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Hull and Peterborough are promoted, but who will join them in the second tier? EFL pundit Gab Sutton predicts the tasty-looking ties in his League One Play-Offs Betting Preview.

Hear more from Gabriel Sutton in our EFL Playoffs Preview Podcast.

Blackpool

Why they will win it

They have the best strike force.

Jerry Yates is the obvious player to pick out because, having struggled with the physical side of the game in his time at Rotherham, he has bulked up over the last two seasons to become a more suitable line-leader.

Where Yates used to require the freedom of Yorkshire to score a tap-in, he now has the mental and physical strength to put his body in where it hurts and grab a goal, of which he has scored 20 in League One – only Jonson Clarke-Harris and Charlie Wyke have scored more.

The 24-year-old also has an excellent strike-partner, though, in Ellis Simms, who has thrived since joining on loan from Everton in January.

Simms provides brute strength, searing pace and an eye for goal, hitting eight in 21 league appearances.

Besides that, Blackpool boast a tenacious midfield of Kenny Dougall and Kevin Stewart, an exciting young right-back in Nottingham Forest loanee Jordan Gabriel and one of the best centre-backs in the division in Daniel Ballard.

The Arsenal loanee, once described as being reminiscent of “a young Tony Adams”, has an appealing, ball-playing skill of feigning to pass one way then playing another, adding unpredictability to Blackpool’s build-up.

Why they might not

Neil Critchley has spent much of his career managing Youth and Under-23s teams, where the primary goal is to develop individuals: winning is a bonus.

Handling the pressure of the senior game is new to Critchley, who goes into this Play-Off competition as the most inexperienced of the four managers.

Big game nerves will be water off a duck’s back for Michael Appleton and Karl Robinson, who have won promotion before, as well as Lee Johnson, who has spent eight years in the dugout.

 

Sunderland

Why they will win it

Lee Johnson keeps people guessing.

The former Bristol City boss likes his formations and systems to shift, between and within games, so that opposing teams never get too comfortable dealing with one strategy.

Chris Maguire and Jordan Jones, for example, have been wide players for much of their careers, but Johnson has found new value in both.

Maguire, an excellent technician, came off the bench early in the second half against Northampton and acted as a half-back, dictating from deep in the early phases but following the ball to influence proceedings higher up the pitch as play progresses.

Jones, renowned for his pace and energy, has been given the task of leading the press ahead of physical front-man Charlie Wyke, meaning anyone who plays out from the back against Sunderland will have little time on the ball.

Wyke, himself, will be an asset, having looked a reborn player this season, hitting 25 goals.

Why they might not

Bailey Wright, though far from a veteran at 28, has looked a touch sluggish in recent weeks.

That could be a worry in the Semi-Final, if Lincoln can utilize the pace of Brennan Johnson centrally, or in the final, if he finds himself in a footrace with Blackpool’s Simms or Oxford’s Daniel Agyei.

At 5’9”, Wright would struggle to make up for mobility issues with aerial prowess and, with star defender Dion Sanderson ruled out, his centre-back partner will be either Luke O’Nien or Tom Flanagan.

O’Nien, 5’11”, is a midfielder by trade who has also filled in at right-back at times in his career; the former Wycombe man has had some good games at centre-back this season, but that was when paired with Sanderson rather than Wright.

Lee Johnson could move O’Nien into midfield by bringing in Tom Flanagan, but the former Burton man is just coming back from injury.

Whatever the defensive pairing, it will be picked through necessity rather than preference.

 

Lincoln City

Why they will win it

They now have options.

The Imps endured a difficult early spring period when they were missing numerous first team players, mostly due to injury.

Now, though, Michael Appleton has a full rooster to pick from and has been able to welcome Nottingham Forest loanee Brennan Johnson back from the sidelines.

Not many players at this level possess the ability to both drop into pockets to link play intelligently and spin in behind at searing pace, but Johnson is among the select few.

The forward will combine with Manchester City loanee Morgan Rogers, who has the ability to cut inside from the right and unleash moments of real quality with his fine right foot, either by shooting from distance of creating for Tom Hopper.

The former Southend striker, another player back in contention, who represents the key focal point in this Imps side.

Michael Appleton might have some excellent technicians like Johnson, Rogers and midfielder Jorge Grant, but his side is built around a spine of battle-hardened, physical operators.

Hopper is the spearhead while left-footed Joe Walsh anchors the defence but the most important player is arguably Liam Bridcutt, who patrols the midfield.

Lincoln have lost just three of the 22 games in which the 32-year-old has started this season; one of them was Doncaster’s fortuitous, goalkeeper-inspired smash-and-grab at Sincil Bank and the other came against Gillingham, when an unfit Bridcutt was forced into the side.

