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.

Play Off Semi Final Preview

Remember the curse of fourth? Well that’s not really the case anymore – two of the last three PO winners had finished fourth at the end of the regular season, but what’s really noticeable is that over the last decade third placed teams have been promoted as many times as fourth, fifth and sixth place sides combined.

If the trend over the last decade continues, Reading will be back in the Premier League next season and Fulham will still be knocking around in the Championship. However, this is the Championship and nothing is straightforward: the mini league based on the games between the four qualifiers indicates that Fulham and Reading were far better than the others and Huddersfield were appreciably worse than the other three.

Basically, each team has an obvious weakness and if that can be exploited by their opponents we could have some interesting games. I have a feeling that whoever wins promotion to the Premier League may last only one season: with Middlesbrough rejoining the Championship after losing at Chelsea earlier this week, that’s a distinct possibility.

Fulham v Reading (Sky Sports 2, Saturday, 5:30pm)

Only one defeat in their last ten games at Craven Cottage, but the thing that stands out straight away is that they’ve conceded in nine of those ten games and they’ve had to come from behind in two of them. Only Barnsley and Rotherham conceded more goals at home than Fulham this season, but only Brighton, Newcastle and Norwich scored more goals in front of their own fans. Fulham’s strong point is their home record against the teams that finished in the top half of the table: they lost 2-1 to Brighton at the start of the year, but that’s it.

Reading have won four of their last ten aways but they also lost 7-1 at Norwich over that period, failed to score in three of those games and only kept two clean sheets. However, even though only Brighton, Fulham and Newcastle only won more away games this season, the Royals’ hot streak away from home came in the early part of the season and it’s noticeable that when they were beaten 5-0 at Fulham at the start of December they weren’t nearly as impressive. If they’d not had consecutive last minute away wins at Blackburn and Bristol City it’s fair to say that Reading may not have been in this position: they may be about to be spectacularly exposed.

Verdict: there’ll be goals in this game. Five of the last six meetings in the league between these sides in the league at Fulham have produced at least three goals. Reading have only won two of those encounters, their last victory coming in a Premier League game in May 2013.

The game finished 1-1, but Fulham had to come from behind to earn the draw after Jonathan Obita had given Reading the lead.

Huddersfield v Sheffield Wednesday (Sky Sports 2, Sunday, noon)

On paper, this looks like a classic Yorkshire derby with little to chose from between the clubs. Dig a bit deeper and you start seeing it from a very different perspective.

Town’s highest league position for 17 years indicates that they’re here on merit, but their win over Reading in mid-February was their only victory against their competitors in the playoffs and they’ve only won three of their last ten games – and that includes only half of their last six at home. This season they lost both games to Sheffield Wednesday without scoring and since 2000 they’ve only beaten Wednesday twice in nine games where they’ve had home advantage.

Ominously, Wednesday have been here before and although playoff success following playoff failure is rare, it’s not unknown. They’ve only lost twice on the road since January and were one of only four teams last season that had a positive away goal difference, which is one of the vital statistics for a team looking for promotion. That’s one way of looking at it: the other is that the away wins at Newcastle and Huddersfield were Wednesday’s only victories against teams that finished in the top half of the table and they’ve not improved in that respect since last season.

Verdict: I can see this going two ways. Either it’ll be a cagey, low scoring draw or Wednesday will take a decisive lead into the second leg. I think it’s entirely possible that Huddersfield may be ‘pleased to be here’ rather than having any real expectations for promotion, but I’ve been very wrong before about the playoffs.

Update: cagey, low scoring draw. 0-0.

In other news, Hull City have been relegated from the Premier League. As there’s only one team left to be confirmed in next season’s Championship line up, I’m going to start researching the previews 🙂

Last Day Preview: Down To The Wire

Here we are again, the last day of the season. With most of the major issues settled, it’s always an odd day for those of us who support a team that’s got nothing left to play for. Regardless, here’s what to look out for when the games kick off at NOON tomorrow:

At The Top:

Brighton properly blew it last week: this was their first home defeat by Bristol City for a decade, when they were struggling at the Withdean.

If they lose at Villa, Newcastle only need to draw at home to Barnsley to win the title on goal difference.

Aston Villa v Brighton

On paper this is a far tougher challenge for the Seagulls than Bristol City should have been last weekend: Villa have only lost three home games this season, with only one defeat against sides above them. Brighton have only won half of their last six aways and to be honest, if they’re going to compete in the Premier League next season, their away record against the better teams in the Championship should be cause for concern for Chris Hughton during the summer.

Fun fact: Brighton have never won at Villa Park in any competition.

Newcastle v Barnsley

The Toon have lost only one league game at St James’ Park since Boxing Day and haven’t lost at home to Barnsley since September 1982. The Tykes have a very poor away record against the teams in the top half of the competition and could be the ninth team that Newcastle do the ‘double’ against.

