Anti-Climaxes In Prospect On Last Day Of Term

Just two issues to be settled on the last day of the regular season: the last playoff team and who will join Yeovil and Barnsley in League One next season.

At the top there are three games that will determine the last playoff team. Despite what you might have read elsewhere, it’s still mathematically possible for Blackburn to reach the playoffs but it would take some very surprising results for that to happen. Long term readers will remember that it’s this type of team that could have a big impact in the following season: Leicester scraped into the playoffs last season but have won the title at a canter in 2013/14.

Blackburn v Wigan

Rovers have gone about their business quietly this season and it’s a tribute to those involved that they’re still in the hunt for a playoff spot with one game left. Unfortunately, they’ve not been higher than eighth this season and although they’ve not lost at home since mid March, they’ve not done well enough against the top six to be serious candidates for promotion this season. Next season might be another matter altogether.

Nottingham Forest v Brighton (12:15pm, Sky Sports 2)

Brighton are unbeaten in their last seven games but they’ve only won once in their last five road trips and that was against a Leicester side that had already been promoted. Although they probably won’t lose at the City Ground, Albion haven’t beaten Forest there for almost ten years.

Reading v Burnley (12:15pm, Sky Sports 1 – probably the one I’m going to watch)

A point against the Clarets might be good enough to see Nigel Adkins’ side into the post season, but a win against a team that’s already reached the Promised Land would finish the job off nicely. The problem for the hosts is that they’ve not beaten any of the other teams in the top six at home this season and the recent 2-0 victory over Middlesbrough was their first home victory since the end of January. The Royals have won five of the last six league encounters with tomorrow’s opponents in Berkshire.

I still think that the last place is Reading’s to lose, although if they were that good they should have had this spot tied up weeks ago and if they go on to win promotion back to the Premier League it might be a disaster. Brighton haven’t improved enough to merit serious consideration as promotion candidates and as I mentioned above, it’s probably a season too early for Blackburn even though the signs at Ewood Park are encouraging.

At the bottom, it’s even more congested with four clubs attempting to avoid the last relegation spot. All of them have things in common: terrible home records and an inability to score.

Blackpool v Charlton Athletic

The Tangerines need to be extremely careful here. If they lose to the Addicks at home, their appalling goal difference – only Millwall, Doncaster and Barnsley are worse – could be the end of them. Blackpool haven’t won at home since beating Huddersfield in March: that was only their second home win in the Championship since before Christmas.

Bolton Wanderers v Birmingham City

A recent mini revival in their away form with wins at Doncaster and Millwall combined with the fact that they’ve not lost three consecutive away games since last autumn might give even the most pessimistic Blues fan something to cling on to, but otherwise the diagnosis is bleak. Other games need to go Birmingham’s way and they’ve only won once in their last ten visits to Bolton.

Leicester City v Doncaster Rovers

Doncaster’s away record against teams in the top half of the table: played eleven, drawn two, lost nine. Goals scored: six, goals conceded 26. Doncaster’s away league record at Leicester: played 15, won one (in December 1902), drawn one, lost 13. Goals scored: 11. Goals conceded: 45.

If Birmingham lose tomorrow, Doncaster will be playing in the Championship next season.

Millwall v Bournemouth

Since he took over at The New Den, Ian Holloway has presided over five wins but three of those have happened in the current seven game unbeaten streak and the Lions need to win in order to stay in the Championship. The problem is that they’ve not won in South London for nine games and Bournemouth have only lost once in their last six road trips, but since the turn of the century Millwall have only lost once at home to the Cherries. I don’t normally pay much attention to manager of the month awards, but I was surprised to see that Holloway was on the short list for April’s award: the nomination seems to have been based solely on away form.

Anything could happen. Birmingham and Doncaster are the bookies favourites for the drop but although neither Blackpool or Millwall are entirely safe, the Tangerines in particular are capable of playing far better than their position suggests and I’m 100% certain that Ian Holloway will be able to inspire Millwall to get the result they need. I’ll go for Doncaster being annihilated by Leicester and Birmingham surrendering meekly at Bolton.

Updates as soon as the games finish including the playoff schedule.

Thursday: Brighton v Derby (Sky Sports 1, 7:30pm)

Friday: Wigan v QPR (Sky Sports 1, 7:30pm)

Doncaster are down.

Leicester Win The Title, But Almost Everything Else Is Up For Grabs

Leicester won the Championship on Tuesday night thanks to a win at Bolton. With two games still to play, the Foxes have already won more points than eight of the last ten winners and although they can’t overtake the 106 points Reading earned in 2005/06, they could still equal the 102 point haul Newcastle managed in 2009/10. While I’m on the subject, with 89 points Burnley would have won the title in half of the last ten seasons – and in the last 20 years only the 2002/03 Leicester side won more points whilst finishing as runners up.

