nPower Championship Preview 5th April 2013

I think we should just assume that every weekend until the end of the season is a big one. Tomorrow we’ve got four of the bottom six playing each other and the game of the week could have massive repercussions in the race for automatic promotion.

Before I start the preview, the other story that broke this week was Neil Warnock’s departure from Leeds United. Warnock made it clear a few weeks ago that he wouldn’t be back at Elland Road next season unless the club was promoted – which to be honest didn’t look likely – and presumably left on his own terms. Some interesting names have been linked with the job, but more of that when someone’s appointed.

At the bottom, we’ll begin alphabetically. Peterborough and Huddersfield appear to have lost form at the worst time of the season – reintroducing the idea that there always seems to be one club that ends up being relegated due to a spectacularly bad run of form late in the season.

Huddersfield have been very inconsistent this season – like most promoted teams, they began well – but this is the first time they’ve been in the bottom three since August. It’s obvious what the problem at the Galpharm Stadium has been recently, as the Terriers have failed to score in four of their last five home games and haven’t won as many home games as they ought to have done. Daniel Ward’s last minute winner against Middlesbrough just over a month ago was the last time they scored at home.

Peterborough haven’t been any higher than 21st in the table this season, but a five game unbeaten run on the road shows how well they’ve done to turn their disastrous early season form around. However, it’s exactly this type of game that should give us an indication of if it’s possible for Fergie junior’s team to pull of one of the classic escapes in Championship history. The Posh have a relatively good record at Huddersfield overall, but they’ve only won once in their last five trips to West Yorkshire.

30 miles to the south, tomorrow’s meeting between Sheffield Wednesday and Blackburn is the first league meeting at Hillsborough since August 2000, but the visitors last won there in November 1994. In fact, since 1961, Rovers have only managed two other victories at the same venue – which is almost as poor as Wednesday’s record at their own ground this season.

Dave Jones’ side haven’t been out of the bottom half of the table since last Autumn and Wednesday’s form against the other strugglers has been patchy. Last week’s draw at Bristol City was three points lost rather than a point gained as the hosts forced a controversial injury time equaliser. On the other hand, Blackburn have performed reasonably well against the strugglers, but having not won in nine games, over the last few weeks they’ve plummeted down the table and into the bottom six.

In the only game between sides in the top six and bottom six, Crystal Palace have an earlier opportunity to put last week’s 4-0 home defeat by Birmingham behind them when they entertain Barnsley. A home defeat had to happen at some point – the Eagles hadn’t lost in the league at Selhurst Park since August – and although Palace also failed to score at home for the first time since mid January, they’ve done well against the strugglers this season.

Barnsley have only lost twice in their last six road trips but haven’t picked up maximum points away from Oakwell since winning at the Riverside early February and haven’t kept an away clean sheet since last October when a goal from Tomasz Cywka earned three points at the Valley. They’ve already lost at Hull, Watford and Brighton this season and have still got to travel to Cardiff and Nottingham Forest, which is a very tough run in for the Tykes.

The game of the day is live on Sky Sports 2 at 5:15pm. Whatever happens at Vicarage Road will have an impact on the final weeks of the season: if Cardiff win in Hertfordshire for the first time since 2009 then they’ll preserve their seven point lead over Hull even if the Tigers beat Middlesbrough. If both Watford and Hull win, Cardiff’s lead will be cut to four points.

Half of the last 10 games between these two at Vicarage Road have ended in draws, but the worrying aspect of this game for the Bluebirds is that since October 1970 they’ve only won game in the last twelve meetings. Cardiff have lost two of their last three road trips, but tend to bounce back after defeats – they haven’t lost consecutive games since October – and have yet to lose an away game against another top six side.

Watford have only lost one home game in their last six outings, but have struggled against the other promotion contenders at Vicarage Road this season – they beat Forest before Christmas, but lost to both Hull and Brighton earlier in 2012/13. Tuesday’s win at Hull was a big step in the right direction if the Hornets are to return to the Premier League for the first time since 2006, but beating Cardiff would be even more impressive and create an even more exciting end to the season than the one we’re expecting.

I’ll post an update as soon as I’m able, otherwise I’ll be back next week.

Watford and Cardiff finished goalless – the Bluebirds have a five point lead with six to play, but host Barnsley on Tuesday night in an important game for both teams.  Crystal Palace’s failure to win means they’re now six points behind Watford: the current top three have now earned enough points to reach the playoffs.

