GOTW: Derby v Cardiff

As Jimmy Greaves used to say ‘football’s a funny old game.’

On Saturday evening, Villa did this:

On Tuesday, Steve Bruce’s side lost 3-1 at home to QPR. That was Rangers’ third away win in the Championship¬†since this time last year and may have irreperably damaged the Villans chance of automatic promotion.

In a theme I’ll return to next week, time is running out for those clubs other than the current top four who want to win promotion automatically. Millwall have been in superb form recently, but have they left it too late to pull off a major surprise?

The bottom of the table is far less clearer. Despite being five points from safety with nine games left, Sunderland could still finish in mid table but they’d have to win all of their remaining matches. Any of the five clubs immediately above the Black Cats could still find themselves in League One next August.

As the game of the week is the last before the international break, I’ll come to that after mentioning a couple of Saturday’s games that will have an impact at both ends of the table. Wolves entertain Burton at 3pm and Aston Villa travel to Bolton (5:30pm, Sky Sports Football and Main Event): I can’t see Wolves having any problems with Burton, but be advised that Bolton have only lost two games at home since mid October.

Derby v Cardiff

(Noon on Sunday, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

This is the Rams’ last home game against any of the teams currently above them and it’s one they need to win. That’s easier said than done: one win in their last six home games since Christmas tells me that Derby are more likely to slip out of playoff contention completely than win promotion. Looking back to my pre-season preview, the Rams are about where I’d expected them to be: one of the better sides in the competition, but not one of the best and although they’ve improved, it’s been incremental rather than spectacular as it has been with Cardiff.

The Bluebirds haven’t lost away from home since New Year’s Day and have lost only one of their seven games against the other teams currently in the top six. They’ve got to face Wolves and Villa in a four day period next month, but those games may be as relevant then as they appear now. I can’t remember if I’ve done this yet, so I’m going to put my hands up and say that I genuinely did not believe that the Bluebirds would be doing this well in 2017/18.

Head to head in the league at Derby: the hosts have won four of the last ten meetings, with their last win was in November 2015 which is about the same time David Wagner was appointed Huddersfield manager and the Football League was rebranded as the EFL. The remaining six matches have been split between draws and Cardiff wins but the Bluebirds have only lost one of the six encounters – worth remembering on Sunday morning.

Verdict: I can’t see Cardiff losing this one. They’re unbeaten in eleven – which means they’re due a defeat soon – but I don’t think Derby are the team to end that run. The Rams have only kept two clean sheets in their six home games since Christmas and have blown leads against Sheffield United and Norwich in that period.

Update: the game was called off due to the unseasonable snow. Needless to say, Neil Warnock wasn’t happy – he can’t control the weather.

Back next week with the Easter Preview, which will have to tide you over until the first weekend of April…

GOTW: Aston Villa v Wolves

I’ll start with another managerial casualty.

To no-one’s great surprise, Steve Cotterill was sacked last weekend and replaced almost immediately as Birmingham City boss by Garry Monk.

The only meaningful change in the table after the midweek programme was that Middlesbrough moved into the playoff spots after winning at St Andrew’s in Monk’s first game in charge of the Blues. Boro are now only three points behind Derby: the Rams’ wretched run of form continued last weekend, when they lost at home to Fulham

Aston Villa v Wolves

(tomorrow, 5:30pm, Sky Sports Main Event/Sky Sports Football)

This game is a massive red flag for both teams – as you’ll read in a minute, it’s an incredibly well matched contest.

Going back to last season, Villa put together consecutive nine game undefeated streaks at home but this is the tenth home game since they lost at home to Sheffield Wednesday at the start of November. Steve Bruce’s side also haven’t been that impressive when it comes to games against the other sides in the top six: they drew with Middlesbrough in mid October and beat Fulham a few weeks later and – with all due respect to Preston – I’d go as far as to say that Wolves will provide their first real challenge at Villa Park since the start of the year.

It’s a surprisingly similar story to Wolves’ away form against the other clubs in the top six. With trips to Middlesbrough and Cardiff yet to come, their only success on the road against another top six side was at Derby on the opening weekend of the season. Although their recent nine game undefeated run away from Molineux ended at Fulham last month, four of their six wins during that streak were against teams that are currently in the bottom half of the table and one was courtesy of an injury time winner at Bristol City.

