Christmas and FA Cup Post Mortem

A lot to get through this week.

The Third Round of the FA Cup was the usual mixed bag: only seven clubs definitely through, half eliminated (including Leeds, who lost to Newport) and Cardiff, Reading and Sheffield Wednesday facing replays against League Two clubs next week. 

Kudos to Nottingham Forest though: this doesn’t happen every day.

On Tuesday evening Bristol City were unlucky to lose at Manchester City in the first leg of the League Cup semi final – a late injury time goal from Sergio Aguero was enough to beat the Robins, who had taken a first half lead thanks to a penalty from Bobby Reid.

Back to the league this week and a round up is required.

The table at the close of Boxing Day indicated the following potential outcomes for the rest of the campaign:

  • Wolves will probably win the Championship and may be the first club to crack the 100 points barrier since Leicester in 2013/14.
  • Bristol City were second, but the six point gap between second and sixth indicates to me that the automatic place could go down to the wire. Any of the current top ten could still go up.
  • Bolton and Birmingham were the bottom two sides, but before this weekend’s games there’s only a four point gap between Sunderland and Barnsley

The managerial Changes in brief: Carlos Carvalhal had been on the cards for a while – here’s the link to my pre-season preview – but Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest getting rid of Garry Monk and Mark Warburton respectively deserves further investigation. It’s going to be difficult for anyone to overhaul Wolves at the top of the table, but Boro can’t be ruled out of the playoffs. Forest seem to be moving in the right direction but clearly haven’t improved enough for the new owner’s liking.

The common factor in the changes at the Riverside and the City Ground won’t come as much of a surprise. Steve Gibson’s claim that Boro were going to ‘smash’ the Championship this season sounded silly at the time and made absolutely no sense in the wider context of the type of teams that win promotion. As for Forest, the regime may be different, but the perception that they should be a Premier League team remains and will no doubt have become stronger after being Arsenal in the cup.

As for new appointments, Boro recruited Tony Pulis for some reason best known to themselves (he’s not managed at this level for a decade), Sheffield Wednesday have appointed Jos Lukuhay (an excellent choice if you think a Dutchman with a mediocre record in the Bundesliga and no experience in the UK will help you win promotion) and Forest have resumed their eternal quest for the next Brian Clough.

There’s no particular choice for game of the week, but there are three games that will have an impact on both ends of the table.

Cardiff City v Sunderland (Saturday 12:30pm, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

Four straight defeats and a home draw in the cup against Mansfield and suddenly the Bluebirds are 14 points behind Wolves and in danger of dropping out of the top six altogether. Since taking over at the Stadium of Light, Chris Coleman has lost half of the ten games the Black Cats have been involved in: it’s now fair to say that now he’s got a relegation battle on his hands. Additionally, Sunderland have only won two of their last ten games in the Welsh capital.

Barnsley v Wolves

The hosts have gone five games without a win at Oakwell, although Ethan Pinnock’s equaliser against Reading was the Tykes’ first goal at home for seven and a half hours. Wolves haven’t lost on the road since October, but were held at Millwall and scraped past Bristol City at Ashton Gate with a very late winner after both sides had been reduced to ten men. Since the turn of the century, Barnsley have won five of the seven games between them in South Yorkshire, but it would be a big shock if that record became six in eight this weekend.

Birmingham City v Derby County

The Blues haven’t scored more than once at St Andrews since August but consecutive wins without conceding indicate that there are still signs life in B9. Derby are on a nine game away streak without defeat, but are the Blues good enough to stop them? They’ve not beaten Derby at home for four games, so the answer at time of writing is probably not, especially as Gary Rowett won’t want to pass up an opportunity of putting one over the side that sacked him under the most ridiculous of circumstances.

Televised games: the second part of the Steel City Derby is live from Bramall Lane on Friday evening (Sky Sports Football/Main Event 7:45pm) and Nottingham Forest v Aston Villa (Sky Sports Football/Main Event 5:30pm) is the Saturday tea time match. The first involves two teams that have combined for two wins in their last ten games and it’ll be no surprise that Villa are on telly again.

FA Cup Third Round Preview

The Third Round of the FA Cup used to be one of the highlights of the domestic calendar but over the past few seasons it’s become the equivalent of being invited to your teetotal vegetarian sister in law’s on Boxing Day.

