GOTW: Bolton v Ipswich

Norwich beat Middlesbrough in last weekend’s game of the week:

That wasn’t the end of Middlesbrough’s misery either. On Tuesday evening they also lost at home to Bristol City, a result that leaves Tony Pulis’ side in eighth place.

Overall there wasn’t much change at the top last weekend: I think the top four have probably sewn the automatic promotion places up although there are still 21 points to play for and arguably any of the top seven sides could still reach El Dorado without negotiating the playoffs.

I’ll come to the bottom of the table when I get to the game of the week preview, but that situation hasn’t changed at all.

However, we know a little bit about how 2019/20 will look:

Steve McClaren was sacked by QPR earlier this week with former Watford and Derby midfielder John Eustace taking over as caretaker manager for their game against Norwich tomorrow lunchtime (Sky Sports Football/Main Event 12:30).

McClaren had been in charge at Loftus Road for almost a year but had recorded his lowest win percentage in club management since his stint at Newcastle a few years ago.

Surprisingly, we also know the identities of two of the clubs that have been relegated from the Premier League: Fulham and Huddersfield will be back after one and two seasons respectively in the Promised Land. This is the earliest that two clubs have been relegated from the top tier since Ipswich and Leicester at the end of the 1994/95 season.

Bolton v Ipswich

An important game at the bottom of the table but one that is unlikely to be the start of a miracle escape from relegation.

The tumult continues in Lancashire: the players took strike action in support of backroom staff on Monday, on Wednesday the club was given until May to pay off the remaining debt on the tax bill and although administration appears to have been avoided, this is hardly the sort of preparation the players need before such a big game.

On the field, the story for Bolton is dire. Two home wins since the start of October with just even goals in fourteen games over that period tell the story of how bad things are on the playing side.

Ipswich’s record on the road is just as bad, but there are signs that Paul Lambert has made them into a team that’s difficult to beat away from Portman Road. They’ve not lost an away game since mid-February but although they’ve not won on their travels since October, they’ve drawn their last three matches and were really unlucky not to win at Wigan at the end of February. That might stand the Tractor Boys in good stead next season, but has come too late to save them now.

Head to head: the last four encounters at Bolton have finished all square. The last time Wanderers beat Ipswich was in a Premier League game just over 17 years ago.

The other games worth tracking this weekend are matches where playoff contenders play teams that could find themselves relegated if the next few weeks don’t see an upturn in their fortunes. It surprised me to find out exactly how bad WBA‘s record at Millwall has been: admittedly the Baggies haven’t exactly been visitors to Bermondsey in recent years, but they’ve never won at the New Den and you’ve got to go back to April 1987 for their last win at the old Den.

Tomorrow will be Wigan’s fifth game at Ashton Gate since the start of the century but the Latics have only beaten Bristol City once, sixteen years ago. Three of those last five encounters have ended all square and with the hosts not having won at home since mid-February there’s a slight chance that might happen again….although Wigan haven’t won on the road since August and have lost five of their last six away matches.

All being well, I’ll be back next Friday. Enjoy the weekend.

FA Cup Fifth Round Special

Considering that only three Championship teams reached the Fifth Round of the FA Cup last season, a 100% increase in that level combined with one guaranteed place in the Quarter Finals represents an improvement.

I’ve got a hunch that the winner of Swansea v Brentford might not be the last second tier club left in the Cup – and who knows what might happen after that, especially if the draw for the Quarter Finals in favourable.

Before we go any further, I’ll be covering Millwall’s game at Doncaster Rovers at Buzzin’ League One football and due to a combination of factors I’ll be limiting this post to the FA Cup only.

One of the interesting aspects of this weekend’s ties is how many of the second tier clubs left in the competition haven’t reached this stage for a while.

QPR v Watford (this evening, 7:45pm, BT Sport 2)

First meeting in the competition, which surprised me. Will be the ninth meeting between the clubs since 2000; Watford have only won twice (3-1 December 2010), first meeting for almost five years. First time QPR have got this far since 1997 largely because their home form in the competition is awful; they haven’t reached the quarter finals since 1995 and haven’t won in the Championship at Loftus Road since Boxing Day.