Head to head: Villa haven’t beaten Wolves at home in a league game since December 2003. Three of the last four games have been drawn and it’s been almost seven years since Wolves beat Villa on their own patch.

Verdict: strangely enough, due to the late kick off time both sides will know pretty much what they need to do based on the result of Cardiff’s game against Birmingham. If – as expected – the Bluebirds drive another nail into the coffin containing the Blues’ chances of staying up, then Wolves need to avoid defeat to maintain a four point cushion at the top. If Cardiff somehow manage to lose and Villa win, then Wolves would still be six points ahead at the top but Villa would be just one point behind Cardiff City.

The bottom line is that Wolves don’t need to win this game but Aston Villa probably do. I’ll go as far as saying that Wolves probably won’t lose, but this is as good a chance as any for Villa to prove that they’re genuine candidates for automatic promotion.

Other games of interest: I’ve already mentioned Cardiff v Birmingham, but Barnsley‘s trip to Middlesbrough has implications at both ends of the table. The only other televised game is Nottingham Forest v Derby (Sunday 2:30pm, Sky Sports Football): it’s been just over five years since the Rams won at the City Ground.

There are some midweek catch up games next week, but I’ll be back on Friday for the last round of games before the next international ‘break’. Looking a little further ahead, there will be a post before Easter, but not over the Easter weekend.


GOTW: Derby v Fulham

First post for a couple of weeks so it’s time for a recap.

Wolves are six points clear at the top despite having failed to win their last three games and Cardiff currently comfortable in second place after beating Bristol City last Sunday.

After that it’s anyone’s guess, but there are eight points between Aston Villa and Sheffield United in the playoff places and it’s feasible that any of the current top eight could still reach the playoffs or even win automatic promotion.

At the bottom: Hull, Barnsley, Birmingham, Burton and Sunderland realistically can’t make the playoffs, but the latter pair probably have the most work to do to avoid relegation to League One. Whatever happens in Sunderland’s game against Millwall this weekend, the Black Cats can’t escape the bottom three.

This probably won’t come as much of a surprise after this season’s performance in the competition, Sheffield Wednesday‘s defeat at Swansea earlier this week ensures there are no Championship teams left in the FA Cup.

Back to this weekend and four of the top six are at home, there’s only one candidate for Game of the Week.

Derby County v Fulham

This week’s game of the week would be a playoff semi final if the season ended last weekend.

The Rams haven’t been beaten at home since the end of November, but having drawn four of their last five games at Pride Park, they’ve not exactly been on fire either. Their record against the other promotion contenders isn’t particularly strong: only one win from their six matches against the other clubs in the top six, against Villa in mid December.

Fulham are in a similar position away from home: six games undefeated since mid-December, but only three wins in their last five away from Craven Cottage. That’s arguably better than Derby’s recent home form and that argument can be strengthened by a quick look at Fulham’s record against the other teams in the top six. Despite losing at both Villa and Wolves, the Cottagers have picked up four wins and two draws.

The problem for Fulham is that they have a dreadful record at Derby. Since the end of World War II they’ve played fifteen league games at either the Baseball Ground or Pride Park and won only two of them – their last victory was by a single goal in a Premier League encounter over 16 years ago. You have to go back to August 1954 for the previous victory.

Verdict: Fulham have only failed to score in two of their last ten away games and Derby have failed to score in only two of their last ten home games so that bodes well for goals. A draw wouldn’t be the worst result for either team – neither would drop out of the top six if that happened – but I’d expect Villa to beat QPR.

Sheffield United v Burton Albion was the other game worth following, but the terrible weather in Yorkshire put paid to that.

Televised games: Middlesbrough v Leeds (this evening, Sky Sports Main Event/Football, 7:45pm) and Wolves v Reading (tomorrow, Sky Sports Main Event/Football, 5:30pm). Can’t see either Boro or Wolves losing those.

There’s a full midweek programme next week but I’ll be back on Friday – unless the rumours about a possible managerial change turn out to be correct.

FA Cup Fifth Round Preview

There are only three Championship teams left in this season’s FA Cup.

If Sheffield United and Hull both lose this evening, that number will be reduced to one.

