Palace Favourites To Reach Wembley

In a few hours time we’ll know which Championship side will  be expected to provide cannon fodder for either Manchester City or Liverpool in the Carling Cup final.

Although Crystal Palace are slight favourites to qualify for the final, Cardiff are favourites to win tonight. Which might sound slightly barmy until you realise that the Eagles have only lost three of their last ten trips to the Welsh capital in all competitions and that Cardiff really need to win by two goals to have a chance of winning the tie within 90 minutes – something that the hosts are very capable of doing. The Bluebirds have only lost twice at home this season and so it looks as if it could be a tight game.

Palace lost at Blackpool on Saturday but Dougie Freedman did a fantastic job of emulating the managers in the Premier League by naming a team that included precisely none of the team that played in the first leg of the semi final. In contrast, Cardiff’s Malky McKay chose eight of the 11 players who lost at Crystal Palace in his starting eleven for the game against Portsmouth: it’ll be interesting to see which philosophy pays off later on.

With the weekend’s games not finishing until last night, it was always going to be down to the game between Southampton and Leicester to decide who was going to be top of the table going into the Fourth Round of the FA Cup. Unfortunately for the former leaders, Leicester ended their 40 year winless streak at Southampton – which meant that West Ham maintained their lead at the top of the table thanks to their win over Nottingham Forest on Saturday afternoon.

On the face it, Middlesbrough’s 3-1 defeat at Coventry was a shock, but Boro managed to pull of a reasonable impression of Millwall’s thrashing by Birmingham the week before – Kevin Thomson and Julio Arca were both sent off. Boro’s only win this year came against Shrewsbury in the FA Cup and they’re now five points adrift of the automatic promotion places.

Coventry’s win compacted the bottom three rather than made any impact on the teams above them: I’ve already mentioned Forest’s defeat at West Ham and Doncaster lost at Bristol City, results which leave the bottom three four points adrift from safety.

I’ll be back on Friday with a look at the two league games taking place this weekend as well as the fourth round ties in the FA Cup – the pick of which is probably Watford v Spurs on Friday evening – but I’ll post an update as soon as tonight’s game has finished.

Update: despite having scored both goals in the two ties, Anthony Gardner won’t be playing in the Carling Cup final. Cardiff City won on penalties and will play at Wembley.

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Crystal Palace Take A Step Towards Wembley

In the first leg of the Carling Cup semi final, a header from Anthony Gardner at the end of the first half was enough to separate Crystal Palace and Cardiff on Tuesday night, but as the old cliché goes, the tie is far from over. The second leg is on 24th January, but with only one goal in it and the prospect of reaching a second Wembley final in the last five years, the atmosphere at City of Cardiff stadium will be intense and intimidating for the Eagles.

This week as it’s more or less a case of ‘as you were’ in the Championship due to the FA Cup games last weekend and only one league game during the week when Birmingham beat Ipswich on Wednesday night. The Blues have now managed five single goal wins in the league at St Andrews this season: Nikola Zigic scored twice to move Birmingham two points outside the playoff spots with a game in hand and a much better goal difference than Hull.

The Serbian striker’s goal also condemned Ipswich to their third consecutive defeat. To make matters worse for the Tractor Boys – who have now lost ten of their last 15 games – under fire boss Paul Jewell made headlines for the wrong reasons following his post match comments about fourth official Amy Fearn.

After the irregular patters of the last few weeks and with the exception of the only televised game this weekend, we revert back to the traditional Saturday afternoon kick offs. With only two of the top six clubs at home this weekend there’s a chance that either Middlesbrough or Cardiff could go top if both Southampton (at Nottingham Forest) or West Ham (at Portsmouth) lose, while the only thing certain at the bottom end of the table is Coventry cannot escape the bottom three regardless of how they do at Derby.

By the time Reading kick off at Watford on Saturday evening in the weekend’s only televised game (Sky Sports 2, 5:20pm), there may be a new team at the top of the Championship for the first time since September – so it makes sense that Nottingham Forest v Southampton is game of the week.

