11 key conclusions as Sunderland, Portsmouth, Charlton and Doncaster kick off their League One play-off campaigns

Sunderland and Portsmouth were tough to seperate again on Saturday night
Sunderland and Portsmouth were tough to seperate again on Saturday night
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Sunderland and Charlton Athletic took the advantage from the first leg of the League One play-off semi finals.

But what did the two ties tell us about what to expect over the next fortnight?

We run through some key conclusions....

Charlton emerge as the early favourites

The bookmakers have unsurprisingly shortened Sunderland and Charlton's odds after the first leg ties.

Charlton are the narrow favourites given an impressive win away at Doncaster.

They have not lost at home in 2019 and so Grant McCann's side face a significant challenge in leaving the Valley with a win.

Lee Bowyer's side finished the regular season strongly and the weekend's action will have done little to change the perception that they are the team to beat.

Sunderland and Portsmouth keep a keen eye on Alim Ozturk's appeal

Few players caused Sunderland as many problems this season as Oli Hawkins did in the first two meetings between these sides.

At Fratton Park he was superb after Glenn Loovens saw red and alongside Gareth Evans, his second half arrival helped turn the tide at Wembley.

In the last two games, however, he has been surprisingly quiet and that owes much to the improving Alim Ozturk.

He has been Sunderland's best defender in recent games and particularly in the air, a player transformed from his early season struggles.

The Black Cats will be eager for his red card to be overturned and you suspect Pompey will feel a lift if it isn't.

Wide players will be causing both Jack Ross and Kenny Jackett a big headache

Lee Bowyer said he thought the first leg between and Sunderland was a disappointment.

Perhaps, but that was hardly a surprise. Both sides finished the regular season poorly and given the familiarity between the two sides, an open classic was never on the cards.

It did not help that Sunderland were missing their attacking talisman in Aiden McGeady, nor that Portsmouth's star wingers are both out of form.

Ronan Curtis wasted a number of promising openings while Jamal Lowe was uncharacteristically quiet.

Both sides are set up specficially to exploit their power in the wide areas and when that's lacking, the effect is obvious.

It will be a key priority for both managers this week, though Ross was bouyed to see Lynden Gooch show signs of his old form.

Big game experience could be key

There was, yet again, little between Sunderland and Portsmouth.

The four games between them have been exceptionally close and so it was again on Saturday night.

Two of the best performers, however, were Lee Cattermole and Bryan Oviedo.

Cattermole controlled the midfield while Oviedo defended well against Lowe, producing a number of good crosses at the other end.

That experience could be vital in what will certainly be a lively atmosphere at Fratton Park on Thursday night.

Ross will be particularly keen for Oviedo to produce again.

He has not been anwyhere near consistent enough this season give his stature as a player but on this evidence, he could yet be vital in the final moments.

Charlton show some surprise flexbility

Bowyer has mostly used a 4-4-2 diamond system this season, mirroring the shape that saw Luton Town storm to consecutive promotions.

It has seen them overpower teams regularly but against Doncaster they sprung a surprise, dropping into a back three.

"When you play with the diamond, you have to rely on your full-backs to get forward and I felt when we played them here [earlier in the season] that when our full-backs went the wingers didn’t track – and then they kept hitting us on the break," Bowyer told London News Online.

“That was how they were hurting us. In possession we were fine, but as soon as we gave it away high up the pitch they hit us on the break – maybe five or six times.

“That was their threat. By playing a third centre-back as you lose your wing-back you have got that cover – like Naby Sarr, he stepped into left-back.

“You have to respect them.”

Lyle Taylor makes you think what if yet again

Lyle Taylor got himself on the scoresheet again and while it was not his most spectacular finish, it was one of his most important, showing great bravery to dive in and head home a crucial goal.

Doncaster had threatened intermittently before that but Charlton took control from that point.

It was a typically impressive showing from Taylor, who was excellent in the air and drifted into dangerous areas to collect the ball and launch attacks.

Lee Bowyer spoke before the game about his delight that Taylor had opted for the Valley ahead of a switch north to Sunderland last summer.

Sunderland had been very keen on a move and Taylor even visited the north east.

Given the impact a fully fit Charlie Wyke has been able to make over the last couple of months, you can't help wonder where Sunderland might be had they been able to get a deal for the 29-year-old over the line.

Taylor has established himself as one of the best players outside the top two tiers and he will surely be playing Championship football next season, with or without the Addicks.

Joe Aribo is giving Lee Boywer a different dimension

Sunderland will feel they have little to fear from Charlton should the two go on to meet in the final.

The Black Cats have taken four points from two games this season and ought to have put the game out of sight at the Valley earlier this year.

Charlie Wyke missed some excellent chances in the first half in what was one of the best spells of football Sunderland have produced this season.

Charlton improved considerably after the break, adopting a much more direct style and bringing Taylor into the game.

Missing that day was Joe Aribo, one of the most dynamic midfielders in the division.

He was exceptional playing off Taylor on Sunday, scoring a goal and causing constant problems.

There is seemingly little between Charlton, Portsmouth and Sunderland but the return to fitness of Aribo is a big bonus for Charlton.

Jack Ross has a big selection decision to make

Ross dropped a strong hint post-match that Chris Maguire would start on Thursday night.
It is an interesting dilemma for the Black Cats.

Maguire's goal was a rare moment of quality in a tense game and yet again underlined that this is a player for the big occasion.

Since his return from a fractured fibula, however, Maguire has thrived in cameo spells from the bench.

Against tiring legs and minds, he has been able to drift into dangerous areas unopposed and cause significant problems for the opposition.

He will surely start at Fratton Park, but Ross will be anxious to ensure he doesn't fade in a game that could go 120 minutes and beyond.

Gareth Evans gives Sunderland extra incentive

Unsurprisingly there has been an edge to this fixture given what has been at stake every time they faced each other this season.

Charlie Wyke had an ongoing battle with Christian Burgess and that spilled over at the final whistle when the Pompey defender exchanged words with Chris Maguire.

At the final whistle in the league fixture just weeks earlier there had been confrontation when Tom Flanagan challenged Nathan Thompson after a serious of contentious decisions in the match.

So there was plenty of tension between the two and the post-match comments from Gareth Evans will have done little to calm that.
Danny Andrew gives Doncaster Rovers hope

Doncaster face a tall order overturning their deficit at the Valley but they will certainly feel that set pieces give them a chance.

They scored from a corner late on at the Keepmoat Stadium to keep the tie alive and came close in the first half when Danny Andrew fired a stunning effort off the crossbar from around 30 yards out.

Sunderland fans remember Andrew hitting the post from a similarly implausible distance and angle at the Stadium of Light last month.

Doncaster had not been in the game until that point but Jon McLaughlin was well beaten.

Grant McCann's side have surprised everyone this year and rightly developed a reputation for playing good, attacking football.

They are capable of creating opportunities from open play but against one of the best defences in the league, that left boot of Andrew could prove a very useful wildcard.

Rovers refusing to give up

Doncaster were bullish before the game, Jon Marquis saying that he would not swap any of his team-mates for one of the bigger-reputation players at other clubs.

Charlton fans took great glee in teasing him when they went 2-0 up, but they have been a side full of confidence all season and McCann was the same post-match.

"It keeps us firmly in it," McCann said.

"I thought in the second half we were outstanding. We camped in their half, we passed and probed. We maybe lacked a cutting edge at times but we played our game.

"We possibly could have had a couple more goals. We got into good areas without having a cutting edge.

"But we're right in the tie."