Brighton v Derby (Saturday 12:30pm, BT Sport 2)

Although this will be their fourth encounter in the cup, it’s the first since a Third Round game in January 1961 that Brighton won 3-1 at the old Goldstone Ground. The last league meeting was a couple of years ago and the last time the Rams won at Brighton was the 2014 playoff semi final: they also won the corresponding league game in the previous August. The Rams have been regulars at this stage in recent seasons but haven’t gone beyond it since 1999.

Bristol City v Wolves (Sunday 1pm, BT Sport 2)

Only other meeting in the FA cup was at Molyneux 46 years ago when Wolves won by a single goal and went on to reach the semi finals before losing to eventual runners -up Leeds. Wolves have won half of their last six visits to Ashton Gate, all three wins coming since 2010 including a dramatic victory in December 2016. City haven’t got this far for 18 years and haven’t reached the Sixth Round since 1974 – for those of you with long memories, that was the season the Robins beat Leeds United in a replay at Elland Road.

Swansea v Brentford (Sunday 3pm, no TV coverage)

It probably should not come as a huge shock to see that the tie that guarantees at least one Championship club a quarter final spot doesn’t get any TV coverage. Third meeting in the competition, although once again you’ve got to go back to the early seventies for the last one which Swansea won at Griffin Park after a draw at the Vetch Field. Swansea got this far last season before losing to Spurs in the next round, but Brentford haven’t reached this round since 2006 and it’s been 30 years since they got any further.

Back next weekend, if there any upsets I’ll update this post.

The Championship’s Biggest Movers in Early 2019

Blades 4-1 Tigers” (CC BY 2.0) by domfell

The Christmas period can often play a crucial part in shaping the course of the league heading into the New Year.

With games coming thick and fast, teams can easily drop out or force their way into contention for automatic promotion and the play-off places.

This year has been no exception with some of the top teams faltering while a couple of upstarts have forced themselves into the reckoning.

Leeds United lost two games in a row in January at the turn of the year, but as of 16th January, retained a four-point gap at the top thanks to poor results for their rivals. That includes Norwich City, who went on a four-game winless run, and West Bromwich Albion, who drew two and lost one following their Boxing Day win over Wigan Athletic.

Blades at the sharp end

This opened the door for Sheffield United who won four in a row over the festive period, leapfrogging into second place. Prior to that, they had only won three in 11 and looked out of contention for automatic promotion. Chris Wilder’s men are now third favourites for the title in the Championship betting markets and priced at Evens to get promoted.

Robins bobbing along nicely

Looking a little further down the table, Bristol City are another club on an upward trajectory. The Robins bounced back from four straight defeats to go unbeaten from the end of November through to the middle of January. Before that run, Lee Johnson’s men were languishing down in 15th place, but they now sit in seventh, just two points outside of the play-off places. Despite their uplift in form, they can still be backed as long as 20/1 to achieve promotion.

Tigers on the prowl

Three points and three places further back, Hull City are the league’s in-form team. With five straight wins from the middle of December topping off an 11-game unbeaten run, Nigel Adkins’ men have powered their way into playoff contention. On 23rd October, they were second bottom with just nine points from their opening 13 games and looked certain to become relegation candidates.

Now, just four points outside of the playoff zone, the Tigers are still not getting much attention from the bookies, who had them as long as 25/1 for promotion at the time of writing, but no team has a better record over the last 13 games. If they can bolster their squad in January while maintaining their current momentum, they could well be in the mix come May.

Case in point

On November 5 last year, Fulham were 17th place in the table having won just four of their 16 games. They went on to finish third in the table losing just three of the next 31 games and secured promotion via the playoffs.

Winning runs don’t win Championships or promotion alone and all three teams mentioned will need to maintain consistency over a longer period if they are to stay in contention for ascension to the Premier League.