The Play Offs

Unless Leeds beat Wigan by fourteen goals and the Cottagers lose at Sheffield Wednesday, Fulham will be travelling to whoever finishes third – and seeing as though there’s almost always a playoff semi final that was a recent league game, it wouldn’t surprise me to see another couple of meetings between Fulham and Wednesday over the next few days.

Due to My Wife’s Birthday, the playoff preview will be posted next Thursday, but the details of games themselves will be featured in the update mentioned in the last paragraph.

The Bottom aka ‘Survival Sunday’

This is where the fun starts. Blackburn are favourites for the drop and it’s not outside the realms of possibility that any sense of tension could disappear quite quickly. One thing that’s worth noting about the three teams trying to avoid the drop: all are owned by Asian ‘businessmen’ who don’t appear to know what they’re doing.

Brentford v Blackburn Rovers (Sky Sports 5)

Rovers will be safe if they win and either Forest or Birmingham lose, but considering that their recent win at Nottingham Forest was their first away victory in eleven games since the end of November, that cannot be taken for granted. Adding to their potential misery is Brentford have been really rather impressive at home recently: four straight wins, conceding only one goal.

The head to head record in league games at Brentford should make sobering reading for Rovers fans: although Blackburn won their last visit by a single goal in March 2016, they’ve lost three of the last four meetings since their previous victory in West London.

Bristol City v Birmingham City (not televised, but I can’t imagine the other two games won’t be interrupted if anything happens)

It could be a very emotional affair in front of the biggest crowd at Ashton Gate for almost 40 years: former City manager Steve Cotterill returns as Harry Redknapp’s assistant for what will probably be Tammy Abraham’s last appearance for the Robins, but City fans with long memories will remember that the Blues practically ensured the hosts were relegated when they won a controversial affair at Ashton Gate in 1999. One of the reasons the hosts are safe is their impressive form at Ashton Gate since Christmas: only three defeats in eleven games, the most recent of which was in mid-February.

I’ve no idea where to start with Birmingham City, other than writing that if The Blues are relegated then their new owners should take a long, hard look at themselves. Vanity appointments in this competition usually end in abject failure and all the work that Gary Rowett did after Lee Clark’s reign almost ended in disaster has been thrown away.

In the calendar year between last May and this, Birmingham City have won only four away league games in 23 attempts: but their record at Ashton Gate has been phenomenal – they’ve not at Bristol City since 1993 and Ashton Gate is something of a lucky ground for them.

Nottingham Forest v Ipswich Town (Sky Sports 3)

Forest have probably done just enough under Mark Warburton to prevent relegation this season, but be under no illusions: they’ve been in obvious decline over the last four years and have been very lucky that Rotherham have been holding the Championship up for most of the season. They’re also lucky they’re playing Ipswich, who haven’t won at the City Ground since December 1999: the Tractor Boys have only lost four of their last ten aways games though, so although a Forest win isn’t guaranteed

Update will follow as soon as I get home from the game I’m attending on Sunday lunchtime. Come back at any time between 3 and 5pm and there should be something here…

Update: Newcastle are Champions and Blackburn Rovers have been relegated, despite winning 3-1 at Brentford. Both Birmingham and Nottingham Forest won. The playoff semi finals are as follows:

Saturday 13th May: Fulham v Reading (5:3opm)

Sunday 14th May: Huddersfield v Sheffield Wednesday (12:00)

Game Of The Week: Birmingham v Huddersfield

First of all this week, I’d like to congratulate Brighton and Newcastle for winning promotion to the Premier League. Their last games will determine which club wins the title – Newcastle visit Cardiff this evening (Sky Sports 1, 7:45pm kick off) whilst Brighton entertain Bristol City tomorrow (Sky Sports 1, 5:30pm kick off) knowing that a win would make their lead unassailable.

Otherwise, there are all kinds of permutations at both ends of the table on the penultimate weekend of the season, which will no doubt get even more complicated after tomorrow’s games. The one outstanding match tomorrow is:

Birmingham v Huddersfield

Here are a couple of things to think about.

  • On the evening of Saturday 26th November 2016, both of these clubs were in the playoff positions.
  • Huddersfield haven’t lost a league game at St Andrew’s since November 2000 – the Terrier have won three of the last four encounters in the league in Birmingham.

The Harry Redknapp ‘era’ (interlude may be more appropriate in the long term) started badly with a derby defeat at Aston Villa last Sunday but with the Blues having both lost five of their last games at St. Andrew’s and facing a playoff team, the short term prospects for survival are looking dicey.

Huddersfield are in the playoffs after a win at Wolves earlier this week, but they cannot afford to rest on their laurels. Home advantage in the first leg – regardless of their opponents – should be their priority.

QPR v Nottingham Forest

Both clubs could still be overtaken if Blackburn win their last two games so this is a game that neither can afford to lose.

