Playoff Semi Finals Preview

Just like that, we’ve reached the playoffs again.

Once more the Championship becomes the most interesting element of English football. The world will hold its breath whilst waiting to see which team that wasn’t as good as Wolves or Cardiff will finish in the bottom half of the Premier League in May 2019.

Way back last July one of my pre-season predictions was that Fulham would win promotion and so I’m committed to backing the Cottagers this year. That’s usually been the kiss of death since I started writing for this blog, although it’s worth remembering that over the last decade the third and fifth placed teams have won seven of the last ten finals.

Having written that, it’s fair to say that nothing really jumps out from the dozen games between the four playoff contenders other than Aston Villa and Fulham  were better than Derby and Middlesbrough. There were only two home wins in those matches – Villa and Fulham beat each other once – but with Boro having quickly adapted to Tony Pulis’ style of football, I’d agree with the bookies and say that Derby are the outsiders.

Derby v Fulham (this evening, 7:45pm, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

In a scenario that will have been horribly familiar to Derby fans but not entirely out of the blue for the rest of us, having been second at the start of February The Rams almost dropped out of the playoffs last month. A team that can lose 4-1 at home to Sunderland yet still has a chance of winning promotion is an outstanding example of not only how daft the Championship can be but also indicates that Derby’s record of five consecutive top ten finishes without promotion will probably continue next season. It’s fair to say that if you neutralise Matej Vydra you can stop them and the defence has only kept one clean sheet at home since February.

Defeat at Birmingham last weekend was Fulham’s first reverse on the road since before Christmas, so was that just a sign of things to come or just acceptance that automatic promotion wasn’t going to happen? Worryingly for those of us backing them, the Cottagers have now gone ten away games without losing, which usually means another defeat is just around the corner. On the other hand, no team scored more goals away from home during the season than Fulham and – combined with Derby’s defensive frailties – could be a recipe for success.

Since 2000, Derby have beaten Fulham in half of their last six league meetings at Pride Park. Fulham won at Derby at the start of March with early goals from Mitrovic and Sessegnon before Huddlestone replied for the hosts.

Verdict: it would not surprise me at all if Fulham won this evening but then drew at Craven Cottage next week.

Middlesbrough v Aston Villa (5:15pm tomorrow, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

Steve Gibson’s rather naive pre-season comment that Boro were going to ‘smash’ the Championship was looking unlikely as early as October, although as I pointed just after Christmas, Middlesbrough couldn’t be ruled out of the playoffs. Although they didn’t crack the top six until the start of March and have only lost twice since then, Tony Pulis’ appointment on Boxing Day clearly suits the players he inherited from Garry Monk: only Cardiff conceded fewer goals at home this season but their ‘defence first’ style at the Riverside has resulted in them scoring more goals in away matches this season. Middlesbrough have only lost two of their last ten home games – they almost earned a point against Fulham – and it’s only a couple of years since they were last in the playoffs.

Aston Villa have been in the playoff spots for most of the season but never really looked like automatic promotion material after losing at Fulham in February and consecutive defeats a few weeks later confirmed that analysis. One of those games (Bolton) appeared to trigger some sort of crisis of confidence as Villa have only won one of their four aways since then; it’s also highly significant that they lost all three games without scoring when they travelled to the teams that finished immediately above them this season.

Head to head: this looks particularly bad for Boro – their last home win against Villa was in December 2004 and they’ve met on Teeside in the league on five subsequent occasions. Boro have lost four of those games.

Verdict: on paper any game between Tony Pulis and Steve Bruce always looks as if it could finish 0-0. However, if Middlesbrough want to win promotion they’ll have to win tomorrow because the prospect of travelling to Villa Park next week without any sort of advantage will be a mountain to climb. I don’t think Boro will lose, but that may not be good enough to reach Wembley.

I’ll be back with an update at some point over the weekend although it’s more likely to be late on Sunday. At that point we’ll also definitely know if Swansea will be returning to the Championship along with Stoke and West Brom.

Result from Friday evening: Derby 1, Fulham 0. I really am the kiss of death 🙂

Proper update: the most overhyped match in the entire history of the galaxy will be between Aston Villa and Fulham. The preview will be posted sometime next week.

Expect The Unexpected?

Some weekends it’s hard to find option for Game of the Week.

Not this time!

There are no less than five games that could decide the remaining issues at both ends of the table – all are simultaneous kick offs at 12:30 on Sunday afternoon. In alphabetical order:

Birmingham v Fulham

What’s at stake: Birmingham can still be relegated, Fulham can still win automatic promotion.

Form: There’s no doubt Garry Monk has made an immediate improvement at St Andrew’s since being appointed, but Fulham are on an eleven game unbeaten away streak. That being said, Birmingham have beaten Cardiff and drawn with Villa this season whilst Fulham have lost at both Burton and Sunderland.

Head to head, Last ten at St Andrew’s in the league: 3-4-3. Fulham’s last win was in September 2014

Verdict: Fulham win – although it may not be enough for automatic promotion. Even if Birmingham lose, they may not be relegated.

