Game Of The Week: Sheffield Wednesday v Cardiff City

Due to -or perhaps because of – the Bank Holiday we’ve got games spread over four days.

I’ve decided I’m going to write a quick preview of Brighton v Derby in time for Monday’s game and concentrate on Saturday’s match that should confirm the identity of the last play off team.

There’s been a lot of hype about Cardiff visiting Sheffield Wednesday this weekend, but I’m not convinced that it’s as competitive as some of the experts seem to think. The visitors are in the classic ‘if…then…else’ scenario and need to overcome a six point difference with six points to play for. Wednesday have the advantage of knowing that if they don’t lose then they’ll be in the play offs, albeit as the weakest seed.

After a poor start that saw them win only one of their first seven games, Wednesday have been in the play off places since their 2-0 victory over Leeds United in January.

It’s fair to say that Carlos Carvalhal’s side have earned themselves a reputation as draw specialists. Only Hull have lost fewer home games and scored more home goals this season, but only QPR have drawn more games overall. They’re probably fortunate that this game is at Hillsborough, where they’ve only lost one of their last ten outings – but Owls have only won two of their last six since February. They’ve also only won two of their eight home games against the other sides in the top half of the table.

Cardiff have been in the top ten since the end of December, but have never really looked like a play off side despite having had a number of chances to make a move on the top six. It’s not hard to see why: at home they’re as good as Wednesday, but the Bluebirds’ away record against the top half of the table is worse than those of Charlton and MK Dons. City are also currently on a four game streak without a win on their travels and haven’t scored more than two goals on their travels since the end of January.

Furthermore, Cardiff have a poor record in the league at Hillsborough. They’ve only recorded two wins in their last ten visits (last victory was in March 2013) and they’ve lost half of the last six games at Sheffield Wednesday. Not looking particularly good for the Bluebirds is it?

Verdict: in order to overtake Wednesday, Cardiff would have to win at Hillsborough and at home against Birmingham on the last day of the season and hope Sheffield Wednesday don’t earn a point either tomorrow or at Wolves next weekend. Taking everything into account, I don’t think much of Cardiff’s chances and to be honest I don’t think either of them will be playing in the Premier League next season.

Televised games: Birmingham v Middlesbrough (Sky Sports 1, 7:45pm tonight) – Boro can take temporary charge at the top if they can win at St. Andrews. The hosts have been very wobbly at St Andrew’s since the start of last month,  but that’s not to say Boro have been any better. Might not be the most inspiring start to the weekend’s football.

Bolton v Hull (Sky Sports 1, 12:30pm Saturday) – a dead rubber if ever there was one. The only thing Hull have to play for is home advantage in a likely play off game against Derby.

One last thing: Paul Lambert won’t be returning as Blackburn manager next season. Rovers are on course to finish in their lowest league position since Jack Walker took over in 1991 and although that’s not necessarily Lambert’s fault, there was clearly a difference of philosophies between the Scotsman and Venky’s.

I’ll be back on Sunday evening or Monday morning with a look at Monday afternoon’s games, although I suspect we’re going down to the wire in the race for automatic promotion.

One Eye On Next Season…

This week I’m going to look at the bottom of the table but from a slightly different perspective.

With two of the newly promoted teams featuring in the games that matter, it’s interesting to see the relative declines in the fortunes of their opponents this weekend – especially as there might be implications for next season.

With the exception of Bolton, Charlton and Wolves, Brentford and Blackburn are the clubs who played in the Championship last season that have gone backwards at a rate of knots and feature in the games highlighted below.

Blackburn v Bristol City

Blackburn: 17th with three games left, ninth at this point last season.

After consecutive top ten finishes, Rovers have returned to the form that saw them finish just four points away from relegation in 2012/13. They’ve lost half of their last ten games in the Championship at Ewood Park but haven’t lost at home to any of the teams below them this season.

Bristol City: 21st with three games left. Won League One this time last season.

City only need a point to reach safety and although their form has been frustratingly inconsistent recently – Tuesday evening’s performance against Derby summed up their entire season – that’s better than absolutely terrible, which they had been until Lee Johnson took over.

Head to head: only the third league meeting between the two since January 1992. The Robins haven’t won at Ewood Park since December 1990, the last draw between them in the league in Lancashire was on May 1st 1971.