So the remaining issues are: the last playoff place, which may very well go to the last game of the season and for only the second time in the last ten seasons it’s looking increasingly likely that there will be a playoff team that didn’t reach 70pts: Leicester achieved that last season, which – once again – indicates that next season’s promotion candidates are more than likely competing at the top of the table. More of that before next season, but my guess is that Reading will nick the last playoff spot on goals scored, but I wouldn’t recommend a trip to the bookies armed with that information.

Relegation: if Yeovil lose at Brighton this evening (Sky Sports 1, 7:45pm), they’re done for. Who will probably join them is still up in the air, but when all is said and done this season it’s noticeable that Barnsley, Charlton, Birmingham and Blackpool have all been far worse this season than in 2012/13 and all of those clubs have managed to score one less goal per game in this campaign. Of course, they can’t all be relegated but the survivors from that group will be amongst the favourites for the drop at the start of next season. I don’t want to sound too pessimistic about newly promoted Brentford surviving next season, but the Bees haven’t managed consecutive seasons in the second tier since the early 1950s.

There are three ‘top v bottom’ clashes worth keeping an eye on this weekend:

QPR v Millwall

If anyone needs to avoid the Curse of Fourth then it’s Rangers: the easiest way to do that would be for them to lose their remaining matches but that would be a ridiculous scenario. Although Millwall haven’t won at Loftus Road since February 1989, QPR have only won on the last seven league meetings on their own patch. That being said, Harry Redknapp’s side have taken 31 of the 33 points available from home games against teams currently in the bottom half of the table and Millwall have only lost two of their five away games against the current top six. Expect the unexpected: the Lions have been performing far better on their travels than at the New Den recently and actually have something to play for.

Wigan v Blackpool

If there’s a chink in Wigan’s armour, it’s their less than convincing performances at home against teams that have struggled: one win, three draws and a defeat to the current bottom six at the DW is part of the reason why the Latics haven’t quite confirmed their participation in the playoffs yet. Blackpool have conceded five at Reading and Derby and three at Leicester this season and although the Tangerines have won two of their last three league games at Wigan, a fifteen game streak without an away win looks ominous to me. This could be the last meeting between these clubs for a while.

Doncaster v Reading

Rovers are still up to their necks in it: five games without a win and three straight home defeats after not losing any of the previous eight matches at the Keepmoat is not a comfortable position to be in, especially as only Blackpool and Charlton have scored fewer goals this season. Donny have beaten Leicester, QPR and Wigan at home this season and so the Royals might be in for a tough afternoon: the problem for the hosts is that they’ve not actually beaten Reading at home since a remarkable 7-5 win in September 1982 despite seven attempts to do so. Additionally, Reading have only lost three of their eleven away games against the sides in the bottom half: the last of those was at Middlesbrough in December.

I’ll hopefully be back before next Friday, although the last of this season’s catch up games take place on Tuesday night and could have a big impact on both ends of the table. Wigan travel to Birmingham in a match that could be vital for both teams if results on Saturday don’t go their way.

Update: to no-one’s great surprise, both Barnsley and Yeovil were relegated. Birmingham v Wigan is going to be a massive game on Tuesday night: the Blues lost at home to Leeds yesterday and are now in the bottom three.

Shock, Horror: Easter Weekend May Be Interesting.

So it’s been almost two weeks since I last posted and this is a ‘catch up’ for me as much as anything else.

Regular readers know that I don’t get hysterical about how important Easter is: Leicester were one of my picks to win the Championship in August, just as Burnley were one of my picks to win promotion. At the bottom of the table, three of the five sides I mentioned in that post are facing the drop and as I never tire of repeating, Christmas is far more important if you want a long term view of what’s going to happen.

Anyway, Leicester are up regardless of what happens. Burnley have an eight point lead over Derby with four games left, with – in all likelihood – the Rams and QPR having clinched playoff places. After that, I’d say any of the teams in the top eight could win the last two playoff spots with sixth place – as now – being a toss up between Brighton, Reading and Ipswich. Wigan were leading Arsenal in last weekend’s FA Cup semi final before succumbing to penalties and it’ll be interesting to see how they react to two successive defeats.

There are a couple of stories from the ‘there’s always next year’ angle: Stuart Pearce will be taking over as manager of Nottingham Forest in July and Massimo Cellino’s takeover at Leeds United has finally been ratified. Call me a cynic, but I’ll be surprised if either of these developments will be as successful as the hype currently surrounding them. Wolves will be back in the Championship next season after winning promotion from League One and it’s looking increasingly likely I’ll be posting about Cardiff next season.

At the bottom, Yeovil are five points adrift of safety and even though Barnsley won at Charlton on Tuesday, I still think the Tykes will go down. Charlton now only have one game in hand over their nearest competitors in the bottom six but any of the clubs from Huddersfield onwards could find themselves in trouble with just a couple of poor results over the next couple of weeks. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Millwall overtake Blackpool before the end of the month, but anything could still happen.

