Easter Success Is Vital To Escape Relegation

The Easter holiday is a moveable feast – in the last five seasons it’s been as early as the end of March and as late as the end of April – but regardless of the date there seem to be consistent trends in the Championship. I took a look back at the tables going into the Easter programme from 2006/07 onwards and it would appear that Easter isn’t as crucial to any of the main issues as fans and pundits might like to think:

* In every season since 2006/07, the clubs in the top two positions going into the Easter programme have been promoted. In four of those five seasons the team at the top of the table at Easter has gone on to win the Championship.

* In four of the last five seasons, the playoff winners have been in the top six. The only exception: Blackpool, who were 7th at the start of the Easter programme in 2009/10. Only two of the eventual playoff winners were in third place going into Easter – Birmingham City in 2007 and Hull City the following season.

* At the bottom of the table, the clubs in 23rd and 24th place were eventually relegated in each of those five seasons. However in three of the last five seasons the club in 22nd place managed to survive and in two of those seasons it was the club in 20th place that was relegated

It’s worth pointing out that there are still six games and eighteen points left for each team, but if those trends stay the same the following scenario might not be that much of a a surprise at the end of the month:

Southampton & Reading will be playing in the Premier League next season. Only the top seven clubs have a realistic chance of promotion via the playoffs and although West Ham should qualify for the post season, it’s unlikely they’ll be successful in returning the Premier League. At the bottom, Portsmouth & Doncaster appear to be already doomed, Bristol City’s survival is in their own hands and Millwall are not out of the woods by any means.

Although there are a couple of games between the current top six over the next few days, it’s the fixtures at the bottom of the table that are the most interesting, with two clubs currently in the bottom three playing twice against teams in similar positions. Thirty years ago Bristol City were in a very similar position to the one that Portsmouth currently find themselves this season, but both teams are currently in danger of being relegated to League 1 at the end of this month.

It was only four seasons ago that Bristol City were 90 minutes and one win away from playing in the Premier League, but since then there has been an annual decline in their performance in the Championship. At their best, the Robins are a mid table team but they’ve been increasingly unreliable defensively. Combine that with poor starts to the last two campaigns, a bad case of managerial instability and the calamitous lack of goals this term and you have a recipe for Championship disaster that other sides should take note of.

Bristol City’s first game over the Easter period is at Nottingham Forest (5:20pm Saturday, Sky Sports 2), which isn’t exactly a fixture the visitors have had a lot of success in over the years. The Robins haven’t won at Forest in a league game since November 1955 (fourteen games at the City Ground since) but have at least ground out draws at Portsmouth and Middlesbrough in their last two away games – although drawing at Middlesbrough is arguably the least any visiting club should expect this season. It’s also worth remembering that despite their apparent recent resurgence in form, Forest have only won two of their last ten games at the City Ground and have lost more games than they’ve won against the current bottom six.

On Easter Monday Coventry City are the visitors to Ashton Gate. An own goal from Liam Cooper and a late winner from Cody McDonald meant the Sky Blues won at Hull last weekend for their first away triumph in the league for almost a year, but Coventry have never won consecutive games at Bristol City and have only picked up one point from a possible 12 on their travels against other sides in the bottom six this season. Oddly enough, Bristol City’s home form against their fellow strugglers is the one bright spot at Ashton Gate this season: unbeaten in four games having only conceded one goal.

Having entered administration for the third time since the late 1990s – and with a track record of financial problems dating back to the mid 1970s – Portsmouth have six games to save themselves from being relegated into the bottom half of the football league for the first time since 1982/83. It’s only two years since Portsmouth lost the FA Cup final and were relegated from the Premier League, but it’s worth noting that even without the points deduction the club would be in the bottom six – albeit above Nottingham Forest due to a better goal difference.

