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Friday, 14 December, 2018

Tranmere worthy favourites for return to Football League

Fast-finishing Stockport can be kings in the north

Andy Cook of Tranmere Rovers claps his teammates
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National League playoffs

Tranmere fell at the final hurdle of last season's National League promotion race, losing 3-1 to Forest Green at Wembley, but they are worthy favourites to win the 2017-18 playoffs and should be backed to end their three-year exile from the Football League.

A change of format means six teams are in contention to join champions Macclesfield by winning a place in the Football League.

The new system means that the second- and third-placed teams - Tranmere and Sutton - are just one home victory away from booking a date at the national stadium.

The teams who finished fourth to seventh - Boreham Wood, Aldershot, Ebbsfleet and Fylde - are two wins away from Wembley and must go on the road to the top teams in the next round to get there.

The task was especially hard for sixth-placed Ebbsfleet and seventh-placed Fylde, who must win away twice to extend their seasons.

Last season Tranmere earned a place in the final with a 5-2 aggregate victory over Aldershot and there is a strong possibility that the teams' paths will cross again.

Ebbsfleet beat Aldershot in a dramatic shootout on Wednesday to set up a semi-final at Prenton Park on Saturday.

But they now face a tough task with only three days between the matches and the impressive home record of Tranmere, who have registered 15 league victories there this season.

Tranmere's six home league defeats included losses to Solihull Moors (2-1) and Hartlepool (2-1) which were inflicted in the last five days of the regular season.

But Tranmere's focus was nowhere near 100 per cent for those matches which took place after the battle for automatic promotion had been lost.

Previously they had won six games in succession and if they get back to that standard they will be tough to beat.

The six-team format has also been introduced for the National League North and South playoffs.

Once again there is a big advantage for the second and third-placed teams - Harrogate and Brackley in the North and Dartford and Chelmsford in the South.

The other teams must come through three matches to go up but that may not be beyond Stockport who finished the National League North season in excellent style, winning eight, drawing two and losing one of their final 11 matches.

Stockport's fast finish lifted them to fifth and secured a home match against sixth-placed Chorley in the qualifying round.

The Hatters look solid favourites to get past Chorley and they would fancy their chances in a semi-final at Harrogate.

There was a 16-point gap separating Harrogate from Stockport at the end of the season but Harrogate lost two of their last three games, handing the title to Salford, and may not have mentally recovered by this weekend.

Stockport would need to win the final against Kidderminster, Bradford PA or Brackley after that to go up but they are on an excellent run and look value at the prices.

A surprise looks less likely in the National League South where third-placed Chelmsford have a great chance of going up.

Chelmsford go into the playoffs in confident mood, having won seven of their last eight games, and are narrowly preferred to second-placed Dartford, who suffered a hammer blow when pipped to the title by Havant & Waterloovile on goal difference.

Tranmere National League
2pts 11-8 Betfred, Betway
Stockport National League North
1pt 8-1 general
Chelmsford National League South
1pt 12-5 bet365, Betway

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The new system means that the second- and third-placed teams are just one home victory away from Wembley
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