What lies in wait for Portsmouth, Sunderland, Blackpool, Oxford, Ipswich, Charlton and others as battle for League One play-off places intensifies

With five games of the League One season remaining, Pompey once again find themselves outside of the top six.

Sunday, 18th April 2021, 5:30 pm

Defeat to MK Dons on Saturday – their second loss in three games – coupled with Oxford’s comeback win against Gillingham saw them kicked out of the play-off positions on goal difference.

There is a chance to regain membership of the much-coveted club, with Danny Cowley’s side having played one game less than Karl Robinson’s U’s.

Yet winning that match in hand could still lead to disappointment as Charlton now possess the power to leapfrog both as they play catch-up in terms of fixtures.

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In truth, it's hard to predict the exact make-up of the end-of-season play-offs, with as many as eight teams remaining in the mix. It’s fair to say at this point that both Hull and Peterborough look destined for the Championship.

That means at least four teams will be disappointing come Sunday, May 9.

But who will be disappointed and who will be making plans for a possible trip to Wembley.

Here, we look at each of the eight contenders’ form and remaining games to work out how the final table could finish.

From left: Paul Cook, Lee Johnson, Danny Cowley, Neil Critchley and Michael Appleton

Sunderland

Current position: 3rd

Games remaining: 5

Opponents: Hull (A), Accrington (H), Blackpool (H), Plymouth (A), Northampton (H).

Points available: 15

Average position of teams left to play: 11.2

Current form (past five games): Blackpool (L), Wigan (L), Charlton (L), Peterborough (D), Oxford (W)

Play-off odds: 1/66 (Bet365), 1/100 (Skybet)

Verdict: On Good Friday, after beating Oxford 3-1, Sunderland look destined for a Championship return via an automatic promotion spot.

They sat third, but had game(s) in hand on both Hull and Peterborough.

Meanwhile, there was an 11-match unbeaten run to brag about, with nine of those games producing victories.

Fast forward to now, and the mood has changed around the Stadium of Light.

Three defeats in a row, for the first time since dropping to the third tier, and no win since that U’s show of force means Sunderland’s season is in danger of fizzling out.

Even Charlie Wyke, the division’s second-highest top scorer with 23 goals, is struggling with only one goal in seven appearances.

Lee Johnson’s side are probably safe when it comes to a play-off spot. But momentum is key when it comes to those games.

They’ve five matches left to reboot, but with Hull and Blackpool – two teams very much in form at present – to face next either side of Accrington, Sunderland have a job on their hands to rediscover their mojo.

Lincoln

Current position: 4th

Games remaining: 6

Opponents: Burton (A), Hull (H), Shrewsbury (A), Peterborough (A), Charlton (A), AFC Wimbledon (H).

Points available: 18

Average position of teams left to play: 10.8

Current form (past five games): Bristol Rovers (W), MK Dons (W), Blackpool (D), Oxford (L), Sunderland (D).

Play-off odds: 1/9 (Bet365), 1/12 (Skybet)

Verdict: Lincoln’s season looked in real danger of imploding following news that key man Jorge Grant had suffered an ankle ligament injury at the end of February.

In the 10 games that have followed only three wins have materialised, with 12 out of 30 points gathered.

However, two of those victories have come in the past week. And coupled with a draw against high-flying Blackpool last weekend, Lincoln are all of a sudden climbing the table once again.

Indeed, they can move above Sunderland into third if they win their game in hand.

With Grant also tipped to return before the end of the season, things are once again looking up for Michael Appleton’s side, who continue to have other injuries to contend with.

A word of caution, though, big games against Hull, Peterborough and Charlton lie in wait still – teams that have it all to play for still at the top of the table.

Meanwhile, with AFC Wimbledon to come on the final day of the season, the Imps will be hoping the Dons’ safety is secured well before then.

Blackpool

Current position: 5th

Games remaining: 6

Opponents: Rochdale (A), Shrewsbury (H), Sunderland (A), Northampton (A), Doncaster (H), Bristol Rovers (H).

Points available: 18

Average position of teams left to play: 16.1

Current form (past five games): Sunderland (W), Accrington (D), Lincoln (D), Gilingham (W), Swindon (W).

Play-off odds: 1/14 (Bet365), 1/16 (Skybet)

Verdict: You have to go back to February 6 to find Blackpool’s last league defeat – against Ipswich at Portman Road.

October 20 against Charlton is the last time the Seasiders lost at home.

Meanwhile, only two losses have been recorded since the turn of the year.

Those impressive stats, along with wins against Sunderland, Gillingham, Peterborough, Oxford, Charlton and Pompey since that Ipswich loss, make Neil Critchley’s side the team you don’t want to face if you get to the play-offs.

It also means they’re more or less assured of a place in the top six, along with Sunderland, reducing the number of available positions to just two.

Apart from their game against the Black Cats on April 27 at the Stadium of Light, their six remaining matches are all probable bankers.

That guarantees them the momentum all teams crave going into the play-offs.

All we can hope for is they’ve peaked too soon!

Oxford

Current position: 6th

Games remaining: 4

Opponents: AFC Wimbledon (A), Plymouth (H), Shrewsbury (A), Burton (H)

Points available: 12

Average position of teams left to play: 17.5

Current form (past five games): Gillingham (W), Shrewsbury (W), Crewe (W), Accrington (L), Sunderland (L)

Play-off odds: 2/1 (Bet365), 2/1 (Skybet)

Verdict: U’s fans will have been tempted to switch off and concentrate on other things just two weeks ago.

Defeats either side of Easter against Sunderland and then Accrington saw them sit 12th – six points outside the play-offs and with all bar Gillingham of the teams above them having game(s) in hand.