The immediate problem Portsmouth face on the field is that they have the toughest Easter games of any of the teams threatened with relegation. Pompey play at Southampton on Saturday lunchtime, which is probably the last game you’d chose under the circumstances: your bitterest rivals are on the point of being promoted to the Premier League, Rickie Lambert is the division’s leading scorer by a mile while you’ve won only one of your last ten away games and have failed to score in six of those games. Not only that, Southampton have won three of their four home games against the current bottom six this season while Portsmouth have lost all but one of their away games against the current top six.

On Monday, Portsmouth play Millwall at Fratton Park in a game where anything could happen. The Lions have a decent record on the road, having lost only three of their last ten away days but then again they’ve only won once at Fratton Park in their last ten visits. Portsmouth’s home form seemed to have improved but their injury time collapse against Burnley last weekend seems to indicate that the uncertainty over the future of the club is taking a toll. I think it’s fair to say that by Monday evening we’ll have a far better idea of the future of Portsmouth FC.

For once there’s a decent amount of Championship football on television over Easter, starting with Reading v Leeds (Sky Sports 1, 2:00pm) and Barnsley v West Ham (BBC1, 5:15pm). I’ve already mentioned Bristol City’s trip to Nottingham Forest tomorrow evening and on Monday evening Birmingham’s trip to West Ham is on Sky Sports 1 at 5:20pm.

All being well I’ll be back on Saturday evening with a quick review of the significant action over the next two days but for now I’ll wish you a Happy Easter…and my next task will be to remember where I’ve hidden my wife’s chocolate egg.

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The Battle For Survival Heats Up

Loads of stories in the Championship after the midweek games but the events at the bottom of the table have to take precedence.

It’s worth pointing out to Nottingham Forest fans that the last side to score more than five goals against Leeds in a league game were relegated and are now in the bottom half of League 1.

Despite the amazing scoreline from Elland Road on Tuesday night, one of the reasons Forest are in their current position because they are scoring almost half a goal per game less than they were last season. Since being promoted two seasons ago, Leeds have had a poor defensive record – almost as bad as Doncaster Rovers over the same period. They’ve kept two home clean sheets this season and that’s something Neil Warnock needs to address next season if Leeds are going to get anywhere near the standard required for promotion back to the Premier League.

David James still holds the record for the most clean sheets kept in the Premier League. One of the ways he earned this record was by not punching the ball into his own net.

I was fortunate enough – if that’s the right word – to see James’ latest howler against Watford in person and it was breathtaking. The former England international is still capable of making the occasional amazing reflex save, but his distribution, command of the penalty area and inability to either hold on to shots or defend his near post adequately far outweigh any other attributes he may have had in the past. Statistically speaking, the Bristol City defence isn’t the worst in the Championship: but the Robins have the worst goal difference in the competition and the second worst in the entire football league. James might want to consider making his newspaper column a full time job next season.

Before entering administration, Portsmouth were playing like promotion candidates at Fratton Park and relegation certainties away from home.

It’s difficult not to be impressed by the way that the fans and players of Portsmouth have responded to their calamitous situation since the turn of the year: despite having ten points deducted they are only three points from safety with games in hand over Bristol City and Coventry and a far superior goal difference than Doncaster. Of course, it always helps if the opposition has to play with ten men for most of the second half, but Portsmouth had to come from behind after an early goal from Nikola Zigic gave Birmingham City the lead and David Murphy was sent off after Chris Maguire had equalised. If anyone had come to see ‘great Pompey pass’ (apologies to William Shakespeare for misusing that line from ‘Julius Caesar’) then they might not get what they were looking for.

This weekend looks set to be another cracker: of the five games that feature either promotion hopefuls and/or potential area quarter finalists of next season’s Johnstone’s Paint Trophy there are two that qualify for games of the week. Blackpool visit the Majewski Stadium in a game between clubs that have featured in the last two playoff finals. I’ve mentioned Reading’s record recently (only one home defeat since the end of November) but the Tangerines have spent most of the season in the top ten and don’t really seem to have missed a beat since being relegated from the Premier League last season. The main reason for this is that Ian Holloway hasn’t changed the attacking style of play that won so much praise last season: despite being the wrong side of 35 Kevin Phillips has only been outscored by Rickie Lambert in 2011/12 and is on his way to having his best season as a striker since he scored 22 goals for West Brom five seasons ago.

