It was a tight and physical match when Northampton Town hosted Cheltenham Town on Thursday, but a close encounter was settled by a Roy O’Donovan goal that has given Aidy Boothroyd’s side a crucial, yet slender, 1-0 lead ahead of Sunday’s return leg at the Abbey Business Stadium.
And there is no reason to suggest that Sunday evening won’t serve up a similarly tight game.
In many ways, both clubs are in comparable positions: both have spent four seasons at this level, both have bosses with previous play-off experience and with just two points separating the sides in the regular League Two campaign, there is not a great deal to choose between these teams.
With his previous experience in winning the play-offs with Watford, Boothroyd will be hoping to use that nous to protect his team’s lead, but in Mark Yates Cheltenham have a boss that took them to the play-off final last season and you would think his team will be better off this time around for losing to Crewe at Wembley 12 months ago.
And I expect the return leg to be another war of attrition. Cheltenham are the 11/10 favourites to win inside 90 minutes, with both the draw and Northampton priced at 11/5, but I think a lack of goals is the way to go here.
Cheltenham have a very strong home record – only Burton and Northampton themselves won more points in the regular season – so their favouritism is understandable, but I think that Boothroyd, never renowned for his free-flowing, attacking football, will go with preservation on his mind knowing a draw will take his team to Wembley.
As such, the 19/10 that the match sees under 1.5 goals looks a good bet here. Both league matches between the sides ended in 1-0 home wins, and over recent weeks there has hardly been a goal to speak of for either team.
Six of Cheltenham’s last eight games have produced one goal or fewer, while six of Northampton’s last nine fixtures have not seen as many as two goals.
And with so much at stake, I don’t envisage a goal fest. In fact, far from it: Boothroyd will look to protect what he has, which might be a good job as only three teams failed to score on their travels in the regular season more times than Northampton, who drew nine blanks on the road.
As such, I think it will be tight and the 19/10 on under 1.5 goals is the bet.