Football League half-term betting preview: Robins the ideal festive gift

 

It was made out to be a one-horse race from the outset and while Crawley have lived up to the billing of League Two favourites, they have never truly convinced us about the scale of their superiority over the rest of the division. However, the odds still paint the picture of a foregone conclusion and we see an opportunity to take them on with a genuine live threat at what could transpire to be a monster price.

Swindon were 12/1 for the title before a ball had been kicked, at which point the untested Paolo Di Canio had so many questions to answer. Now the odds are 10/1 as we approach the half-way point and Di Canio is beginning to answer all of those questions emphatically with his team unbeaten in 15 matches and firing on three fronts. The circus has real substance and now the time has come to sit up and take notice.

The Robins are fast becoming a revelation and we strongly believe they have what it takes to make up the nine-point gap on Crawley to finish top of the pile, especially when you consider that Steve Evans must still take his troops to the County Ground on Valentine's Day. Evans might have an appetite for confrontation but you suspect this is one battle he won't relishing after the humbling experience of his first encounter with Di Canio.

Indeed, it was Evans who first labelled Swindon as a circus, prompting the Italian ringmaster to launch an astonishing and frankly hilarious tirade back in the direction of his opposite number prior to their meeting at the Broadfield Stadium in September. It was a brave move from Di Canio, one that could have backfired with defeat, but it's testament to the respect he commands from his dressing room that his team ran out easy 3-0 winners.

That result was a clear marker of the standards that Swindon can attain - note also the recent FA Cup wins over Huddersfield and Colchester - and the psychological blow Di Canio inflicted in his war of words should serve as some indication of how the mind games might play out if the two teams find themselves nip and tuck in the run-in with the media eager to make something of it.

Those of us who dismissed Crawley's ante-post odds of 3/1 as nonsensical probably felt vindicated when they suffered their 6-0 embarrassment against Morecambe at the Globe Arena but the Sussex outfit responded with a show of financial clout that, in an instant, said everything that needed to be said and illustrated why the layers were right to be so wary.

However, as time ebbs away without the Red Devils opening up an unassailable lead, so does the capacity for a quick fix. And when you leave Evans and his players to their own devices, we still see unknown surroundings on the road providing enough opportunities for them to come a cropper from time to time. Their discourteous manner has won them few friends and they won't be short of enemies willing to knock them off their perch in the closing months.

As for the other challengers, Southend and Cheltenham can be very proud of their efforts up to this point but we don't really anticipate a title challenge being sustained by either team, not least because both appear to be on the downslope of long unbeaten runs having had their heads turned by lucrative FA Cup third round ties, a missed opportunity in the Shrimpers' case.

Shrewsbury are going round the block for a second time and you can't knock the consistency with which they take points off the lesser weights but they don't land nearly enough prize scalps to suggest there's any great value to be found in best odds of 12/1.

Meanwhile, staying with the same division, there's a notable cut-off point about half-way down where the bookmakers seem convinced that promotion possibilities diminish rapidly and for the sake of two points in the current standings, the odds jump from single-figures up to standout quotes of 25/1. It just so happens that the name immediately below that cut-off point is Accrington Stanley, a club we expect to improve significantly in the New Year.

The Reds only had 25 points at this stage last season but generated enough momentum when playing everyone second time around to make the play-offs. Now they have 29 points and we fancy them to do something similar.

John Coleman might be working to one of the smallest budgets in the basement, a situation that prevents him from building the team he would like in the early months of the campaign, but he knows the course and distance better than anyone and his experience really comes to the fore after Christmas when motivation at most other clubs is on the wane and the bigger fish find fewer quick fixes to their unforeseen problems.

Indeed, when you consider that Coleman has improved Stanley's league position year on year in 11 of the past 12 seasons, then who's to say they won't at least match last season's final total of 73 points considering they will head into the Christmas period eight points better off than they were last term? At 25/1 for promotion, they represent an intriguing shot to nothing.

Recommended bets:

2pts Swindon to win League Two at 10/1 (Bet365)

1pt Accrington Stanley to win promotion at 25/1 (Boylesports, William Hill)

For more betting news and views, visit Bestofthebets.com

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