Cardiff v Reading (Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

What’s at stake: automatic promotion for Cardiff. Reading have some breathing space due to a better goal difference than Birmingham, but things might get tricky if results elsewhere start getting weird.

Form: Cardiff have only lost twice in their last ten home games and have only dropped one point at the City of Cardiff stadium against teams in the bottom half of the table. Apart from a win at Derby in November, Reading have lost all of their away games at the other clubs in the top six.

Head to head, last ten at Cardiff (Ninian Park/City of Cardiff) in regular season league games: 4-3-3. Reading’s last win in the Welsh capital was at the beginning of last season.

Verdict: an easy win for Cardiff; Reading haven’t won on the road since the end of January and that was at Burton.

Derby v Barnsley

What’s at stake: Derby need to avoid defeat to clinch the last playoff place. Barnsley could still be relegated even if they don’t lose.

Form: Derby have been all over the place at the iPro recently, so this is potentially where the unexpected result might happen. Don’t get too carried away with that thought though -Barnsley have only won two road trips in 2018 and have lost all their away games against the sides that are currently above Derby.

Head to head, last ten at Derby in the league: 6-3-1. Barnsley’s last win at Derby was in September 2009 – before then you’d have to go back to October 1983 for the Tykes’ last win at Derby.

Verdict: Derby win and claim the last playoff spot and Barnsley go back to League One after two seasons.

Millwall v Aston Villa

What’s at stake: theoretically Millwall could still reach the playoffs but they’d need to absolutely batter Aston Villa to do so and hope Derby and Preston both lose. Villa have nothing to play for.

Form: two very evenly matched teams. Millwall have only lost one of their five games at the New Den against the top six clubs but have only won one of those encounters (a 2-1 win over Middlesbrough in December). In contrast, Villa have only won two of their nine away games against the current top ten.

Head to head, last nine at Millwall in the league: 4-2-3. This will be the tenth meeting in the league at Millwall and the first time Villa have played at the New Den since losing 2-1 in the FA Cup five years ago. Villa’s last win at Millwall was on April Fool’s Day 1975!

Verdict: there’s always next season – for both clubs.

Preston v Burton

What’s at stake: Preston could still qualify for the playoffs but Derby would have to lose to Barnsley or The Lillywhites would have to win by at least ten goals. Even if Burton win they may still be relegated.

Form: Preston’s recent form at Deepdale has been inconsistent and their inability to beat the strugglers at home (one win from five) is one of the reasons they’ve not already qualified for the playoffs. Burton have lost six of their nine aways against teams in the top ten – all six of those defeats were at the clubs currently above Preston.

Head to head: only one previous meeting at Deepdale, which was in November 2016 and finished 1-1. Burton have never beaten Preston.

Verdict: I can’t see Preston losing, but The Brewers are fighting for survival and anything could happen.

There will be an update, but depending on what happens at Twickenham on Sunday lunchtime you might have to wait until Monday for that.

Update: my predictions were up to their usual standard yesterday. Cardiff were promoted despite a goalless draw with Reading while Birmingham thrashed Fulham. At Pride Park, Derby sealed their playoff place with a 4-1 win over Barnsley, who were relegated. Joining them in League One next season will be Burton, who lost at Preston.

We also know the first team relegated from the Premier League: Stoke City.

GOTW: Aston Villa v Derby

Last Friday’s game of the week emphasised the difference between being a contender for the entire season and merely having a good run of form:

Millwall aren’t out of the running for the playoffs by any means, but this defeat saw them drop out of the top six. 

Wolves tied up the title by beating Bolton but with only two games of the regular season left, only Aston Villa, Cardiff and Fulham can still win automatic promotion. This weekend’s game of the week is a Midlands Derby with an awful lot on the line for both teams…

Aston Villa v Derby

Both teams need to win for different reasons: Villa to retain any chance of going up without making the trip to Wembley at the end of next month while the Rams can take a big step towards making the same journey.

Villa have won eight of their last ten games at Villa Park, keeping clean sheets in half of those outings and beating both Wolves and Cardiff in that sequence. They’ve also not lost at home against any of the teams in the top half of the current table

On Tuesday evening Derby ended a three game losing streak by beating Cardiff 3-1, but having had a short recovery time after an emotional high can sometimes be a recipe for disaster. The Rams have only recorded one away win since the end of January, although the only time they’ve lost a game at one of the teams above them was at Molineux two weeks ago.

Historically speaking, this is where it gets bleak for Derby. Aston Villa have won the last ten games between them at Villa Park and have only failed to win three of their sixteen encounters in any competition in Birmingham since March 1978. Derby’s last win at Villa was in November 1988: England legend Peter Shilton was in goal for the Rams and the winner was scored by Dean Saunders.

Villa have already qualified for the playoffs and if Fulham beat Sunderland this evening then Steve Bruce’s side will need to win at Millwall next weekend and hope other results go their way in order to win automatic promotion. That’s unlikely so does Bruce decide to go for it anyway knowing that his team will have home advantage in the playoffs? As for Derby, if they lose tomorrow they could be overtaken by Millwall and that might mean their last game of the season – at home against Barnsley – will be a vital one for both sides.

