Championship Xmas Post 2018

Welcome to the annual renewal of the Post of Christmas Past.

This week – as is usually the case in this post – you’ll be learning who will probably win promotion and who will probably be relegated at the end of the season.

However, this year there’s something different about Christmas in the Championship…but naturally you’ll have to read the entire post to find out what it is.

Despite thinking that the Sheffield United had a decent chance of beating WBA last weekend, the actual result didn’t disprove my theory that Chris Wilder’s team aren’t automatic promotion candidates even if they are one of the better teams in the division.

On to the sprouts and turkey. Over the past half decade, a team is more likely to be promoted if they’re in the top three on Boxing Day evening. Only once in the last half decade has a team been promoted after being outside the top six on 26/12 and that was Norwich in 2014/15, but last season Bristol City became the fourth club in the last five seasons to be in the top six at close of play on Boxing Day not to win promotion.

Here’s where the plot thickens and where I’m also likely to risk drawing the wrath of Leeds fans once again – but I’d recommend reading the rest of these next couple of paragraphs. I wouldn’t be too surprised if either Derby or Leeds are in the top six at the end of Boxing Day and end up blowing promotion – both clubs have been in exactly that position at least three times over the last five years and haven’t managed to cross the line. Derby in particular seem to have issues: they were third in 2014 and top a year later but blew it; that’s why it’s actually really difficult to gauge Frank Lampard’s ability as a manager: the Rams could have a cardboard cut out of Brian Clough in charge and still be ‘there or thereabouts’ every season. If we go back a few years, the same was true of Cardiff, who are now two points outside the Premier League relegation zone and preparing to face Manchester United tomorrow.

If – as looks likely – Leeds are in the top two, that’ll be their highest position after the Boxing Day programme since they were promoted back to the Championship in 2010. This season they’re arguably the most balanced team in the division and finally look like the real deal, but because I’m a neutral it would be wrong of me not to have a nagging doubt about their promotion chances. We’ll see but I’ll be pleased if I’m proven wrong.

At the wrong end of the table, the teams in the bottom five after the Boxing Day games are far more likely to be relegated – in fact, over the last five seasons all of the relegated teams were in the bottom five on the evening of December 26th. The bottom two are usually – but not always – doomed and I think it’s probably time to stick a fork in Ipswich and Bolton. The Tractor Boys have to beat both Sheffield United and QPR in their next two games to stand any chance of escaping the bottom three and Bolton have been in this predicament in three of the last four seasons.

As for who might accompany them, it also shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that both Millwall and Rotherham are struggling either but if Sheffield Wednesday‘s defence gets much worse they’ll have a fight for survival on their hands – and as I was writing this, they sacked Jos Luhukay. I’d also keep an eye on Brentford, the wheels seem to have come off since Dean Smith left for Aston Villa, with new boss Thomas Frank losing eight of his first ten games. Reading – who have a tough looking three game schedule coming up – aren’t out of the woods either.

I normally take the mickey out of the scheduling of live games over the festive period, but this is where the big difference is this season. There is ONE Championship game over Christmas and that’s Sheffield United v Derby (Boxing Day 3pm); Sky Sports seem to have finally realised that showing multiple games over the holidays is a waste of time. The new contract with the EFL has not gone down well at all with the clubs (especially the so-called ‘bigger’ ones or as I like to call them, the moaners who think they should be in the Premier League) and I suspect the midweek red button service may not have gone down as well as Sky Sports may have thought it might have done.

Saturday December 22nd

An interesting one as three of the top six are away at teams in the bottom six: Middlesbrough‘s trip to Reading features two sides that have combined for one win in their last twelve outings. I can’t see Sheffield United having any problems with Ipswich or Rotherham troubling WBA. As I wrote that, I suddenly had the feeling that at least one of those games will provide the weekly upset that the Championship is well known for.

Sunday December 23rd

Aston Villa v Leeds (Sky Sports Football/Main Event, 1:30pm kick off)

Wednesday December 26th

I’ve already mentioned Derby v Sheffield United, but the games at Norwich, Bolton and Millwall all look like they’re worth following – especially as Rotherham are the guests at Bolton and Reading make the journey to South London. It could be one of those key afternoons at the bottom of the table.

Saturday December 29th

Norwich host Derby and Ipswich travel to Middlesbrough.

Right, that’s me done for another year. Back for the FA Cup Third Round, have a Happy Christmas and thanks for reading.

Playoff Semi Finals Preview

Just like that, we’ve reached the playoffs again.

