The Championship’s Biggest Movers in Early 2019

Blades 4-1 Tigers” (CC BY 2.0) by domfell

The Christmas period can often play a crucial part in shaping the course of the league heading into the New Year.

With games coming thick and fast, teams can easily drop out or force their way into contention for automatic promotion and the play-off places.

This year has been no exception with some of the top teams faltering while a couple of upstarts have forced themselves into the reckoning.

Leeds United lost two games in a row in January at the turn of the year, but as of 16th January, retained a four-point gap at the top thanks to poor results for their rivals. That includes Norwich City, who went on a four-game winless run, and West Bromwich Albion, who drew two and lost one following their Boxing Day win over Wigan Athletic.

Blades at the sharp end

This opened the door for Sheffield United who won four in a row over the festive period, leapfrogging into second place. Prior to that, they had only won three in 11 and looked out of contention for automatic promotion. Chris Wilder’s men are now third favourites for the title in the Championship betting markets and priced at Evens to get promoted.

Robins bobbing along nicely

Looking a little further down the table, Bristol City are another club on an upward trajectory. The Robins bounced back from four straight defeats to go unbeaten from the end of November through to the middle of January. Before that run, Lee Johnson’s men were languishing down in 15th place, but they now sit in seventh, just two points outside of the play-off places. Despite their uplift in form, they can still be backed as long as 20/1 to achieve promotion.

Tigers on the prowl

Three points and three places further back, Hull City are the league’s in-form team. With five straight wins from the middle of December topping off an 11-game unbeaten run, Nigel Adkins’ men have powered their way into playoff contention. On 23rd October, they were second bottom with just nine points from their opening 13 games and looked certain to become relegation candidates.

Now, just four points outside of the playoff zone, the Tigers are still not getting much attention from the bookies, who had them as long as 25/1 for promotion at the time of writing, but no team has a better record over the last 13 games. If they can bolster their squad in January while maintaining their current momentum, they could well be in the mix come May.

Case in point

On November 5 last year, Fulham were 17th place in the table having won just four of their 16 games. They went on to finish third in the table losing just three of the next 31 games and secured promotion via the playoffs.

Winning runs don’t win Championships or promotion alone and all three teams mentioned will need to maintain consistency over a longer period if they are to stay in contention for ascension to the Premier League.

GOTW: WBA v Norwich

Collectively speaking, last weekend’s performances in the FA Cup were about as unremarkable as usual.

Half the division was eliminated at the first hurdle, with four teams beaten by opposition from further down the pyramid, including Sheffield United losing at home to Barnet.

Of the eight clubs that won their ties, only three are in the current top ten and only Middlesbrough and WBA are among the promotion contenders. Make of that what you will.

It’s back to the League for a couple of weeks now with two big matches at the top of the section, one televised. Before that, a quick recap of the Christmas games.

Leeds, Norwich and WBA formed the top three at close of play on Boxing Day, but Norwich had a particularly unproductive Christmas: they’ve now only won only once in their last five outings and blew the lead twice against Derby at the end of last month.

Hull, Millwall and Sheffield United won all three games over the holidays: that may have saved the former pair from any danger of relegation this season. It’s also probably cemented Sheffield United’s chances of reaching the playoffs – which makes the Blades’ performance in the FA Cup even more risible.

Ipswich – who were unsurprisingly four points from safety after the Boxing Day games – have had it. At this point Reading look likely to accompany the Tractor Boys into League One at the end of the season but after those two it’s not clear who will be the third team to be relegated at the end of the campaign. Wigan, Preston and Stoke all earned just one point over the holiday fixtures: with Stoke’s draw with Shrewsbury in the FA Cup last weekend heralding the end of Gary Rowett’s reign at the Britannia Stadium. He was replaced almost immediately by Nathan Jones (formerly of Luton), which is a nice idea on paper: the combination of Jones’ potential and the unpleasant dose of reality that Stoke have encountered this season might work, but we’ll see.

In other news, Steve Bruce was appointed Sheffield Wednesday boss on January 2nd.

This weekend starts with Leeds v Derby this evening (7:45, Sky Sports Football/Main Event) – Leeds haven’t lost consecutive league games at Elland Road since March, but this is the first of the four home games they’ve got to play against other clubs in the top six before mid-March. Derby won’t be pushovers: they’ve already won at Norwich and WBA and will be looking for revenge for the 4-1 thrashing by Leeds back in August.

