eight clean sheets in 13 and I see their 2nd-placed visitors being improved at the back after victory in midweek: this could be a low-scoring encounter.”Gab Sutton
Sheffield United v Bournemouth
Under 2.5 goals
Bournemouth lost 2-0 at West Brom in midweek in a poor showing from Scott Parker’s side.
The Cherries remain six points clear of third place Luton, on whom they have two games in hand, and eight clear of fifth-placed Nottingham Forest, the side they have no games in hand on but represent their closest threat in terms of PPG.
The Dorset outfit’s drab performance in the West Midlands did not come as a huge surprise, despite their hugely advantageous position on paper.
Bournemouth were deserved winners over Huddersfield and Bristol City, but were unconvincing in victories over Stoke and Blackpool, and were held by relegation candidates Peterborough and Reading.
There is a sense of the Cherries limping over the line, because for all the holes we can pick in their performances, it could be that 78 points will suffice for automatic promotion – the standard of competition is the lowest it has been since 2012-13.
It’s an odd situation, which leaves the team that looks close to nailed on for second 15/8 outsiders for the visit to a side they would be 14 points better off than if they won both games in hand.
Nonetheless, Sheffield United have fixed the defensive woes that held them back in their 4-1 loss at Coventry a month ago, with wing-backs George Baldock and Enda Stevens back fit, while Filip Uremovic has solidified the back-three along with John Egan and Ben Davies.
Uremovic was forced off in the second half of the 1-0 win over QPR last time out, but it looks like a minor knock that will not keep the Croatian defender out of this encounter, and the challenge of quietening the Championship’s second-top goalscorer Dom Solanke.
We think Uremovic and co. are up to it.
“Ben Brereton Diaz’s return could be a game-changer for Blackburn, and I see them defeating a Blackpool side who, having had a wonderful debut campaign back at this level, may drop off somewhat now their destiny is assured.”Gab Sutton
Blackburn Rovers v Blackpool
To score and win: Ben Brereton Diaz/Blackburn
A run of two wins in 12 has undermined Blackburn’s Play-Off bid, so it’s fair to say they need a hero.
Where batman turns up though, robin is in tow and while Ben Brereton Diaz’s return is the headline news for Rovers, do not underestimate the impact Bradley Dack can make.
The latter has had a tough time of things with injuries over recent years, as well as Tony Mowbray veering away from the 4-2-3-1 deployed in the first two seasons after promotion.
Dack, though, marked his appearance from the bench at Coventry last time out with a stooping header just 18 seconds after coming on at half-time, and the impact Brereton Diaz can make is obvious.
The Chile international remains the third-top goalscorer in the Championship with 20, despite having spent two months on the sidelines through injury, which shows the threat he can pose when fit.
That’s bad news for Blackpool, who lost 4-1 to Nottingham Forest then 1-0 at fierce rivals Preston North End last time out.
The high-press has been a key feature of the Tangerines’ play this season and it has often worked for them but the positioning has to be right – particularly from the wide midfielders.
If Josh Bowler and CJ Hamilton are too deep, then Gary Madine and his strike-partner or corresponding number 10 – Keshi Anderson in midweek – are not supported sufficiently to make the pressing work.
If Bowler and Hamilton are too aggressive, though, it opens a can of worms for Neil Critchley’s side because Richard Keogh cannot effectively hold a high line due to his lack of pace.
In that scenario, either the veteran centre-back will be exposed with balls in behind, or there will be significant gaps between units, which slick sides that make quick, good decisions in possession can exploit.
The chances are, Blackburn will have their chances to release Brereton Diaz in behind: and we know how that tends to finish when the Chile international is on-song.
“Sam Vokes is a former international target man, so it’s hardly surprising the ex-Burnley striker is proving too good for League One. I think he’ll prove too good for Gillingham, too, despite the Kent club’s resurgence under Neil Harris.”Gab Sutton
Gillingham v Wycombe Wanderers
To score and win: Sam Vokes/Wycombe
Wycombe’s 4-1 victory at Cambridge in midweek was their fifth success in seven unbeaten, as Gareth Ainsworth’s side re-emphasized their Play-Off credentials.
The Chairboys have had a favourable sequence of opponents in that time, with three meetings with bottom six opposition in that sequence and two with already safe Cambridge.
The next side standing in their way is Gillingham who, after a striking resurgence under Neil Harris, are now looking over their shoulders once again due to back-to-back wins from Morecambe.
The Gills were so close to picking up a hard-earned point at Sunderland last time out, only to fall short of that accomplishment in injury-time due to Sunderland’s winner, but the defensive improvement is clear.
Talent Jack Tucker, organiser Max Ehmer and QPR loanee Conor Masterson have forged a solid defensive trio, conceding more than once on just one occasion since Harris took charge at the end of January – off the back of a 7-2 defeat to Oxford!
Nonetheless, it could be difficult for any of those defenders to win aerial duels against Vokes from Joe Jacobson’s deliveries, or stop him bringing the likes of Garath McCleary, Daryl Horgan and/or Anis Mehmeti into the game – and McCleary is beginning to rediscover his stellar August and September form.