Once more the Championship becomes the most interesting element of English football. The world will hold its breath whilst waiting to see which team that wasn’t as good as Wolves or Cardiff will finish in the bottom half of the Premier League in May 2019.

Way back last July one of my pre-season predictions was that Fulham would win promotion and so I’m committed to backing the Cottagers this year. That’s usually been the kiss of death since I started writing for this blog, although it’s worth remembering that over the last decade the third and fifth placed teams have won seven of the last ten finals.

Having written that, it’s fair to say that nothing really jumps out from the dozen games between the four playoff contenders other than Aston Villa and Fulham  were better than Derby and Middlesbrough. There were only two home wins in those matches – Villa and Fulham beat each other once – but with Boro having quickly adapted to Tony Pulis’ style of football, I’d agree with the bookies and say that Derby are the outsiders.

Derby v Fulham (this evening, 7:45pm, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

In a scenario that will have been horribly familiar to Derby fans but not entirely out of the blue for the rest of us, having been second at the start of February The Rams almost dropped out of the playoffs last month. A team that can lose 4-1 at home to Sunderland yet still has a chance of winning promotion is an outstanding example of not only how daft the Championship can be but also indicates that Derby’s record of five consecutive top ten finishes without promotion will probably continue next season. It’s fair to say that if you neutralise Matej Vydra you can stop them and the defence has only kept one clean sheet at home since February.

Defeat at Birmingham last weekend was Fulham’s first reverse on the road since before Christmas, so was that just a sign of things to come or just acceptance that automatic promotion wasn’t going to happen? Worryingly for those of us backing them, the Cottagers have now gone ten away games without losing, which usually means another defeat is just around the corner. On the other hand, no team scored more goals away from home during the season than Fulham and – combined with Derby’s defensive frailties – could be a recipe for success.

Since 2000, Derby have beaten Fulham in half of their last six league meetings at Pride Park. Fulham won at Derby at the start of March with early goals from Mitrovic and Sessegnon before Huddlestone replied for the hosts.

Verdict: it would not surprise me at all if Fulham won this evening but then drew at Craven Cottage next week.

Middlesbrough v Aston Villa (5:15pm tomorrow, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

Steve Gibson’s rather naive pre-season comment that Boro were going to ‘smash’ the Championship was looking unlikely as early as October, although as I pointed just after Christmas, Middlesbrough couldn’t be ruled out of the playoffs. Although they didn’t crack the top six until the start of March and have only lost twice since then, Tony Pulis’ appointment on Boxing Day clearly suits the players he inherited from Garry Monk: only Cardiff conceded fewer goals at home this season but their ‘defence first’ style at the Riverside has resulted in them scoring more goals in away matches this season. Middlesbrough have only lost two of their last ten home games – they almost earned a point against Fulham – and it’s only a couple of years since they were last in the playoffs.

Aston Villa have been in the playoff spots for most of the season but never really looked like automatic promotion material after losing at Fulham in February and consecutive defeats a few weeks later confirmed that analysis. One of those games (Bolton) appeared to trigger some sort of crisis of confidence as Villa have only won one of their four aways since then; it’s also highly significant that they lost all three games without scoring when they travelled to the teams that finished immediately above them this season.

Head to head: this looks particularly bad for Boro – their last home win against Villa was in December 2004 and they’ve met on Teeside in the league on five subsequent occasions. Boro have lost four of those games.

Verdict: on paper any game between Tony Pulis and Steve Bruce always looks as if it could finish 0-0. However, if Middlesbrough want to win promotion they’ll have to win tomorrow because the prospect of travelling to Villa Park next week without any sort of advantage will be a mountain to climb. I don’t think Boro will lose, but that may not be good enough to reach Wembley.

I’ll be back with an update at some point over the weekend although it’s more likely to be late on Sunday. At that point we’ll also definitely know if Swansea will be returning to the Championship along with Stoke and West Brom.

Result from Friday evening: Derby 1, Fulham 0. I really am the kiss of death 🙂

Proper update: the most overhyped match in the entire history of the galaxy will be between Aston Villa and Fulham. The preview will be posted sometime next week.

Expect The Unexpected?

Some weekends it’s hard to find option for Game of the Week.

Not this time!

There are no less than five games that could decide the remaining issues at both ends of the table – all are simultaneous kick offs at 12:30 on Sunday afternoon. In alphabetical order:

Birmingham v Fulham

What’s at stake: Birmingham can still be relegated, Fulham can still win automatic promotion.