Michael Appleton is working with a much wider array of options, although the form of Lewis Montsma and TJ Eyoma in the absence of Adam Jackson and Joe Walsh suggests both have a chance of starting against Sunderland, even with the latter two back.

Rather than having to make difficult decisions for the wrong reasons, Appleton can now make them for the right ones.

Why they might not

Lack of width.

Michael Appleton is expected to start Regan Poole and Tayo Edun as full-backs and, while both have plenty of qualities, neither started their career in their current positions.

Poole was a ball-playing centre-back at Newport, which was how he achieved a move to Manchester United; Appleton signed the Welshman to play at right-back, where he has done well heading balls away whilst showing a willingness to get forward, but he lacks Eyoma’s ability to attack the flank individually.

Edun, meanwhile, is likely to be preferred at left-back over the speedy Cohen Bramall, perhaps on the basis that he is considered too good a player to leave out and that there is already hot competition for the midfield slots.

Edun has an aggressive streak and his first-time, vertical passes down the flank can be excellent, but the concern is that neither he nor Poole can stretch the game if Lincoln’s more advanced operators are nullified.

Semi-Final opponents Sunderland will play with a double-pivot likely comprising two of Max Power, Grant Leadbitter and Josh Scowen, potentially blotting out the advanced, inside spaces for Johnson, Rogers and Grant.

At that point, Lincoln would need, from their full-backs, qualities that Poole and Edun do not provide, so two of Appleton’s permitted substitutions could be taken up by resolving that issue with Eyoma and Bramall.

 

Oxford United

Why they will win it

Four of the last six League One Play-Off winning managers had experienced the Play-Offs before, successfully or otherwise.

Simon Grayson, in fact, had twice won promotion via that route before taking Preston North End up in 2015, the same year Gareth Ainsworth saw his Wycombe side suffer an agonizing loss to Southend courtesy of a 121st minute equalizer and shootout defeat – “Wild Thing” bounced back by taking the club up three years later before etching himself into Chairboys folklore with Wembley glory last year.

In the case of Neil Harris and Lee Bowyer, they needed to experience the heartbreak of defeat with Millwall and Charlton respectively, before roaring back defiantly under the arch the following season.

Oxford boss Karl Robinson felt the hurt of losing to Wycombe last year and he will not want to feel it again.

Nor will long-serving full-backs Sam Long and Josh Ruffels, who have increased their attacking productivity massively this season, while the physical Elliott Moore has forged an excellent centre-back partnership with ball-player Rob Atkinson.

Alex Gorrin is back fit for the Yellows, so Robinson must decide whether to bring in the anchor man to give key midfielder Cameron Brannagan the licence to drive forward, or trust the latter to dictate from deep.

Further forward, James Henry, Mark Sykes, Elliott Lee, Olamide Shodipo, Daniel Agyei and Brandon Barker, meanwhile, are all vying for various wide midfield and forward roles in Robinson’s 4-3-3, so any XI leaves game-changers aplenty for a side that has scored as many as 20 goals in the last 15 minutes of league matches.

Why they might not

They’re flat-track bullies.

It’s one thing beating Burton, Shrewsbury, Crewe and Gillingham sides who are assured of their League One status in recent weeks, but Oxford need to pick on teams their own size.

The Yellows have taken a meagre 10 points from 16 encounters with fellow top nine opposition – and it would be somewhat misleading to count a makeshift Lincoln outfit, the only team they beat in that sequence, a top nine side at the time.

Robinson will hope that a fully fit Gorrin, who didn’t play 90 minutes in any of the above defeats, could be the solution to big game blues for the U’s.

 

Gab's Verdict

When ante-post prices are revealed, the traders tend to look more favourably at the bigger clubs, which makes sense because the clubs with bigger fanbases can generally afford a higher calibre of player which is more likely to boost their chances.

For the Play-Offs, though, the size of club is almost immaterial, because the transfer market has closed, so all anybody can judge on is the performance over 46 games.

There is no reason why Blackpool should be rated as less likely to win promotion than Sunderland, because they have gained better results all season, are in better form and have a stronger Expected Goals Ratio.

The Pool average 1.39 Expected Goals For per game (xGF) and 0.91 Against (xGA), giving them a Ratio (xGR) of 60.47%, which is the second-best in the division.

Replicate that performance level in the post-season and 5/2 on the West Lancashire outfit going up will look great value.

 

Read Gab Sutton’s Championship Play-Offs Betting Preview.

Read Gab’s Championship Play-Offs Betting Preview here.

Read Gab’s League Two Play-Offs Betting Preview here.

Odds are correct at the time of posting

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