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.

EFL Sky Bet Championship Preview 2018/19

We’re only a couple of hours from the start of another nine months of fascinating and frustrating action in the Championship so here’s my take on what to look out for in 2018/19.

I decided to abandon the club by club previews for this season because – to be perfectly honest – I needed a break after the World Cup, which ended less than a month ago. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy – far from it!

Seven of last ten Championship winners had spent the previous season in the competition, although four of last five seasons have been won by teams that had either been relegated at the end of the previous campaign or hadn’t even finished in the top nine – atlhough I need to point out immediately that two of the three teams that bounced back immediately were Newcastle United. The last unsuccessful playoff team who went on to win the Championship were Leicester in 2013/14, which isn’t good news for Aston Villa. Stoke are the current favourites – which makes sense, but as the Racing Post pointed out in their excellent preview earlier this week, over the last decade only one of the antepost favourites to win the title have done so – Newcastle a couple of seasons ago.

Automatic Promotion

It’s a similar story in the battle for second place, which in six of the last ten seasons has been won by a team that has played at least one season in the Championship, but only two clubs that had been unsuccessful in the playoffs at the end of the previous have managed that –Middlesbrough fans take note. Teams between eighth and thirteenth were far more likely to bridge the gap between just missing out on the playoffs to becoming genuine promotion contenders: so based on last season’s performances Bristol City and Millwall cannot be ruled out. It’s been eight seasons since one of the relegated teams finished second: depending on your point of view that means it’s about time someone managed that again or it shows how difficult it is to adapt to the second tier. I’d prefer the latter explanation.

Playoffs

Last season Fulham became the first team since Swansea in 2011 to win promotion via the playoffs after a top ten finish in the Championship at the end of the previous campaign. Other than that, there have been strong performances from relegated teams (four of the last ten winners) and from sides nobody expected to do well – Blackpool, Crystal Palace and Huddersfield all finished in the bottom half of the table in the season before they won the so-called ‘richest game in the world.’ I’m not saying that Nottingham Forest or QPR fans should get overexcited, but they’re precisely the sort of teams that fit the description: Forest appear to be this season’s trendy pick but we’ll see about that.

Relegation

Slightly easier to predict. Last season Sunderland became only the second club in the last decade to suffer consecutive relegations (the other team was Wolves) so it’s safe to say that there’s only a remote chance that the new arrivals from the Premier League will find themselves in the bottom three next May. Only six of the last 30 teams that were relegated from the Championship (20%) went down after being promoted from League One so even though Rotherham are among the favourites for the drop, that might not be the case. If you’re looking for teams that could struggle, your best bet is to look at clubs that finished in seventeenth place or below last season: half of the teams that were relegated over the last ten years had performed poorly in the competition during the previous season – although in 2017/18, only Burton had finished the previous season in the bottom six. Bolton and Reading look particularly vulnerable this time round: the Trotters finished two points clear of Barnsley despite not being in the bottom three from January until the penultimate game of the season and – to use one of my favourite cliches – the Royals were lucky that there were three teams worse than them last season. If you’re looking for an outsider for relegation, don’t rule out Hull – they were marooned in the bottom third of the table from the end of October, slipped into the bottom three at the start of February and only won eight more points than Barnsley. Not to mention that I think Nigel Adkins is incredibly overrated as a manager.

Rash Predictions:

Neither Aston Villa nor Bristol City will perform as well as they did last season, but the consequences for the Robins will not be as dire as they will for the Villans. Especially if Thierry Henry actually does replace Steve Bruce.

It’s been over five seasons since Marcelo Bielsa has coached a club side for more than 20 games. The recent history of the Championship has been littered with ‘big’ names that couldn’t manage at this level and I will be very surprised if he’s the still manager of Leeds this time next season. I was tempted to add ‘at Christmas’ there, but I said that about Ian Holloway last season and he managed to last the entire season before being binned by QPR.