Rather than look at the weekend’s programme as a whole, I’ll look at Monday’s games separately. There’s quite a compelling reason to do that as there’s a televised double header on Friday which is not only rare, but also features two of the day’s more intriguing matchups.

The outstanding game of the 3:00pm kick offs is Wigan v Reading. The Latics surprisingly lost at home to Millwall last Tuesday to end an eleven game run without a home defeat and it’s worth pointing out that although Wigan haven’t beaten any of the sides above them at the DW Stadium, they’ve only lost one of their six games against the other teams currently in the top half. Reading lost at Bournemouth on the same night to end their six game undefeated away streak, but the Royals don’t have a great record at Wigan, having only won once in the five league meetings between the two clubs in Lancashire and that was the first time they met – in December 2003.

Friday’s televised games are the Lancashire derby between Blackpool v Burnley (Sky Sports 1, 5:15pm) followed by the (ahem) ‘six pointer’ at the Keepmoat between Doncaster and Derby.

Quite frankly, Blackpool’s record at Bloomfield Road has been horrible: since mid December they’ve only won twice in twelve attempts and although they’ve beaten Wigan and Reading this season, the last of those victories was in mid October! Although I’ve got some sympathy for Barry Ferguson, the malaise that the Tangerines find themselves in has been self inflicted and although they’re facing relegation back to the third tier for the first time in eight seasons, if Blackpool manage to stay up but the situation of the field continues in such a shambolic way then next season will be an absolute disaster.

Burnley haven’t lost on the road since Boxing Day but have alternated wins with draws since then and if that pattern continues this one will be a draw – something that’s not happened in games between the two local rivals at Bloomfield Road since 2000 and an outcome that neither of them can really afford at such a crucial point in the season.

At one point recently it looked as if Doncaster’s form at the Keepmoat might keep them up, but with consecutive defeats against Birmingham and Bolton have cast a fairly substantial shadow over Rovers’ prospects of avoiding relegation. To be fair, Donny haven’t lost three homes in a row since they were relegated two seasons ago and have beaten Leicester, QPR and Wigan at home this season. It looks like Derby’s work may be cut out for them in this game, especially as their form has been patchy away from Pride Park recently – one win in five – and there’s never been a draw between the sides in a league game in South Yorkshire.

The only game on Saturday worth keeping an eye on is QPR’s visit to the King Power Stadium to take on champions elect Leicester, although if Derby win at Doncaster that might effectively end any hopes Rangers might have of automatic promotion and could even make them this year’s victims of The Curse Of Fourth Place. Remarkably, Leicester have only won two of the last six league meetings they’ve hosted against QPR but one of the reasons Harry Redknapp’s side have fallen off the pace over the last few months is that they can’t score on the road against their fellow promotion challengers – a fact that doesn’t bode well for their playoff prospects.

I’ll be back on Sunday, but it might be a bit later than usual as I’m travelling during the day.

Sky Bet Championship Preview 22nd March 2014

As I mentioned last week, I’m only going to be covering the battle for the playoff places for the rest of the season. Wigan look as if they’ve timed their run to perfection – or at least it did until Tuesday night. With ten minutes left the Latics were leading 1-0 but then the game caught fire. Yeovil took the lead with five minutes left, but in a sensational finish the match finished 3-3: Luke Ayling scored Yeovil’s equaliser four minutes into injury time after Byron Webster’s own goal had given Wigan the lead for the second time.

That result – combined with QPR losing 3-0 at Sheffield Wednesday – means there’s only three points between the teams in the playoff positions with ten games left: although the match between Derby and Nottingham Forest (Sky Sports 1, 12:15pm) is the obvious contender for game of the week, I’m going to be taking a closer look at two sides outside the top six that still have a chance of winning promotion at Wembley in May.

Since the turn of the year, Brighton have only lost once in seven league outings at the Amex and their defence has kept four clean sheets. The Seagulls are a point behind Forest despite having played one game less and Reading are only ahead of them on a slightly superior goal difference, but there are a couple of trends that emphasise why Brighton aren’t doing as well as they arguably ought to be. Since 1st January they’ve been over dependent on Leonardo Ulloa for goals and only one of their of seven home league goals has come in the first half: Seagulls fans have had to be patient as the other six have all traken at least an hour to arrive. To be fair, that reminds me a lot of Hull City in the last couple of seasons, but the next step is winning more games. Between the end of August and the end of October they drew six of their nine games and that’s another reason why they aren’t further up the table.

