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Carlisle United v Bradford City
After some flirtations with relegation out of the EFL for Carlisle, they now find themselves back in the play-offs for the first time since 2016/17, and with a chance to get themselves back into the third tier for the first time in a decade.
However, Bradford stole a march on the Cumbrians with a 1-0 win at the University of Bradford Stadium last weekend. Back when Carlisle were last in the League Two play-offs, Bradford were in the League One play-offs, pushing for a place in the Championship.
Both sides certainly see their natural home as being above the fourth tier, and with either Salford City, or a Stockport County side experiencing an injury crisis awaiting the winners in the final, whoever goes through here will surely fancy their chances of earning promotion in next week’s play-off final.
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Work to do up in Cumbria
The first leg in Bradford did not go as Carlisle United would have hoped, but a one-goal deficit is anything but impossible to overcome. The host’s goal was a moment Paul Simpson’s side will not want to look back on, making a mess of simple route one football to let Jamie Walker through in a great goal scoring position. An uphill task within 20 minutes of kick-off.
Carlisle did ask questions of Bradford throughout the game though. Joe Garner came close to a spectacular opener. Ryan Edmondson headed a golden chance over in the second half. Plenty of success was found switching the ball out to wing-back Jack Armer when high and wide.
It was a strong defensive rear guard that prevented Carlisle from getting back into the tie before the conclusion of the first leg. The Cumbrians have to carry the belief that they can get the job done at their Brunton Park home this Saturday afternoon.
Carlisle United team news
It looks like Carlisle could well have the same group of players to choose from, with the addition of striker John-Kymani Gordon who has returned from his suspension. Key defender/midfielder Jon Mellish serves the final game of his suspension this Saturday.
It’s all in our hands so it’s up to us to go out on Saturday and be the team we know we can be.
If we do that I have no doubt where we’ll end up.Carlisle striker Ryan Edmondson speaking ahead of the second leg
The defence should remain unchanged, goalkeeper Tomas Holý behind the trio of Corey Whelan, Paul Huntington and Ben Barclay. Jack Armer should retain his place at left-wing-back, Joel Senior should start at right-wing-back but may still be fighting for match fitness. Barclay or Jordan Gibson can take his place in the team if needed.
With Mellish out, the midfield trio should contain Owen Moxon, Callum Guy and Alfie McCalmont, though Taylor Charters could be in line to provide fierce competition to McCalmont. The most intrigue could come with the frontline.
Any draw will do
Bradford City were far from convincing in the first leg at Valley Parade, but should be pleased that they are taking a lead to Brunton Park. Jamie Walker’s goal was one of only two shots on target they had all game, both of them coming in the first half.
An inability to hold possession could have cost them if not for the defensive performance of centre-back Sam Stubbs and goalkeeper Harry Lewis. 90 minutes of that again this Saturday and Bradford fans may be left with no fingernails.
The Bantams should be even more pleased that they haven’t got to need a win up in Cumbria. Brunton Park is a venue that they historically have not fared well at. Bradford’s last victory over Carlisle there was way back in 1985. The West Yorkshire outfit have avoided defeat in just one of their last nine trips up there. A draw will do, and they may well have to dig in to get it.
Bradford City team news
Business as usual for Bradford City. Mark Hughes may choose the same team for a third game in a row as the Bantams prepare for what should be a serious battle up at Brunton Park. That would depend on one player pulling through though.
I think we need to see positivity. We are in a winning position, and if we play as we did on Sunday we will be fine.
In the first half, we were very good. We have to start positive.Bradford boss Mark Hughes on his side’s chances heading into the second leg
Harry Lewis will stay in goal, behind the back four of Liam Ridehalgh, Romoney Crichlow, Sam Stubbs and Brad Halliday from left to right. Alex Gilliead, Adam Clayton and Richie Smallwood can form the midfield in Bradford’s 4-3-3, with Jamie Walker on the left, Scott Banks on the right, and top scorer Andy Cook leading the line.
A change may be forced though after Jamie Walker was brought off after 65 minutes at Valley Parade. If he is not available to start, expect one of Emmanuel Osadebe, Matt Derbyshire or Thierry Nevers to take his place on the left-hand-side.
Carlisle United v Bradford City Cheat Sheet
Should Jamie Walker be fit to play, Owen Moxon and Ben Barclay look great options for fouls. The Scot draws over three fouls per game, and with no room for sentiment in the play-offs, if he does play but isn’t fully fit, Carlisle will surely look to take advantage by throwing their weight around. These kind of dark arts are usually needed to squeeze through what is an incredibly competitive play-off in League Two this season.