Nonetheless, here are four games that should be worth keeping an eye on. All are 3:00pm kick offs on Saturday afternoon.

Blackburn Rovers v Hull City

First meeting in the competition at Ewood Park since January 1954 and Rovers haven’t won any of the previous three ties where they’ve had home advantage. However, this is not going to be an easy one for the Tigers, who have only won two of their last 10 trips to Blackburn in all competitions and have only won once on the road in the Championship this season. I’ll make the case for Blackburn over at Buzzin League One Football.

Bolton Wanderers v Huddersfield Town

Avoiding the drop is the priority for both teams: Bolton have won all four of their FA Cup ties against Huddersfield in Lancashire, but the last of those wins was in 1956 and since the turn of the century they’ve only beaten the Terriers twice in five games at the Macron. Wanderers’ recent home form has been impressive after a poor start – one defeat since the end of September – while Huddersfield have struggled on their travels in the Premier League, failing to score in eight of their eleven games so far.

Ipswich Town v Sheffield United

This is easily the most competitive of the four ties between Championship clubs – the other three look one sided and the Birmingham/Burton game might easily be the least interesting tie of the round.

First meeting in the FA Cup in Suffolk for almost exactly 20 years and the Blades first trip to Portman Road in any competition for seven years. The Tractor Boys had their five game home winning streak snapped by Derby last week and haven’t won a home tie in the competition for almost nine years. United reached the semi finals of the FA Cup almost four years ago,  but have only won one away game in the tournament since then; Chris Wilder’s team haven’t recorded an away win in the Championship since mid-November.

Wycombe Wanderers v Preston

Most recent encounter in the FA Cup was just over four years ago, when the sides were separated by a single Kevin Davis goal for the Lillywhites. Preston have reached the fifth round twice in the last decade and could be poised for another decent run in 2018: they’re currently unbeaten in five away from Deepdale and that run includes wins at both Bristol City and Cardiff.

Televised games: Norwich v Chelsea (Saturday, 5:30pm, BT Sport 2) and Nottingham Forest v Arsenal (Sunday, 4:00pm, BT Sport 2). I can’t see either of those ending in surprise results, but Newport County v Leeds (Sunday, noon, BBC Wales) has plenty of potential for an upset.

Back to the league programme next weekend – it won’t come as a surprise I’ll be concentrating on the recent trio of managerial changes, two of which were somewhat baffling. Before that, on Tuesday Bristol City travel to Manchester City for the first leg of the League Cup semi-final (7:45pm, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

2017 Championship Xmas Preview

Those of you who have read the Christmas Post before know what’s coming!

First of all, I know I promised to update the League Cup preview if there was an upset, but I thought I’d save it for today. In the absence of any official video highlights, I’ve chosen the best footage available of a dramatic and unexpected win for Bristol City at Ashton Gate:

City’s reward for beating Manchester United: a semi-final draw with Manchester City.

Back to the league and for new readers, there’s a definite correlation between where teams are in the table at the end of 26th December and where they are at the end of the season. So let’s begin:

  • In four of the last five seasons, the team that were top on Boxing Day finished as Champions. The exception: Derby in December 2015 – who eventually finished fifth.
  • In all of the last five seasons, the team that was promoted automatically was in the top five at the end of Boxing Day – in four of those seasons they were already in second place. The exception: Watford (26th December 2014) although the Hornets were in sixth place, seven points behind eventual title winners Bournemouth.
  • At least one of the playoff finalists was in the top six at the end of Boxing Day and in three of the the last five seasons both of them were.
  • At the other end of the table, the team that was bottom on Boxing Day finished bottom at the end of the season, but the interesting aspect here is that in every one of the last five campaigns the teams that were going to be relegated at the end of the season were already in the bottom five at the end of the Boxing Day programme. It’s normally the bottom two that have the most to worry about.

One aspect of the promotion battle I’ve not looked at before is the gap between the top six at close of play on Boxing Day. This time round I’ve found both the resources and the time to do so.

In four of the last five seasons only a point or two separated the clubs in the top two positions: we don’t know yet if Wolves will be top on Boxing Day (it’s a reasonable assumption), but if that’s the case then they could well have equalled the five point gap that Cardiff had over Hull five years ago. December 26th 2012 also saw the biggest gap between the first and sixth placed teams: Watford were 13 points behind Cardiff at that stage. The current gap is 14 points: if that remains the case then Wolves could win the Championship at a canter.

