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Football League play-offs: Who looks worth punts for promotion?

Jamie Clark, Sports Editor | May 9, 2016

It’s time for that end-of-season lethal lottery that causes such joy and pain – the Football League play-offs.

Only three teams; one each from the Championship, League One and League Two can take the final promotion spots and go up a level for next season.

Coral’s football experts put together this comprehensive guide to the 2016 play-offs in all three divisions of the league.

Championship

Vying to be part of the 2016/17 Premier League and getting their slice of a new TV revenue deal bonanza are four former top-flight teams, though one hasn’t been up there in modern times.

Can Brighton bounce back from bitter disappointment?

Brighton and Hove Albion v Fulham - Sky Bet Championship - AMEX Stadium

Brighton and Hove Albion are joint 12/5 promotion favourites with Hull City, and Chris Hughton’s team come into the play-offs off the back of missing out on going up automatically.

Keeping seven clean sheets during a 14-match unbeaten run since their last defeat on February 20th, the Seagulls are one of three sides to have scored 72 Championship goals during the regular season as they finished third.

Midfielder Dale Stephens is a huge miss for Albion, having received a straight red against Middlesbrough that rules him out of their play-off campaign.

Israel striker Tomer Hemed was Brighton’s leading marksman with 17 during the regular season, and their two league encounters with play-off semi opponents Sheffield Wednesday finished 0-0.

Something has got to give, with the Seagulls’ last play-off campaign in 2013 ending at the penultimate hurdle.

No wisdom in punters backing Owls

Nottingham Forest v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet Championship - City Ground

There has been considerable betting support for 7/2 Championship promotion outsiders Sheffield Wednesday, but unlike previous sixth place finishers they don’t carry much momentum into the play-offs.

Carlos Carvalhal has done a terrific job at Hillsborough, but a single victory in half a dozen games coming into this end-of-season competition is evidence of a downturn in form.

During that recent run the Owls have dropped points in games against Wolverhampton Wanderers, MK Dons and Bristol City, who all finished in the bottom half of the table.

Portuguese coach Carvalhal is right to play up Wednesday’s tag as outsiders, yet he does have the form of front two Fernando Forestieri and Gary Hooper in his favour.

It’s because of them that the Steel City side seldom fail to score, but it is a big ask for the Owls to soar back to Premier League heights against such stiff competition.

Will Rams lose their bottle again?

Brighton and Hove Albion v Derby County - Sky Bet Championship - AMEX Stadium

Derby County, 5/2 chances for promotion, have developed a recent reputation for bottling it big time. In both of the past two seasons they have thrown away their prospects of going up.

While the third time might well be the charm, the Rams have lost deep-lying midfielder George Throne to a horrific double leg break. There is strength in depth in the Pride Park engine room to cover this, but it is not a good omen.

Under caretaker coach Darren Wassall, beaten 2014 play-off finalists Derby are winless in three going into this latest campaign with their last victory coming on April 19th.

County’s threats remain constant through top scorer Chris Martin and the guile of wideman Tom Ince, but it is the fact that the opposition know what to expect from such names that may make them tactically obvious.

It’s true that Derby have known play-off delight back in 2007, but that led only to further misery as during the subsequent Premier League season they recorded the lowest top-flight points tally in history.

Tigers anything but tame in play-off picture

Hull City v Nottingham Forest - Sky Bet Championship - KC Stadium

Steve Bruce’s Hull City still have plenty of names left from their Premier league stint, and so it’s the Tigers at 12/5 that look the best team to side with for promotion.

Although suffering just two defeats in nine since Easter, including a 4-0 hammering against play-off semi opponents Derby, punters should be prepared to forgive the Humberside outfit.

It looked a bad day at the office – not least because Hull boast the best defensive record of all four Championship play-off contestants, conceding as few as division winners Burnley.

With 20-goal striker Abel Hernandez leading their attack, the Tigers have a real threat up front and get plenty of support to him through Senegal’s Mohamed Diame, once linked with Arsenal.

Should history prove any indicator, then Hull’s unblemished second tier play-off record with a Wembley win over Bristol City courtesy of cult hero Dean Windass in 2008 stands them in good stead.

League One

In the third tier, meanwhile, a quartet of in-form sides are set to battle it out for a spot in the Championship…

Will Walsall still punch above their weight?

Walsall v Fleetwood Town - Sky Bet League One - Bescot Stadium

Finishing third and being in with a shout of automatic promotion until the final day is an incredible achievement for West Midlands outfit Walsall, given their coaching changes.

A close-knit group of players is to thank for the Saddlers still being in with a shout of going up, and they are narrow 5/2 favourites.

Leading the way again has been Wales cap Tom Bradshaw with another 20-goal season. He can press his Euro 2016 claims by continuing this fine form in the play-offs.

Since being hammered by potential final opponents Bradford City, Walsall have come out and won their last three games. Clean sheets are something of a novelty, though.

Tykes out to mark decade since last success

Barnsley v Oxford United - Johnstone's Paint Trophy - Final - Wembley Stadium

Facing the Saddlers will be Barnsley, play-off winners at this level in 2006. Since lifting the Football League Trophy at the beginning of April, the Tykes have lost just once in seven.

That is the same as Walsall, and the respective sides won away in the fixtures during the regular season.

With so many similarities between them, it should be an absorbing two-legged affair. Barnsley boys to watch out for include striker Sam Winnall and support player Conor Hourihane.