Joe Garner also draws a high number of fouls for the Cumbrian side, and he will be up against Brad Halliday and Sam Stubbs on the right-hand side of the Bradford defence. With both making just under a foul per game, and having nine and five cards respectively, they look good options for fouls or bookings, especially with Carlisle likely to be on the front foot.
Carlisle must score, so shots from their players are always a good option, with Omari Patrick looking the pick of the bunch, managing a nice, round, 2 shots and 1 shot on target per 90.
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Carlisle United v Bradford City bet builder tips
Carlisle United v Bradford City
The first leg demonstrated it. Bradford City are far from a ruthless attacking force and can be very shaky in possession when the pressure is on. What won them that game at Valley Parade was a stubborn defensive display, holding Carlisle at bay right till the end.
Goalkeeper Harry Lewis has been one of the finest performers anywhere in the fourth tier this season. The centre-back pair in-front of him contains Romoney Crichlow, a left-footed Huddersfield Town loanee who has excelled at League Two level in the past and has once again done so this season.
His partner Sam Stubbs had his time at previous club Exeter City hampered by injuries, but since signing for Bradford in January has become a key cog at the back. Right-back Brad Halliday is an underappreciated workhorse both on and off the ball.
If the midfield three in front of the defence is once again Gilliead, Clayton and Smallwood, it will be a trio of players who offer more out of possession than they do in it. Creativity could well be limited in the Bradford team this Saturday, but they don’t need to desperately create a lot of chances. A clean sheet sends them through. That should be the target. This defence is capable of getting one.
Barely anything separated Carlisle United and Bradford City in the League Two table. The pair finished fifth and sixth respectively, level on 76 points with identical 20-16-10 records and just a five-goal swing when it comes to goal difference.
Their head-to-head meetings finely show the fine margins that are in place between these two. It finished 1-0 to Carlisle on Boxing Day at Brunton Park, 0-0 between the two at Valley Parade in late March, and there was just a single goal in the first leg on Sunday evening.
Despite both claiming two of the three top scorers in the division this season, Kristian Dennis and Andy Cook respectively, neither Carlisle United nor Bradford City can claim to be exceptional attacking outfits.
Frontlines have done sufficient work to do the job when needed, and it has been the two defences that have often shone through to secure points. Tomas Holý has 20 clean sheets to his name this season, Paul Huntington has been a revelation in the Carlisle defence in front of him. Lewis and Stubbs are among the standouts in the Bantams backline.
Just twice since 2013 has there been more than two goals in a game between Carlisle United and Bradford City, and this season there is basically nothing separating the pair in the table. This was marked as the toughest play-off tie to call for a reason, even with Carlisle’s absentees, they still can compete with a Bradford team that at times flatters to deceive.
Whilst second legs of EFL play-offs can provide limitless entertainment with the extremely high stakes (just look at the scenes at Hillsborough on Thursday night), this may not follow the trend.
There isn’t perhaps a finer example of the Paul Simpson magic than the season Kristian Dennis has had. The 33-year-old has played for numerous clubs in non-league, English lower league and Scottish football since breaking through at Macclesfield Town back in 2008.
Prior to this season, his best EFL return by far had been his 19-league goal season with relegated Chesterfield in 2017-18. Dennis had joined Carlisle mid-way through 2021-22 and scored twice in 17 appearances for the Cumbrians. This year, with a full season of work under Paul Simpson, Dennis has 20 league goals in 45 appearances, finishing behind only Bradford’s Andy Cook and Northampton’s Sam Hoskins in the fourth tier goalscoring charts.
It is a remarkable return from a player many would have presumed to be past his best, and even more remarkable when you realise that this is a player who isn’t guaranteed a start given the forward competition around him.
Simpson has worked wonders to get Dennis taking up numerous great positions, and has been rewarded with excellent goal output from a fairly moderate shot volume. Dennis averages 2.6 shots per 90 minutes in League Two, the majority coming from within 18 yards of goal. His total of 87 shots this season is the most in the Carlisle team, but not too far ahead of Owen Moxon’s 73 and Jordan Gibson’s 67, and well behind Andy Cook’s total of 124.
Whether he starts this second leg or not remains to be seen, but Kristian Dennis should be expected to play some part at Brunton Park, and will be the man Carlisle turn to if still hunting a goal to bring them back into the tie. It’s been the season of all seasons from the 33-year-old in 22-23. He won’t want it to be over just yet.
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