Game of the Evening: Millwall v Wigan

After last weekend, we’re still no clearer about who will be playing in the promised land next season, but I’m going to rule out any of the sides outside the top four for automatic promotion. Derby are six points off the pace with twelve points left to play for and the situation is similar for Ipswich, Brentford and Wolves.

Of course, things could change but I don’t think they will. For what it’s worth, I’ve still got Bournemouth winning the title by a point but Norwich and Watford are practically inseperable after that.

At the bottom, the situation took an unexpected turn yesterday morning when the Football League confirmed that Rotherham loanee Farrend Rawson should not have played against Brighton on Easter Monday. Rotherham are still seven points clear of Wigan and Millwall, but it remains to be seen what punishment the Millers will receive for what appears to be an administrative oversight. I doubt very much if there’ll be a points deduction, but stranger things have happened.

It’s with much rejoicing that this is the last midweek programme of the season. I don’t like them at all; for all the talk of a ‘winter break’, one of the other aspects that is often ignored is how European club sides play fewer games anyway. There are only usually one or two catch up midweek games a month in the top divisions and the only second tier competition comparable in volume to the Championship is Serie B, which has two fewer clubs, starts in August, finishes at the end of May and has a playoff final in the middle of June. Yet if anyone introduced the idea of reducing the championship to twenty or eighteen teams the clubs would be up in arms about the loss of revenue from six fewer games.

Anyway, the only game of any real consequence this evening is between Millwall and Wigan. Two years ago yesterday, they faced each other in an FA Cup semi final that Wigan won on their way to becoming the first club to win the FA Cup and be relegated in the same season. Next season these two may be facing each other in League One – if there’s a loser team tonight, they’re as good as down.

The Lions lost again at the weekend; since Christmas they’ve lost six of their ten home games and failed to score in half of them. At this stage last season they’d won three more points and had begun the eight game undefeated streak that saw them reach safety, but it looks incredibly unlikely that Millwall’ll repeat that feat this season. All of their remaining games after this one are against sides in the top half of the table. And in that classic indicator of a poor side, so far 26 different players have featured for Millwall this season and only veteran goalkeeper David Forde has been an ever present.

Wigan’s position is even more precarious. They’ve played one more game than Millwall and despite having only lost three of their ten away games since Christmas, their home form almost defies description. Their last home victory was at the end of August: since the start of December, the Latics have lost ten of their 12 games at the DW in the Championship and failed to score in eight of those contests. Then there are these rather bleak facts; in ten visits to Millwall since the early 1980s, Wigan have only ever won once. Leading scorer James McClean has almost twice as many yellow cards (11) than he has goals (6).

Unless there’s news about a possible promotion from League One later, I’ll be back on Friday. There’s a huge game at the top plus Reading attempt to reach the FA Cup Final for the first time.

Update: Bristol City have been promoted from League One after two seasons away. I’ll cover what happened at Millwall on Friday, but a home win and three red cards made it an eventful evening in Bermondsey…

Down and Out in Blackpool and Wigan

Well, it’s three weeks since the last post and the only thing that’s been settled is that Blackpool have been relegated. No suprise there; the Tangerines were 6/4 for the drop at the time I wrote their season preview in August. all that remains at the bottom is who will be joining them in League One next august. This might be where the remaining surprises are: even though Millwall and Wigan look doomed, none of the clubs from Reading onwards can’t afford to take their eyes off the ball over the next month.

As a matter of housekeeping, Gary Caldwell is Wigan’s new manager after Malky Mackay was sacked on Monday. In keeping with the policy of promoting former players with no managerial experience, Neil Harris is in temporary charge of Millwall, but I’ll be returning to the Lions later.

At the top, nothing appears to have changed but that’s not exactly true if you dig deeper. Any of the top eight could still go up, but the curse of losing the playoff final seems to have struck again. Derby had been top as February drew to a close but seven games without win seems to have condemned the Rams to the playoffs once again. For what it’s worth, I’ve got Bournemouth winning the title by a point and Norwich edging out Watford on goal difference for automatic promotion; the Hornets are the most improved team of those sides in the competition last season, but it’s worth emphasising how well both Brentford and Wolves have performed since promotion from League One last May.