Fulham v Nottingham Forest

Fulham: 19th with three games left. One place worse than last season.

Although it doesn’t seem like it, the Cottagers are actually a bit better than they were in 2014/15, primarily because they’ve lost fewer games and conceded fewer goals. However, they’ve let in 1.75 goals per game since they were relegated from the Premier League and have only kept two clean sheets at Craven Cottage this season.

Forest: 18th with three games left. Were tenth at the same stage last season.

No wins in their last six aways and only two goals over that period. This will be Forest’s third consecutive bottom half finish and at the rate they’ve regressed since August 2013 they’re heading for a relegation battle next season.

Head to head: just like the game immediately above, this is a comparatively rare game. How rare? The last Forest win at Fulham in the league was in January 1975, which was their second away victory in the old Division 2 under the newly appointed Brian Clough. The clubs have only met four times in the league in West London since and three of those games were drawn.

MK Dons v Brentford

MK Dons: 3rd in League One with three games left.

With the benefit of hindsight, it would have been interesting to have seen how MK Dons would have done in last season’s League One play offs, but with Preston losing to Colchester on the last day of 2014/15, the Dons won automatic promotion. All of last summer’s new arrivals have scored fewer goals than last season, but MK have scored 66 fewer and that’s one of the reasons why the bookies have taken them off the board for relegation.

Brentford: 13th with three games left. Were seventh at the same stage last season.

I called it last July, so Brentford’s regression from play offs to mid table isn’t a huge surprise but I bet they wish they’d kept Mark Warburton. It’s far too early to tell if Dean Smith is going to be a successful manager at this level, but I’m happy to give him the benefit of the doubt at the moment. Currently on a five game unbeaten run and have only lost once in eight league games at MK Dons.

This weekend’s televised games: Preston v Burnley (Sky Sports 1, 7:45pm) and Derby v Sheffield Wednesday (tomorrow, Sky Sports 2, 12:30pm). The Lillywhites would love to put one over their local rivals this evening, but six of the eleven Lancashire derbies this season have been away wins, including the reverse fixture at Turf Moor in December.

The game at Derby could very well turn out to be one of those end of season match ups that become play off semi finals a few weeks later, so although this game should be an indication of how the Rams will approach the post season, Wednesday need to avoid defeat to more or less guarantee themselves a place in the top six.

I’ll try to update this post at some point over the weekend, but it’s highly likely to be at some point on Sunday as I’ll be ‘helping’ a Manchester United fan watching tomorrow’s FA Cup semi final…

Update: MK Dons will return to League One after a 4-1 home defeat by Brentford. It’s all but inevitable that Wigan will be back in the Championship in August but that could be confirmed on Tuesday evening.

Game Of The Evening: Burnley v Middlesbrough

Tonight’s slate features an important game between the top two that will have implications for the top three.

Any of the leading contenders that make a mistake over the next couple of weeks will probably find themselves in the playoffs rather than watching them so this is a massive game for Burnley and Middlesbrough.

The Clarets are on an eleven game unbeaten streak at Turf Moor, which means that they’re due to be beaten there soon. They’ve done well in Lancashire against the other candidates for promotion though: three wins and a draw so far, but it’s their defence that’s been impressive recently. Burnley have kept nine clean sheets in that eleven game streak and haven’t conceded at home since a late Danny Batth equaliser against Wolves last month.

After three straight away defeats last month it looks as if Boro have got back to winning ways again, although it was touch and go at Bolton on Saturday. However, since losing at Bristol City in January, their away defence has looked vulnerable as the leaders have only kept two clean sheets in eight road trips since then and have conceded two at Blackburn, Charlton and QPR, which isn’t that impressive. Although Boro have lost at Hull this season, their struggles on the road this season have come at teams that have been trying to avoid relegation than those looking to win promotion: they’ve won six of their eight games against the other clubs currently in the top six. Burnley can’t afford to ignore that record.

Head to head in Lancashire (league only): including Burnley’s 5-2 win in November 1971, each team has won three of the ten meetings at Turf Moor but the Clarets haven’t won on their home patch since April 2001, which was also the last time they scored against Boro in front of their own fans.

