GOTW: Preston v Wigan

Just a quick one this week as we’re only one game in.

Only one game ended in a draw last weekend, which just happened to be the first match of the EFL season:

Going into this week, we’ve got thirteen unbeaten teams, but only Barnsley, Millwall and Birmingham kept clean sheets. Brentford, Fulham and Preston failed to score in their first matches – it may be significant that of the latter trio, only Brentford (at Middlesbrough) are away this weekend. Arguably the surprise result last week was Charlton winning at Blackburn; the Addicks scored all three goals in a 2-1 win.

League Cup: Birmingham are already out of this season’s competition having lost 3-0 at Portsmouth. The Blues will be able to concentrate on the league until January. Everyone else plays next week.

Preston v Wigan

Lancashire derbies will be few and far between this season – the next one won’t be until the end of October – and as this is the only match up fitting my traditional ‘top six v bottom six’ parameter, it’s a bit of no-brainer.

The Lillywhites lost at Millwall last weekend for the first time since 2011 (when they were relegated) but are tough to beat at Deepdale even if they find it hard to win at home – Preston have only lost two of their last ten outings there, even though they’ve only won twice in the same period.

Wigan’s away form last season was awful: they beat Leeds in April but hadn’t won on the road in nineteen previous attempts after a victory at Stoke almost a year ago.

HTH: Only the fifth meeting between the Lancashire rivals at preston since the turn of the century – Wigan have failed to win the last three and were battered 4-0 in the corresponding fixture last season having gone two goals behind before Darron Gibson was sent off.

Only one televised game this weekend and it will come as no surprise to long term readers that it’s Leeds v Nottingham Forest (Saturday, Sky Sports Main Event, kick off 12:30pm) which those imaginative b*stards at Sky Sports normally schedule for Boxing Day afternoon.

Back next week…

 

Opening Weekend 2019/20

The fixtures for the new season were released this morning, here are the opening weekend’s games:

Friday August 2nd

Luton v Middlesbrough (7:45 – Sky Sports Football)

Saturday August 3rd

Barnsley v Fulham, Blackburn v Charlton, Brentford v Birmingham, Millwall v Preston, Reading v Sheffield Wednesday, Stoke v QPR, Swansea v Hull, Wigan v Cardiff, Nottingham Forest v WBA (5:30 – Sky Sports Football)

Sunday August 4th

Bristol City v Leeds (4:30 – Sky Sports Football)

Monday August 5th 

Huddersfield v Derby (7:45 – Sky Sports Football)

We already have a number of new managers: Birmingham and Hull have yet to name replacements for Garry Monk and Nigel Adkins respectively, but Luton, QPR, WBA. Middlesbrough and Swansea all have new managers.

The League Cup fixtures are out later on today but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Right, guess who’s off to start putting a preview together…

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: WBA v Norwich

Collectively speaking, last weekend’s performances in the FA Cup were about as unremarkable as usual.

Half the division was eliminated at the first hurdle, with four teams beaten by opposition from further down the pyramid, including Sheffield United losing at home to Barnet.

Of the eight clubs that won their ties, only three are in the current top ten and only Middlesbrough and WBA are among the promotion contenders. Make of that what you will.

It’s back to the League for a couple of weeks now with two big matches at the top of the section, one televised. Before that, a quick recap of the Christmas games.

Leeds, Norwich and WBA formed the top three at close of play on Boxing Day, but Norwich had a particularly unproductive Christmas: they’ve now only won only once in their last five outings and blew the lead twice against Derby at the end of last month.

Hull, Millwall and Sheffield United won all three games over the holidays: that may have saved the former pair from any danger of relegation this season. It’s also probably cemented Sheffield United’s chances of reaching the playoffs – which makes the Blades’ performance in the FA Cup even more risible.

Ipswich – who were unsurprisingly four points from safety after the Boxing Day games – have had it. At this point Reading look likely to accompany the Tractor Boys into League One at the end of the season but after those two it’s not clear who will be the third team to be relegated at the end of the campaign. Wigan, Preston and Stoke all earned just one point over the holiday fixtures: with Stoke’s draw with Shrewsbury in the FA Cup last weekend heralding the end of Gary Rowett’s reign at the Britannia Stadium. He was replaced almost immediately by Nathan Jones (formerly of Luton), which is a nice idea on paper: the combination of Jones’ potential and the unpleasant dose of reality that Stoke have encountered this season might work, but we’ll see.

In other news, Steve Bruce was appointed Sheffield Wednesday boss on January 2nd.