I’m not sure which of the former Premier League teams will have the best season, but Stoke pinching Gary Rowett from Derby is a canny move that might work out well. On the other hand, I’m prepared to wait and see how his replacement at the Rams will do: on paper Frank Lampard should be a decent manager, but five consecutive top ten finishes show just how frustrating it must be to support Derby and Lampard will be doing well if he can make that six.

Despite having picked up a couple of pre-season injuries that could scupper their start to the season, Preston could be dark horses for promotion if they start winning the type of games they drew last season.

Sheffield Wednesday’s decline will continue although I don’t think they’ll be relegated. Staying in South Yorkshire, don’t be too surprised if Paul Warne suddenly becomes the target of bigger clubs if Rotherham defy expectations.

I might be alone here, but I can’t see Ipswich struggling. The Tractor Boys have been stuck in a rut for years now but they aren’t suddenly going to get worse overnight. Paul Hurst did a great job at Shrewsbury last season and I think the doom mongers are extraordinarily premature and are basing their predictions on the last ten games of last season when Town had absolutely nothing to play for and nobody had a clue who the next manager would be.

I’ve left the easiest one until last: last May it was 38 years since a second tier club won the FA Cup. It won’t happen this season either.

A couple of interesting stat lines for those of you that are interested in that kind of thing:

The most popular score line in the Championship over the last five seasons has been 1-1; it won’t come as a massive surprise that over the same period, both teams have scored in just over half of the games in the division.

Last season was the second season in the last three where fewer than 2.6 goals per game were scored; four of the last five campaigns have featured an average of over 2.5 goals per game.

FA Cup Third Round Preview

The Third Round of the FA Cup used to be one of the highlights of the domestic calendar but over the past few seasons it’s become the equivalent of being invited to your teetotal vegetarian sister in law’s on Boxing Day.

Nonetheless, here are four games that should be worth keeping an eye on. All are 3:00pm kick offs on Saturday afternoon.

Blackburn Rovers v Hull City

First meeting in the competition at Ewood Park since January 1954 and Rovers haven’t won any of the previous three ties where they’ve had home advantage. However, this is not going to be an easy one for the Tigers, who have only won two of their last 10 trips to Blackburn in all competitions and have only won once on the road in the Championship this season. I’ll make the case for Blackburn over at Buzzin League One Football.

Bolton Wanderers v Huddersfield Town

Avoiding the drop is the priority for both teams: Bolton have won all four of their FA Cup ties against Huddersfield in Lancashire, but the last of those wins was in 1956 and since the turn of the century they’ve only beaten the Terriers twice in five games at the Macron. Wanderers’ recent home form has been impressive after a poor start – one defeat since the end of September – while Huddersfield have struggled on their travels in the Premier League, failing to score in eight of their eleven games so far.

Ipswich Town v Sheffield United

This is easily the most competitive of the four ties between Championship clubs – the other three look one sided and the Birmingham/Burton game might easily be the least interesting tie of the round.

First meeting in the FA Cup in Suffolk for almost exactly 20 years and the Blades first trip to Portman Road in any competition for seven years. The Tractor Boys had their five game home winning streak snapped by Derby last week and haven’t won a home tie in the competition for almost nine years. United reached the semi finals of the FA Cup almost four years ago,  but have only won one away game in the tournament since then; Chris Wilder’s team haven’t recorded an away win in the Championship since mid-November.

Wycombe Wanderers v Preston

Most recent encounter in the FA Cup was just over four years ago, when the sides were separated by a single Kevin Davis goal for the Lillywhites. Preston have reached the fifth round twice in the last decade and could be poised for another decent run in 2018: they’re currently unbeaten in five away from Deepdale and that run includes wins at both Bristol City and Cardiff.

Televised games: Norwich v Chelsea (Saturday, 5:30pm, BT Sport 2) and Nottingham Forest v Arsenal (Sunday, 4:00pm, BT Sport 2). I can’t see either of those ending in surprise results, but Newport County v Leeds (Sunday, noon, BBC Wales) has plenty of potential for an upset.

