GOTW: Middlesbrough v Norwich

First post for a while and there’s a load to get through.

The big news over the last couple of weeks was Birmingham’s nine point deduction for final irregularities last Friday, although the correct technical term is ‘a breach of profitability and sustainability’ rules.

As has been pointed out on twitter over the last week, it’s funny how clubs that have been managed by A Certain Manager have found themselves on the wrong end of these penalties. Know what I mean Harry?

It’s a shame for Birmingham City though. They were one of the most improved teams this season yet over the last few weeks they’ve had a lot of negative publicity after the assault on Jack Grealish and now the points deduction – which leaves them on the verge of a relegation scrap that looked unlikely for most of the season.

Then there’s Bolton. They have until April 3rd to sort their unpaid tax bill out or else they’ll be the first EFL club to go into administration since Aldershot almost six years ago. A potential points deduction would confirm relegation for the Trotters –  who are likely to be returning to League One anyway – and would basically reduce the situation at the bottom of the table to just one relegation spot.

On the field, at this moment only Norwich look like they might be heading back to the Premier League; having said that, Sheffield United have an easier run in and are probably a more balanced team, but Leeds still cannot be discounted as contenders for automatic promotion.

I think I’ve mentioned this scenario before, but the playoff positions look as if they’re going down to the wire. It may be significant that WBA still haven’t appointed a successor to Darren Moore, which makes me wonder if they’re preparing to for automatic promotion next season rather than in 2018/19.

At the bottom, it’s probably any one from Millwall, Reading and Rotherham that’ll be accompanying Bolton and Ipswich on the journey to League One next season, although neither Wigan nor QPR aren’t exactly safe as it stands right now.

Middlesbrough v Norwich (5:30pm, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

Three – yes, three – home wins in fourteen games since mid-September is hardly promotion form even if two of those victories came against Sheffield United and WBA. Boro’s problem has been the same for the entire season: at home only Sheffield United have conceded fewer goals but only Ipswich and Bolton have scored fewer. Boro haven’t found the back of the net more than twice at Riverside since August and their leading goalscorer at home – Jordan Hugill – hasn’t notched since the middle of January and has only scored four goals.

As it stands this will be Norwich’s penultimate away game of the season against a team in the top half of the table: as I mentioned above, the Canaries have a straightforward looking run in and having lost only once on the road since the start of September this game doesn’t look to troublesome for them.

The fun part is the head to head. Norwich have only won twice in their last ten league games at either the Riverside or Ayresome Park and although their last win was in September 2017, the previous occasion was in 1988. Boro have won half of those last ten encounters, including three of the last five. The most important game between the two was the 2015 play off final:

In all likelihood I’ll be back next week…

 

 

Ay Karanka…

A few seasons ago there were three particularly dysfunctional clubs in the Championship, but that appeared to have changed – until last weekend.

To be fair to Blackburn Rovers, Venky’s have more or less left the club to run itself over the past few seasons.

But then we come to Leeds and Nottingham Forest. The current leaders appear to have known nothing about Marcelo Bielsa’s spying mission before last weekend’s game against Derby although if it had been described as ‘scouting’ it wouldn’t have generated as much comment.

Aitor Karanka’s departure from the City Ground came after I posted last Friday, so I was unable to react to it.

I’ve been pretty clear that Forest had taken a big step this season under Karanka as they’ve moved into the ‘difficult to beat’ category from being a team that could have easily been relegated a couple of seasons ago. That being said, I also thought the best case scenario for them in 2018/19 was the playoffs and that next season could be a better chance for promotion. Yet not for the first time, a toxic mixture of nostalgia, unrealistic expectations (stop me if you’ve read that before) and unwanted advice has taken over at the City Ground. Martin O’Neill hasn’t managed a team in English domestic football for six years and it’s been almost a quarter of a century since he managed a team at this level: it’s also a big risk to return to a club where you were a legend as a player, so we’ll see how this pans out. Give it until next Christmas.

Last weekend’s game of the week ended all square – if anyone’s keeping count that’s the fourth draw in 11 games of the week and the second in the last three.

There was no real change at either the top or the bottom of the table after last weekend’s games. This week there are no outstanding candidates for the game of the week, but there are three games where teams from the top six face teams from the bottom six.

Derby v Reading

Despite being in their usual position, The Rams have only won one of their last six league games and haven’t beaten anyone at home since the start of last month. On paper they’ve got a relatively easy schedule coming up – this is the start of five matches against the bottom seven before the end of February – but they’ve already lost at Bolton, Millwall and Rotherham in 2018/19 and any repeat of those results could have a huge effect on their chances of promotion. I’m still far from convinced about Frank Lampard: the Rams are currently not as good as they were last season.