Form: There’s no doubt Garry Monk has made an immediate improvement at St Andrew’s since being appointed, but Fulham are on an eleven game unbeaten away streak. That being said, Birmingham have beaten Cardiff and drawn with Villa this season whilst Fulham have lost at both Burton and Sunderland.

Head to head, Last ten at St Andrew’s in the league: 3-4-3. Fulham’s last win was in September 2014

Verdict: Fulham win – although it may not be enough for automatic promotion. Even if Birmingham lose, they may not be relegated.

Cardiff v Reading (Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

What’s at stake: automatic promotion for Cardiff. Reading have some breathing space due to a better goal difference than Birmingham, but things might get tricky if results elsewhere start getting weird.

Form: Cardiff have only lost twice in their last ten home games and have only dropped one point at the City of Cardiff stadium against teams in the bottom half of the table. Apart from a win at Derby in November, Reading have lost all of their away games at the other clubs in the top six.

Head to head, last ten at Cardiff (Ninian Park/City of Cardiff) in regular season league games: 4-3-3. Reading’s last win in the Welsh capital was at the beginning of last season.

Verdict: an easy win for Cardiff; Reading haven’t won on the road since the end of January and that was at Burton.

Derby v Barnsley

What’s at stake: Derby need to avoid defeat to clinch the last playoff place. Barnsley could still be relegated even if they don’t lose.

Form: Derby have been all over the place at the iPro recently, so this is potentially where the unexpected result might happen. Don’t get too carried away with that thought though -Barnsley have only won two road trips in 2018 and have lost all their away games against the sides that are currently above Derby.

Head to head, last ten at Derby in the league: 6-3-1. Barnsley’s last win at Derby was in September 2009 – before then you’d have to go back to October 1983 for the Tykes’ last win at Derby.

Verdict: Derby win and claim the last playoff spot and Barnsley go back to League One after two seasons.

Millwall v Aston Villa

What’s at stake: theoretically Millwall could still reach the playoffs but they’d need to absolutely batter Aston Villa to do so and hope Derby and Preston both lose. Villa have nothing to play for.

Form: two very evenly matched teams. Millwall have only lost one of their five games at the New Den against the top six clubs but have only won one of those encounters (a 2-1 win over Middlesbrough in December). In contrast, Villa have only won two of their nine away games against the current top ten.

Head to head, last nine at Millwall in the league: 4-2-3. This will be the tenth meeting in the league at Millwall and the first time Villa have played at the New Den since losing 2-1 in the FA Cup five years ago. Villa’s last win at Millwall was on April Fool’s Day 1975!

Verdict: there’s always next season – for both clubs.

Preston v Burton

What’s at stake: Preston could still qualify for the playoffs but Derby would have to lose to Barnsley or The Lillywhites would have to win by at least ten goals. Even if Burton win they may still be relegated.

Form: Preston’s recent form at Deepdale has been inconsistent and their inability to beat the strugglers at home (one win from five) is one of the reasons they’ve not already qualified for the playoffs. Burton have lost six of their nine aways against teams in the top ten – all six of those defeats were at the clubs currently above Preston.

Head to head: only one previous meeting at Deepdale, which was in November 2016 and finished 1-1. Burton have never beaten Preston.

Verdict: I can’t see Preston losing, but The Brewers are fighting for survival and anything could happen.

There will be an update, but depending on what happens at Twickenham on Sunday lunchtime you might have to wait until Monday for that.

Update: my predictions were up to their usual standard yesterday. Cardiff were promoted despite a goalless draw with Reading while Birmingham thrashed Fulham. At Pride Park, Derby sealed their playoff place with a 4-1 win over Barnsley, who were relegated. Joining them in League One next season will be Burton, who lost at Preston.

We also know the first team relegated from the Premier League: Stoke City.

GOTW: Aston Villa v Derby

Last Friday’s game of the week emphasised the difference between being a contender for the entire season and merely having a good run of form:

Millwall aren’t out of the running for the playoffs by any means, but this defeat saw them drop out of the top six. 

Wolves tied up the title by beating Bolton but with only two games of the regular season left, only Aston Villa, Cardiff and Fulham can still win automatic promotion. This weekend’s game of the week is a Midlands Derby with an awful lot on the line for both teams…

Aston Villa v Derby

Both teams need to win for different reasons: Villa to retain any chance of going up without making the trip to Wembley at the end of next month while the Rams can take a big step towards making the same journey.

