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.

FA Cup Third Round Preview

The Third Round of the FA Cup used to be one of the highlights of the domestic calendar but over the past few seasons it’s become the equivalent of being invited to your teetotal vegetarian sister in law’s on Boxing Day.

Nonetheless, here are four games that should be worth keeping an eye on. All are 3:00pm kick offs on Saturday afternoon.

Blackburn Rovers v Hull City

First meeting in the competition at Ewood Park since January 1954 and Rovers haven’t won any of the previous three ties where they’ve had home advantage. However, this is not going to be an easy one for the Tigers, who have only won two of their last 10 trips to Blackburn in all competitions and have only won once on the road in the Championship this season. I’ll make the case for Blackburn over at Buzzin League One Football.

Bolton Wanderers v Huddersfield Town

Avoiding the drop is the priority for both teams: Bolton have won all four of their FA Cup ties against Huddersfield in Lancashire, but the last of those wins was in 1956 and since the turn of the century they’ve only beaten the Terriers twice in five games at the Macron. Wanderers’ recent home form has been impressive after a poor start – one defeat since the end of September – while Huddersfield have struggled on their travels in the Premier League, failing to score in eight of their eleven games so far.

Ipswich Town v Sheffield United

This is easily the most competitive of the four ties between Championship clubs – the other three look one sided and the Birmingham/Burton game might easily be the least interesting tie of the round.

First meeting in the FA Cup in Suffolk for almost exactly 20 years and the Blades first trip to Portman Road in any competition for seven years. The Tractor Boys had their five game home winning streak snapped by Derby last week and haven’t won a home tie in the competition for almost nine years. United reached the semi finals of the FA Cup almost four years ago,  but have only won one away game in the tournament since then; Chris Wilder’s team haven’t recorded an away win in the Championship since mid-November.

Wycombe Wanderers v Preston

Most recent encounter in the FA Cup was just over four years ago, when the sides were separated by a single Kevin Davis goal for the Lillywhites. Preston have reached the fifth round twice in the last decade and could be poised for another decent run in 2018: they’re currently unbeaten in five away from Deepdale and that run includes wins at both Bristol City and Cardiff.

Televised games: Norwich v Chelsea (Saturday, 5:30pm, BT Sport 2) and Nottingham Forest v Arsenal (Sunday, 4:00pm, BT Sport 2). I can’t see either of those ending in surprise results, but Newport County v Leeds (Sunday, noon, BBC Wales) has plenty of potential for an upset.

Back to the league programme next weekend – it won’t come as a surprise I’ll be concentrating on the recent trio of managerial changes, two of which were somewhat baffling. Before that, on Tuesday Bristol City travel to Manchester City for the first leg of the League Cup semi-final (7:45pm, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

2017 Play Off Final Preview

Huddersfield v Reading

(Sky Sports 1, starts 2pm GMT, kick off 3pm GMT)

I mentioned at the beginning of last year’s preview that there was about an even chance of the winners of that final being relegated, which is exactly what happened to Hull at the end of this season.

Whichever team wins this is going to struggle mightily in the Premier League. Reading had the 15th best defence in the Championship in 2016/17 – Wigan conceded fewer goals and Blackburn just one more. Thirteen teams scored more goals than Huddersfield, who finished in the top six with a negative goal difference overall – the first time that’s ever happened since the second tier became the Championship thirteen years ago. A lot has been made of the fact that three of the four playoff teams this season finished in the bottom half of the table a year ago and those statistics indicate to me that both sides have overachieved without adequately papering over the cracks this season, let alone next.

Huddersfield are the favourites, but the bookies are expecting extra time.

Huddersfield Town

Last ten aways: 4-3-3 (I’m counting the semi final playoff win at Sheffield Wednesday as a draw over 90 minutes), goal difference -4

Playoff record at this level: winning semi-finalists 2017

Looking back at the season, it was a hot streak between December and March in which the Terriers only lost twice in eighteen games that saw them record their highest league position since the early 1970s. Since then they’ve not been as impressive (five wins in their last fifteen) but they maintained they spent all season in the top five without ever genuinely threatening either Brighton or Newcastle.

Strength: home form, which is irrelevant today.

Weakness: Goalscoring away from home. Huddersfield only scored more than two goals in one away match this season: the 3-2 win at Rotherham on Valentine’s Day was also the last time they scored more than once in an away game. Town failed to score in seven road trips, losing all of those games.

Ones to watch: Nakhi Wells and Elias Kachunga. Both strikers reached double figures this season but neither of them has been particularly prolific away from home – they haven’t scored on the road since February. If Town stand any chance of either winning promotion or staying in the Premier League, Kachunga and Wells have to contribute this afternoon.

Reading

Last ten aways: 3-2-5, goal difference -8

Playoff record at this level: Runners up 1995, 2011. Beaten semi finalists 2003, 2009

I still find it remarkable that a team that lost a game 7-1 at the start of last month is in the playoff final. After an inconsistent start, the Royals hovered between third and fifth from the end of October onwards and – like Huddersfield – never really threatened the automatic promotion playoffs. I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but their form away from the Mad House isn’t very good: if this was a home game I’d not have any problems backing them but three of their five away wins in 2017 were against teams they ought to have beaten and two of those were settled in the last minute.

Strength: home form. Only Brighton earned more points at home than Reading and no club lost fewer home games. Once again, irrelevant today.

Weakness: away defence. In 2016/17 the average Championship defence conceded 34 goals in away games: Reading conceded 14 more goals than that. They conceded in 18 of their 23 matches away from home and let in more than two goals on eight occasions.

One to watch: Yann Kermogant. The veteran French striker is having his best season since he helped Bournemouth win promotion to the Premier League a couple of seasons ago: just over half of his goals this season have been scored in away games and if the Huddersfield defence don’t keep an eye on him then they could be in for a torrid time.

Final Stats Over The Last Decade:

The Higher side that finished higher at the end of the season has won six of the last ten finals. The third placed side has also won three of the last four finals between clubs that finished in third and fourth positions. Advantage: Reading.

Both teams haven’t scored in seven of the last ten, also less than 2.5. Settled by one goal in eight of last ten, only one AET in the last decade. Six of last ten have been 1-0. The last ten league games between today’s finalists have been pretty equal: two draws with the remainder split evenly.

Verdict: the stats above indicate that Reading might win by the margin of one goal, but I’ll be amazed if the final score is 1-0 to either team. It’s been five seasons since both teams have scored or we’ve had more than two goals in the final and considering how bad both of these defences were in away games during the regular season, this particular final could turn into a shoot out.

An update will follow immediately after the game is over.

Not the best advert for Championship football. Huddersfield won on penalties after extra time. There’ll be an end of season round up posted as soon as possible.