Yet the Tykes are 11/4 outsiders to repeat their play-off triumph a decade on, perhaps because they have poorest defensive record of the four. Don’t underestimate Barnsley, though, as they beat champions Wigan Athletic 4-1 to warm up for this.

Lions strikeforce could see them roar

Millwall v Burton Albion - Sky Bet League One - The New Den

Rated equal 13/5 chances with semi-final foes Bradford to go up, Millwall are looking to replicate their 2010 success in the third tier play-offs. That was their second bite of the cherry.

Like Walsall, the Lions have been beaten by the Bantams towards the end of the regular season, but four consecutive wins presses their claims hard.

As do strike pairing Lee Gregory and Steve Morison with 33 league goals between them. The duo’s non-league roots have helped them to forge a potent partnership that should only be written off at punters’ peril.

Bradford taking four points off Millwall is something of a worry, because the London club have to prove they can beat the Bantams, whereas Phil Parkinson’s men know they can win.

Bantams your best bet

Bradford City v Millwall - Sky Bet League One - Coral Windows Stadium

And so to Bradford, who were League Two play-off winners in 2013. Now looking to repeat that success at one level higher, they come into this with a better defensive record than their opposition.

Since to losing to League One champions Wigan, the Bantams have won seven of their nine games to nil. It’s because of this that Bradford look the most solid bet at 13/5 to be promoted.

Although they are the lowest scorers in the third tier play-offs with 55 goals, this isn’t a problem as Parkinson’s men are so mean at the back and the odd goal from target man James Hanson is enough to grind out results.

Siding with that dogged defence, that has conceded an average of 11 less than the other three play-off semi-finalists, could well be rewarded at Wembley.

League Two

And finally, the fourth tier. Three southern sides and a northern team that could make some real history if they can avoid play-off pain…

Accrington the answer in promotion puzzle

Desperately unlucky to miss out on going up automatically, Accrington Stanley can still make League One for the first time because of their superior form and are a terrific 3/1 price to do so.

A dozen matches unbeaten gives the Lancashire outfit leading claims of ending their wait to get out of the bottom tier of English league football.

Soccer - Sky Bet League Two - Barnet v Accrington Stanley The Hive Stadium

Billy Kee and Josh Windass – a surname already writ large into play-off folklore as mentioned above – have combined for 32 league goals, and that gives Accrington the X-factor.

It is not merely sentiment, then, behind backing John Coleman, who has earned three promotions with Stanley during his first spell in charge, to get them up again.

Wimbledon defence a problem

Although they took four points off Accrington and have seen their rearguard tighten up in recent weeks, play-off semi foes Wimbledon have scored the fewest and let in the most of the four promotion hopefuls.

The calibre of opposition the Dons have kept quiet recently isn’t up to much, and they will struggle to contain the lively Stanley strikers.

Managing to outscore them in a 4-3 thriller back in the autumn, momentum is against Wimbledon (also 3/1 for promotion) – yet they retain one thing in their favour.

Lyle Taylor has 20 league goals under his belt, and will have to repeat such exploits if the Dons are to end Accrington’s hopes.

Pirates offer no consistent threat

Cambridge United v Plymouth Argyle - Sky Bet League Two - Abbey Stadium

Plymouth Argyle are the 10/3 outsiders for play-off success because of indifferent form and lacking one definite star turn.

Goals have spread throughout the Pirates side, but that lack of consistency is reflected in their less than impressive run-in record.

Beating Hartlepool handsomely cannot hide this from smart punters, who would be wise to side with the other south coast derby semi-finalists Portsmouth.

Pompey can play up after fall from grace

Portsmouth v AFC Bournemouth - Emirates FA Cup - Fourth Round - Fratton Park

It still boggles the mind that Portsmouth are contesting the League Two play-offs when less than a decade ago they were winning the FA Cup and playing AC Milan in Europe.

Pompey are here, however, and made firm 15/8 favourites for promotion. They’ve scored the most and let in the fewest goals of the four semi-finalists.

Blessed with players such as Marc McNulty and Gareth Roberts, who have proven themselves at a higher level, Portsmouth are expected to produce, but will they when it matters?

2016 Football League play-offs dates

Thursday, May 12th
League Two semi-final first leg: Portsmouth v Plymouth (19:45)

Friday, May 13th
Championship semi-final first leg: Sheffield Wednesday v Brighton (19:45)

Saturday, May 14th
Championship semi-final first leg: Derby v Hull (12:30)
League One semi-final first leg: Barnsley v Walsall (17:30)
League Two semi-final first leg: Wimbledon v Accrington (19:30)

Sunday, May 15th
League One semi-final first leg: Bradford v Millwall (12:15)
League Two semi-final second leg: Plymouth v Portsmouth (18:00)

Monday, May 16th
Championship semi-final second leg: Brighton v Sheffield Wednesday (19:45)

Tuesday, May 17th
Championship semi-final second leg: Hull v Derby (19:45)

Wednesday, May 18th
League Two semi-final second leg: Accrington v Wimbledon (19:45)

Thursday, May 19th
League One semi-final second leg: Walsall v Barnsley (19:45)

Friday, May 20th
League One semi-final second leg: Millwall v Bradford (19:45)

Saturday, May 28th
Championship play-off final (17:00)

Sunday, May 29th
League One play-off final (15:00)

Monday, May 30th
League Two play-off final (15:00)

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