Ipswich won at Yeovil last week for their first away victory of 2014: it was their first success on the road since a Boxing Day success at Bournemouth but the fact that they were in bottom six at this point last year indicates an improvement that may have gone unnoticed nationally and could be a sign of things to come next season. After flirting with the top six at the turn of the year, the Tractor Boys have probably been a little too inconsistent: they’ve only won four of their last ten outings and in the last month have only picked up six points from the 15 available but that’s probably due to losing striker David McGoldrick for the season following a knee ligament injury last month.

Although Ipswich have only lost two of their last ten league games at Brighton, their last win was in May 1989 at the old Goldstone Ground but they’ve come away with a point in five of the last six meetings between the clubs in Sussex. I wouldn’t rule out a draw, but given that Mick McCarthy’s side have only beaten struggling teams on the road this season, I’ll be mildly surprised if Ipswich win.

At the bottom of the table, the point that Doncaster earned at Forest on Saturday means that Charlton, Millwall, Yeovil and Barnsley are five points adrift of everyone else going into the weekend. A last minute goal from Dorian Devite helped the Addicks beat Bournemouth on Tuesday and Charlton now are level on points with Millwall with three games in hand. The obvious problem for Jose Riga (apart from me getting his name wrong a lot recently) is that Charlton will have to play two games a week to catch up – the key matches are when they face Yeovil and Barnsley at the Valley on consecutive Tuesdays in a month’s time.

There’s a full midweek programme on Tuesday, so if I get a chance I’ll post before then. Otherwise I’ll be back next Friday…for what could be the game that decides who wins the Championship.

Sky Bet Championship Preview 15th March 2014

Although the leaders won on Tuesday and Burnley earned a point that arguably should have been three last night,  both were significant results that had implications for the rest of the season.

To put it simply, both of the top clubs guaranteed themselves at least a playoff place – which means from now on that the other six clubs in the top eight scrapping for what’s left. So I think it’s entirely appropriate that it’s time to apply the same rule to Burnley as I did to the team that’s top of the Sky Bet Championship: I won’t mention the Clarets by name for the rest of the season unless one of the other promotion contenders is within six points of them.

Having got that out of the way, Saturday’s games feature three games that will have an impact at both ends of the table. Nottingham Forest – who haven’t won at the City Ground in the Championship since the start of February – host Doncaster Rovers, who haven’t managed an away win since the end of September. Rovers don’t have a bad record at Forest in recent years: they’ve only lost one of their last four games in the Championship there, although Forest’s defensive problems (they’ve conceded the first goal in all of their games since losing to Sheffield United in the FA Cup) may not be exposed by Donny, who have failed to score in six of their last ten away games and haven’t scored more than two goals on the road since August.

QPR have struggled at home since the end of January, so although a visit from Yeovil might look like three points, the Glovers have only lost half of their eight most recent away games and were on a five game unbeaten streak until they lost at home to Ipswich last weekend. Rangers have had similar defensive issues to Nottingham Forest recently: they’ve not kept clean sheet at Loftus Road since before Christmas and with their visitors scoring in five of their last six road trips (James Hayter and Ishmail Miller have been on target more than once in that period) this might not go according to plan for the favourites.

Charlton earned a point at home to Huddersfield in their first game under new manager Jan Riga, but they need to start picking up wins in their games in hand in order to escape the bottom three. A trip to Millwall in a South London derby with relegation for both clubs a distinct possibility isn’t exactly what the doctor ordered: the Addicks last won at Millwall in December 1995 and have only one away win against a team in the bottom half of the Championship.

I did a quick search on the blog to see when I first mentioned that Chris Powell might be in danger of losing his job: the answer was early December when it was becoming obvious that last season’s performance was not going to be repeated. Birmingham, Millwall and Barnsley have all regressed at a similar rate from last season, but Charlton are currently showing the biggest disparity between 2012/13 and 2013/14 and it’s not much of a surprise that they’re bottom: it was the timing of the decision to sack Powell that was the head scratcher as the damage in the league had been done before the FA Cup defeat on Sunday.

The main event on Saturday is at the Mad House, when Derby are the visitors in a game that could be repeated in the playoffs. If we take a detailed look at the head to head record between teams that are currently between third and eighth, it’s something of a surprise to find Reading haven’t beaten any of their immediate rivals for promotion at home and even though we’re not even half way through March this may be the Royals last chance to do so. The Rams haven’t won in Berkshire for almost a decade though and haven’t beaten a team in the top half of the table since they won at Wigan at the beginning of December. Incidentally, it’s the Latics who have the best record in group of teams in playoff contention.

Finally this week it’s emerged that Carson Yeung probably shouldn’t have been allowed to take over Birmingham City back in 2009: although that’s an issue that the Premier League should have spotted at the time, there have been rumours floating around that Yeung’s recent conviction has had an adverse affect at St. Andrews. The Blues were in the same position this time last year and played themselves out of it, but it remains to be seen if they can repeat that and they might struggle mightily next season.