Leicester City v Sheffield United

Fourth meeting in the Cup at Leicester: the Blades haven’t scored in their previous three trips to Leicester in the competition. The last time United reached the Fifth Round they went on to reach the semi finals but since then they’ve only won two of the six away FA Cup ties they’ve been involved in.

Chelsea v Hull City (this evening, BT Sport 2, 8:00pm)

Fifth meeting at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup: the most recent encounter was a goalless draw in January 1982. Hull have never won a game in any competition when they’ve played Chelsea: they’ve only scored once in their last five visits.

Sheffield Wednesday v Swansea (tomorrow, BT Sport 2, 12:30pm)

Only other previous meeting in the FA Cup was at Hillsborough in January 1962 – Wednesday won 1-0. Astonishingly, that’s the last time the clubs met each other in any competition: worryingly for Swansea, Sheffield Wednesday have only lost one FA Cup tie at home over the last five years.

In other news, game of the week in the Championship is Fulham v Aston Villa. The Cottagers have won six consecutive league games at Craven Cottage whilst Villa have won three aways on the bounce without conceding a goal – however, Aston Villa have won only one game at Fulham in their last ten attempts and have failed to win any of their other away games against teams in the top six.

Finally this week, Barnsley have a new manager: Jose Morais was assistant manager at Chelsea during the Mourinho era, but has no experience whatsoever in the Championship. The Tykes are in the bottom three: we’ve been here before and I’ll be very surprised if this doesn’t end in disaster.

Due to work commitments there’ll be no post next weekend, but I will try to post a round up/preview article sometime next week.

Leeds: The Soap Opera Continues

We’re less than six weeks into 2018 and Leeds United are having a nightmare.

First there was the nonsense with the ‘new’ badge: then – having not won since Boxing Day and being dumped out the FA Cup by Newport – the powers that be have sacked Thomas Christiansen.

With Nottingham Forest having turned something of a corner and Blackburn currently doing their best to return to the Championship after last season’s relegation, Leeds are now the only contender for the division’s basket case club. They didn’t have to look far for the next victim of the Elland Road dug out: despite having signed a new contract at Barnsley last week, Paul Heckingbottom decamped from Oakwell.

The bottom line: not finishing in the playoff places since you were promoted from League One in 2010 does not mean you’re a big club. Having not won anything for a quarter of a century doesn’t help that perception either.

This week, three games top six v bottom six stand out:

Bolton v Fulham

Bolton’s recent form shouldn’t have come as a surprise: they’ve only lost one of their nine games at the Macron and have only conceded more than one goal at home in one game since November. Fulham have been on fire over the same period: just two defeats, the Cottagers are currently on a five game winning streak.

Bristol City v Sunderland

Something of a must win game for both teams if they want to achieve their long term goals. It’s possible that the League Cup run may have had adverse affect on Bristol City, but it’s not clear how much yet: they returned to winning ways at Ashton Gate against QPR at the end of last month but that’s their only victory in the last six games. Since Chris Coleman took over at the Stadium of Light, The Black Cats have won at Burton and Nottingham Forest but Sunderland have only recorded one victory at Ashton Gate in their last five visits to BS3 – and that was the last time the clubs met in Bristol, way back in February 1999.

Aston Villa v Birmingham City (noon, Sunday, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

If I was one of those dodgy tipsters on twitter I’d be pimping this is as an easy win for Villa, but there are some mitigating circumstances that make me think this may not be an automatic three pointer for the hosts. Villa’s last home defeat came after a seven game undefeated streak and that’s exactly where they are for this game. The Blues have only lost one of their last six roadtrips – at Fulham before Christmas – but they’ve not won at Villa since December 2004. They don’t need to if they want to continue their escape bid.

Other televised games: Millwall v Cardiff (this evening, 7:45pm, Sky Sports Football/Main Event) and Sheffield United v Leeds (tomorrow, 12:30pm, Sky Sports Football/Main Event). The Lions limped out of the FA Cup at Rochdale this week but are unbeaten in seven at the New Den; the Yorkshire Derby features clubs that have combined for precisely one win in their last dozen games.

It’s the fifth round of the FA Cup next weekend, which won’t be much interest to anyone outside Yorkshire…