Too much is being read into the short-term form figures ahead of this clash. North End have gone back to basics to turn their season around, tasting defeat just once in ten matches since the October international break, whereas Blues have hit the buffers, their positive start undone by a run of five defeats in seven matches prior to their rehabilitating draw on Teesside.
The smart money saw both sequences coming. Preston have been popular with the Asian syndicates almost from the outset, while Birmingham’s underlying performance data was at odds with their early results. Less than two months ago, the second city club were sitting pretty in second spot with 24 points from 12 matches but, alongside a 47.5 per cent ratio, that record was screaming out ’regression to the mean’.
However, those books have now been balanced. There’s nothing untoward about Blues occupying ninth position and entertaining an outside probability of the play-offs, not with a canny operator like Rowett in charge. Preston boast superior shot data and still have some climbing up the table to do, but this contest isn’t nearly as clear-cut as the market would have you believe.
The shut-out against Middlesbrough was Birmingham’s fifth on the road this season and 11th in 26 away games under Rowett. There’s no great secret to it. Blues are probably the biggest exponents of counter-attacking football in the division, as illustrated by an average possession figure of only 44 per cent, the lowest in the division.
Given that Preston have played out four goalless stalemates on the way to keeping seven clean sheets in their last ten outings, the 0-0 is obviously a very lively contender here. So, in value terms, the 11/4 about the Birmingham shut-out eclipses the 16/5 available on them actually winning the game. My 16-match ratings make it shorter than 11/5.
Walsall are favourites, of course, by virtue of being a much more accomplished team but the market is going overboard with several 8/11 quotes chalked-up about home win. The Saddlers are shorter for this game than they were for the league meeting at the Bescot two months ago, when everything was hunky-dorey under Smith’s reign - and Chesterfield won that game 2-1.
Emotions have obviously been stoked by the coincidence of pulling Brentford out of the hat, maybe even provoking assumptions that fate decrees the outcome a formality. But, if anything, those are distracting influences and Chesterfield’s motivation to ignite a desperate season with some much-needed excitement could be much more powerful. At nearly 4/1, the value is with the Spireites.