Villa have less to lose and so I’d be surprised if they do.

The other game of note this weekend is Burton v Bolton, which is far simpler. If the hosts lose, they’ll be relegated: if that happens, expect an update on Saturday evening.

The plan for next weekend’s post is going to be complicated: I’ve got an unusual family interlude that means I’m going to be posting on Friday but I may not be able to provide an update until Sunday evening. One of my brothers in law is playing at Twickenham on Sunday lunchtime and the family is off down there to see him.

GOTW: Millwall v Fulham

To no-one’s great surprise, Wolves were promoted to the Premier League last weekend:

Only Aston Villa, Cardiff and Fulham can still win automatic promotion.

After that any of the other clubs in the top nine could still go up, but although neither club are mathematically out of it, I don’t think either Brentford or Bristol City will make the playoffs.

As I’ve been writing for the past few weeks, I think Burton and Sunderland have had it, but the battle to avoid 22nd place is still very tight. Right now I think Barnsley have too much to do.

Millwall v Fulham (7:45 pm, Sky Sports Football, Main Event)

A televised game of the week this late in the season is basically a can’t miss for those of you who are able to watch it. The clubs involved have had remarkably similar runs since Christmas and are top of the current six game form table. Additionally, there always seems to be one late season match that turns out to be a dress rehearsal for the playoffs and this could be the one.

The Lions have a 17 game unbeaten streak going into this one: they’ve not lost at home since the start of November (to Burton!) and haven’t conceded more than one goal at the New Den since Boxing Day.

Lee Gregory has pitched in with 5 of 18 in that period but the defence hasn’t been breached in three and a half hours of play at the New Den. That record might not last much longer: after Fulham, the Lions host Villa in the last home game of the season in what might turn out to be a showdown for home advantage in the playoffs.

Fulham are just as impressive: 21 games without losing with their last away defeat coming way back in mid December at Sunderland. On the road they’ve been not been as impressive defensively as Millwall have been at home but four straight away wins is plenty of proof how good the Cottagers are at the moment.

Half of the last five league meetings between the pair at Millwall have ended in draws, but Millwall haven’t beaten Fulham at home since they won by the odd goal in seven in an old Division Three game at The Den in April 1982.

Verdict: so far this Millwall haven’t lost any of the three home games they’ve played against teams that are above them, but their only victory was against Middlesbrough in December and it’s fair to say that Boro are a different proposition altogether now Tony Pulis has taken over. Fulham have lost at both Aston Villa and Wolves this season but have won at both Cardiff and Middlesbrough since the turn of the year and for that reason – in addition to their record against Millwall – I can’t see the Cottagers losing.

The other factor here is that if Millwall lose narrowly, only Derby can overtake them.  The Rams face Middlesbrough tomorrow.

Sunderland v Burton

A classic ‘if, then, or else’ game if ever there was one: the loser will be playing Accrington Stanley in League One  but there’s a combination of results where both clubs could go down regardless of what happens at the Stadium of Light. Sunderland have record two home wins in their last 21; Burton’s mini revival around Christmas didn’t last and the Brewers have only won once away from home in their last eight attempts.

I’ll be back with an update on Sunday.

Here it is: Wolves are your 2017/18 Sky Bet Championship title winners.

Sunderland have been relegated. Wigan Athletic have been promoted.

Bad Week For Warnock

Cardiff’s season has taken a remarkable turn for the worse over the last seven days. First this:

And then a 1-0 defeat at Aston Villa earlier this week, all of which means that the Bluebirds have been overtaken by Fulham in the race for automatic promotion.

Wolves – with an eleven point lead after beating Derby – are as good as promoted and arguably all that remains to be decided at the top is who finishes sixth. At the moment, that’s Millwall: the Lions have been unbeaten since New Year’s Day but have a very tough looking run in.

It’s more or less as you were at the bottom, although Bolton have now lost four straight and could easily find themselves switching places with Sunderland in the bottom three if that form continues. Back to the Trotters in a couple of paragraphs.

Four games to keep a look out for this weekend: four of the bottom six play each other and depending on how other results go, Wolves could win promotion this weekend.

In no particular order, Burton v Derby, Reading v Sunderland and Wolves v Birmingham (Sunday, noon, Sky Sports Football) are the highlights this weekend, but Bolton’s trip to Barnsley seems to have the most at stake for the participants. Until last week’s win over Sheffield United, the Tykes hadn’t won at Oakwell since the start of November, but they’ve not won consecutive home games since August and haven’t won consecutive games at any venue since Halloween. Bolton’s away record is just as bad: one win all season and it’s been over three years since they scored more than two goals and won in an away game in the Championship.

Head to head: since 2000 the clubs have met four times in the league at Oakwell and Barnsley have yet to win a game. Their last win at home against Bolton was in their only season in the Premier League, way back in August 1997.

Finally this week – and it wasn’t a great surprise – Mick McCarthy walked away from the Ipswich job earlier this week. He was expected to remain until the end of the season, but the fans reaction to a substitution during the win over Barnsley earlier this week was the last straw.

Update: Wolves have won promotion to the Premier League. More next week.