The League One play-offs are set to take place in July after the regular season was decided based on Points Per Game.
These are my tips for the first-leg ties and my prediction for the overall winner.
Fleetwood to win first leg
Fleetwood Town v Wycombe Wanderers (1st leg)
It has been a fantastic season for Wycombe Wanderers. The Chairboys, who rank third on PPG, finished the league season 14 places higher than the previous campaign and will look back on this one with pride, whatever the ultimate outcome. However, the Buckinghamshire outfit have lost their last seven matches against top-nine opposition, conceding 19 goals and scoring just twice.
Fleetwood, meanwhile, made several big additions in late January: Glenn Whelan, a seasoned midfielder who was part of Aston Villa’s Championship Play-Off winning side last season, defender Lewis Gibson, highly rated at Everton, and Barrie McKay, an unpredictably tricky wide player with Championship experience. Since those three came in, the Cod Army have taken 21 points from nine games, losing none of them. Joey Barton’s side operate with a narrow attacking trio, typically comprising of direct runner Wes Burns, prolific front-man Paddy Madden, and McKay on the left. The former midfielder encourages his wing-backs, Lewie Coyle and Danny Andrew, to push high up to help the team steal the ball in the opposing half and attack incisively in transition. If that is not possible, they will look to midfielder Paul Coutts to dictate.
We can expect Fleetwood to play on the front foot in the first leg at Highbury while Wycombe will try to keep things tight, then create the odd chance via Joe Jacobson’s pinpoint set pieces. 24 of the Chairboys’ 45 league goals have come from dead-ball scenarios, putting Jacobson among the division’s best at free-kicks and corners. However, Ainsworth’s troops have scored just 11 of their 45 league goals on the road; they average 10.3 shots per away game, compared with 15.2 per home encounter, which suggests a difference in intensity.
Fleetwood are likely to be the more prominent side on the Fylde Coast and I’ll back them to win the first leg at generous odds-against quotes. Additionally, I think they will win the tie – though the second leg at Adams Park is likely to be dicier.
Portsmouth v Oxford United
The January sale of Shandon Baptiste and Tariqe Fosu to Brentford, for a reported combined fee of £3M, was a wrench for Oxford fans, but the money has proved valuable, especially considering subsequent events. Perversely, since selling arguably their biggest attacking assets in late January, the Yellows have become League One’s highest-scorers, bagging 18 goals in nine games and achieving six wins. The key to such form is Alex Gorrin’s dirty work at the base of their midfield, which allows dynamos Cameron Brannagan and Mark Sykes to support the attack. James Henry, on the right of a three-man attack, will drift into central areas to create and while Marcus Browne, on the left, is a proficient dribbler, he makes inward runs rather than outward ones, so Oxford’s play will have a narrow and patient feel.
Manager Karl Robinson is a keep-ball connoisseur, which makes for an intriguing contrast to his opposite number; Kenny Jackett’s sides pride themselves on work without the ball. After a three-month period of no team training and limited subsequent opportunities to regain sharpness, it would be a lot to ask for Oxford’s smooth possession game to be executed perfectly from the outset. The only work players could do whilst self-isolating was fitness based and this may favour Portsmouth, who are at their best when they implement a high-intensity pressing game, which we can expect from them in the first half.
Tom Naylor is arguably the best ball-winner in the division and he will be joined in midfield by two of Ben Close, Cameron McGeehan, and Andy Cannon, who are relentless pressers; as is athletic front-man Ellis Harrison and key left winger Ronan Curtis, who is most likely to produce any moments of individual quality. I’m tipping Portsmouth to win this match and the tie, with a strong opening 45 minutes being a key factor.
Portsmouth to be promoted
I think Portsmouth will be promoted via the play-offs. Jackett has taken some criticism at times this season – sometimes that has been justified – but he has won three promotions in his managerial career and his tendency to stay calm in high-pressure situations could be a significant advantage.
Pompey average 1.58 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game and 0.92 Against (xGA), giving them a Ratio (xGR) of 63.14%, which is the strongest in the division.
Plus, the unique nature of this play-off competition should favour a team that is aggressive, powerful, energetic, and intense in the press – the south-coasters have all the ingredients to end their eight-year Championship exile.