Football betting analyst Mark O’Haire shares his two favourite fancies from the weekend’s action with the EFL and La Liga under the spotlight.
It was a case of what could and should have been in my first Insights column of 2020. Scudetto challengers Lazio continued their remarkable winning form to see off Napoli in Rome but Middlesbrough were mightily unfortunate not to take maximum points off Derby at the Riverside Stadium to deliver the full house.
We’re back on the trail this weekend and with a collection of leagues across the continent returning from winter breaks, options are plentiful once more.
Follow Pilgrims On Saturday
The League Two table might suggest otherwise but Plymouth are the form team in the fourth-tier.
Sitting outside the automatic promotion places on goal difference, the Pilgrims have earned 32 points from 15 fixtures (W10-D2-L3) since late September now to occupy a strong position in the hunt for an immediate return to League One.
Argyle have W7-D3-L0 when welcoming league outfits below them in the standings, scoring at least twice in nine of those 10 encounters. The Greens are also generating amongst the highest average Expected Goals (xG) tally per-game in the division, as well as the EFL overall.
Ryan Lowe’s put together an exciting squad with academy graduate Luke Jephcott potentially the missing clinical striker that completes the first-team puzzle. There’s been an impressive buy-in from players and supporters alike and Plymouth are quite simply in-synch, on and off the field, and there is a confidence and buoyancy surrounding Home Park as momentum builds.
In contrast, the scene at Mansfield – Plymouth’s visitors on Saturday – the mood is frustration, irritation and exasperation.
The Stages have endured a disastrous campaign considering the budget and expectation coming into 2019/20 and new boss Graham Coughlan said the club hit rock-bottom following last week’s loss against Forest Green.
Town were excellent for large swathes of the first half against Forest Green before conceding right on half-time. Coughlan said his players’ legs “turned to jelly” thereafter and questioned the character and confidence in the group following a diabolical defensive display in the second 45 minutes that cost the club a vital victory.
Before the match, Mansfield chairman John Radford delivered an angry rebuke of some of the players in his programme notes, accused some of the squad of not giving their all for the badge and demanding more hunger and pride to play for the club, whilst experienced pair Krystian Pearce and Jacob Mellis have been told they can leave.
Mansfield begin the week 17 points off Plymouth and only eight points above rock-bottom Stevenage. I expect the Stags to suffer more pain on Saturday before pride can be restored.
Ace Athletic To See Off Celta
When Gaizka Garitano took charge of Athletic Bilbao in December 2019, the famous Basque club that was a founding member of the Primera Division were facing up to the realistic prospect of a first-ever relegation from the Spanish top-flight. Entrenched in La Liga’s bottom-three, Les Leones were directionless.
However, the local 44-year-old inspired a marvellous turnaround in performances and results to push Athletic into a comfortable top-half position. And the eight-time champions have continued their upward trajectory in 2019/20, consolidating their place in the upper echelons of the La Liga table.
The Bilbao boys return to league action on Sunday evening having suffered only four defeats in 19 outings this season, including just one in their past nine matches. Nevertheless, Athletic haven’t been exempt from criticism with Garitano’s group often struggling to inspire in the final-third, and reliant on their well-drilled defence.
Even so, Les Leones have proven exceptional operators at their San Mames base and deserve our support at kind odds-against quotes when Celta Vigo arrive in Basque Country this weekend. The hosts pocketed an excellent W14-D6-L1 – a 67% win rate – under Garitano when entertaining La Lia opposition here.
Athletic have delivered a remarkable 12 (57%) clean sheets in that 21-game sample, whilst only Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid are limiting opposition opportunities as well as Les Leones this term according to Expected Goals (xG). Garitano’s men are also amongst the leading pack for shots in the box conceded.
Such a strong foundation should put the Bilbao outfit on the right track to profit on Sunday evening. Visitors Celta have triumphed just three times in 2019/20 and the Galicians have already been beaten in six of their nine away days, shipping two goals or more on six occasions.
Celta have lacked an identity or system over the past 18 months and are once again being let down by a porous backline, rudderless midfield and a forward line that’s unsustainably dependent on Iago Aspas to score goals.
To compound the club’s woes, key midfielder Stanislav Lobotka departed for Napoli this midweek.
Oscar Garcia was appointed in early November and has at least imposed improvements in the Vigo-based club’s performance levels but the Galicians remain an unconvincing case on their travels, leaking three goals in defeat during recent trips to both Levante and Leganes. A repeat display here would prove fatal.
- Plymouth -0.50 – 3 units @ 1.94
- Athletic Bilbao – 3 units @ 2.03