Back to the league programme next weekend – it won’t come as a surprise I’ll be concentrating on the recent trio of managerial changes, two of which were somewhat baffling. Before that, on Tuesday Bristol City travel to Manchester City for the first leg of the League Cup semi-final (7:45pm, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

2017 Play Off Final Preview

Huddersfield v Reading

(Sky Sports 1, starts 2pm GMT, kick off 3pm GMT)

I mentioned at the beginning of last year’s preview that there was about an even chance of the winners of that final being relegated, which is exactly what happened to Hull at the end of this season.

Whichever team wins this is going to struggle mightily in the Premier League. Reading had the 15th best defence in the Championship in 2016/17 – Wigan conceded fewer goals and Blackburn just one more. Thirteen teams scored more goals than Huddersfield, who finished in the top six with a negative goal difference overall – the first time that’s ever happened since the second tier became the Championship thirteen years ago. A lot has been made of the fact that three of the four playoff teams this season finished in the bottom half of the table a year ago and those statistics indicate to me that both sides have overachieved without adequately papering over the cracks this season, let alone next.

Huddersfield are the favourites, but the bookies are expecting extra time.

Huddersfield Town

Last ten aways: 4-3-3 (I’m counting the semi final playoff win at Sheffield Wednesday as a draw over 90 minutes), goal difference -4

Playoff record at this level: winning semi-finalists 2017

Looking back at the season, it was a hot streak between December and March in which the Terriers only lost twice in eighteen games that saw them record their highest league position since the early 1970s. Since then they’ve not been as impressive (five wins in their last fifteen) but they maintained they spent all season in the top five without ever genuinely threatening either Brighton or Newcastle.

Strength: home form, which is irrelevant today.

Weakness: Goalscoring away from home. Huddersfield only scored more than two goals in one away match this season: the 3-2 win at Rotherham on Valentine’s Day was also the last time they scored more than once in an away game. Town failed to score in seven road trips, losing all of those games.

Ones to watch: Nakhi Wells and Elias Kachunga. Both strikers reached double figures this season but neither of them has been particularly prolific away from home – they haven’t scored on the road since February. If Town stand any chance of either winning promotion or staying in the Premier League, Kachunga and Wells have to contribute this afternoon.

Reading

Last ten aways: 3-2-5, goal difference -8

Playoff record at this level: Runners up 1995, 2011. Beaten semi finalists 2003, 2009

I still find it remarkable that a team that lost a game 7-1 at the start of last month is in the playoff final. After an inconsistent start, the Royals hovered between third and fifth from the end of October onwards and – like Huddersfield – never really threatened the automatic promotion playoffs. I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but their form away from the Mad House isn’t very good: if this was a home game I’d not have any problems backing them but three of their five away wins in 2017 were against teams they ought to have beaten and two of those were settled in the last minute.

Strength: home form. Only Brighton earned more points at home than Reading and no club lost fewer home games. Once again, irrelevant today.

Weakness: away defence. In 2016/17 the average Championship defence conceded 34 goals in away games: Reading conceded 14 more goals than that. They conceded in 18 of their 23 matches away from home and let in more than two goals on eight occasions.

One to watch: Yann Kermogant. The veteran French striker is having his best season since he helped Bournemouth win promotion to the Premier League a couple of seasons ago: just over half of his goals this season have been scored in away games and if the Huddersfield defence don’t keep an eye on him then they could be in for a torrid time.

Final Stats Over The Last Decade:

The Higher side that finished higher at the end of the season has won six of the last ten finals. The third placed side has also won three of the last four finals between clubs that finished in third and fourth positions. Advantage: Reading.

Both teams haven’t scored in seven of the last ten, also less than 2.5. Settled by one goal in eight of last ten, only one AET in the last decade. Six of last ten have been 1-0. The last ten league games between today’s finalists have been pretty equal: two draws with the remainder split evenly.

Verdict: the stats above indicate that Reading might win by the margin of one goal, but I’ll be amazed if the final score is 1-0 to either team. It’s been five seasons since both teams have scored or we’ve had more than two goals in the final and considering how bad both of these defences were in away games during the regular season, this particular final could turn into a shoot out.