Villa have won eight of their last ten games at Villa Park, keeping clean sheets in half of those outings and beating both Wolves and Cardiff in that sequence. They’ve also not lost at home against any of the teams in the top half of the current table

On Tuesday evening Derby ended a three game losing streak by beating Cardiff 3-1, but having had a short recovery time after an emotional high can sometimes be a recipe for disaster. The Rams have only recorded one away win since the end of January, although the only time they’ve lost a game at one of the teams above them was at Molineux two weeks ago.

Historically speaking, this is where it gets bleak for Derby. Aston Villa have won the last ten games between them at Villa Park and have only failed to win three of their sixteen encounters in any competition in Birmingham since March 1978. Derby’s last win at Villa was in November 1988: England legend Peter Shilton was in goal for the Rams and the winner was scored by Dean Saunders.

Villa have already qualified for the playoffs and if Fulham beat Sunderland this evening then Steve Bruce’s side will need to win at Millwall next weekend and hope other results go their way in order to win automatic promotion. That’s unlikely so does Bruce decide to go for it anyway knowing that his team will have home advantage in the playoffs? As for Derby, if they lose tomorrow they could be overtaken by Millwall and that might mean their last game of the season – at home against Barnsley – will be a vital one for both sides.

Villa have less to lose and so I’d be surprised if they do.

The other game of note this weekend is Burton v Bolton, which is far simpler. If the hosts lose, they’ll be relegated: if that happens, expect an update on Saturday evening.

The plan for next weekend’s post is going to be complicated: I’ve got an unusual family interlude that means I’m going to be posting on Friday but I may not be able to provide an update until Sunday evening. One of my brothers in law is playing at Twickenham on Sunday lunchtime and the family is off down there to see him.

GOTW: Millwall v Fulham

To no-one’s great surprise, Wolves were promoted to the Premier League last weekend:

Only Aston Villa, Cardiff and Fulham can still win automatic promotion.

After that any of the other clubs in the top nine could still go up, but although neither club are mathematically out of it, I don’t think either Brentford or Bristol City will make the playoffs.

As I’ve been writing for the past few weeks, I think Burton and Sunderland have had it, but the battle to avoid 22nd place is still very tight. Right now I think Barnsley have too much to do.

Millwall v Fulham (7:45 pm, Sky Sports Football, Main Event)

A televised game of the week this late in the season is basically a can’t miss for those of you who are able to watch it. The clubs involved have had remarkably similar runs since Christmas and are top of the current six game form table. Additionally, there always seems to be one late season match that turns out to be a dress rehearsal for the playoffs and this could be the one.

The Lions have a 17 game unbeaten streak going into this one: they’ve not lost at home since the start of November (to Burton!) and haven’t conceded more than one goal at the New Den since Boxing Day.

Lee Gregory has pitched in with 5 of 18 in that period but the defence hasn’t been breached in three and a half hours of play at the New Den. That record might not last much longer: after Fulham, the Lions host Villa in the last home game of the season in what might turn out to be a showdown for home advantage in the playoffs.

Fulham are just as impressive: 21 games without losing with their last away defeat coming way back in mid December at Sunderland. On the road they’ve been not been as impressive defensively as Millwall have been at home but four straight away wins is plenty of proof how good the Cottagers are at the moment.

Half of the last five league meetings between the pair at Millwall have ended in draws, but Millwall haven’t beaten Fulham at home since they won by the odd goal in seven in an old Division Three game at The Den in April 1982.

Verdict: so far this Millwall haven’t lost any of the three home games they’ve played against teams that are above them, but their only victory was against Middlesbrough in December and it’s fair to say that Boro are a different proposition altogether now Tony Pulis has taken over. Fulham have lost at both Aston Villa and Wolves this season but have won at both Cardiff and Middlesbrough since the turn of the year and for that reason – in addition to their record against Millwall – I can’t see the Cottagers losing.

The other factor here is that if Millwall lose narrowly, only Derby can overtake them.  The Rams face Middlesbrough tomorrow.

Sunderland v Burton

A classic ‘if, then, or else’ game if ever there was one: the loser will be playing Accrington Stanley in League One  but there’s a combination of results where both clubs could go down regardless of what happens at the Stadium of Light. Sunderland have record two home wins in their last 21; Burton’s mini revival around Christmas didn’t last and the Brewers have only won once away from home in their last eight attempts.

I’ll be back with an update on Sunday.

Here it is: Wolves are your 2017/18 Sky Bet Championship title winners.

Sunderland have been relegated. Wigan Athletic have been promoted.