This weekend

For obvious reasons, Bolton Wanderers v Cardiff City and Sunderland v Birmingham City are the pick of the 3pm kick offs, especially if you don’t want to watch either ‘Frozen’ or ‘Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone’.

Game of the week is Aston Villa v Sheffield United (5:30pm, Sky Sports Football/Main Event) – Villa have only lost once at home in the league this season but they’ve not won at home for a month. The Blades have picked up one point in the last five games and have lost four of their last six aways since winning the Steel City Derby back in September. They’ve not met in a league game for over a decade and United haven’t won at Villa Park since England won the World Cup.

Boxing Day

Hull City v Derby County and Sheffield United v Sunderland are the pick of the bunch if you’re even paying attention at 3:00pm (the King George VI at Kempton is off at 3:15), although for some reason Burton v Leeds is live on Sky Sports Football/Main Event at the same time. Brentford entertain Aston Villa at 7:30pm (Sky Sports Football/Main Event), which is yet another example of Sky’s laughable scheduling – Griffin Park is less than ten miles from Sky Sports’ HQ in Hayes and I’ve lost count how many times Villa have been on telly this season.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy whatever you’re doing over the holiday season and the weather is good wherever you’re doing it. I’ll be back for the Third Round of The FA Cup.

League Cup: Bristol City v Manchester United

The last of the Championship clubs left in the competition take on the current holders tomorrow night.

Bristol City entertain Manchester United (8:00pm kick off, Sky Sports Football/Main Event) in a rare meeting between the clubs: it’s the first competitive game between the clubs at Ashton Gate since October 1979 and only the second time they’ve played each other in any domestic cup competition since the 1909 FA Cup Final.

This is City’s best run in the competition for almost 30 years, when they were knocked out at the semi final stage by Nottingham Forest. They’ve already beaten three Premier League clubs to reach this stage and have only lost twice at home this season. However the Robins have not beaten United in BS3 since November 1974, when both clubs were playing at this level.

It’s probably fair to say that this will be Manchester United’s toughest test in the competition so far – they’ve already thrashed Burton and won at relegation threatened Swansea – and although they’ve only won half of their last six away games in the League Cup, Jose Mourinho’s side are clear favourites.

If there’s an upset, I’ll be back after the game otherwise it’s the bumper Christmas post on Friday…

Weekend Preview 16th December 2017

A short post this week as I’ve been suffering from a pre-Christmas cold.

Last week’s game of the week was yet another eventful one:

Don’t forget that Bristol City will be the last club representing the Championship in the League Cup next week and there’ll be a post on Tuesday previewing their tie at Ashton Gate against Manchester United.

This weekend the top six won’t change and the top two can’t be overtaken, the order of the bottom four could alter depending on the results so this week’s focus is on the clubs at the bottom of the table:

Birmingham City v QPR

The Blues have only lost two of their last six home games but arguably the story here is Rangers’ appalling away record – no win since they beat Birmingham at St Andrew’s last February – and no away goal since Idrissa Sylla scored a late equaliser at Bolton in October. Some of you may remember that I predicted that Ian Holloway wouldn’t be QPR manager at Christmas and if Rangers lose this one that might be one step closer.

Head to head: Birmingham have only lost two of their last ten home games against QPR but both of those defeats have occurred in the last three meetings in B9.

Bolton Wanderers v Burton Albion

The upturn in form at the Macron has been impressive as Wanderers haven’t lost at home since the end of September, but their defensive frailty at this level needs to be addressed if they’re going to survive; Burton have only scored two away goals in their last nine road trips and so actually notching against Bolton would represent something of a triumph. The only other meeting between the clubs was in the League Cup two years ago, when the Brewers won by a single goal at Bolton.

Televised games: Sheffield Wednesday v Wolves (Friday, 7:45pm kick off, Sky Sports Football and Main Event), Cardiff v Hull (Saturday, 5:30pm kick off, Sky Sports Football and Main Event). Once again, a couple of games that probably looked good on paper earlier in the season, but neither Wednesday nor Hull have lived up to their expectations.

The Christmas Post will definitely appear next Friday 🙂