The main event is WBA v Norwich tomorrow afternoon.  The Baggies are on a six game unbeaten streak at the Hawthorns but have only won twice in that sequence and have a very tough home schedule in February, with games against Middlesbrough, Nottingham Forest and Sheffield United . Norwich are on all eleven game unbeaten run away from home but they’ve not beaten any of their nearest rivals on the road. There is one thing in their favour though – Norwich have only lost four of their last ten visits to the Hawthorns in league competition, even though they’ve never won three consecutive games at the venue.

The televised game on Saturday evening is Millwall v Blackburn, but to be brutally honest that’s a pretty poor choice. On that less than positive note, I’ll sign off for the week…

GOTW: Sheffield United v WBA

Another brief one this week.

It’s a bumper Christmas Holiday Special next Friday and to be honest, not much has changed over the last seven days. I also had a technical issue this afternoon I could have done without!

Last week’s encounter between Millwall and Hull ended all square:

That result didn’t harm either team, but Millwall could drop back into the bottom three if they lose at Preston this weekend.

It looks increasingly likely that the Boxing Day leaders will be either Leeds or Norwich, although Derby and Sheffield United are in with a shout – tonight’s televised game features the latter.

Sheffield United v WBA

(this evening, 7:45pm kick off, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

The Blades haven’t scored at home for almost four hours; Billy Sharp’s third goal of his hat-trick against Wigan at the end of October was the last time they scored at Bramall Lane. It’s beginning to look as if United are one of the better teams in the division but may not be good enough to go up: the recent defeat at home against Leeds was their third defeat in four games against the current top six. They also face another big test on Boxing Day, when they host Derby.

The Baggies have picked up wins at Ipswich and Swansea since their most recent away defeat and have only lost one of their four aways against the current top ten this season, but there are indications that they might fall off the pace at the top. Although they’re only one of two sides to score 40 or more goals so far this season (the other is Aston Villa) only 34% of their goals have been scored on the road and Albion have not kept an away clean sheet this season.

Verdict: the key to this game is Sheffield United’s defence. Only four teams have conceded fewer goals than Blades this season and it was only a mistake by Dean Henderson a couple of weeks ago that stopped them from keeping a clean sheet against Leeds. On the other hand, WBA haven’t kept an away clean sheet this season and haven’t scored more than two goals on the road since the end of September; their last win at Bramall Lane was in February 2004 but over the last nine years the sides have only met twice. I don’t this game will end all square, so I’m tentatively going for a Sheffield United win.

The games to watch out for tomorrow are Bolton v Leeds and Rotherham v Reading, the latter could give an indication of which of those sides are up for a relegation battle. There are couple of other televised games this weekend: leaders Norwich travel to Bristol City tomorrow evening and on Sunday lunchtime Nottingham Forest take on Derby County.

I’ll be back next weekend for the Christmas Special, which I’m looking forward to putting together 🙂

GOTW: Lions v Tigers

Making a goalkeeping mistake in a high profile game to give your nearest rivals a vital away win is never a good idea.

Yet that’s exactly what happened to Sheffield United last Saturday lunchtime:

I managed to get my predictions for that one – and the WBA/Brentford game on Monday – wrong, so perhaps I should lay off the crystal ball gazing for a bit 🙂

The focus shifts to the bottom of the table this week, although there’s only one game between the bottom six tomorrow so Millwall v Hull automatically becomes Game of the Week.

There’ll be brief details of the FA Cup draw at the end of the post, but suffice to say this will be the first of two meetings in a less than a month between these two at the Den.

Although the Lions have gone five games without a win, their record at home isn’t that awful: the recent reverse at the Den against Birmingham City was their first defeat at home since the end of September and having already hosted six of the current top ten, Neil Harris’ team can look forward to a somewhat easier run of home games in 2019. That being said, Millwall are two points worse off at this stage than they were when they were relegated at the end of 2014/15 and having seen them live recently I have to say that it’s no surprise that they’re struggling.

Hull currently have a three game away unbeaten streak going and have discovered their shooting boots after a run of five games where they only scored once between the end of August and mid October. Fraizer Campbell has scored three of their seven goals in the last three games and he’ll need to keep that type of run going over the next few months: the Tigers still have to play at eight of the teams currently in the top ten including a visit to Leeds at the end of the month. On the flip side, they’ve won three of their four encounters with the sides that are currently below them and if their recent form continues the best possible scenario is a mid table finish.