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The End Of The Season Is In Sight

No post next week due to the international break (I’m also on a stag do, which doesn’t help!) but there are four huge games this weekend that might go some way to deciding the promotion and relegation issues.

Before I take a look at them, it’s worth a glance at the remaining games that could have an overall impact at the end of the season. I’ve looked at the current top six and current bottom six teams, but the current table is fluid and there’s no doubt that individual scenarios will change. Some things stick out though:

* Hull and Barnsley have very tough looking games for the rest of the season – the Tykes have the hardest looking schedule by far. David Flitcroft’s side entertain Watford (on Saturday), Leicester and Hull but have to travel to Sheffield Wednesday, Crystal Palace, Cardiff and Nottingham Forest before the end of the season.

* Hull will also have a big impact on both ends of the table – they’ve still got to play Forest, Watford and Cardiff at the KC and they also travel to Ipswich, Wolves and Barnsley in the space of two weeks next month.

* Wolves arguably have the easiest run in – two home games against Bristol City (more of that in a moment) and then Hull in mid April.

* Four of Sheffield Wednesday’s last ten games are against other teams in the current bottom six whilst three of Peterborough’s last nine games are against teams in the hunt for promotion.

If that wasn’t enough excitement for you, there are three games on the last day of the season that could be massive – Hull v Cardiff, Palace v Peterborough and Nottingham Forest v Leicester. Once again, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I think we’re going down to the wire at both ends of the table. Even though there are two months of the season left, it’s worth remembering that the last day of the season is Saturday 4th May and all games are simultaneous kickoffs at 12:45pm.

Back to the immediate future now. With four derbies, a grudge match and the bottom two playing each other, this weekend could be wild. The fun starts at 12:30pm on Saturday when Huddersfield and FA Cup semi finalists Millwall travel to Leeds and Charlton respectively, but the eyecatchers are all 3:00pm kick offs.

Game of the week has to be Wolves against Bristol City. Over the last couple of seasons we’ve grown used to seeing both these teams at the wrong end of whatever competition they were in, but considering that Wolves were 9/1 to win the Championship last August, their decline has been genuinely shocking. The Robins have been in the bottom four for almost the entire season, whilst Wanderers were occupying a mid table spot before Christmas: one win in fourteen games since then has seen the Black Country outfit plummet down the table at a rate of knots.

History appears to be on Wolves’ side. Bristol City haven’t won at Molineux for over eighty years, but that record will end one day and over the last couple of seasons the Robins have pulled off some memorable performances in big games at the end of the last couple of seasons. They also only lost once away from home to the other strugglers (at Barnsley in September) and will want revenge for the 4-1 drubbing at Ashton Gate in December.

At the top of the table, there’s a potential playoff between Hull and Nottingham Forest at the KC Stadium. I looked at the Tigers before their Monday night game this week, so the spotlight falls on Forest. Since losing at Bristol City last month, they’ve won five of their last six games and a season that looked as if it was petering out has suddenly been revived since Billy Davies returned to the helm. With Henri Lansbury and Radoslaw Majewski responsible for nine of Forest’s 13 goals in the last five games, Davies has found a potent strike force that could earn Forest their first win at Hull since the mid 1970s.

Finally this week, Dave Jones faces one of his previous clubs when Cardiff visit Hillsborough this weekend – the leaders haven’t won there since November 2005 and although they’re still favourites for promotion, there have been signs that they may be on the verge of one of their epic end of season meltdowns. Their loss at Middlesbrough was the first time that they’d failed to earn at least a point on the road since November and only a very late equaliser on Tuesday saved them from a home defeat. Wednesday’s mini revival at home was ended by Forest a couple of weeks ago and as I mentioned above, they face a tough end to the season. If there’s a decisive result tomorrow – and that might be a big if – it’ll indicate which team is the better prepared for the remainder of the season.

Back in a couple of weeks, enjoy the international break…it’s going to be full on afterwards.

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FA Cup Quarter Finals: A Championship Perspective

I must admit I’m feeling a bit pleased with myself – I wrote this post in December and I felt both Blackburn and Millwall were in with a chance of decent FA Cup runs this season, although before I get carried away I also thought Barnsley wouldn’t get past Burnley in the third round.

