As two tough-defending sides find their feet in the second of the League Two semi-finals, Ian Lamont expects a close encounter between Keith Curle's Cobblers and Michael Duff's visitors...
"Opta says Cheltenham will be looking to win a third successive away game. Trusting that form matters, Michael Duff will hope his defence feels as knitted together as it ever did."
Northampton v Cheltenham
League Two play-off semi-final first leg
Thursday June 18, 19:45
Both managers seem quietly confident of success in the play-offs, after rushed, uncertain preparations. "Finish what we started," is the fighting talk from both camps, with a wish to get on with the game and some sense of normality.
Keith Curle, the Northampton Town manager, has always talked a tough game. He hasn't changed since his playing days, when he was an uncompromising centre back for the likes of Wimbledon and Manchester City.
However, it hasn't always turned out that this tough talking as a manager translates to his team on the pitch. If it had, he would have turned Carlisle into promotion winners. He seems to be on an even better upward path with Northampton.
After 15 weeks without a game, Curle talks of every squad member having the chance to stake a claim for this "mini tournament", this "sprint" - and of having two players capable of playing each position. However, at least nine of his squad have started 19 games this season. He won't be about to rip out the core. The fringe players still know who they are.
Cheltenham, by contrast, have had a game, against Cardiff, losing 3-1, but Michael Duff hasn't given much away about that - except that everyone played 60 minutes. All the players, then, have prepared equally. Do all seem to have a chance of starting? Just like Curle's men?
Adams key to Cobblers' supply line
Curle might say that there is competition for each place, but fans would question Curle's sanity if Nicky Adams - presuming he's fit - doesn't start the match. He might have scored just once in his 37 starts, but absent fans know he will be the main creator.
Opta know it, too, their stats revealing that he has provided 59 assists in League Two since the start of the 2015-16 season, 26 more than any other player. He has also been involved in the build-up to an unquantified number of other goals and chances.
Having had three weeks to prepare his squad - and turned down the opportunities for friendlies partly because of the hassle of social distancing rules for away games - Curle's team trust a little bit to fitness. There could be a little bit of an edge missing from their true peak, yet they are the shortest of the three match odds prices at [2.54].
Was the 2019-20 season so long ago that the form built up no longer counts? Are all injuries heeled? We will really only know during the game. If form turns out to be any guide, Northampton have lost three of their last four home games (winning one) in all competitions. (Yet they were unbeaten in 11 before that.) In fact they have lost five of their past seven (winning two), Opta add, which doesn't bode well. Andy Williams, joint top scorer with eight, hasn't scored in the parts of the past nine games he has played.
Plenty in their overall form suggests that Charlie Goode and Jordan Turnbull, both at the back but capable of scoring, help hold together an imposing defence. They have conceded just 14 goals at Sixfields, the lowest at home of any League Two club, which could be a reason for their price. Curle says they won't change their style: they will want to play the ball forward (arguably through Charlie Lines as well as Adams), get people around the ball and push numbers into the box.
On that basis, perhaps a high corner count is likely, or a defender scoring a headed goal. The Cobblers have a strong home record, with 11 wins and two draws, but not as strong as their opponents, who have 11 wins and five draws.
So they really need to win this and take advantage of any Robins' wobbles. Not that Duff's men seem to let too much get past them on the road: six away wins was below the top four over the season, eight draws was above them, while four defeats was the lowest in the division. The draw is priced [3.4] and the away win [3.3].
Opta say Cheltenham will be looking to win three consecutive away games for the first time since December 2011. Well, when you've had a three month break and it feels like pre-season because it is a year since training started, who knows whether that statistic holds any weight?
Trusting that it does, given the collective unit of the squad is the same, Duff will hope that Sean Long, Chris Hussey, Charlie Raglan and William Boyle feel as knitted together as they ever did, with Ben Tozer and Ryan Broom feeling as comfortable in front of them.
Look to Varney for goals
Broom leads Cheltenham's goal tally with eight, but if - and it is an if - Luke Varney is fully fit then his return of seven goals is worth a lot more, having come from 18 starts and three games off the bench, compared to Broom's 33+1. The First Goalscorer market on Sportsbook prices Varney at [6.5] to score first and [3.8] to net at any time. Broom is [10.0] and [5.5].
Second in the market is Alfie May at [5.5], whose return of six goals from 12 starts since singing from January is even better, while top is Callum Morton, on loan from West Brom to Northampton at [5.0].
To reach the final and have a chance of franking the form of five teams who started seventh after the season going up, Northampton need a head start. Literally a headed goal start from a defender, perhaps? Turnbull is [21.0] to net first, and Goode at [26.0], but I am trying to Varney's experience.
Goals look scarce
However, the away side's blockade at the back might prove an obstacle too far for many goals. They let in only 10 goals away from home last season. The only other tally below 20 was Forest Green's 18. With Northampton's league low 14 at home conceded, and for all the delay in reaching this point of restarting the season, this match by all known logic will be a low scorer.
With under 2.5 goals being priced at [1.7], there are better priced options, I'm going for a 1-1 draw at about [7.0] in the correct score market. There is a case for a goalless one, priced at around [10.0], but I'll take my chances that there will be a fair number of goal opportunities, and that something will give at each end - just the once. Neither side have a player who has netted 10 times this season.
They have already drawn 1-1 at the same venue this last season - at the end of December during the hectic festive period. It feels like a lifetime ago, but it could be the biggest and best pointer for two teams who might feel fresh but who are feeling their way back into their grooves.
Ian Lamont 2019/20 P/L
Back Northampton and Cheltenham to draw at [3.4]
Back Luke Varney as first goalscorer on Sportsbook @ [10.0]
Back 1-1 in the correct score market @ [7.0]