Those of us of a certain vintage will remember the 1979 League Cup Final between these two clubs, but it’s extremely unlikely that Steve Cotterill will be forcing his Forest side to drink their way through a crate of champagne this evening to prepare for the Saints. Considering the recent ups and downs of both clubs it’s a surprising that tomorrow’s game is only their second meeting at the City Ground this century, but equally surprising is that the hosts haven’t scored at home in the league since Marcus Tudgay netted another injury time winner against Ipswich in mid November.

On the other hand, Southampton are beginning to look as if they’ve run out of momentum. The leaders have only won twice since the end of November and haven’t won an away game since beating Coventry at the Ricoh Arena on Guy Fawkes Night: Rickie Lambert’s equaliser at Portsmouth before Christmas is the only goal Southampton have scored in their last four away games in the Championship.

If Southampton stumble at Nottingham Forest, it looks as if Cardiff may be best placed to take over top spot. The Bluebirds travel to Doncaster – and not to put too fine a point on it, Rovers’ record at home to Cardiff is absolutely terrible. Since their first league meeting in September 1947, Cardiff have only lost twice in 15 games at either the old Belle View stadium or at the Keepmoat.

Finally this week, nothing much seems to have happened in the transfer market so far but there are persistent rumours that both Billy Sharp and Lukas Jutkiewicz may be moving from Doncaster Rovers and Coventry City respectively, with Leicester City (surprise surprise) being the destination for one or maybe even both of them. If both Sharp and Jutkiewicz leave their current clubs before the winter window closes, it’s probably safe to say that there’ll only be one relegation place left to fill…

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Another Pathetic Showing In The FA Cup

After last weekend’s games in the oldest knockout competition in the world, only six teams from the Championship are definitely through to the fourth round, with four clubs facing replays next week. If that sounds familiar, take a look at this post from almost exactly a year ago; to put this season’s competition into perspective, four teams from League 1 are already through to the fourth round, three of them beating Championship sides.

The fourth round will in all likelihood weed out even more Championship sides, with three clubs (Middlesbrough, Derby and Watford) facing Premier League opposition, leaving only Hull and Blackpool looking reasonable chances for progress to the fifth round.

Of the four sides facing replays, only Birmingham City emerged with any real credit having held Wolves to a draw in the Saturday lunchtime kick off. Millwall failed to score away from home again (this time at Dagenham & Redbridge) and despite taking the lead Brighton were held at home by Wrexham. None of the clubs with unresolved third round games have easy looking ties in the next round if they win their replays – neither Nottingham Forest or Leicester will fancy a visit from Paolo Di Canio’s Swindon, who knocked out Wigan at the Country Ground on Saturday.

Four clubs were knocked out by opposition from Leagues 1 and 2, although they can all make the excuse that they’ll be concentrating on the league. Reading – who’ve reached the quarter finals in the last two seasons – lost to Stevenage, who the Royals beat last year. West Ham lost to a late goal at Hillsborough: Sheffield Wednesday have now knocked out Championship teams out of the cup in the third round in consecutive seasons without conceding a goal. Wednesday’s victims last season – Bristol City – lost at Crawley and Doncaster lost at home to Notts County: both of those last two games could be League 1 matches next season.

At least the Championship is guaranteed a place at the Carling Cup final at Wembley at the end of February, so hopefully Crystal Palace and Cardiff can provide two games to remember. It’s only really over the last few seasons that Cardiff have reversed a long term trend of performing badly at Selhurst Park: even though the Bluebirds lost their last visit in the league (to a single goal from South African international Kagiko Dikgacoi last March), they’ve won three of their last six meetings in South London. The only other time these sides have met in this competition was in September 1969, when Palace won 3-1: the hosts went on to win seven of the next ten meetings between them.

Looking at more recent form, a couple of things stand out: Palace will have to score at least two goals to win. The Eagles haven’t done that since mid October in the league, but they’ve managed it in every round of this season’s Carling Cup including the brace that beat Manchester United in the last round. The other stat that is worth remembering is that there’s not been a draw between these two in South London since December 1984 and both Palace (at home) and Cardiff (away) have been involved in a lot of undecided games recently: Cardiff’s only other away game in the Carling Cup was a draw at Oxford United back in August and the Bluebirds only won on penalties at the Kassam Stadium.