Head to head: Hull have only won twice at Millwall in ten games since December 1984; the Tigers last win at the Den was almost six years ago. Last season’s encounter in South London finished 0-0 – Hull have only scored twice in their last five visits to Millwall.

Verdict: in games between the bottom six this season, the home team has only lost three times but none of those duels featured either Hull or Millwall. The Tigers have already won at Rotherham and Bolton this season and I’d not be too surprised if they earn at least a point tomorrow.

There are two other games to note that could have an impact at both ends of the table. Bolton travel to Norwich having not won any of their last ten games and having not won at Carrow Road for eighteen years; in the Saturday evening televised game, managerless Reading play Sheffield United – the Royals finally dismissed Paul Clement on Wednesday, a move that shouldn’t have come as a massive surprise to regular readers of this blog.

The other televised game takes place this evening: WBA v Aston Villa would have been Game of the Week if Villa had been in the top six. This is the first time the clubs have met outside the top tier since 1987; Villa haven’t won at the Hawthorns for just over a decade.

Finally this week, the draw for the third round of the FA Cup resulted in seven ties against Premier League opposition (only Bristol City and Derby were drawn at home), four all Championship games, six clubs play League One opposition, Sheffield United will host Barnet of the National League and both Bolton and Middlesbrough are currently waiting for next week’s replays to find out their opponents. Off the top of my head, Derby are capable of beating Southampton and Ipswich will be lucky to escape Accrington Stanley with a replay. More to follow in the first post of 2019.

I’ll be back next weekend!

GOTW: Sheffield United v Leeds

Televised game of the week alert!

I’ll get to that in a moment, but first here’s a quick overview.

The current top seven are still on course for a trip to the playoffs at the very least – it’s going to be tight but I also still think Leeds, Middlesbrough and WBA are the best bets for promotion. We’ve got a few weeks until the annual Christmas Prediction Fest so let’s see what happens before then.

I’ve not bothered covering the midweek games for a while but the encounter at Villa Park on Wednesday was somewhat eventful:

At the bottom it looks increasingly as if it’s a case of select two from five to accompany Ipswich into League One at the end of the season. Over the last five seasons the only team that was in last place at the end of November and wasn’t relegated was Bolton last season; Ipswich are slightly better than Rotherham and Blackpool were when those clubs spent the entire season adrift at the bottom of the table, but that’s about the only positive spin you can put on this situation.

As for the other contenders for the drop, over the last half decade the bottom six at the end of November has provided us with at least two of the teams that were relegated and between 2014 and 2016 all three of the teams that were demoted at the end of the campaign were in nineteenth place or worse.

Sheffield United v Leeds (today, 12:30 kick off, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

The Blades are currently on an eight game unbeaten streak at Bramall Lane but that’s going to be tested this month as they host Derby, Leeds and WBA. Leeds’ recent away form is patchy: although they’ve only lost twice in their last six road trips, they’ve only won at Hull and Wigan.

Hang on, that looks a bit like a sentence that you’d find in a rugby league blog.

Head to head: unbelievably, Leeds haven’t won at Bramall Lane since they clinched the old Football League Championship in April 1992! United have won six of the last eight meetings in all competitions since then. Additionally, seven of the thirteen Yorkshire derbies this season have ended in draws.

A couple of extra categories for this one as it’s such a big game – in the top six mini league, the away side has won four of the 13 games between the current top six this season, but all four of those matches involved either Nottingham Forest or Norwich. As I mentioned above, this is the start of a nasty looking run of home games for Sheffield United: Leeds have already won at Norwich but were well beaten at WBA a few weeks ago.

This is the eighth game of the week this season but only two of those matches have finished with a home win. It’s less than six weeks since I last chose a game of the week and to illustrate how much things can change in the Championship, at that point Sheffield Wednesday were sixth. The Owls then lost five of their next six games and are now only three points outside of the bottom six.

Verdict: Leeds won’t win – their previous record at Sheffield United is poor and with three key defenders (Ayling, Berardi and Jansson) all missing, I can see the wait for an elusive win at Bramall Lane continuing. That’s not to say The Blades will win though…

The other televised games this weekend are Middlesbrough v Villa (5:30) and WBA v Brentford (Monday 8pm) – the former looks as if it should be a good one, but I can’t see anything but a home win in the latter.

Finally this week the draw for the Third Round of the FA Cup Draw will be shown on BBC1 on Monday evening at 7:30pm. Tempus fugit as the Romans used to say.