An update will follow immediately after the game is over.

Not the best advert for Championship football. Huddersfield won on penalties after extra time. There’ll be an end of season round up posted as soon as possible.

Play Off Semi Finals Part Two

Both of the first legs ended in draws – which normally favours the hosts of the second legs. You never know though: Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday are both favourites to win promotion.

Reading v Fulham (this evening, Sky Sports 3, 7:45pm)

Although it might appear that Fulham blew their chances last Saturday, the fact that Reading are unbeaten in ten home league games at the Madejski Stadium is significant. That’s their best run in the Championship since the last time they were relegated from the Premier League, but it also indicates that the Royals will lose at home at some point in the near future: half of their eight wins in that run were against teams that finished in the bottom half of the final table and Reading’s last three home games were against the three teams that were relegated.

Since the start of February, Fulham have only lost at Birmingham and Derby, but they’ve also beaten Newcastle, Huddersfield and Sheffield Wednesday. This evening’s game would be the best time to replicate those performances but don’t be too surprised if The Cottagers concede at some point – they’ve only kept three away clean sheets in their last ten matches, although only Derby have scored more than two goals against Fulham in that period. To put it another way, only Newcastle had a better away record last season and no-one scored as many away goals as Fulham.

Head to head: Reading have only lost three of their last ten league games in Berkshire against Fulham, their last defeat was nine years ago in a Premier League game. The most recent encounter between the two teams ended in a 1-0 win for the hosts: Roy Beerens goal just after half time ensured all three points went to Reading. Fans of Championship nostalgia may enjoy this post from May 2011, the last time that Reading were involved in the playoffs.

Verdict: both of these teams have improved since bottom half finishes a year ago and I’ll put my hand up and say that I didn’t expect this from either of them. I’m still far from convinced by Reading, but having not lost at Craven Cottage last weekend I think their chances of reaching Wembley are very good, although they’ll have to be at their absolute best to beat Fulham, especially as they’re missing Paul McShane and possibly Jordan Obita this evening. It could be a long night.

Reading 1, Fulham 0. Yann Kermogant’s penalty put the Royals through to the final even though Fulham had most of the possession and more than half as many shots on goal again than Reading.

Sheffield Wednesday v Huddersfield Town (tomorrow evening, Sky Sports 3, 7:45pm)

Saturday’s draw at Huddersfield was never really in doubt after the opening exchanges and it wouldn’t really be much of a surprise if a similar result occurred tomorrow evening. Wednesday haven’t lost consecutive home games in the Championship since April 2014 and although this is a one off where potentially anything could happen, the Owls have won six of their last ten at Hillsborough.

Huddersfield were very inconsistent away from home over the latter half of the season: they only won two of their last six road trips and managed to conceded six goals in consecutive games at Bristol City and Nottingham Forest as well as winning at Brentford. They’ve not scored more than two goals in a game since Valentine’s Day (when they pulled off a last minute win at Rotherham) and only Chelsea loanee Izzy Brown has scored more than one away goal since mid February.

Head to head: meetings in the Championship since both teams were promoted in 2012 have been pretty even. Wednesday have won two of the last three and drew the other match, but Huddersfield won the two previous encounters and have recorded four victories in their last ten trips to the John Smiths Stadium since 1983.

Verdict: Looking back at last season’s playoff preview, I wondered if 2016/17 represented a better chance of Sheffield Wednesday winning promotion and having written that, I’m going to stick with it. After having finished 19th last season Huddersfield have surprised a lot of people, but although that represents a huge step forward – similar to that of Sheffield Wednesday in 2015/16 – there were signs towards the end of the season that the Terriers’ wheels had fallen off.

Sheffield Wednesday 0, Huddersfield 0. Huddersfield will play Reading in the final after winning 4-3 on penalties after extra time failed to produce a goal.

Updates will follow both games and although I’ve got to write the preview yet, the League One playoff final between Bradford City and Millwall will be posted on Buzzin’ League One Football on Friday evening.