A League 2 blog with an overwhelmingly pro-Torquay United bias
While there was some minor shuffling of the table on Friday and Saturday, the ‘magic line’ between 14th and 15th remains in place. Everyone above it remains mathematically capable of promotion while being likewise safe from relegation, with the reverse being true below it. However the previous games have set up some nerve-shredding Easter Monday encounters: choosing a star game couldn’t have been more difficult, with no shortage of contenders at both ends of the table.
Barnet’s resurgence, coupled with the poor form of the teams above them, has opened up the relegation battle to produce a contest as frenetically compelling as the one raging at the opposite end of the table. If the Bees can register a not-improbable 4th win from 5 games today, they can launch themselves out of the drop zone and set up a nail-biting final fortnight for the bottom 8 sides.
Meanwhile, as if in response to the increased cacophony from the survival melee, the promotion tussle is ratcheting up to previously uncharted levels of desperation. There aren’t enough playoff spots to hold all of the contenders but nobody can register enough wins to convincingly hold their ground. While the top 2 (who meet today in a potential title-decider) have occupied their positions for a while now, Shrewsbury’s fine recent form could see them take a commanding lead in the battle for the 3rd with a win over fellow promotion-chasers Accrington.
My fervent anticipation of this round of fixtures has resulted in me writing rather more verbosely than usual, but I’ve arranged the matches in rough descending order of interestingness for those of you who are in a hurry:
STAR GAME: Stockport (24th) v Northampton (22nd)
Previous league meeting: Northampton 2-0 Stockport
This is easily Stockport’s biggest match of the season and they have to win it to stand any chance of survival. They’re up against the only side they can realistically catch, and a win will bring them to within 3 points of doing so with just 2 games left, although their vastly inferior goal difference means they’ll actually need 4 to overtake the Cobblers. The Hatters secured a stay of execution with an unexpected victory at Port Vale on Saturday, the momentum from which would appear to give them the edge against a side who have now gone 17 games without a win.
However, while Stockport haven’t lost in 4 home matches, they’ve been habitually low scorers this season and have the division’s leakiest defence by quite some distance. Northampton played on Good Friday, giving them an extra day to prepare, and their strike force have been reasonably effective lately: they’ve scored in each of their last 8 away matches.
This is an incredibly tough one to call: given that only a win will do for them, the pressure would appear to be on Stockport, although their continuing predicament suggests that it has been for quite some time. On balance, I’m not sentimental enough to believe that the Hatters can defy the fates and stay up, so I’m backing the Cobblers to rack up an overdue but unenjoyable win to consign their hosts to the fifth tier.
Shrewsbury (3rd) v Accrington (5th)
Previous league meeting: Accrington 1-3 Shrewsbury
If it wasn’t for the compelling relegation 6-pointer taking place at the other end of the table, this fixture would be the day’s undisputed star game. A win for Shrewsbury would be a massive step towards automatic promotion, while a triumph for the visitors could see them move to within a point of the Shrews in 3rd and set up a tense finish to both sides’ campaigns. The home side have an excellent defensive record on their own turf and have only been beaten 3 times here this season. That’s the same number of matches Accrington have won on their travels, the last coming 6 games ago: Stanley have drawn an frustrating 12 times away from the Crown Ground and don’t tend to score many, in stark contrast to their excellent home record. While the Shrews look capable of edging this one, I can see Accrington defying the odds once again to pick up a point and keep the promotion race wide open.
Barnet (23rd) v Oxford (13th)
Previous league meeting: Oxford 2-1 Barnet
The momentum is definitely with the Bees at the moment: they’ve shown inspirational fighting spirit to win 3 of their last 4 matches, although they’re still in trouble thanks to other sides in the relegation mix chalking up valuable wins of their own. This match offers them the chance to climb not only out of the relegation zone but up to 21st on goal difference, assuming other results go their way. On paper, today’s opponents Oxford look significantly less formidable than the Gillingham side they dispatched on Saturday: United travel to Underhill winless in 4 and without a goal from their previous 2 matches, but looked dangerous against Chesterfield with some swift passing moves on display. Some truly electric performances of late have shown how much poorer the league would be without Barnet – they deserve to survive and I’m both confident and hopeful that they’ll secure another massive result here.
Chesterfield (1st) v Bury (2nd)
Previous league meeting: Bury 1-1 Chesterfield
This match may yet decide the destination of the title – a win for Chesterfield will confirm them as champions – but it falls short of qualifying as the day’s star game because both teams’ destinies have seemed set for some time now. It’s on merit that they both look certain to achieve automatic promotion while the less consistent chasing pack scrap it out for 3rd. The Spireites have looked increasingly fallible as their inevitable promotion has crystallised over the past few weeks but they remain formidable at home, where they’ve won 5 matches in a row and boast the division’s best scoring record. They’re up against League 2’s best away side today though: Bury have won a corresponding 5 in a row on their travels, have scored more away goals than anyone else and haven’t conceded in their last 3 games. The Shakers have also had an extra day to recuperate since their last match, which should tip the scales in favour of them being only the 7th team this season to come away from the B2net with something.
