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9th May 2012 – 7.45pm, at Borough Briggs, Elgin, Moray.

The Irn-Bru Scottish League Playoffs kick off this evening, with Third Division Elgin City hosting Second Division Albion Rovers. For the uninitiated (and I know they exist where Scottish football is concerned) Albion play in Coatbridge, which is just outside Airdrie, about 10 miles east of Glasgow – quarter of the way to Edinburgh on the A89, if you’d rather. That’s for the second leg, though. Tonight all eyes will be on Elgin, up in the real north of Scotland and here’s my preview, giving the same statistical bent I try to incorporate into this kind of thing.

I’ve been following Elgin pretty closely this season and I think its fair to say there’s been some ups and downs. It took a long time to overhaul Annan into the last playoff spot, but that fourth spot hadn’t really been in doubt for a month or so. The high point (certainly results-wise) was probably the 5-0 victory over runaway champions Alloa; one eighth of the goals they conceded all season on one afternoon. Meanwhile, away trips to Hampden saw a 6-0 defeat to Queen’s Park, and one of the return games against Alloa saw an 8-1 defeat (just shy of one eighth of the goals they scored all season – 11.42% of the 70).

Albion, meanwhile, have been disappointing but not awful in the Second Division, finishing four points adrift of Brechin City; and, as you’d expect, had more downs than ups. Their highlights would be a 7-2 victory against Airdrie back in November’s Monklands Derby, but there’s been a couple of six-goal tonkings by Arbroath (finished second) as well. So, what can we expect from tonight’s game?

Goals.
The last time Elgin failed to score in a league game was the 14th January (that 6-0 at Hampden), and they’ve only failed to net once at home all season, a 0-3 reverse by Clyde (which shocked me at the time) in September. Albion, meanwhile, have only kept one clean sheet on the road – at Forfar in October – all season. Even taking into account the difference in divisions, that suggests a trend towards Elgin being likely to find the net tonight. Here’s a graph showing Elgin’s home scoring record this season, along with Albion’s away defensive performances.

goala1.jpg

Elgin can score goals, then, but it does look a little like that ability is slowing down of late – scoring one in five of the last seven games, and two, and three in the others. Albion’s goals against average almost tracks along the same path as Elgin’s goals for, particularly towards the end; but the fact that they both end with distance to spare above 2 would – again, even taking into account the difference in divisions – suggest to me the balance tipping towards Elgin tonight.

The flip side of that coin is that Albion have failed to score in 8 of 18 away games (just under half, I probably don’t need to add) this season. Only two of those games were against teams in the bottom half, however, so it might be reasonable to expect Rovers to score at least one, especially seeing as Elgin have only kept six clean sheets at home. The interesting/curious point of those is that two were against Alloa, by far and away the best team in the division. Does that mean the Black and Whites can shore it up if necessary, but play a more expansive game against ‘normal’ visitors? This is something we’ll have to wait for tonight to get a proper handle on. Here’s the self same graph, but in reverse (with Elgin’s goals conceded, and Albion’s goals scored)

goala2.jpg

All signs point to Albion scoring one goal tonight – again, if you err on the side of them being a division above, it seems they’re likely to score at least one tonight.

League Form
This throws an entirely different perspective on things to the goals. Looking at six game form over a season, there’s a definite trend to see in Albion’s year, while Elgin’s season has been very much up and down. If I put the graph in first, I’m sure you can see what I mean.

6gfelgalb.jpg

For a team who have been struggling, Albion have – aside from an appalling spell of eight defeats in a row, (ending game 14) their form has been pretty good. Meanwhile, Elgin’s form has been patchy, very good in the mid-20s, but I would say ‘decent’ other than that. I guess that’s why they’re in the playoffs. I have to say, overall, that doesn’t fill me with hope for the lower-ranked team. Indeed, look at this (same idea) graph for the two teams’ form, just for Elgin’s home and Albion’s away form.

6gfelhala.jpg

Those two lines converge rather worryingly towards the end of the season. Admittedly, it was the case that Elgin had secured their playoff spot and Albion were battling against relegation; the two generally would converge – teams fighting at the bottom often see an upturn in form, and teams who are comfortable but have more battles to fight often see their form drop off. So I’m not putting too much stock in the dip and the rise, but it does mean certainly won’t be a walkover for Elgin.

Additional Quirk: this will be both teams’ fifth midweek night game this season. Elgin have P4 W4 (3 at home) with a 14/3 spilt in goals and Albion have P4 W1 L3 2/7 (3 away); nothing enough of a trend to work on, but Elgin have got happy memories of Borough Briggs under the lights this season.

What Do I Reckon, then.
Given that playoff first legs are usually tight affairs, it might ultimately depend on what happens really early on. An early goal (either way) would open things up and I reckon Elgin have got enough about them to get one (37/68 of Elgin’s goals were scored in the first half). I fancy them to take the advantage – albeit a narrow one – back to Coatbridge; 2-1 to the home team.

Also tonight, Stranraer take on Queen’s Park in the other playoff semi-final; I reckon a draw, 1-1.

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