QPR are in danger of dropping back into the third tier for the first time since 2003/04 because they’ve lost six straight. At the start of last month they looked as if they were comfortable in mid-table and they’ve not got a bad record at Loftus Road against teams below them – but any more defeats could be disastrous. I’ll probably revisit this idea in the summer, but regardless of which division they’re in come August, Ian Holloway is living on borrowed time.

Despite having won precisely one more point than Rangers this season, Forest haven’t won an away game since the end of November and have lost nine of their last twelve road trips, failing to score in seven of those matches. They’re probably in luck that their last game of the season is against Ipswich: Forest have only won two of their last ten league games against Rangers in the last two decades.

Reading v Wigan

The Royals could still miss out on a playoff berth due to their extremely dodgy defensive record in away games: Wigan are all but down but will no doubt try their best to postpone the almost inevitable for another week.

Before anyone gets carried away though, Reading haven’t beaten Wigan in Berkshire since a 3-2 victory in the Premier League in September 2007 and their current nine game unbeaten streak at the Mad House will have to end at some point. Are Wigan the team to do that or will we need to wait for the playoffs?

You may have to wait until Sunday for the update – for some reason I’ve become very popular this Bank Holiday weekend and I’m out both this evening and tomorrow.

Update: Sunderland have been relegated from the Premier League; Wigan have been relegated from the Championship to League One. The playoffs will be between Fulham, Huddersfield, Reading and Sheffield Wednesday.

Easter: 2016/17 Edition

Here we are again: a week before Easter, I’m off to France on Monday an so here’s the annual post about how the rest of the season is going to pan out. But before we go any further, here’s the frankly ridiculous refereeing brain fart by Keith Stroud during the Newcastle/Burton game on Wednesday:

Newcastle won regardless of Stroud’s mistake and with Brighton beating Birmingham the top two are as good as up with the only remaining issue being who wins the title. As usual the playoffs are a little bit more complicated – it’s still mathematically possible that Preston could still reach the post season.

It’s a little clearer at the bottom: Rotherham are already down and with Wigan seven points adrift of Blackburn, it still looks likely that the last relegation spot will be between Blackburn, Bristol City and Nottingham Forest.

TOMORROW

Nottingham Forest v Huddersfield Town

Forest haven’t been any lower than 20th this season, but their recent form has been awful and they could drop into the bottom three if they lose this one and results elsewhere go against them. That being said, they’re far better at the City Ground – two defeats in the last six – than on their travels and they’ve only lost once at home against any of the other clubs in the top six. Fun fact: the last drawn league game between these two in Nottingham was in October 1972.

Wigan Athletic v Rotherham United

An absolute must win for the hosts, but even a victory might not save them from the drop.

Sheffield Wednesday v Newcastle United (Sky Sports 1, 5:30)

Newcastle haven’t lost at any of the top six teams this season, but Sheffield Wednesday’s victory against Huddersfield in January is the only time the hosts have beaten any of their immediate rivals for promotion at Hillsborough. On paper this is more important for Wednesday than Newcastle, but I’m sure Rafa Benitez has exhorted his team to finish as Champions and to some extent the pressure is off Newcastle.

GOOD FRIDAY

Nottingham Forest v Blackburn Rovers

As I mentioned above, Forest are much better at home than they are on the road and with Rovers having not won an away game since the end of November, a defeat for either side at the City Ground could leave them with a mountain to climb before Easter Monday’s matches. However…Blackburn have only lost two league games in ten at the City Ground since 1994.

Newcastle United v Leeds United (Sky Sports 1, kick off 7:45pm)

First meeting between the sides at St. James’ Park since January 2004, which seems almost inconceivable to me. They’ve met in the League Cup since then, but Leeds do not have a good record on Tyneside. Good choice for a televised game though.

EASTER MONDAY

Blackburn Rovers v Bristol City

This looks like the game that could settle the last relegation spot. Rovers have been halfway decent at Ewood Park against teams in the bottom half of the table and haven’t lost at home to City since December 1990. The Robins have only recorded three away wins all season and may have to rely on their home performances to give themselves a fighting chance of staying up.

Brighton v Wigan Athletic

Reading v Rotherham United

From this point onwards I’ll be providing the usual service, but as it stands these are the games that will matter at both ends of the table:

Saturday 22nd April

Burton Albion v Leeds

Huddersfield Town v Fulham

Nottingham Forest v Reading

Saturday 29th April

Reading v Wigan

Brighton v Bristol City (Sky Sports 1, kick off 5:30pm)

Looks as if it was deliberately chosen to showcase Brighton’s promotion and/or City’s relegation: if that’s the case, it should be compelling viewing, especially if both issues can be decided simultaneously.

Sunday 7th May – last day of the season, all games kick off at noon.

Burton Albion v Reading

Sheffield Wednesday v Fulham

Wigan Athletic v Leeds United

There’s a chance that we could see a familiar name return to the Championship from League One tomorrow, so I’ll update this post sometime tomorrow evening.