At the bottom of the table, Portsmouth’s trip to Coventry couldn’t be any more important. A win for either side could have a massive impact on the relegation battle: three points for Coventry combined with a defeat for Bristol City at Middlesbrough would mean that the Sky Blues would be out of the bottom three for the first time since November. However, here’s where I roll out the weird stat: there have only been nine meetings in the league between these two in Warwickshire and none of them has ended in a draw. As four of Coventry’s last five games have finished all square it would be unwise to rule out another indecisive result.

There are five catch up games on Tuesday so I’ll be back to take a look at those on Monday: Hull visit Portsmouth in the most intriguing looking one, especially if Pompey win today.

Southampton And Reading Reach The Playoffs

The top two clubs in the nPower Championship reached the magic 70 point mark last weekend: the Saints had to come from behind to win at the New Den with Rickie Lambert scoring a hat trick as Southampton players scored four of the five goals against Millwall. Reading recorded yet another win ‘to nil’ as they demolished Barnsley at Oakwell.

Those results bring up the possibility of West Ham ending the season in no man’s land – they’re now three points behind the Royals and eight points ahead of Birmingham, Blackpool & Middlesbrough. The Hammers have now drawn half of their last ten games: only a late equaliser from Danny Collins saved them from defeat at Leeds, who’d taken what looked like a potential game winning lead when Luciano Becchio scored his ninth goal of the season.

At the bottom, it’s still tight but there’s now a four point gap between Bristol City & Nottingham Forest and the relegation zone. None of the bottom six won on Saturday (Forest’s game was postponed due to Leicester’s unsuccessful involvement in the FA Cup) and only Millwall and Doncaster managed to score. Portsmouth earned a point at home to Bristol City, but that didn’t do them any good in their battle against relegation.

It’s the penultimate scheduled ‘Tuesday nighter’ of the season this season and the important games keep coming. The only game between teams in the top six is the only televised game this evening: West Ham v Middlesbrough (Sky Sports 2, 7:45pm) is only Hammers’ fourth home game this season against likely promotion contenders: they’ve only beaten Blackpool at the Boleyn Ground this season. Apart from a win at Cardiff in December, Boro’s away form against the better sides in the Championship has been nothing to write home about either (they lost 3-0 at Birmingham on Saturday) and their recent visits to the East End have been forgettable. Middlesbrough have lost the last seven league games between the clubs and only scored twice in those games: it’s difficult to see the Hammers losing this one, but that’s not the same as winning it.

Portsmouth can’t climb off the bottom of the table this evening, but a win over Birmingham City at Fratton Park would do them a power of good as would defeats for Doncaster tonight and Coventry tomorrow. Unfortunately six of the last ten league games between these two at Fratton Park have ended in draws and with the Blues looking over their shoulders at the rest of the playoff contenders, it’s an uphill task for Michael Appleton and what’s left of the Portsmouth squad.

The game of the evening is between Doncaster v Millwall. It might come as a surprise to some, but Rovers have only lost two of their last ten games at the Keepmoat but on the other side of the coin they’ve have failed to win at home since the start of 2012. If you combine that with Millwall’s three away wins in their last ten games, it starts looking as if a stalemate might be on the cards in South Yorkshire, which would suit Millwall but wouldn’t be any good for the hosts: however, this game looks as if it could have a few goals in it.

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So Near Yet So Far For Cardiff City

Cardiff City lost last Sunday’s Carling Cup Final but – as I mentioned last week – it was a close game. The Bluebirds took the lead with a goal from Joe Mason and then Ben Turner managed to force home a dramatic short range equaliser with two minutes left in injury time. Unfortunately Anthony Gerrard missed the crucial penalty and that was that for 2011/12.