None of the three teams have been strangers to the latter stages of the competition over the last decade. Of course, Blackburn were a Premier League team until last season, so you’d expect them to have done well in the past, but Rovers haven’t got past the fifth round since 2009. Milwall reached the final in Cardiff in 2004 and Barnsley lost  to Cardiff in the semi finals in 2008, but this is only the second time the Lions have got this far since 1985. Barnsley last reached the 6th Round in 1998.

You’ve got to fear for Barnsley though. If they don’t lose to Manchester City tomorrow (EPSN, 5:30pm) it’ll be seen as a massive surprise: the Tykes’ last three games against last season’s Premier League winners have seen them lose by two, four and six goals and they’ve not won in Manchester for sixteen years. Chris Dagnall is the Yorkshire club’s leading scorer in the competition this season with three goals, but he’s yet to come up against a Premier League defence.

Millwall and Blackburn play on Sunday (ESPN, 2:00pm) and in an odd twist of fate, they were supposed to be playing at the New Den in a league game this weekend. It appears that both clubs have abandoned any hopes of the playoffs to concentrate on the Cup and I find myself wondering if there’s ever been a quarter final with two teams in such poor recent form. Millwall haven’t won at home in the league since New Year’s Day: their last win was against Villa. Blackburn haven’t won an away game since the middle of last month, when they beat Arsenal. The protagonists have only met twice in the FA Cup and Blackburn won both games.

Back to the bread and butter now. Cardiff get a week off due to Barnsley’s involvement in the FA Cup and although their lead could be cut to just two points if Watford beat Blackpool, the (insert colour here) Birds will have two games in hand.

Midweek draws for Leicester and Brighton have created a six point gap between fourth and sixth places – which may not look like much, but we’ve only got ten games before the end of the season. A late Michael Keane goal prevented Leeds from winning all three points at the King Power Stadium while Brighton were held to a goalless draw at Ashton Gate. Despite earning a point, Bristol City remain bottom but there’s only a six point gap between the bottom six teams. As I said last week, we’re going down to the wire – with the bottom three clubs in the top ten in the form table, anything could still happen.

There are two games to look out for on Saturday. Peterborough v Ipswich is an interesting one as it’ll only be the third meeting in the league between them and Posh have won both – including the remarkable 7-1 demolition job in August 2011 which featured five goals in 20 minutes and two red cards for the Tractor Boys either side of half time.

After two away wins in three games in December, Ipswich have been awful away from home. They’ve not scored on their travels since the end of January and although they picked up a point at Huddersfield a couple of weeks ago, it’s their home form that’s keeping them out of immediate danger of the drop.

Peterborough have only lost two of their last eight games at London Road and still have a game in hand over Wolves and Bristol City, but they have an extremely tough run in and are currently second favourites for relegation. As we’ve come to expect over the past couple of seasons, scoring isn’t an issue for Darren Ferguson’s team but in all five of their last home games they’ve had to come from behind at some point.

If Ipswich are being kept afloat by a combination of a decent home record and a poor away won, the same type of thing is in danger of scuppering Leicester’s automatic promotion plans. The Foxes have lost one home game in 2013 but have failed to win on the road since mid January and are currently only four points clear of seventh placed Nottingham Forest. Their opponents on Saturday – Sheffield Wednesday – are dangerously close to the battle to avoid relegation, but Tuesday night’s defeat at Watford was the first time the Owls had lost an away game since the beginning of December. Wednesday won at Hull in January, but have been beaten by the other four sides in the top six.

There’s a rare appearance by Championship teams on Monday Night Football at the beginning of next week, so the next scheduled post will be on Monday. You never know what might happen at the Etihad though…

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nPower Championship Preview 1st/2nd March

Having won at Wolves last Sunday, Cardiff reached the 70 point mark and are more or less guaranteed a playoff place. I wouldn’t get too excited about that though – this is probably the last weekend where ALL the clubs in the nPower Championship could theoretically reach the playoffs.

However, over the last five years the tables at the end of February have some extremely strong trends that cannot be ignored:

* The club in first place has been always been promoted.