We could have a scenario in which, while the game is goalless, Gillingham’s back-three becomes a back-five due to support from Ryan Jackson and David Tutonda, then the back-five becomes a back-eight with midfielders stuck in the defensive third, especially if Josh Scowen and Lewis Wing are as aggressive on second balls as expected.
From there, target man Vadaine Oliver and young talent Charlie Kelman risk becoming isolated up top, with Wanderers using the chasm to stick constant unchallenged balls in Vokes’ direction.
Get them right and Gareth Ainsworth’s troops could continue their fine form.
“Dan Neil has been one of Sunderland’s most talked about stars this season, and he didn’t get off the bench last time out. Oxford’s bench tends to comprise of players who are a little bit past their peak, and the contrast in options in reserve could be telling in this Play-Off clash at the Kassam.”Gab Sutton
Oxford United v Sunderland
Oxford’s play-off spot looks under threat, after a 2-1 defeat at Morecambe in midweek.
It started so well for Karl Robinson’s side, when Matty Taylor put the Yellows ahead at the Globe Arena three minutes in, but two first half goals for the Shrimps saw them come unstuck.
The result means Oxford, having appeared close to comfortable in the play-off places not long ago, are now down to eighth: three points off the top six.
The Yellows have been affected by injuries to defenders Sam Long and Elliott Moore plus striker Sam Baldock, whilst seeing Sunderland and Wycombe put together strong unbeaten runs.
The Black Cats defeated Gillingham last week thanks to Nathan Broadhead’s 95th-minute header, which kept them within striking distance of the top six.
It was far from a vintage performance from the Wearsiders, but the game highlighted either Alex Neil’s in-game management, or the strength he has at his disposal – perhaps a combination of both.
With just a quarter of the game to play, the Scot brought on Broadhead as well as Elliot Embleton and Lynden Gooch.
Embleton added class, control and creativity in midfield, assisting Broadhead’s winner with a cross from the right, while Gooch brought the width, creating more space for those around him.
“Louis Reed’s return to the XI could transform Swindon against a fellow Play-Off contender in League Two, with visitors Newport having taken just one point from the last nine available.”Gab Sutton
Swindon Town v Newport County
Swindon to win
The future is bright for Swindon and Newport.
These two sides play bright, enterprising football under progressive young coaches, with excellent reputations from the youth scene, and have at times looked irresistible.
On the flip side, both have fallen off the Play-Off pace lately with Town () and County (), so Saturday’s game will play a part in deciding whether either can still win promotion this season.
Swindon will be hoping the return of key midfielder Louis Reed will make a transformative difference to Ben Garner’s side, which would not be for the first time.
In fact, the last time Reed returned, Town went from a difficult patch of form to winning three games in succession, 3-0, 3-0 and 5-0 against Scunthorpe, Carlisle and Walsall respectively.
The Wiltshire club do not possess another midfielder who can do the same thing, controlling games at the base of midfield, dictating the tempo and switching the play, or at least not to a comparable level.
With Reed, though, Swindon should be much improved, while Newport do not rely on any one playmaker: their game is all about heavy rotation in midfield with Robbie Willmott, Finn Azaz and James Waite all taking on creative responsibility at different times.
The Exiles are an exciting side set for big things under James Rowberry, once they amend their defensive troubles, but may not make the right alterations until next season after a summer to recruit.
Swindon, with Reed, can get back to winning ways – and would re-enter the top seven with victory, if Tranmere fail to beat Bristol Rovers…
“Elliott Nevitt has been a breathe of fresh air to League Two with his incredible work ethic and enthusiasm for playing at this level. He’s starting to add productivity to his game, too, with three goals in five and could profit against Bristol Rovers’ high defensive line.”Gab Sutton
Tranmere Rovers v Bristol Rovers
Elliott Nevitt to score anytime
Tranmere have dropped off the pace for automatic promotion, taking two points from their previous three games, and the remainder of their campaign may be about sowing up a Play-Off berth.
Micky Mellon’s men should be able to accomplish that objective, though, especially with Elliott Nevitt in attack.
Rovers like to be well-drilled against the ball, but then they spring forward at pace on the turnover and star creator Lewis Warrington acts as a prompt for wide men Kieron Morris and Josh McPake to drive forward when he gets on the ball.
Warrington, on loan from Everton, is a graceful ball-carrier and a dazzling creator, as well as having the work rate to fit into a Mellon 4-4-2.
The 19-year-old has had a different route into football to Elliott Nevitt, who has come up via the non-league route, poached in the summer from Warrington Rylands 1906.
Where strikers with more elevated backgrounds may be more selective with their decision-making, Nevitt is brisk and opportunistic; rather than overplay it, the seven-goal man likes to drive forward with the ball and arrow a shot at goal from outside the box.
Nevitt has not exactly caught fire this season but, if Tranmere stay down, there is every chance he could be the top goalscorer in the division in 2022-23 – and if they go up, there’s a chance he might adapt well to the different game states.
The 25-year-old could finish this season strongly, including with a goal against Bristol Rovers, who still have sights on an automatic promotion berth but could find it tricky to maintain the form they need, with Exeter, Mansfield and Port Vale recently raising the bar.