Game of the Week: Norwich v Middlesbrough

I really don’t want to start yet another post with a discussion about how tight things are at the top so at the risk of annoying Derby fans,  even though the rams beat Blackpool 4-0 during the week, results elsewhere meant last season’s defeated playoff finalists won’t be going up automatically.

This evening there’s a huge game at Carrow Road (Sky Sports 1, 7;45 kick off), notably because it’s the last game this season between the current top six. Norwich are undefeated against their immediate rivals at home, whilst Middlesbrough have been pretty ropey on their travels against the same teams; three defeats in four games with their only goal coming at Derby last month.

The Canaries also seem to have the advantage of playing two of the strugglers in their games following this one but don’t let that fool you. Four of Norwich’s nine defeats in the Championship have been against teams in the bottom half of the table, including a brace against Reading. City travel to Rotherham next weekend in a game that could also be significant for the Millers, but I’d be worried if I was a Canaries fan. A five game unbeaten streak and only one defeat in fifteen indicates another loss is coming soon.

Boro have been goalshy generally on the road this season, failing to score in nine outings this season and only picking up three points in those games. As I mentioned earlier, their away form against the other promotion candidates has been poor but their recent performances on the road also haven’t been much to write home about. Five defeats in the last six (including at Reading and Forest) doesn’t augur well for this evening, especially as Boro have only won once in the league at Carrow Road since November 1997, although they have drawn half of their last ten trips to Norfolk.

Verdict: I can’t see middlesbrough winning this one, but with both Bournemouth and Watford not playing until tomorrow afternoon, a draw would be a potential disaster for both teams if they want to win automatic promotion.

Tuesday night’s game at the New Den was eventful wasn’t it! More red cards than goals and a rare home win for the Milwall. That result means that the only significant game at the bottom is Wigan v Brighton. If the Latics lose, that’s it; they’ve only lost two of their five meetings with the Seagulls in Lancashire since the sides met for the first time in October 1987 but as mentioned earlier this week, Wigan have been terrible at home. It doesn’t help that the only aspect of Brighton’s performance that’s recognisable from last season is their stingy away defence – they’ve only conceded three fewer goals than Bournemouth on their travels.

As for the FA Cup, I simply can’t see Reading stopping Arsenal. Without wanting to dust off the old cliches one more time, although it’s about time a second tier team won the competition again, Reading simply don’t fit the profile. Southampton, Sunderland and West Ham were all amongst the better second tier sides during the seasons they won the FA Cup in the mid to late 1970s and early 1980s, which isn’t something that The Royals can claim this season; just one win in their last ten and on course for their worst league position since they were promoted from the third tier in 2002 isn’t exactly the stuff cup winners are made of. Their 1927 counterparts had won the old Third Division South during the previous season and – apart from knocking out Manchester United in the third round – didn’t have a particularly tough set of games. This season’s Royals have had a similar run; Arsenal are the first team they’ve met from a higher division and Reading have never beaten the gunners in any competition.

There may not be any updates on Saturday if there’s anything to report, as I’m attending a very significant game…

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.

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.

Midweek Preview 3rd/4th March 2015

The major beneficiaries of the weekend were Norwich and Watford, who both won to put pressure on the top two, who both lost. The Hornets were 2-0 down after 19 minutes at Leeds, but two second half goals from Matej Vydra earned all three points. Norwich’s win over Ipswich was far more straightforward; Bradley Johnson hit a stunner to open the goalscoring.

Wigan won 3-1 at Blackpool, a result which effectively relegates the Tangerines. They are now fifteen points from safety with 36 points left to play for: it’s mathematically possible for Blackpool to stay up, but Einstein proved that time travel is also mathematically possible. Whether it’s possible for a 23 year old to be an effective chairman of Wigan Athletic now that Dave Whelan has stepped down is another matter entirely.

Rotherham came from behind to beat Millwall in South Yorkshire to put six points between them, but Brighton lost 1-0 at Bolton and are now back in the relegation mix.

There are only two more full midweek programmes before the end of the season and this one could be the most important in determining finishing positions in May. There are three games tonight and one on Wednesday that are between the top and bottom six.

Brighton v Derby

Albion have won two of their last three home games and have won half of their last ten games against the Rams in Sussex…four of their six remaining matches at the Amex are against teams from the top six, so a win would be very useful indeed…three of Derby’s five away defeats this season have occured against teams in the bottom half of the table, including being beaten at Fulham on Saturday which was their first away defeat since before Christmas…haven’t won away or kept a clean sheet since 2-0 win at Cardiff at the end of January

Middlesbrough v Millwall

Boro have won seven of their last ten games on Teeside and had been unbeaten at home in twelve until the recent defeat by Leeds…four of their last six homes are against teams currently in the bottom six…haven’t beaten Millwall in the league at home since October 1994, despite four attempts since…Lions have lost four of their last six on the road and have only picked up two points from 15 available in their away games against the current top six…aren’t that bad defensively away from Bermondsey but only Rotherham have scored fewer away goals this season…Shaun Williams hasn’t been booked since the middle of last month.

Watford v Fulham

Hornets have won six of last ten at Vicarage Road and haven’t drawn a game since October…have only kept four home clean sheets this season, but have lost all three home games when they failed to score..Nigerian striker Odion Ighalo is having the best season of his career and is set to return this evening…Fulham have only kept two away clean sheets since August and haven’t won on the road since the middle of December…have only scored twice in five road trips in 2015…first meeting at Vicarage Road since October 2006, Watford have won two of the five league meetings between the clubs in Hertfordshire since World War II.

Norwich v Wigan (Wednesday)

Only the fourth league meeting between the sides in Norfolk…the hosts have won seven of their last ten homes, keeping clean sheets in their last three a Carrow Road so almost 300 minutes without conceding a goal…winless streak in the autumn seems a long time ago now…Latics have won last two away games but it’s been almost exactly a year since they won three…will need to produce a similar performance to the one at Derby in October to get anything from this match, especially as they’ve never won at Carrow Road in any competition.

I’ll be back on Saturday with the FA Cup preview and a quick look at any games of interest in the league.