Reading beat Nottingham Forest last weekend. but haven’t won on the road since beating Preston in mid-September. The Royals have lost all six contests against the teams currently in the top six and new boss Jose Gomez has lost three of his first five games in charge: but before anyone writes off the chances of a possible upset, consider this. Since August 2002 the clubs have met in 16 games at Derby and the hosts have only won five of those contests – and Derby won at Southampton on penalties in the FA Cup earlier this week.

Middlesbrough v Millwall

It may come as a surprise to those of you that don’t follow them, but Boro have only won three games at the Riverside since mid-September and seem to be having particular problems with mid table sides. Their home record against the bottom third of the table is fine though: ten points from twelve and no goals conceded.

Millwall’s impressive form over the holidays was undone by losing at home to Blackburn last Saturday evening; their win at Ipswich is the only away victory they’ve recorded this season. Although I hasten to add that the Lions have earned points at both Bristol City and Nottingham Forest and since the start of the decade they’ve only lost twice in six trips to Middlesbrough.

Bolton v WBA (Monday evening, 8pm, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

An interesting televised contest to round the weekend off.

When you’re involved in a relegation scrap, scoring less than one goal a game and having to play four of the top six over the next month or so far from ideal, but that’s the situation Bolton are in. They didn’t have a bad December at home – only one defeat in four outings – but their 2-1 win over Rotherham on Boxing Day was their first win in seventeen games.

WBA are still very much in contention for automatic promotion but seem to be having their first wobble since they went four games without a win in October/November. The New Year’s Day defeat at Blackburn ended a run of four consecutive away victories but the Baggies haven’t won at Bolton since December 2000 – the last time the clubs met in a league game in Lancashire that wasn’t in the Premier League.

The other televised games this weekend are Norwich v Birmingham (this evening, 7:45pm) and Swansea v Sheffield United (5:30pm tomorrow) – both are being shown on Sky Sports Football and Sky Sports Main Event.

Back to the FA Cup next weekend, so I’ll see you then.

GOTW: Lions v Tigers

Making a goalkeeping mistake in a high profile game to give your nearest rivals a vital away win is never a good idea.

Yet that’s exactly what happened to Sheffield United last Saturday lunchtime:

I managed to get my predictions for that one – and the WBA/Brentford game on Monday – wrong, so perhaps I should lay off the crystal ball gazing for a bit 🙂

The focus shifts to the bottom of the table this week, although there’s only one game between the bottom six tomorrow so Millwall v Hull automatically becomes Game of the Week.

There’ll be brief details of the FA Cup draw at the end of the post, but suffice to say this will be the first of two meetings in a less than a month between these two at the Den.

Although the Lions have gone five games without a win, their record at home isn’t that awful: the recent reverse at the Den against Birmingham City was their first defeat at home since the end of September and having already hosted six of the current top ten, Neil Harris’ team can look forward to a somewhat easier run of home games in 2019. That being said, Millwall are two points worse off at this stage than they were when they were relegated at the end of 2014/15 and having seen them live recently I have to say that it’s no surprise that they’re struggling.

Hull currently have a three game away unbeaten streak going and have discovered their shooting boots after a run of five games where they only scored once between the end of August and mid October. Fraizer Campbell has scored three of their seven goals in the last three games and he’ll need to keep that type of run going over the next few months: the Tigers still have to play at eight of the teams currently in the top ten including a visit to Leeds at the end of the month. On the flip side, they’ve won three of their four encounters with the sides that are currently below them and if their recent form continues the best possible scenario is a mid table finish.

Head to head: Hull have only won twice at Millwall in ten games since December 1984; the Tigers last win at the Den was almost six years ago. Last season’s encounter in South London finished 0-0 – Hull have only scored twice in their last five visits to Millwall.

Verdict: in games between the bottom six this season, the home team has only lost three times but none of those duels featured either Hull or Millwall. The Tigers have already won at Rotherham and Bolton this season and I’d not be too surprised if they earn at least a point tomorrow.

There are two other games to note that could have an impact at both ends of the table. Bolton travel to Norwich having not won any of their last ten games and having not won at Carrow Road for eighteen years; in the Saturday evening televised game, managerless Reading play Sheffield United – the Royals finally dismissed Paul Clement on Wednesday, a move that shouldn’t have come as a massive surprise to regular readers of this blog.

The other televised game takes place this evening: WBA v Aston Villa would have been Game of the Week if Villa had been in the top six. This is the first time the clubs have met outside the top tier since 1987; Villa haven’t won at the Hawthorns for just over a decade.

Finally this week, the draw for the third round of the FA Cup resulted in seven ties against Premier League opposition (only Bristol City and Derby were drawn at home), four all Championship games, six clubs play League One opposition, Sheffield United will host Barnet of the National League and both Bolton and Middlesbrough are currently waiting for next week’s replays to find out their opponents. Off the top of my head, Derby are capable of beating Southampton and Ipswich will be lucky to escape Accrington Stanley with a replay. More to follow in the first post of 2019.