The Welsh side won a lot of new friends on Sunday with their performance (especially amongst the pundits who only ever seem to watch Championship teams when they play Premier League opposition) but the real challenge facing Malky Mackay and his team is winning promotion. In the eight seasons since their return to second tier football, the Bluebirds have only finished outside the top half of the table three times. We have an immediate opportunity to see how they react to their defeat but I’ll come to that later.

In the league, last weekend didn’t see much change at the top: Southampton won 3-0 at Vicarage Road and victory saw them move back to pole position. Despite being held at home by Crystal Palace, West Ham are a point behind the Saints with a game in hand but the key stat to keep an eye on as the season begins to reach a climax is Southampton’s vastly superior goal average.

In the battle for the playoff spots goals from Noel Hunt and Ian Harte at Middlesbrough propelled Reading into third place and Brian McDermott’s decision to sign a new contract strongly implies that he’s committed to winning promotion with the Berkshire club, who have now kept five consecutive clean sheets. Arguably the biggest surprise last weekend was Birmingham City losing their unbeaten home record to Nottingham Forest, for whom Dexter Blackstock scored twice. Forest aren’t exactly safe yet but may have timed their escape perfectly.

If anything, the situation at the bottom of the table has become even more desperate. As well as Forest’s win at St Andrews, Millwall fully deserved their victory at Burnley. If Coventry can pull off a shock win at Leicester and Bristol City lose at Ipswich, the Sky Blues will be out of the bottom three since the end of October. Manager Andy Thorn won’t be at the King Power Stadium tomorrow: he was taken to hospital yesterday after falling ill during training but his illness does not seem to be serious.

The other issue that could have an impact on the relegation battle are this week’s new revelations about the increasingly desperate situation at Portsmouth. Administrator Trevor Birch has admitted that Pompey may face liquidation before the end of the season: if the club’s record is expunged, the landscape at both ends of the table could change dramatically – but hopefully that’s an issue that I won’t have to write about.

This weekend’s action begins tonight with Blackpool playing Hull at Bloomfield Road (Sky Sports 2, 7:45pm kick off) in a game between two sides who are still in the running for promotion, even though they look more like playoff contenders right now. Hull have the better recent form but I’ve always thought that they don’t have enough firepower to overwhelm their opponents. The Tigers are primarily a defensive team, especially away from home: there hasn’t been more than one goal in a Hull away game since the end of November. Blackpool have only lost twice in their last ten home games against Hull and their recent battering by West Ham was their first home defeat since October.

The highlight of tomorrow’s games of the week is Reading’s trip to Millwall: the hosts did themselves a favour last week when Andy Keogh, Josh Wright and Harry Kane scored at Burnley. The Lions’ problem at the moment is that they’ve been horrible at home: since beating Portsmouth on Boxing Day they’ve lost four of their five league games at the New Den and as I mentioned above, Reading are in very good form at the moment. In addition to their defensive prowess, the Royals have won their last three road trips and have also won three of the last five games between the sides in East London.

After the 3:00pm kick offs have finished, Leeds v Southampton (Sky Sports 2, 5:20pm) looks as if it could be worth watching – it’s exactly the sort of game that Neil Warnock relishes. Leeds have had the better of recent meetings between these two at Elland Road (only two defeats in the last ten) but only managed to beat Doncaster last time out thanks to a late goal. The Saints are unbeaten in four away games and have kept clean sheets in three of them.

As I mentioned above, we have an opportunity to see if Cardiff have recovered from their Wembley disappointment when they entertain West Ham on Sunday lunchtime, the only game this weekend between two clubs in the top six and one of the occasional forays the BBC1 makes into broadcasting live football. The Hammers aren’t regular visitors to the Welsh capital – they’ve only played there twice since the turn of the century – and haven’t won in Cardiff since April 1980. It’s also worth mentioning that although we’ve seen a lot of different clubs in the top six recently, Cardiff always seem to have the best head to head record against the other contenders for promotion – last month’s home defeat by Blackpool is their only defeat against another team from the current top six this season – but the Bluebirds always manage to somehow blow it at the worst possible moment.

