The Sky Bet League 1 play-offs get underway on Saturday evening when the Stadium of Light plays host to an absolutely huge semi-final first leg between Sunderland and Portsmouth, two sides who will have been expected to be promoted when the campaign began.
Only one of these two will be heading up Wembley Way for the second time this season so it would make perfect sense for this to be an extremely competitive tie throughout the 180 minutes and maybe more that it exists.
The pre-season favourites for promotion will have to get up the hard way if they are going to do so because they just haven’t been able to find a way to turn draws into wins enough throughout the campaign. They have never been in danger of not being in the promotion mix, purely because they have rarely lost this term but now they are going to have to take on a braver approach as they go in search of the victories they need to secure a return to the Championship at the first time of asking.
Sunderland don’t lack for quality in the top area of the pitch. Aiden McGeady has been one of the best players in the division this season while Will Grigg cost an absolute fortune and Charlie Wyke is a good player too but they just can’t seem to keep clean sheets and that is going to have their players and their supporters on edge throughout this tie.
One of the biggest tests for Portsmouth is in their own minds here. They can’t allow any thoughts of the fact that they were two wins from automatic promotion to get into their heads. If they do they’ll feel sorry for themselves and it will unravel quickly. The positive for them is they did not miss out on promotion on the final day so they have had time to come to terms with missing out.
For much of the season Portsmouth were on top of the table and this tie might work out well for them because they have been excellent on the road this term and their home form has been improving all the time, with the exception of the final week of the season. Portsmouth are set up to thrive on the road which could be key in this first leg.
Jack Ross will have three big men back for this match with Aiden McGeady passed fit along with Lee Cattermole and George Honeyman. All eyes will be on whether he plays with two up top or Chris Maguire in behind a striker.
Having missed out on promotion Portsmouth took the chance to rest Jamal Lowe against Accrington last weekend but he will be back for this match. Omar Bogle could start alongside Brett Pitman but Kenny Jackett has a lot of attacking options.
Portsmouth go into this tie in the better form of the two teams. They were flying before that defeat to Peterborough which ended their automatic hopes while Sunderland have won just one of their last seven matches going into this contest. Sunderland’s ability to draw a match knows no equal but that might not be much use to them here. Portsmouth are the team I expect to be promoted from these play-offs but whether that comes via a first leg lead I’m not sure.
The bet I like here is for both teams to score. If you backed Sunderland to draw 1-1 this season you’d currently be buying a new country such has been the regularity that it has landed and I fancy the score to be that again here at some point in the contest. Sunderland need something from this tie while Portsmouth are dangerous on the road. Even money on both sides finding the net will do me.
Back Both teams to score for a 4/10 stake at 2.00 with Betfred
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