As the end of the footballing season begins to lurk ever closer around the corner, the race to finish in the League Two play-off positions is starting to become very tight and congested.
Of the 24 teams in the league, only eight points separate Portsmouth (in fifth place) and Exeter City (back in 14th place) at the start of March, and with little over ten games left of the season it’s fair to say that the battle to reach the top seven is well and truly on.
But of these sides, which are in the driving seat, which are the chasing pack and which are the rank outsiders?
The four sides currently sitting in control in the play-off positions are Accrington Stanley, Portsmouth, Wycombe Wanderers and Leyton Orient, and based on their respective seasons up to this point you wouldn’t begrudge them these four spaces.
It can be argued that Accrington, who themselves are chasing the automatic promotion places, have almost assured themselves of at least two more games come the end of the season, especially bearing in mind that they have two games in hand to stretch the gap between them and the chasing pack below them.
Add to this the good quality football that they’re currently playing, which manager John Coleman likened to Real Madrid recently, and you would put money on Stanley finishing the season strongly enough to secure their play-off berth.
Behind Accrington are Paul Cook’s Pompey side, who were initially the pre-season favourites to go up to League One automatically, if not as champions. This hasn’t quite gone to plan so far though, with inconsistency plaguing their push for the automatic promotions spots; a recent run of only three wins in ten games has seen them slide down the table and further away from Northampton, Plymouth and Oxford at the top of the pile.
However, with the counter-attacking strength that Portsmouth possess through the likes of Marc McNulty (Pompey’s top goal-scorer in the league), Conor Chaplin and Gareth Evans, there should be enough firepower to keep the south-coast side one step ahead of those below them.
Both Wycombe and Leyton Orient, who fill the third and fourth play-off spots respectively, find themselves in much more of a fight to keep a grip on the promotion hopes from now until the end of the season.
Wycombe know the late season pressures that a play-off can bring all too well though after reaching the League Two final last year, falling agonisingly short to Southend United on penalties, yet it’s this previous experience that the current squad have that may leave Gareth Ainsworth’s side in good stead when the pressure from teams below them really starts to heat up.
In similar fashion, Kevin Nolan’s injection of experience could be the factor that guides Leyton Orient straight back up to League One after relegation last season; since the ex-West Ham player’s appointment at Brisband Road, he’s overseen five wins in seven games, rejuvenating a side that had been hit by a mid-season lack of form.
As well as Nolan’s added impetus, the fact that runaway League Two top goal-scorer Jay Simpson is leading the attack means that Orient won’t be short of goals in the final part of the season.
The Chasing Pack
Behind these four, surprise packages AFC Wimbledon, Mansfield Town and Bristol Rovers, as well as Carlisle United, are all within touching distance of the top seven and are waiting to take advantage on any slip ups made.
The two sides leading the chasing pack, Wimbledon and Mansfield, are perhaps two sides that you wouldn’t have expected to see so high up at the start of the season, especially when looking at their recent League Two history. Since their League Two debut five years ago, Wimbledon haven’t finished any higher than 15th in the table, whilst Mansfield have only managed to finish 11th and 21st since their return from the Conference in 2013.
A worthy mention must also go to Bristol Rovers, who are doing incredibly well after bouncing back from the Conference last season. Much like Mansfield and Wimbledon, many people wouldn’t have expected to see them pushing for a play-off spot come the start of March, and there’s nothing to suggest why they can’t carry on this push for two more months.
In spite of being surprise packages, these three teams are in the play-off mix on merit and as a result of their relative consistency throughout this season. However, the fact that it is quite surprising to see them riding so high may work in their favour, as they can play their football with almost no pressure on them whatsoever as all have exceeded their pre-season targets already.
In contrary to this Carlisle United, who up until recently have been stalwarts in League One, would have had pre-season expectations of at least making the play-off places at the end of the campaign. This weight of expectation, in addition to the freedom of other sides around them, could play a part in the last ten games if things remain this tight, and could see the Cumbrian side just miss out.
Slightly further back, but not completely out of reach of the play-offs, sit Cambridge United, Luton Town and Exeter.
Out of the three of these, despite being the furthest away from seventh position at the time of writing, it seems that Exeter City may have the best chance of ruffling some feathers of those ahead of them in the table.
Since being early contenders for automatic promotion after a solid start to the season, the Grecians haven’t been able to strike up a winning run of form to keep them high up the table; if anything, their leaky defence is what’s stopping them from really putting themselves in the play-off mix.
The effect this defensive frailty is having on the side’s league propositions is a profound one, as they’ve conceded more than any of the other thirteen teams above them – since August they’ve conceded three or more goals in a game an astonishing six times, losing five of them.
For Paul Tisdale’s outfit to have any chance of a late season miracle, changes need to be made in the backline and goals need to stop coming easily to the opposition – but don’t count them out just yet.
Who Makes the Cut?
Predicting the four sides that will make the play-off places come May is about as difficult right now as predicting that Leicester City would be at the top of the Premier League table in March; it’s not an easy thing to do.
Out of the eleven sides still in with a chance, it would seem that both Accrington Stanley and Portsmouth have too much strength and quality in their side to drop out of the top seven, leaving nine sides to fight for just two slots.
Both Wycombe and Leyton Orient look strong too, and are in a good run of form, but the way Bristol Rovers have bounced back this year has all the hallmarks of a team brimming with confidence and playing without fear.
Either way, the race is on, and will only heat up more and more as the weeks go by; watch this space, we could be set for a very exciting finale to the League Two season this year.
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