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20/04/2007 No.13
Kevin Pullein
Friday April 20, 2007
  No chance to win?

If you were given a choice between backing a team with everything to play for and backing a team with nothing to play for, which would you choose? The answer given by most people at this stage of a season would be the former.

There is no evidence, however, that teams who need to win become more likely to win. And yet the odds that bookmakers quote about them get shorter as the games left to play become fewer and fewer.

The first point is illustrated perfectly by what has been happening recently to some of the top six teams in the Championship. Preston North End have won one of their last five matches, Derby County two of their last seven and West Bromwich Albion just two of their last nine. In League One, things have hardly been any better: among the promotion chasers, Oldham Athletic have won two of their last 12, Yeovil Town three of their last nine and Nottingham Forest six of their last 16.

The former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson used to say that one of the biggest problems was how to get his players to produce their best performances under pressure. And he dealt with players who were accustomed to playing under such pressure.

In the Football League, promotion-chasing teams consist largely of players who are playing under great expectations for the first time in their lives. Some are inspired by the challenge, others are terrified.

In the Championship and League One during the past 10 seasons, the teams who finished first and second - in the automatic promotion places - gained an average of 2.0 points per game during April. Between August and March, they averaged 2.0 points a game.

The teams which finished between third and sixth - in the play-off places - collected an average of 1.7 points a game during April. Between August and March, they averaged 1.7 points.

These are excellent examples of how a team's ability to win does not improve with their need to win. Over the next few weeks, you will be offered increasingly short odds about teams who might be inhibited by fear and increasingly long odds about teams who could play with complete freedom. Be wary of backing the former. Do not be wary of backing the latter. The average points a game by month for teams who made the Championship and League One play-offs since 1996 shows their travails chasing promotion.

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