Verdict: a draw would suit Middlesbrough, but if that happens and Brighton beat QPR then there’ll only be two points between the top three going into the weekend. This is Burnley’s penultimate and toughest home game of the season and after a lack lustre performance at Bolton on Saturday, I’d imagine that Boro will want to bounce back.

Two more games to keep an eye on:

Bolton v Charlton

The irony here is that if Bolton win, in all likelihood they’ll be taking Charlton down to League One with them.

Sheffield Wednesday v MK Dons

I can’t see MK Dons winning at Hillsborough – that would be a first – especially as Wednesday have been dominant at home against teams in the bottom half of the table this season. Furthermore, the hosts have only lost once at home since the end of August: there’s a possible weird, end of season result here but I don’t think it’s going to happen. That’s even though the Dons need a win to postpone what looks like an immediate return to League One.

There’ll be an update later.

Aston Villa Join The Championship

Aston Villa will be playing in the Sky Bet Championship in August.

The Villans lost 1-0 at Manchester United this afternoon and will be playing in the second tier of English football for the first time since 1987/88. I would imagine they’ll be amongst the favourites for promotion next season and they’ve managed to do that twice before.

Back on Tuesday.

Race To The Bottom

It looks very much like we already know which teams are going to finish in the Top Five.

Cardiff lost in the last minute at Fulham, which meant that Sheffield Wednesday – who surprisingly lost 4-1 at Bristol City – maintained their five point cushion over the Bluebirds for the last play off place.  Of course, the situation could all change over the next four games.

Bolton finally departed the Championship after four seasons and it’s highly likely that Charlton and MK Dons will join them. Having written that, after last week’s results Huddersfield and Nottingham Forest have dropped into the bottom six. The Terriers were last in this position on Boxing Day but Forest were in the top half of the table as recently as the end of February.

As you might imagine having read the opening couple of paragraphs, this week’s focus is on the bottom of the table:

Charlton v Derby

I never seem to be able to mention this game without harking back to the 1946 FA Cup Final and thanks to British Pathe and our new look, here’s some vintage footage of the game, featuring a cameo appearance by the Queen, who had celebrated her 20th birthday the week before.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that the Addicks had probably left it too late to save themselves and although they’ve only lost two of their last six games at the Valley, this game begins a brutal run in during which time Charlton have to host Derby, Brighton and Burnley. They’ve already beaten Middlesbrough, Hull and Sheffield Wednesday at home so Derby need to be wary, especially as they haven’t won on the road since the end of February. That being said, Derby have four of their last ten league games at Charlton – losing only three – and arguably don’t have as much to play for as the hosts.

Rotherham v Nottingham Forest

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that I’ve got a pet theory about some teams avoiding relegation because there are usually three sides worse than them. I mentioned it before the start of the season in the preview for Bolton and the way things are going at Forest it seems likely I’ll be dusting the theory off in August so I can apply it to the Tricky Trees.

Quite frankly, Forest are in free fall. They’ve lost nine of their last eleven games, failed to score in six of those defeats, have been as bad as Bolton over the last half dozen matches and only MK Dons have scored fewer goals this season. Forest are lucky that this season there are three teams worse than them but that may not be the case in 2016/17 – if they survive, as it’s still possible that Forest could go down.

Rotherham are currently unbeaten in eight and haven’t lost at home since the end of January. Here’s where history intervenes quite dramatically: although the Millers have only lost once at home to Forest in their last ten meetings in South Yorkshire, the last time Rotherham beat Nottingham Forest at home in the league was in September 1956. Additionally, the last six league games between the clubs at Rotherham have ended in draws, which is not particularly good news for Nottingham Forest.

Televised games this weekend: Hull v Wolves (tonight, Sky Sports 1, kick off 7:45pm), Bolton v Middlesbrough (tomorrow, Sky Sports 1, kick off 12:30pm). Some interest at the top in these matches but Hull need a win to maintain the pressure on the other teams competing for a play off spot and Bolton’s game looks like one of those Sky Sports choices that might have looked good on paper before the season began.

I’ll be back on Tuesday afternoon with a preview of the final midweek programme of the regular season. You’ve got no idea how pleased I am to be writing those words :-)