There hasn’t really been much to report in the transfer market, although the rumour mill is grinding out the usual stories (most of which involve anyone that’s ever scored a goal in the Championship being linked with Leicester), so the only piece of news worth mentioning is that despite overseeing three consecutive league defeats, Nick Barmby has been appointed as permanent manager of Hull City.

I’ll be back on Friday afternoon with a recap of tonight’s game plus a look forward to the action at the weekend.

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Derby Got Three Wins For Christmas, Hull Got A Lump Of Coal In An Old Sock

First of all, Happy (belated) New Year – the port and mince pies were to blame for the lack of posts over the holidays, but I’m planning on two more before next weekend.

We’re now past the half way stage in this season’s nPower Championship and results over the Christmas break have set up what looks as if it could be an exciting conclusion to this season’s campaign.

At the top, the clear winners over Christmas were Cardiff and Reading, both of whom have clearly put their playoff misery behind them. The Bluebirds are now only two points behind Southampton and West Ham and although Reading’s festive season ended with a defeat at the Cardiff City stadium the Royals are now back in the top five for the first time since August.

The holidays couldn’t have gone any worse for Southampton and Hull. The leaders could only pick up three points from the nine available and lost their undefeated home record when a goal from Stephen Pearson gave Bristol City a surprise win at St. Mary’s and Southampton’s first home defeat in the league since losing to Brentford in December 2010. Apart from Ipswich – who I’ll be discussing in a moment – Hull were the only side not to record a win in their last three games and lost all three by a single goal. A few more poor results from the Tigers could see them slide dramatically down the table: they’ve already lost ten games this season.

However, Derby were clearly at the top of Santa’s Christmas list, having won all three of their games – an especially impressive feat as the teams they faced were fellow competitors for the playoff positions. The Rams are currently two points away from the top six and Nigel Clough’s team seem to have got over their poor form in November, when they only picked up one point.

At the bottom, Bristol City and Coventry picked up six points in three games but even that feat was something of a false dawn for the Sky Blues, who went back to the bottom of the table after losing to West Ham. They’re now three points behind Doncaster, seven points from safety and face a real battle to avoid dropping back into the third tier for the first time since 1964. Follow strugglers Nottingham Forest ended their goal drought when Marcus Tudgay opened the scoring after five minutes in their 3-1 win at Ipswich, but the Tractor Boys only picked up one point in their three games and could be sucked into a relegation battle.

Ipswich have been terrible recently – nine defeats in twelve games have seen them drop from sixth in mid October to 20th going into next week’s game at Birmingham City. The East Anglian side have conceded the most goals in the Championship so far this season (only Doncaster have a worse away defensive record) and it looks as if their form at Portman Road will be crucial over the next month: Cardiff, Middlesbrough and West Ham all have to travel to East Anglia.

For at least one weekend all the Championship clubs can put the league aside: the third round of the FA Cup takes place this weekend. Although I’ve pointed out more than once that the chances of a second tier club winning the competition are remote, it’s also worth pointing out that Championship clubs have reached the quarter finals at least in each of the last five seasons.

Blackpool, Watford, Middlesbrough, Brighton & Reading seem to have the best chances of making it to the fourth round, while Burnley, Cardiff, Leeds and Portsmouth already look as if they’re the teams that are going to be concentrating on the league for the rest of the season.

Three games involving Championship sides are being televised, starting with Birmingham v Wolves (ESPN Saturday 12:30pm) – these two were playing in the Premier League last season, but both were in the second tier when they last last met in the cup sixteen years ago. On that occasion Wolves won the replay after a draw at St. Andrew’s, which looks like it could happen again as this game looks as it if could be short of goals.

Sunday lunchtime’s game between Peterborough and Sunderland (ITV Sunday 1:30pm) is only the third meeting between these two sides at London Road in all competitions, but the Posh will be hoping to avoid a repeat of the first time they ever played Sunderland: a 7-1 defeat in the fourth round of the cup at Roker Park in 1967. That scoreline is unlikely to be repeated, but I’d not be surprised if there are goals in this one: the hosts have only failed to score in one home league game this season but have also only kept one home clean sheet in the Championship in 2011/12.

