Over the past 12 years, only five times (in 23 attempts) has the home team won the first leg of a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy area final. The away team have been victorious 11 times. It’s a remarkable trend considering there’s no seeding involved and no quirks of randomness in the draw. Not once in the above sample have the hosts been from the division below the visitors.
Much like the play-offs, where a place at Wembley is also at stake, the weight of expectation is evidently heavier on the team handed a blank canvas in front of their own supporters. Take the sample back to the turn of the century and you’re still left with no discernible home advantage - away teams are superior on average by 0.13 goals. Home teams fare much better in the return game with a set target to aim for and the prize in sight.
As such, it’s extremely hard to make a case for Millwall at 13/10, even though they face a team from the tier below. Oxford might be League Two by name but they boast a 64 per cent shot ratio and demonstrated with their victory over Swansea in the FA Cup that they possess quality way above the level they inhabit. It wasn’t so much the result that wowed those who tuned into BBC Wales on Sunday, it was the manner in which they went about their business from start to finish.
However, given the emotions invested in that game, it would be unreasonable to expect a repeat of those standards here - at least not over the full 90 minutes - tempting though it is to go all guns blazing in the hope that the Yellows ride the crest of that wave. Instead, take the 12/5 available on the draw and back it up with a speculative punt on the Oxford/Draw half-time/full-time result at 16/1.
Appleton gave us a vital clue about how he intends to approach this game in his post-match interview on the Kassam touchline straight after Sunday’s heroics. "We want to go down there and make sure we put ourselves in a position with everything to play for when we get back here," he said. In other words, we’d take a draw.
He might let his players loose early on and see if they can prey on any Millwall nerves but ultimately the mission is to avoid defeat, and the hostility of the New Den crowd, combined with any lingering fatigue from Sunday’s exertions, could have a draining effect that makes the Lions look markedly superior later on. That’s when the U’s resolve could really be tested.
Appleton has praised his players ahead of previous cup ties for their emotional intelligence in switching between competitions, intuitively understanding how each games differs and what is required of them. Millwall are functional rather than flamboyant, competitive rather than incisive, so the key to Oxford coming away unscathed probably lies in their ability to avoid coming under any sustained periods of pressure by looking after the ball.
For more information about Mike Holden’s shot-based ratings system, follow this link.