Pompey, for instance, were eight points clear with one less game played – putting the Blues in a strong position.

Three consecutive wins for Oxford, though, means they’ve all of a sudden found themselves occupying that sixth spot.

All their rivals are still playing catch-up when it comes to fixtures, but the U’s have discovered a rare quality over the past week – consistency and momentum – leaving many green with envy.

On paper, their run-in is the easiest of the play-off contenders.

But the problem Oxford face is, they’ve only four games left.

The way this season has panned out, however, there’s no guarantee their rivals will bank maximum points from those games in hand.

And the way the U’s rescued all three points against Gillingham on Saturday night, when they were staring defeat in the face, will give them confidence for their remaining matches.

Pompey

Current position: 7th

Games remaining: 5

Opponents: Swindon (A), Bristol Rovers (H), Accrington (A), AFC Wimbledon (A), Accrington (H).

Points available: 15

Average position of teams left to play: 16.4

Current form (past five games): MK Dons (L), Crewe (D), Burton (L), Wigan (W), Rochdale (W).

Play-off odds: 4/7 (Bet365), 1/2 (Skybet)

Verdict: Even before the decision to axe Kenny Jackett was made in March, Pompey’s run-in looked favourable and gave those with an eye on the future plenty to remain optimistic about.

Well, the future is now very much present day, and that optimism has been replaced with an unwanted nervousness.

One point against teams deemed to have little to play for – Burton, Crewe and MK Dons – has cost the Blues a place in the top six they did so well to retrieve.

And with confidence among the players and fans at tipping point, you’d be brave to predict how the rest of the Pompey play-off race will run.

A win at rock-bottom Swindon on Tuesday night is a must – with he visit of second-from-bottom Bristol Rovers on Saturday also falling under the ‘must-win’ category.

They’re two games that can restore belief, with both the Robins and the Gas collecting a combined 11 points from their past 17 games (51 points).

Anything less and the likelihood is a very difficult couple of month for all concerned at Fratton Park.

Charlton

Current position: 8th

Games remaining: 6

Opponents: Plymouth (A), Peterborough (H), Crewe (H), Accrington (A), Lincoln (H), Hull (H).

Points available: 18

Average position of teams left to play: 8.5

Current form (past five games): Ipswich (D), Sunderland (W), Doncaster (W), AFC Wimbledon (D), Bristol Rovers (W).

Play-off odds: 2/1 (Bet365), 5/2 (Skybet)

Verdict: Charlton find themselves in the rare position of having their destiny in their own hands.

For long spells over the past few months, the Addicks’ promotion hopes were accompanied with a degree of uncertainty with more games played than their rivals.

Now, they’re in a place where they are the ones playing catch-up – and with the chance to make their mark on the play-off race.

Indeed, win their game in hand and they can overtake both Pompey and Oxford and sit sixth, with both currently sitting just two points above them in the table.

That bodes well for the challenge ahead – optimism that can be reinforced with the fact that new boss Nigel Adkins is yet to taste defeat since taking over at The Valley in mid-March.

Their run-in on paper is the hardest, though, among their rivals.

Peterborough, Lincoln and Hull all lie in wait – but all three games will be played in south London, which could prove massive.

Ipswich

Current position: 9th

Games remaining: 5

Opponents: Northampton (A), Wimbledon (H), Swindon (A), Shrewsbury (A), Fleetwood (H).

Points available: 15

Average position of teams left to play: 19

Current form (past five games): Charlton (D), Wimbledon (L), MK Dons (D), Rochdale (D), Bristol Rovers (W).

Play-off odds: 14/1 (Bet365), 22/1 (Skybet)

Verdict: Paul Cook’s side remain very much in the mix, despite some far from inspiring results following his appointment at the beginning of March.

Ipswich currently sit four points outside the top six and with the easiest run-in among those teams we’re focusing on.

A major plus when the fixtures are analysed.

There’s two factors worth highlighting, though.

In the 11 games Cook has taken charge of, only six goals have been scored by the Tractor Boys.

Meanwhile, they have failed to score in their past four games. Indeed, a total of 439 minutes have passed since Alan Judge scored Ipswich’s winner against Bristol Rovers on April 2.

Secondly, their next three games are against sides battling for survival – Northampton, Wimbledon and Swindon.

On paper, they are winnable fixtures. But it was only last week when the Dons beat the Portman Road side 3-0 at Plough Lane.

Get through those games, though, and others will be nervously looking over their shoulder.

Doncaster Rovers

Current position: 10th

Games remaining: 6

Opponents: Accrington (A), Fleetwood (H), Peterborough (A), Rochdale (A), Blackpool (A), Peterborough (H).

Points available: 18

Average position of teams left to play: 9.6

Current form (past five games): Shrewsbury (W), Burton (L), Wigan (L), Bristol Rovers (L), Charlton (L).

Play-off odds: 25/1 (Bet365), 50/1 (Skybet)

Verdict: Doncaster’s win at Shrewsbury keeps them in the play-off hunt by the skin of their teeth.

Indeed, the fact they’ve picked up only 11 points since former manager Darren Moore departed for Sheffield Wednesday on March 1 and remain contenders is testament to the job he was doing at the Keepmoat.

Twelve games have been played since then, with Donny – under Andy Butler’s caretaker charge – winning only three of them, and losing seven.

Five defeats in a row were recorded prior to that surprise win at New Meadow.

Mathematically, they still have a chance of finishing in the top six with half a dozen games remaining.

But on closer inspection, two matches against title-chasing Peterborough, plus an away game at in-form Blackpool, means Doncaster’s recent form looks like it might have caused irreversible damage.