Plymouth Argyle, Northampton Town, Oxford United and Portsmouth. If you picked any of these names out of a hat in an office sweepstake, you wouldn’t be left disappointed no matter who you had chosen.
That shows just how close and just how competitive the League Two season has been so far as we approach the halfway point. The race to become champions is as close as can be remembered in previous years, and has all the marks of going right down to the wire come May.
Plymouth Argyle are the side in control at the turn of the New Year, sitting three points above of Northampton Town (by virtue of playing a game more), with Oxford United filling the last of the automatic promotion places a further point back. Portsmouth, leading the chasing pack, are four points further adrift. But it’s Plymouth’s charge to the top of the league that has been as surprising and unexpected as it has been impressive; since their demise from the Championship six years ago, the Pilgrims haven’t finished above seventh in the League Two table, twice avoiding relegation by the skin of their teeth.
Yet Plymouth’s form in the first half of the season hasn’t shown any signs of this past haunting them, as a Reuben Reid inspired side have dominated the league. If it wasn’t for a late November loss of form which saw them take only two points from a possible twelve, it would be hard to see anybody catching them. However, their ability to lose form in such a manner does cast questions over their title credentials; as the campaign enters its most poignant few months, another dip in results like this and they could find themselves free-falling down the table and facing a battle for the other automatic promotion places instead.
A huge game in the race for the title comes next week when Argyle face second place Northampton Town, arguably the league’s form team coming into January. The cliché of a relegation six-pointer is used frequently in football, but this game carries the same connotations; a Plymouth win and they stretch their lead over the rest of the title contenders, a Cobblers’ win and they will be level pegging with the leaders with the luxury of a game in hand.
As alluded to, Northampton’s run of nine victories in their last eleven league matches leaves them as possibly one of the most feared sides to play against at present. Chris Wilder’s men’s rise to the top is even more remarkable considering the off-field issues that the club have faced since September, and the team seems to be playing with such confidence at the moment. You only have to look at their second round FA Cup tie against non-league Northwich Victoria to see this, where three goals in the last five minutes of the game saw them overturn a two-goal deficit.
Wilder’s old side, Oxford United, are perhaps the slight underdogs out of the four, but their level of consistency in results this year leaves it hard to count them out. With star-man Kemar Roofe seemingly starting to pick up a bit of form after his stoppage time goal against Notts County, and League Two’s perennial goal scorer Danny Hylton partnering him upfront, there’s no doubt that they have the firepower to keep them in and around the top four come the end of the season. Time will tell though whether Oxford can surmount their push for the title as the season goes on, with vital games against both Northampton and Portsmouth to come over January.
Portsmouth, albeit slightly further back than the top three, came into the campaign as pre-season favourites and it would be foolish to count them out just yet. Their recent victory over Northampton, which ended the Cobblers’ unbeaten run, showed that they can easily compete with the best of the teams in the league, and their ability on the counter attack would be a problem for the best defences in League Two. Yet it’s still even too early to count out those sides chasing the top four, such as Accrington Stanley who are, to coin a phrase, hot on their heels. As the season begins to enter the final few months, they could start to pose a serious threat if one of the current top four has a dip in form.
Although Stanley may be ten points adrift of Plymouth at the top of the table, the recent storms across the country have meant that a handful of their games have fallen foul to the weather; and as a result, Stanley have three games in hand which, if victorious in them, could catapult them to within touching distance of top spot.
The latter stages of a League Two season, aside from the Christmas period, are known for being the most testing. With over 20 games left in the league, a congested fixture list becomes a problem for every club due to midweek league matches, and because of this squad rotation and depth will almost inevitably determine the outcome of the title. Forget the Premier League for a second, as we could be set for one of the closest and most dramatic title races for a long time.
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