So what’s on the menu this weekend? There are two games tonight: Bournemouth may be able to temporarily improve their lead at the top if they can win at Brighton (Sky Sports 1, 7:30pm for idle studio chatter, 7:45pm for the game) and having won their other five away games against the dirty half dozen at the bottom, Eddie Howe’s men are favourites to take all three points. A defeat for the Seagulls combined with a Wigan win at Fulham would make the bottom of the table even more interesting, but as usual there’s a catch. Brighton haven’t lost at home to the Cherries since September 1988 and Wigan haven’t won at Fulham since October 2006 – when both sides were in the Premier League.

Tomorrow there are two games that will have an impact on both ends of the table. Rotherham travel to Middlesbrough with a seven point cushion between them and Millwall but one away win since Christmas is nothing to write home about, as are the seven defeats in ten away games that the Merry Millers have suffered against the teams in the top half of the table. Conversely, Boro’s two home defeats have been to sides that probably should have done better this season, so they can be caught off guard under the right circumstances: Rotherham’s best chance of coming away with something is a draw as they’ve not won on Teeside since March 1965, when they won 5-3!

Game of the day is at the New Den, where Watford are the visitors. Millwall’s 2-1 win over Charlton last Friday was their first home win since October (!) but they’ve not won consecutive home matches in the same season since September 2013 and have won three points from 24 in home games against the current top ten, so their chances of staying up depend almost entirely on winning tomorrow. The main problem facing Neil Harris is that Watford have been pretty merciless against the strugglers this season, winning nine of their ten games against the current bottom six and losing only lost two of their ten visits to Bermondsey since February 1998; it’s all very well talking about belief, but it’s been clear for a few seasons that both talent and ability have been missing from Millwall and to some extent their current position has been inevitable for a while. If they are relegated, it may be a few seasons before Millwall are back in the Championship.

I’ll be back early next week for a look at the last midweek programme of the season.

Update: Bournemouth, Middlesbrough and Watford all won. Wigan and Millwall are still seven points adrift of Rotherham.

Game of the Week: Bournemouth v Middlesbrough

First of all, congratulations to Reading who reached the Semi Finals of the FA Cup for the first time for almost a century following an emphatic 3-0 victory over Bradford on Monday evening.

Returning to the bread and butter, Waford took over at the top of the table for the first time since the start of November following a 2-0 away win at Wigan. Another Patrick Bamford goal helped Middlesbrough win at Derby, a result that means the Rams have now gone five games without a win and are now five points off the title pace. Bournemouth failed to close their game at Cardiff but could go back to the summit this weekend.

Wigan’s home defeat means that the Latics are now six points from safety; Millwall earned a point against Brighton but the bottom three is beginning to look done and dusted.

The game of the week is the no brainer between Bournemouth and Middlesbrough (Sky Sports 1, 12:00pm) but spare a thought for the travelling Boro supporters, who had to make the first leg of a 650 mile round trip in order to arrive on south coast for a 12:15 kick off because Sky Sports decided to televise the game.

The Cherries have lost only once at Dean Court in their last fifteen games in the Championship but three consecutive home draws in February has hampered their progress in the race to the Premier League and the recent goalless draw against Blackburn was the first time they’d not scored in front of their own fans this season.

Tuesday night’s victory at the Pride Park was Middlesbrough’s first away win in five games and couldn’t really have come at a better time. They’ve yet to play at both Watford and Norwich, but with three of their remaining four home games against teams in the bottom six their away form is vital if they’re going to return to the Premier League for the first time since 2008/09.

If past performance is anything to go by, this is a game that Bournemouth shouldn’t lose: Middlesbrough’s only victory at Dean Court came in a League Cup tie in October 1991 and tomorrow’s visitors have never won there in the league. However, four of the five meetings have been drawn, an outcome that would mean that Watford’s game against Ipswich a couple of hours later becomes incredibly important for the Hornets. If the current leaders win after a draw on the south coast, they’ll have put some breathing space between themselves and their rivals before the international break.

It’s looking increasingly likely that I’l not be able to cover the entire Easter weekend, so the revised plan is that I’ll be back at some point during the week following Easter Monday with a recap. I’ll catch you then.

Reading Need To Step Up This Evening

Tonight’s big question is whether Reading can reach the semi finals of the FA Cup for the first time in donkey’s years – coverage of the quarter final replay against Bradford City is on BBC1, kick off 7:30pm. The Royals are favourites but have only won three of their ten home games in the Championship since the start of November and four of their ten home ties in the FA Cup since January 2007. The 2-1 victory over Brighton last Tuesday was their first at home since the end of January and the first of Jamie Mackie’s goals was the first time Reading had scored at home in the league at home for almost six hours.

