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Mike Holden on the EFL: Rams can tighten their grip on Rowett's return

Gary Rowett can lead Derby to maximum points against former club Birmingham
Gary Rowett can lead Derby to maximum points against former club Birmingham
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Like the jilted ex who met somebody else and went on to better things, Gary Rowett will return to St Andrew's this weekend looking radiant - and the outcome could be painfully predictable for Birmingham fans...

"With Cardiff and Bristol City both juggling a variety of concerns - not least the enticing prospect of blockbuster home matches against Manchester City later this month - Derby have a tangible opportunity to tighten their grip on that second automatic place. After this, they welcome Bristol City to Pride Park next Friday, followed by an 11-day break."

Birmingham v Derby
Championship, Saturday 15:00

Gary Rowett signed a new three-and-a-half-year deal at Derby this week to quash any speculation linking him with the vacant post at Stoke and now the Rams can toast a bright future by taking maximum points against the club that bizarrely axed Rowett a little over 12 months ago.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since Blues' new owners inexplicably dispensed with their biggest asset, so it would be wrong to call this a grudge match and assign any form of added motivation on either side. But one assumes Rowett still has enough inside knowledge on most players in the home ranks to take full advantage.

Steve Cotterill has been peddling the mantra "clean sheets don't get beat" over the past fortnight, with Birmingham posting three straight wins without conceding a goal. But the opposition - Leeds, Reading and Burton - hasn't been up to much offensively. Cotterill has undoubtedly made his team more difficult to break down, but you'd still fancy the Rams to find a way through.

Since the October international break, Derby have been outstanding, taking 36 points from the last 16 matches, to leave all but Wolves floundering in their wake. And while standards dipped slightly over the festive period, with draws against Hull (0-0) and Sheffield United (1-1), it was nonetheless sufficient to capitalise on an alarming collapse by Cardiff.

Having trailed the Bluebirds by six points on December 22, the Rams now find themselves two points clear in the race to join Wolves in the Premier League next season and also free from other distractions. Last weekend's late defeat to Manchester United in the FA Cup was probably a blessing; a performance that builds on confidence and a result that clears their path.

With Cardiff and Bristol City both juggling a variety of concerns - not least the enticing prospect of blockbuster home matches against Manchester City later this month - Derby have a tangible opportunity to tighten their grip on that second automatic place. After this, they welcome Bristol City to Pride Park next Friday, followed by an 11-day break.

Recommended bet:
1pt Derby to beat Birmingham at [2.34]


Cambridge v Mansfield
League Two, Saturday 15:00

Mansfield arguably did enough to dump Cardiff (0-0) out of the FA Cup last weekend but Steve Evans admitted they would have taken a replay beforehand, so there weren't too many regrets when they pulled Manchester City at home in Monday's draw. Now you can bank on Evans making the most of the scenario to get the best out of his players, whether that's over four days or 15.

For now, it means involvement in Tuesday's return game against the Bluebirds at Field Mill with Evans already stating that anybody who underperforms in this game has "Bob Hope" of being involved in that. So already the message is clear: if you want to test yourself against Pep Guardiola's men, you're playing for shirts right now.

Nobody does carrot-and-stick motivation better than the portly Glaswegian and it's been amusing to note some miraculous recoveries from injury this week. Players who were considered major doubts on Monday were suddenly 50-50 by Thursday, with Evans then insisting only those who were 100% on Friday would be in contention for Saturday's game at the Abbey Stadium.

For some teams, the prospect of playing City might be considered a distraction but Evans is big on momentum and he will consider this manna from heaven at the end of a gruelling period. The Stags have tasted defeat only once in the last 19 matches and this glittering prize averts complacency at the very moment when they were probably most vulnerable to it.

In the past two months, Mansfield have returned victorious from Coventry, resurgent Port Vale and Wycombe, so we shouldn't doubt they have what it takes to prevail against a mediocre Cambridge side. Shaun Derry's men might be four games unbeaten but it probably suited them for games to come thick and fast without much scrutiny on the manager's position.

Derry was walking a tightrope a month ago and looked doomed when the U's squandered a 3-0 lead to draw 3-3 at Notts County. But the club sat tight for three days and were rewarded with back-to-back home wins against Barnet and Crewe, both of whom reside in the bottom six.

However, take away the 19 points that Cambridge have picked up from eight matches against bottom-six opposition - six of those at home - and you're left with a team that has picked up just 18 points from 18 matches. If Evans gets the tune out of Mansfield that he's looking for, this should be a fairly straightforward away victory.

Recommended bet:
1pt Mansfield to beat Cambridge at [2.88]

Mike Holden Profit/Loss 2017-18

Staked: 70 pts
Returned: 41.96 pts
P/L: -28.04 pts

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