Northampton (1) v Mansfield (2)
League Two playoff semi-final second leg
Wednesday 17th May, 19:45 kick-off
Opta pointed out before the first leg that both teams had won at home when these two faced each other in the League Two season. If Northampton are to have any chance of progressing, and overturning a 2-1 deficit, that must be the case again.
The Cobblers dominated the final half hour of the first leg, from 2-1 behind, and need to start the second leg in similar fashion. Defenders Jon Guthrie and Fraser Horsfall restricted Rhys Oates, Mansfield's first scorer, to few openings apart from his opening goal.
Ali Koiki has been threatening to score all season and it is his first goal for the club which gives the hosts a chance to turn the score around.
Few of Jon Brady's Cobblers performed up to their standards in both halves, Shaun McWilliams in midfield being one of the exceptions.
Home midfielder Mitch Pinnock now needs to set up something special on the training ground, because the Stags had done their homework to thwart the threat from all his dead balls.
While Brady insists the tie has swung Northampton's way - after they fought their way back from a 2-0 deficit - Nigel Clough believes his visitors can play better. The truth is, no team will dominate a match for 90 minutes in this type of fixture.
Clough felt his side were "edgy". If that was the case at home, then at Sixfields they could just buckle. At 3.39/4, the layers don't expect them to win. The visitors have just seven wins away and seven draws, losing nine. It is easy to counter that statistic by saying they didn't really start the season until late October (two wins in their first 14 games left them near the bottom) before surging up the table.
However, Northampton will point to their +17 goal difference at home, where they won 13 and drew five during the regular season, with confidence and it seems a bet on the hosts at 2.56/4 would be justified. The draw is 3.55/2.
Striker Sam Hoskins and defender Michael Harriman will remember the drama Northampton conjured to gain promotion via the playoffs two years ago.
After an enforced Covid break, Keith Curle's side lost 2-0 at home to Cheltenham, then won the second leg 3-0 away before defeating Exeter 4-0 in the final. The pair will have to draw on the memory of that spirit to inspire their team-mates into something similar.
Hoskins only had eight goals in that shortened season. He has 13 this time. Opta say he has the highest involvement in goals at Sixfields, scoring seven and assisting in five.
I'm not expecting an avalanche of goals, however, because Northampton finished the season with 60, at least seven fewer than their playoff rivals. Their inability to convincingly and consistently put runs together rather put me off their match prices at times. Recent home results against Exeter (1-1), Harrogate (3-0), Bradford (0-0), Hartlepool (2-0) and Bristol Rovers (0-1) seem a bit hit and miss. They beat lesser teams while not winning against promotion rivals.
A total of 20 clean sheets during the season does bring some sort of confidence that the defence can give McWilliams and Pinnock a platform on which to build. Whatever Brady said, losing third place in astonishing fashion on the final day (Bristol Rovers winning 7-0 to pip them) must have affected the players. However, their pestering of the Mansfield defence in the final 30 minutes of that first leg gives them the momentum.
Northampton simply have to score first, which will leave Mansfield on the back foot and having to press. Whether Jordan Bowery can sneak in at the back post, lose his marker and score again or not, that will make for an open game. And at home, Northampton might net a second even if Mansfield score. The frenzy of the match should make for over 2.5 goals at 2.56/4.
I've got a feeling that Northampton will progress to Wembley and that I'll be considering, come July, the merits of Mansfield being favourites for next season's League Two title. By what score - or method - Northampton come through, however, is not easy to assess.
If the hosts think they deserved automatic promotion, they must use that hurt effectively to storm the barricades.
The shortest price in the correct score market is 7.06/1 on a 1-1 draw, a favourite scoreline in League Two. That's not something I'm considering, but is an indication of how close the layers think this match will be. A 1-0 win for the hosts is as short as 8.415/2. Layers just don't see Northampton scoring big, or perhaps conceding. On some levels, 2-0 at 12.5 is tempting.
However, alongside that over 2.5 goals bet, 2-1 at 12.011/1 seems valid (3-1 at 30.029/1 seems a bit of a stretch for 90 minutes, given Northampton's relative lack of goals). Victory by 2-1 would take the tie to extra-time and penalties. Anything could happen thereon in, but I expect Brady's bunch to secure progress. Opta point out that all three of Mansfield's second legs in Football League playoffs have gone to extra-time.
While Louis Appere (13/2 to score first on Sportsbook) has pitched in with three goals since his January arrival from Dundee United, I am still looking to Mitch Pinnock (15/2) or Sam Hoskins (9/2) for that first Northampton goal. With 22 goals between them and being the attacking lynchpins, they would seem the most likely options.
While Rhys Oates and Jordan Bowery remain the obvious market leader for the visitors in the first goalscorers' market at 6/1, I prefer a "score at any time" price on Ollie Hawkins of 6/1. It is of course taking the chance that the defender will rekindle his scoring instincts.
Like Guthrie and Horsfall for Northampton, he is a backline player with a nose for goal (seven in League Two this year). But unlike them he has actually played as a striker. His goals have been spread out during the season and he might be due another.