Then there’s this gem: Reading’s record at home against Bradford is awful. One win in Berkshire in the last ten meetings can’t really be interpreted as anything else, but the only time Reading have beaten the Bantams in a cup game at home was way back in February 1988, when Bradford lost in extra time of the quarter final of the long forgotten Simod cup.

Extra time is a possibility this evening. The prize is a trip to Wembley to face Arsenal in the middle of next month, but I’d be surprised if either side got past the Gunners in the semi final.

There’s more or less a full midweek programme on Tuesday and Wednesday, but with eleven points between Bournemouth and Wolves and the possibility of any of the top five taking over at the top the overall situation remains as unclear and competitive as it has been for most of the season. The outstanding game is Derby v Middlesbrough. The Rams came from behind to earn a draw at Carrow Road on saturday, whilst Middlesbrough ultimately ran roughshod over Ipswich in the lunchtime game. Derby have won three of the last four encounters in the league when they’ve had home advantage over Boro, but those wins are the only victories in eight matches in Derby since the start of the century.

The bottom of the table got fractionally more interesting following Wigan‘s win at Rotherham, but with Blackpool and Millwall both losing it’s only really the last relegation place that’s still to be decided. Despite the victory, Wigan are still six points adrift of safety and have to play Brighton, Millwall and Fulham in an eight day period next month as well as entertaining Watford tomorrow.

I’ll be back on Friday for a look at the weekend’s games but after that I’m taking a break although I may be back for Easter Monday’s games.

Holloway Pays The Price

It probably wasn’t much of shock to either Millwall fans or readers of this blog, but Ian Holloway parted company with the Lions earlier this week. I think it’s fair to say that the basic expectation at the New Den in August was avoiding relegation, but with ten games left, the Lions are ten points from safety and only Blackpool have a worse goal difference.

Having not covered league games for a couple of weeks, it’s also not much of a surprise that only goal difference seperates the top four, with Norwich only one point behind. So this week, we’ll take the first look at the run in from the perspective of the current top six and in the next post I’ll see if we can expect much change at the bottom.

The first thing to notice is that Middlesbrough have a horrid schedule ahead of them and both Bournemouth and Brentford only have one game left against the top six as it stands. Without wanting to sound premature, these games will probably also be games of the week and as you can see below, a lot of them will be televised. However, given the fluid nature of the top of the competition at the moment, thi will change. I’ve taken a look at my spreadsheet and I think that that any team from Wolves upwards could still go up. It’s also saying that Bournemouth will win the title on goal difference from Derby, Watford are this season’s most improved team, Birmingham and Charlton may be next season’s dark horses, Wigan have regressed the most and Huddersfield and Nottingham Forest have stayed exactly as they are.

The remaining fixtures between the current top six are as follows:

Saturday 14th March: Norwich v Derby

Tuesday 17th March: Derby v Middlesbrough

Saturday 21st March: Bournemouth v Middlesbrough (Sky Sports 1, 12;00pm)

Friday 3rd April: Derby v Watford (Sky Sports 1, 7:30pm)

Monday 6th April: Watford v Middlesbrough (Sky Sports 1 12:00pm)

Saturday 11th April: Derby v Brentford (Sky Sports 1 12:00pm)

Friday 17th April: Norwich v Middlesbrough (Sky Sports 1, 7:30pm)

The first thing to note is that that only seven of the 23 games – 30% – finished as away wins, with three of them coming at Brentford including one of the three away successes Norwich have managed against that group. That’s fascinating, because as you can see from the list, Brentford don’t have any more games at Griffin Park against their immediate rivals and Norwich don’t have any road trips against the same teams. It’s also entirely consistent with the amount of away wins for the entire competition, which is probably even more bad news for ‘boro.

My original plan was to write a preview for Norwich v Derby, but multiple blue screens of death, a bizarre mouse failure, the left hand shift button failing and a broken standard lamp all conspired against me. The main facts are that Norwich have beaten the Rams in seven of the last 10 league meetings at Carrow Road, there hasn’t been a draw at the same venue since March 1978 and the Rams have already lost at Middlesbrough and Brentford this season.

With any luck, I’ll be back on Monday for Reading v Bradford City Part 2 and a quick look at Tuesday evening’s games. If you’re wondering why Blackburn aren’t playing Liverpool in their replay next week, it’s something to do with silly rules about the Champions League.