FA Cup Fourth Round Preview

With the exception of a game that’ll come to later, this weekend is all about the Fourth Round of the FA Cup.

Although there’s only one guaranteed place for a Championship in the next round, I think it’s likely that at least four teams should qualify.

This post is in a similar format to the most recent previews although this time round I’m covering the games featuring Derby and QPR at Buzzin’ League One Football. All matches kick off at 3pm on Saturday unless stated.

All Championship

Bristol City v Bolton (Friday, 7:45pm)

The only tie between clubs from the Championship is a chance for the hosts to reach the Fifth Round for the first time in eighteen years, an ambition that may be more realistic that winning promotion. Bolton got to the semis in 2011 and the Sixth Round the following year but they’re probably more preoccupied with avoiding relegation to League One. The only previous meeting at Ashton Gate in the FA Cup was 40 years ago and City won 3-1, but their most recent clash in the league was earlier this month – and The Robins won that too.

Championship v Premier League

Brighton v WBA

As you might expect from a team that’s recently been in the Premier League, West Brom have reached the fifth round or better in half of the last six seasons, but they’ve not won at Brighton since April 1990 and could be forgiven for focusing on their efforts to return to the promised land.

Chelsea v Sheffield Wednesday (Sunday, 6pm)

The timing and the nature of Maurizio Sarri’s comments about his Chelsea team were both interesting and appeared to work against Spurs on Thursday, but even so you’d have to expect Sheffield Wednesday to play at the very top of their game to win at Stamford Bridge, something they’ve not done for 26 years despite making eight trips there since. The last time Wednesday won at Chelsea in the FA Cup was before England won the World Cup.

Millwall v Everton (Saturday, 5:30pm, BBC1)

Definitely one to watch if you’re near a telly on Saturday tea time.

The Lions – who have got this far in the competition twice since reaching the semis in 2013 and have lost a home FA Cup tie for just over three years – will be up for this, especially as they’ve not been beaten by Everton in either of their previous encounters in the FA Cup in South London. The Toffees have lost four of last five road trips in the Premier League and haven’t won an away FA Cup tie for three years: don’t be too surprised if there’s a replay.

Championship v League One

Swansea v Gillingham

I’m pretty sure someone, somewhere has wasted an afternoon searching for a team that’s played Cardiff and Swansea in consecutive rounds of the FA Cup, but I’m not that person. The Swans reached the Sixth Round last season but it’s been fifteen years since Gillingham got as far as this and they’ve not beaten Swansea since 2006. The last time the teams played each other in this competition in South Wales, it ended with a convincing Swansea win – and with Gillingham involved in a relegation scrap, that might be the case once more.

Championship v League Two

Middlesbrough v Newport

Comparatively speaking Middlesbrough have been strong performers in the FA Cup recently,  having only failed to reach this stage in two of the last six seasons. Newport got to the Fourth Round last year but haven’t progressed any further since the previous incarnation of club managed to in 1949; they’ve lost both of their previous meetings with Middlesbrough, which were league games in the old Division Three in the late 1980s.

Championship v National League

Barnet v Brentford (Monday, 7:45pm BT Sport 1)

The last tie of the round and I’m also the last person to mention that it’s the Bees againt the Bees. It’s been a while since either team qualified for the Fifth Round and although the last meeting between them that Barnet hosted ended goalless (in the old Johnstone’s Paint Trophy just over eight years ago), Brentford won the only previous meeting in the FA Cup – at Griffin Park way back in November 1925.

The highlight of the League programme this weekend is at Carrow Road, where Sheffield United are the visitors. Only two  points separate the sides but unless Leeds suffer a surprise defeat at Rotherham, then Norwich will have to be content with second place even if they win. Sheffield United won the corresponding game last season, but that was only the second Blades victory at Norwich since 2000 and United have never won consecutive games at Carrow Road.

If anything unexpected happens I’ll update this post as and when, but otherwise I’ll be back next weekend.

Updates: Millwall beat Everton, Middlesbrough drew with Newport.

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.