* Second placed teams have been promoted in four of the last five seasons

* No club in either fifth or sixth place at the end of February has been promoted in the last five seasons

* In three of the last five seasons, one club from outside the top six at the end of February has been promoted – all three via the playoffs, but none from outside the top nine

* In four of the last five seasons, all three clubs in the relegation spots have eventually been relegated

Those trends seem to be good news for Cardiff and Watford and bad news for Leicester, Brighton, Wolves, Bristol City and Peterborough. But there’s always more to these facts than meets the eye and it looks very much as if it’s the bottom of the Championship that will be most exciting part of the rest of the season. Here’s why:

* None of the bottom three have earned fewer than 30 points at this stage and all of them are averaging at least one point per game. That’s not necessarily relegation form at this point.

* The four point gap between Peterborough and 21st place is the narrowest margin since February 2007, when only two of the bottom three clubs at the end of February (Southend and Leeds) were eventually relegated.

* The current bottom three are currently outperforming 13 of the 15 teams that were eventually relegated in the last five seasons.

By the time Easter is over – Good Friday is on March 29th – we’ll have a much better idea about who’ll be playing in the Championship in August 2013, but I’m going to make a bold prediction right now: I think many of the major issues will be settled on the last day of the season.

This weekend’s programme begins tonight when Watford play Wolves (Sky Sports 2, 7:45pm). Quite frankly, Wolves have been dreadful at Molineux since the end of September. One win in 13 games is relegation form – they’re about evens for the drop – and they can’t really expect any mercy from a Hornets team that’s looking for promotion and has only lost one of their last ten road trips. Not only that, Watford have only lost three of their last ten visits to Molineux since the mid 1990s and if Wolves lose again tonight, Bristol City and Peterborough have an extra incentive to do well on Saturday.

Tomorrow there are a couple of ‘top versus bottom’ games to keep an eye on. Neither Ipswich nor Huddersfield will drop into the relegation zone if they lose to either Leicester or Brighton, but the latter pair both need to win to maintain any aspirations regarding automatic promotion.

Leicester’s 3-0 win over Blackburn during the week was their only league victory in February and with what looks like a ‘winner takes all’ game coming up at Cardiff in a couple of weeks time, Nigel Pearson’s side know that any further slip ups will probably mean the playoffs once again. Ipswich have struggled so far in 2013: two wins in nine games isn’t anything to write home about.

Huddersfield kept their first away clean sheet since November when a James Vaughan goal earned all three points at Burnley this week, but they’ve only picked up one point from the five games they have played at the current top six this season. Brighton have only lost once in their last ten home games and look increasingly like the sort of side that could profit from any mistakes made by the other promotion contenders.

The other televised game tomorrow is at Hillsborough (Sky Sports 2, 5:20pm): Sheffield Wednesday are in their best home form of the season (one defeat in the last six games) but they haven’t won consecutive home games since August. Forest ended a seven game winless streak away from home at Charlton last week (Yann Kermogant was sent off), but it’s been nearly a year since they won consecutive away games. A draw is a distinct possibility.

There’s a full programme next Tuesday and so I’ll be back early next week.

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nPower Championship & FA Cup Preview 16th February 2013

Bit of a mixed bag this weekend, so for the sake of brevity I’ll divide today’s post into two sections.

Although there are six league games today, only two could make a difference at the top and bottom of the table. Bristol City travel to Cardiff in the early kickoff and could potentially escape from the bottom three if (and it’s a big if) they beat the league leaders. Although the Robins’ home form has improved considerably since Sean O’Driscoll took over, they haven’t won on the road since early December and haven’t scored an away goal since New Year’s Day. Cardiff seem to be going into defensive mode as they protect their lead at the top of the table – four of their last five games featured one goal or less, so this match could be a lot closer than expected.

The other league game to look out for is Crystal Palace v Middlesbrough – both teams need a win to maintain their promotion challenges, but although Boro won on Tuesday, they’ve been terrible on the road (four straight defeats) and face the risk of dropping out of the playoff positions altogether if they don’t improve soon. Palace haven’t lost at home since the first game of the season, but have only won only two of their last five games at Selhurst Park.

In the FA Cup, there’s a genuine prospect that we may have at least two teams in the quarter finals as both Millwall and Barnsley face teams from lower down the league structure. Millwall’s trip to Luton is live on ESPN at 12:45pm; Leeds‘ game at Manchester City (ESPN 2:00pm Sunday) and Huddersfield v Wigan (ITV1, 3:55pm) are also televised and – rather sadly – represent the most television coverage that Championship teams will have until the end of the season.

I’ll be back on Tuesday to review this weekend’s action as there’s a full midweek programme – unless something daft happens in the FA Cup.

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