Tactical flexibility was the trump card in both League Two play-off semi-finals with key substitutions and changes in formation proving decisive in the latter stages of both second legs. Given how evenly-matched the four competing teams were over 180 minutes, home and away, it seems highly probable that the 90 minutes at Wembley will be just as nip and tuck.
The market can barely separate these two teams with Plymouth best-priced at 10/11 for promotion and Wimbledon no better than even money. Such a fine margin is hard to dispute but I’d be inclined to flip those prices with Wimbledon as jollies by virtue of having more strings to their bow in terms of how much they can shake things up later on.
Sometimes you have to hold your hands up and admit you were wrong in your initial assessment of a team. This is one of those occasions. I dismissed Wimbledon’s chances at the outset and stuck to my guns on that view across both semi-final previews, partly due to my faith in Accrington as the standout team in the quartet and partly due to misgivings about Neal Ardley.
Over the past three years, Ardley has underachieved at Kingsmeadow. Not massively, but enough to raise a red flag when he started playing down his team’s play-off prospects on the back of collecting 45 points from the final 23 matches. Evidently, he was trying to take the pressure off his players but there wasn’t much of it to begin with, so it seemed more like a pre-emptive face-saving exercise.
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But therein lies an all-too-rare reminder of the virtues in managerial stability. Given enough time, most gaffers will get it right eventually and only late on in the second leg at the Wham Stadium did it become apparent that the pieces have fallen into place. With the Dons trailing 2-1 on aggregate, Ardley turned to his bench and his back-up options didn’t let him down.
The introduction of Ade Azeez on 65 minutes facilitated a switch to 4-3-3 and three minutes later Wimbledon were back level. Only then did their true credentials come to the fore. The Dons carved Stanley open several times in extra time and closed the game out with an arrogance and belief completely at odds with the underdog narrative prior to Piero Mingoia’s wonder strike.
Given that Wimbledon also finished the first leg in the ascendancy, netting a stoppage-time winner from substitute Tom Beere following a surge of late pressure, it suddenly seems clear that the Dons deliberately rely on survival instincts early on, saving their killer instincts for later. When opponents begin to tire, they invariably find another gear.
Plymouth also reached this final by virtue of a late flourish in the second leg, gaining the upper hand on Portsmouth when they introduced Craig Tanner for Gregg Wylde with 15 minutes remaining and switched to 4-4-2. But it had been an entirely different story in the first leg when Argyle were clinging on for much of the second period at Fratton Park.
There are numerous ways of converting the above rationale into worthwhile bets but the half-time/full-time market is probably best swerved due to the number of possible permutations and the cost of covering them all. Instead, take the 9/4 available on Wimbledon to win the second half and throw a speculative point on Wimbledon to win in extra time at 10/1.
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