Rotherham (9th) v Gillingham (8th)
Previous league meeting: Gillingham 3-1 Rotherham
Gillingham’s impressive 16-match unbeaten run was ended in style by Barnet on Saturday and they now find themselves outside the playoff places. They’re still undefeated in 10 away matches though, although a disproportionate number of these have been draws. Despite the proximity of their hosts in the table, this could well prove an easier challenge for the Gills: Rotherham may have had an extra day to prepare for this match, but they’re winless in 5 and only have 1 win from their last 11 games. The Millers haven’t found the net in their last 2 home matches either, and it looks like Gillingham can effectively scupper their hosts’ promotion ambitions with a third successive away win.
Stevenage (7th) v Port Vale (10th)
Previous league meeting: Port Vale 1-3 Stevenage
Both of these teams endured setbacks to their promotion hopes last time out, although Stevenage have had an extra day to regroup from theirs. Boro’s timely surge into the playoff zone has faltered lately: they’re now winless in 3, but still have the division’s best defensive record. That accolade used to belong to their visitors before their fall from grace: low-scoring Vale haven’t netted in their last 3 away trips and are running out of time to salvage a playoff place. Stevenage’s uncompromising style of play isn’t to everyone’s tastes, but it’s undeniably been effective against sides in much better form than Vale are currently enjoying. The visitors’ evident lack of confidence in recent matches suggests that Stevenage can intimidate their way to victory here.
Burton (17th) v Torquay (6th)
Previous league meeting: Torquay 1-0 Burton
This game is key for both sides in their respective travails at opposite ends of the table: Burton are still just 4 points from the relegation vortex while Torquay are battling to keep a foothold in the promotion race after two successive 0-0 draws. Both sides are enjoying a good patch of form: Burton secured only their 3rd away win of the season on Saturday to make it 3 games unbeaten, while Torquay were formidable against Wycombe on Friday, and while unable to find the goal their dominance deserved they extended their unbeaten run to 9 games and earned their 4th successive clean sheet. The Gulls are one of the division’s highest away scorers and have had an extra day to prepare for this encounter, which should be sufficient to give them the edge.
Bradford (19th) v Aldershot (14th)
Previous league meeting: Aldershot 1-0 Bradford
The Bantams find themselves winless in 4 and still not safe from the spectre of relegation, with resurgent Barnet just 4 points behind and in significantly better form. The division’s lowest scorers, Bradford seldom draw: remarkably just 6 of their 42 league games have ended in stalemate. Contrastingly, Aldershot draw a lot, particularly away where over half of their matches have seen them return home with a single point. The Shots are unbeaten in 7 away games though and will be looking to put their disappointing home defeat to Burton, one of Bradford’s relegation rivals, behind them. While they remain mathematically capable of the playoffs, Aldershot realistically aren’t going to finish higher than 11th so it could be argued that Bradford will be the more motivated of the two sides. However, I’m backing their more organised guests to prevail, and in doing so keep the relegation scrap interesting for another week at least.
Wycombe (4th) v Crewe (11th)
Previous league meeting: Crewe 3-0 Wycombe
This match may prove one of the day’s more energetic, with both sides having played on the Friday rather than the Saturday. Nikki Bull put in a heroic performance to keep Torquay out at Plainmoor and Crewe’s continuing bluntness away from home, even with League 2’s top scorer Clayton Donaldson in their ranks, suggests an easier afternoon is in store for the Chairboys’ custodian. The Railwaymen are on a depressing sequence of 10 consecutive away defeats, and while Wycombe have drawn their last 4 matches they’re also unbeaten in 7, suggesting that they can squeeze past their visitors and keep up their chase for automatic promotion.
Lincoln (21st) v Cheltenham (18th)
Previous league meeting: Cheltenham 1-2 Lincoln
Between them, the fans of these two sides haven’t had a win to cheer about for 14 games. Northampton aside, they have the worst form in the division, so we’ll have to look elsewhere for clues to how this one might pan out. Lincoln first: playing on Friday has given them an extra 24 hours of preparation time, although they’re the lowest home scorers in the division and nobody has lost more home matches (Cheltenham are 1 of 3 other sides who’ve lost the same number: 10). Their scoring woes are less concerning given that the Robins are bringing with them League 2’s joint worst away defence though, with over 2 goals shipped per game. Considering that the Imps showed flashes of promise in their last outing and don’t often draw, I’m backing them to edge an unconvincing win to move away from the danger zone.
Macclesfield (16th) v Southend (12th)
Previous league meeting: Southend 4-1 Macclesfield
The Silkmen are another of the teams with a worrisome 10 home defeats to their name, which married to their poor home defensive record neatly explains their winless sequence of 5 matches at Moss Rose. Southend have had an additional day since their last fixture, but are themselves without a victory in 7 away despite a promising run of 3 games unbeaten overall. Neither sides have convinced enough of late to make a compelling case for a win here, so I’m hedging my bets.
Morecambe (15th) v Hereford (20th)
Previous league meeting: Hereford 2-1 Morecambe
The Bulls haven’t won in their last 5 away matches and have failed to even register a goal in the most recent 3. Today they face opponents who will be fresher from an extra 22 hours’ rest, as well as from not having had to endure an arduous trek Northwards. Morecambe have improved lately and only lost thanks to a stoppage time goal at Crewe on Friday, so this more straightforward challenge should see them consolidate their mid-table position while prolonging Hereford’s relegation jitters.