After the regular seasons were decided based on Points Per Game, the League Two Play-Offs are set to go ahead this month, while the League One Play-Offs begin in July.
Northampton to score Under 0.5 Goals
Northampton Town v Cheltenham Town (1st Leg)
The good news for Cheltenham Town boss Michael Duff is that all five of the loanees that ended the season with his side – Jacob Greaves and Max Sheaf of Hull, Jake Doyle-Hayes of Aston Villa, Owen Evans of Wigan and Tom Nichols of Bristol Rovers – will be eligible for their Play-Off campaign.
Equally important, though, is the expected availability of ex-Cobbler Ben Tozer – with 6’3” defenders Tozer and Will Boyle in the same back-three, the Robins should have the height to handle Northampton Town’s aerial bombardments.
The Cobblers have mustered 114 headed efforts at goal, which is the second-most in League Two; they play on average 89 long balls per game, the fourth-most.
Without the suspended Sam Hoskins, though, Keith Curle’s side will rely heavily on wing-back Nicky Adams – League Two’s assist king – for quality on the deck.
Cheltenham’s three centre-backs are likely to have the upper-hand against two centre-forwards, Vadaine Oliver and Callum Morton, so the name of their defensive game will be to nullify Adams and James Olayinka, if the highly-rated Arsenal loanee – who has just one Northampton appearance to his name – is available to start as their most advanced midfielder.
There is reason to believe Michael Duff’s side will keep things tight, because they have by some distance the best defensive record in League Two, with just 27 goals conceded all season.
They have a midfielder in Doyle-Hayes – as well as Chris Clements – who will dictate terms when Northampton have to curtail their aggressive instincts, most likely in the second half.
Cheltenham are 21/10 to keep a clean sheet, which looks good value considering they have kept eight of them in 18 away games this term.
I also think the Robins will win the overall tie.
Match to end in a draw
Colchester United v Exeter City (1st Leg)
It has been a positive season for Exeter, who got themselves back into the promotion mix after a 9th placed finish last term.
The Grecians missed out on the top three, though, through not quite being as ruthless in the final third as Swindon, Crewe and fierce Devon rivals Plymouth Argyle, even if they beat the latter 4-0.
That is a tough issue for manager Matt Taylor to solve going into the play-offs because it is difficult to argue with the individual merits of either of their midfielders, wing-backs or forwards.
Right wing-back Randell Williams has the most assists in League Two, left wing-back Brennan Dickenson provides crucial work rate and balance, attacking midfielder Nicky Law is an incredibly intelligent operator, Nigel Atangana is the division’s most underrated ball-winner and potential midfield partners, Jake Taylor and Archie Collins, have their strengths too.
The problem is that Ryan Bowman, though possessing a reasonable range of qualities himself and a respectable 13 goals to date, is not necessarily the type of striker who can carry a team with his finishing.
Nicky Ajose is arguably the most accomplished finisher in the squad, but if he were to come in, the team would miss either Bowman’s hold-up qualities or Lee Martin’s pace, stamina and selfless running in behind – so Taylor has the unenviable task of working out how to increase his side’s goalscoring potential without disrupting the balance of what has got them this far.
Like Exeter, Colchester United just missed out on the Play-Offs last season – in fact, this is their first top-seven finish since relegation to this level in 2016.
On the one hand, John McGreal and Steve Ball deserve some credit because their side went on an excellent League Cup run which saw them play at Old Trafford, and they went 16 league games unbeaten in the league.
On the other hand, though, this is also the best Colchester squad in over half a decade and there is an argument to say they had a crop strong enough to push for the top three.
Players like dribbler Courtney Senior and ball-winner Tom Lapslie, who would have been two of their best players 12 months ago, have slipped down the pecking order due to the form of teenage prodigy Kwame Poku plus midfielders Harry Pell and Ben Stevenson.
The latter showed he can dictate play against the best in the division in February’s 3-0 win over Plymouth Argyle.
Stevenson and Cohen Brammall, who represents the complete left-back at this level when fit, were signed from Premier League clubs Wolves and Arsenal respectively, which shows that chairman Robbie Cowling is starting to show more ambition in the transfer market.
Cowling has also had to be realistic about the situation and the current financial climate has led him to confirm that right-back Ryan Jackson, centre-back Luke Prosser and versatile forward Frank Nouble will not have their contracts renewed beyond the end of the current season.
In a show of noble sportsmanship, all three players have agreed to play in the play-offs, risking a potential move being disrupted by injury.
These two teams are evenly matched and 32.4% of their games combined have ended in draws – the current odds of that occurrence imply a probability of 30.8%.
Throw in the fact that six of the last 10 League Two play-off semi-final first legs have ended all square and this looks good value.
I also think Exeter will edge the overall tie.
Exeter to be promoted
There is nothing to separate Exeter and Cheltenham, who have been on a par with one another throughout the season in terms of results and shot data.
There is a sense, however, that the Grecians have been building sustainably towards promotion over the last three years, whereas Cheltenham are well ahead of schedule in terms of their development as a club.
The last two play-off finals have been won by the team with more experience of playing at Wembley – Coventry and Tranmere.
Granted, fans won’t be there in this case, but Exeter have players who have been exposed to the pressure of a knife-edge promotion-decider.
Pierce Sweeney and Jake Taylor played in the 2017 and 2018 play-off finals and will be desperate to lay those ghosts to rest; they and Dean Moxey started in the no-show against Coventry, while Nicky Law was part of the Bradford City side that missed out in League One in 2017.
Cheltenham have two experienced campaigners in Chris Hussey and Luke Varney, but I’m tipping Exeter for promotion.