The last game of the round is also the final game on TV: Leeds drew with Arsenal at the Emirates in last year’s competition before losing the replay at Elland Road so Monday evening’s game  (ESPN Monday 7:45pm) gives the Yorkshire side a chance of revenge. Thanks to the Leeds fans it should be a good atmosphere at the Library, but there are a couple of big problems for Leeds if they want to progress: they haven’t won away since November and it looks increasingly likely that they’ll have to contend with the second coming of Thierry Henry.

I’ll be back on Tuesday with a roundup of the notable stories from the FA Cup plus a preview of the Carling Cup semi final first leg between Crystal Palace and Cardiff City and any transfer news that’s worth printing.

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Southampton In Control At The Top

After two games in less than a week, there are gaps opening at the top and bottom of the table. Southampton are five points clear of West Ham, who were beaten by the Saints on Tuesday night when Dutch defender Jos Hooiveld scored on the stroke of half time.

At the other end of the table Bristol City are four points from safety – the Robins were one of four sides who failed to pick up any points from the six available in the last two games, but will have a new manager in place before Sunday’s game with Birmingham City. Former WBA and Millwall midfielder Derek McInnes took over at Ashton Gate on Wednesday after two years as manager of Scottish Premier League side St. Johnstone; as we mentioned last week, Nottingham Forest appointed Steve Cotterill as manager, which leaves Portsmouth as the only club needing a to make an appointment.

It was a good week for both Peterborough and Crystal Palace, who won both beat Bristol City on their way to achieving maximum points. The Posh have maintained the type of form that earned them promotion from League 1 last season: despite having failed to keep a single clean sheet in the league so far, Darren Ferguson’s side have only failed to score once and only Southampton have scored more goals this season – which makes Ferguson’s decision to sell Craig Mackail-Smith to Brighton look like a very astute piece of business indeed. This weekend’s games begin when Leeds travel to London Road for only the second league meeting between the clubs and it looks like a game that won’t finish 0-0.

It was a bad week for Doncaster, Watford and Burnley all of whom emulated Bristol City’s inability to pick up a single point. Donny’s mini revival under Dean Saunders seems to have hit the skids following consecutive defeats while Watford have failed to score in seven of their twelve games this season and haven’t scored at all since Craig Forsyth scored the winner against Millwall at the end of September. Whilst we weren’t sold on either Doncaster or Watford before the season started, Burnley’s current difficulties aren’t immediately obvious until you realise that they have only won five of their last fifteen games at Turf Moor and are another side currently having trouble scoring: if you can stop Charlie Austin scoring you’ve effectively stopped Burnley.

There are two games between the top six on Saturday afternoon. Derby travel to Middlesbrough: the last time the Rams picked up a point on Teeside was in January 2000 and Boro have won the last five meetings at home since then. However, despite being unbeaten at the Riverside this season, the hosts last home win was back in August and there are signs that their impressive start could be on the rocks: they’ve failed to score in four of their last five games and – like Burnley – are over reliant on one player (Marvin Emnes) to provide the goals.

Game of the week is between two clubs that have shown significant improvement this season. Whatever changes Paul Jewell introduced after Ipswich were thrashed 7-1 at Peterborough in August seem to have worked: they’ve only lost once in the eight games since and have won at West Ham and drawn at Cardiff in that spell. Crystal Palace’s resurgence is down to their metamorphosis away from Selhurst Park. The Eagles have already won more away games this season than they did in 2010/11 – including victories at Brighton and Hull – but still look as if they’re a work in progress rather than genuine promotion candidates.

The last game on Saturday is Reading versus Southampton (Sky Sports 2, 5:20), but this weekend’s round of matches continues until Monday. Birmingham have to play two games in four days (at Bristol City on Sunday and at home to Leeds on Wednesday) and with West Ham’s trip to Brighton on Monday (Sky Sports 1, 7:45pm) coming the day before the Carling Cup ties between Championship teams it’s almost as busy as Christmas.

With two guaranteed qualifiers for the last eight in the Carling Cup the Championship is well represented but it’s difficult to see any of the four teams left in the competition getting any further. Only Southampton have ever reached the final (in 1979); Burnley, Crystal Palace and Cardiff have all reached the semi finals before, but have been knocked out every time they’ve reached that stage so once again it looks as if Championship clubs might have to be content with being knocked out before the final by a Premier League club. We’ll see.

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