This weekend starts with Leeds v Derby this evening (7:45, Sky Sports Football/Main Event) – Leeds haven’t lost consecutive league games at Elland Road since March, but this is the first of the four home games they’ve got to play against other clubs in the top six before mid-March. Derby won’t be pushovers: they’ve already won at Norwich and WBA and will be looking for revenge for the 4-1 thrashing by Leeds back in August.

The main event is WBA v Norwich tomorrow afternoon.  The Baggies are on a six game unbeaten streak at the Hawthorns but have only won twice in that sequence and have a very tough home schedule in February, with games against Middlesbrough, Nottingham Forest and Sheffield United . Norwich are on all eleven game unbeaten run away from home but they’ve not beaten any of their nearest rivals on the road. There is one thing in their favour though – Norwich have only lost four of their last ten visits to the Hawthorns in league competition, even though they’ve never won three consecutive games at the venue.

The televised game on Saturday evening is Millwall v Blackburn, but to be brutally honest that’s a pretty poor choice. On that less than positive note, I’ll sign off for the week…

GOTW: Bristol City v Sheffield United

And we’re back…

I’m still not sure how the international ‘break’ is anything of the sort, considering  how all it means is that there’s a full midweek programme next week. It’s never going to go away though, so I’m going to stop moaning about it from now on.

Having proclaimed a fortnight ago that the least likely result of the top of the table clash between Leeds and Middlesbrough was a draw, that’s precisely what happened at Elland Road. I would have posted the highlights, only the neutral consensus was that there weren’t any and I couldn’t find any on either of the official YouTube accounts.

However, that result means that Leeds and Boro are the only unbeaten teams left in the Championship. Aston Villa, Blackburn and Nottingham Forest all lost their most recent games: I’ll return to the former pair in a moment, but Forest haven’t won a game since the middle of last month and are beginning to look like one of those teams that are difficult to beat rather than being genuine contenders for promotion.

Bristol City v Sheffield United

If Forest were overrated before the season began, then arguably these two clubs were slightly underrated. Generally speaking, teams that finished in the top ten but missed out on the playoffs at the end of the previous season are those that might take a big step forward during the following campaign.

Let’s also not forget that last time out both City and United both beat unbeaten sides by 4-1 scorelines although I’ve got to say that Sheffield United’s victory was more of an eye catcher than Bristol City’s win. Here are the highlights from Bramall Lane:

Bristol City lost three of their key players during the summer, with only Aden Flint staying at this level following his move to Middlesbrough. Given how City have a habit of going on long runs of either fantastic or terrible form it’s probably too early in the season to assess exactly how good or bad they are at the moment, but the signs are encouraging. As I mentioned above, they battered Blackburn a couple of weeks ago for their first home win of the season (and first at Ashton Gate since March) and they’ve only lost three of their last ten home games in the division – including by the odd goal in five against tomorrow’s opponents at the start of May.

The Blades had an inconsistent end to 2017/18 that meant any chances of reaching the playoffs gradually faded away, but they’ve started brightly this season and have won four consecutive games – their best run of form for year – and their opening day defeat at Middlesbrough has been their only reverse so far. Interestingly, although City lost three key players in the summer, only six of the Blades team that won at Ashton Gate started against Villa two weeks ago: both Ryan Leonard and Lee Evans are on loan at Millwall and Wigan Athletic respectively

Head to head: Bristol City last beat Sheffield United in November 2010 – current Robins’ manager Lee Johnson was a second half substitute – and The Blades were relegated at the end of that season. However, since then United have won three straight at Ashton Gate (sorry, couldn’t resist that)

Verdict: you can’t ignore Sheffield United’s record at Ashton Gate over the last decade, so the big question surrounding this game is whether or not that run is going to come to an end tomorrow. There’s only been one draw between them in Bristol (almost a decade ago) and so it wouldn’t surprise me if it ends all square.

However, I also have a compelling reason to think that Sheffield United could return to South Yorkshire with all three points and if that turns out to be the case I’ll tell you what it is next weekend…

At the bottom of the table there are two games worth following: Hull v Ipswich and Preston v Reading. This week your televised offerings are Birmingham v WBA (this evening, Sky Sports Main Event/Football 7:45pm) and Blackburn v Aston Villa (tomorrow, Sky Sports Main Event/Football 5:30pm) – once again, Sky’s criteria for game selection appears to be teams that used to be in the Premier League but with a bonus point for local derbies.

I’ll be back next weekend unless someone gets sacked…which gives me an idea for next week’s post.