There’s a full midweek programme next week, but rather than concentrating on individual games I’m going to be taking a slightly different angle: I was surprised to see that the average goals per game this season has plummeted this season – it’s gone largely unnoticed and I’m curious about why it’s happened. Hopefully I’ll be able to provide some answers.

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History Not On Cardiff’s Side In The Carling Cup Final

First of all, good luck to Cardiff City in Sunday’s Carling Cup Final against Liverpool. It’s been 11 seasons since a side from outside the top tier reached the final: strangely enough, that was when Birmingham City lost to Liverpool at the Millennium Stadium.

I’ll be taking a look at that game later on – with three of the top six and four of the bottom six in the nPower Championship at home today we might see some changes at the top and bottom of the table. Southampton could go back to the top if West Ham don’t beat Crystal Palace at lunchtime (Sky Sports 2, 12:45pm). It’s unlikely that Palace will win – they’ve only won once at West Ham and that was almost 20 years ago.

After that, it looks like a race for playoff places which will probably last for the rest of the season. Any of the clubs between third and ninth position could move into the playoff berths, but with most teams still having roughly fourteen games to play anything could happen. As I mentioned last week, keep an eye on Leeds now that Neil Warnock has taken over at Elland Road.

At the bottom, Portsmouth are probably lucky that they’ve got a far superior goal difference to Coventry and Doncaster: if they beat Leeds at Fratton Park and Nottingham Forest lose at Birmingham, Michael Appleton’s side will be out of the bottom three. However, it’s beginning to look as if the battle to avoid relegation is going to be a dogfight between the bottom six: Peterborough’s 3-0 win over Bristol City last weekend plus Pompey’s points deduction means there’s a six point gap between the Posh and Millwall that could make all the difference in the run in.

There are two games this afternoon that might give us a long term clues about who is likely to be playing in the Championship rather than the Premier League or League 1 next season – Nottingham Forest had a fine run of six consecutive league wins at St. Andrews that began at Christmas 1983 but they’ve not won there since New Years Day 2001. Birmingham City are the only team left in the Championship that haven’t lost at home: they’ve also beaten Coventry, Millwall and Portsmouth without conceding a goal: so even though Forest seem to have rediscovered the art of goals, they’re going to be up against it.

Middlesbrough v Reading could be a potential playoff final in May but the trip to Teeside isn’t one that the Royals haven’t enjoyed over the years – they’ve won twice in ten games. As you might expect given their positions, in terms of recent form, there’s not much between them but the key aspect of this game that it’s only Reading’s second away game at a club in the current top six and the encounter could tell us a lot about their recovery from the playoff final defeat last May.

The main event on Sunday afternoon is the Carling Cup Final between Cardiff and Liverpool (BBC1, 4:00pm) and sadly it’s unlikely that the Bluebirds will be returning to South Wales with the trophy. In the last twenty years, four second tier sides have reached the final and all lost: to make matters worse, Bolton (1995) and Birmingham (2001) both lost to Liverpool.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom – Cardiff have actually played at Wembley more recently than Liverpool have and although it’s been a while since a club from outside the top tier has won the trophy (Sheffield Wednesday in 1991), it’s not unheard of. Having said that, I think it has the potential to be a close game – possibly just one goal in it – and Liverpool haven’t exactly been consistent away from home since the beginning of the year.

Looking at how both clubs reached the final, it’s striking that Cardiff only had to play one Premier League team on their way to Wembley and that was the understrength Blackburn Rovers side they defeated in the quarter finals. In the earlier rounds, it’s fair to say that Malky McKay wasn’t taking the competition too seriously either – Cardiff needed penalties to beat Oxford and Leicester and extra time to beat Huddersfield and used 24 different players in those three games. In contrast, it’s fair to say that Liverpool did it the hard way – they defeated Stoke, Chelsea and Manchester City away from Anfield – and the final probably represents their best chance of European football next season and their first chance of winning a major domestic trophy since 2006.

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