I’ll be back next weekend!

Weekend Preview 23-25th November

It’s a brief post this week due to work commitments.

Somewhat different from swanning off to France, but at least one will pay for the other 🙂

At the top there’s five point gap between the top six – altough if Norwich lose at Swansea they could be overtaken by Leeds, Middlesbrough or Sheffield United. I fell into a typical Championship trap by praising Leeds last post didn’t I! I don’t think anyone saw them losing so heavily at WBA – it’s well over 30 years since they lost by three goals at the Hawthorns.

At the bottom: Ipswich are five points adrift but only two points separate the six clubs immediately above them. As I noted in the previous post, I was expecting Bolton to get trapped in a relegation battle but the only team in that group that’s moving in a positive direction is Preston.

As luck would have it, two of the three games that are contenders for game of the week are both being shown on Sky Sports Football/Main Event. Ipswich v WBA (this evening, 7:45pm) and Rotherham v Sheffield United (Saturday 12:30pm) both feature teams from either end of the table: Ipswich have only won two league games at Portman Road since January, but before any Baggies fans get carried away, it’s only fair to point out that West Brom haven’t won on the road since the end of September.

The twelve Yorkshire derbies we’ve had so far have been fairly well balanced (half have been drawn with the remaining games split evenly between home and away wins), but whilst Rotherham have only picked up one point in three attempts, Sheffield United have earned four points in the same number of games.

The other game of note is between Millwall and Bolton – in six meetings in all competitions in London since the turn of the century, the Lions have only won once (six years ago), but Wanderers have only scored one away goal since mid-September.

Additionally Brentford v Middlesbrough (Saturday 5:30) and Aston Villa v Birmingham (Sunday, noon) are also being televised – the former shouldn’t be any surprise considering how close Griffin Park is to the Sky Sports HQ and I don’t think many of us would have predicted that the first Second City Derby of the season would have seen the protagonists only separated by goal difference.

All being well, I’ll be back next Friday although that may also be a brief post.

Crystal Ball Scratching

With just under seven weeks to go until Christmas, the next couple of months are very important for clubs chasing promotion or trying to avoid relegation.

As there are no particularly outstanding games in the Championship this weekend I thought I’d gaze into my crystal ball this week to make some quick predictions – especially as we’ve got another bl**dy international break coming up next weekend.

  • It looks as if I’m going to have to eat my words about Leeds – they’re much better than I thought they’d be and there’s a chance that by Boxing Day they may have secured pole position – their key game before the festivities is a trip to Bramall Lane on December 1st. Looking further ahead, February may be the key month for Leeds but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
  • Leeds’ biggest rivals for automatic promotion are Middlesbrough and WBA, but although Marcelo Bielsa’s side are well balanced, Tony Pulis and Darren Moore’s men have glaring issues: Middlesbrough don’t score enough goals, whilst WBA’s defence is non-existent. Only four teams have conceded more goals than the Baggies and two of them are in the bottom three.
  • Along with Leeds, Birmingham and Nottingham Forest are unrecognisable from last season – the latter pair have become tough to beat, but may need to wait another season for a realistic chance of promotion. Forest’s best case scenario is the playoffs.
  • Norwich aren’t as good as the current table suggests: they’ve done well against the bottom half of the table, but have already lost at home to Leeds and WBA. They have a reasonable looking schedule this month; December will be far harder.
  • Sheffield Wednesday are worse than the current table suggests: current owners of the worst defensive record in the division they’ve played 12 games against the teams currently above them and lost seven of those contests, winning just twice. They face Sheffield United on Friday (Sky Sports Football/Main Event 7:45pm this evening) and Derby later in the month.
  • As it stands, Paul Lambert has a well nigh impossible task of keeping Ipswich from dropping into the third tier for the first time since the late 1950s, but I’d expect Rotherham and Bolton to be drawn into the relegation battle over the next few weeks: both teams are struggling to score goals – at the moment there are three other clubs that have scored less than a goal per game, including QPR who are currently eleventh and are second in the eight game form table behind Norwich.
  • Reading and Preston will continue to make progress up the table and although I don’t think Reading will trouble the top half, Preston are more than capable of doing that even though they look as if they’ve left it too late for a playoff challenge.

Televised games this week – Sky Sports Football/Main Event unless stated:

I’ve already mentioned the Sheffield derby, which is always entertaining and shouldn’t be missed if you’ve got the opportunity to watch. The other game on Sky Sports this weekend is between WBA and Leeds at The Hawthorns (tomorrow, 5:30pm) – for some of us, that’ll bring back memories of a very controversial game from the 1970/71 season…