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.

GOTW: Middlesbrough v Norwich

First post for a while and there’s a load to get through.

The big news over the last couple of weeks was Birmingham’s nine point deduction for final irregularities last Friday, although the correct technical term is ‘a breach of profitability and sustainability’ rules.

As has been pointed out on twitter over the last week, it’s funny how clubs that have been managed by A Certain Manager have found themselves on the wrong end of these penalties. Know what I mean Harry?

It’s a shame for Birmingham City though. They were one of the most improved teams this season yet over the last few weeks they’ve had a lot of negative publicity after the assault on Jack Grealish and now the points deduction – which leaves them on the verge of a relegation scrap that looked unlikely for most of the season.

Then there’s Bolton. They have until April 3rd to sort their unpaid tax bill out or else they’ll be the first EFL club to go into administration since Aldershot almost six years ago. A potential points deduction would confirm relegation for the Trotters –  who are likely to be returning to League One anyway – and would basically reduce the situation at the bottom of the table to just one relegation spot.

On the field, at this moment only Norwich look like they might be heading back to the Premier League; having said that, Sheffield United have an easier run in and are probably a more balanced team, but Leeds still cannot be discounted as contenders for automatic promotion.

I think I’ve mentioned this scenario before, but the playoff positions look as if they’re going down to the wire. It may be significant that WBA still haven’t appointed a successor to Darren Moore, which makes me wonder if they’re preparing to for automatic promotion next season rather than in 2018/19.

At the bottom, it’s probably any one from Millwall, Reading and Rotherham that’ll be accompanying Bolton and Ipswich on the journey to League One next season, although neither Wigan nor QPR aren’t exactly safe as it stands right now.

Middlesbrough v Norwich (5:30pm, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

Three – yes, three – home wins in fourteen games since mid-September is hardly promotion form even if two of those victories came against Sheffield United and WBA. Boro’s problem has been the same for the entire season: at home only Sheffield United have conceded fewer goals but only Ipswich and Bolton have scored fewer. Boro haven’t found the back of the net more than twice at Riverside since August and their leading goalscorer at home – Jordan Hugill – hasn’t notched since the middle of January and has only scored four goals.

As it stands this will be Norwich’s penultimate away game of the season against a team in the top half of the table: as I mentioned above, the Canaries have a straightforward looking run in and having lost only once on the road since the start of September this game doesn’t look to troublesome for them.

The fun part is the head to head. Norwich have only won twice in their last ten league games at either the Riverside or Ayresome Park and although their last win was in September 2017, the previous occasion was in 1988. Boro have won half of those last ten encounters, including three of the last five. The most important game between the two was the 2015 play off final:

In all likelihood I’ll be back next week…

 

 

GOTW: Leeds v WBA

To start this week’s post, an announcement.

Due to a major change in my professional life, for the next few weeks I’ll be posting on an ‘as and when’ basis due to being a lot busier than normal. I’m going to aim to post something at least once a fortnight, so please bear with me.

GOTW: Leeds v WBA (this evening, 7:45pm, Football/Main Event)

Only four points separate these two going into this evening;s game – Leeds have only lost twice at Elland Road since October but they’ve only won one game on the road this year and that’s the reason they’ve dropped out of the automatic promotion places. The Baggies have won four straight away games but haven’t won five in a row away from the Hawthorns at this level for ten years.

Baggies wins at Elland Road are few and far between: the last time they met in the league was 12 years ago and although West Brom won that encounter, they hadn’t won in Yorkshire before then since October 1978.

Other matches with implications at both ends of the table: Ipswich v Reading, Millwall v Norwich and Wigan v Middlesbrough

Neither Ipswich nor Bolton can escape the gravitational pull of League One this weekend but Reading have been thrown a lifeline by Rotherham‘s inability to win any of their last six games. Millwall and Wigan both have some breathing space but if they lose at home to their top six opponents they’ll be dragged right back into the relegation scrap.

The only other televised game this weekend is the Steel City Derby at Hillsborough on Monday (Sky Sports Football/Main Event, 7:45pm): it would take an improbable set of events for Sheffield United to leap into pole position, but it is possible – so I’d say if it looks likely, it’s probably a must watch.

I’ll be back soon, if anything dramatic happens I’ll post ASAP.

Are Leeds Going To Blow It?

Welcome to this week’s episode of ‘typical anti-Leeds drivel’, if you’re a Leeds fan of a certain disposition you might not want to continue reading.

Here’s what happened at Elland Road last weekend in the clash between the top two:

Leeds have now lost four of their last six games after a seven game winning streak that ended at the end of December. It’s unclear if this is a blip or not – after this weekend’s game they don’t face another top six club until next month – but there’s suddenly a defensive frailty about them. If any Leeds fans want to take a look at what happened to Marseille in the 2014/15 season, they might see something that should worry them.

As we go into this weekend’s games, only ten points separate the top seven, which could mean the last third of the season is more unpredictable than we might have imagined even a month ago. Currently no-one looks like a side that could win automatic promotion, but to put that into context the only team that has more or less no chance of mathematically reaching the playoffs is Ipswich.

Nonetheless, Middlesbrough v Leeds (tomorrow 1pm, no TV coverage) is our game of the week this week even though neither team is currently on fire. Boro were dumped out of the FA Cup earlier this week by Newport, which probably shouldn’t have been that much of a shock considering their record at the Riverside since mid-September – where Tony Pulis’ side has won just twice in ten games. That being said, their away form has sustained their league position and Boro haven’t lost at home to any of the teams currently above them in 2018/19.

Leeds’ recent come from behind win at Rotherham was their first away success since before Christmas but although they’ve got a reasonably straightforward looking run in, this game will be their last chance until the start of next month to win any away points due to QPR‘s continued involvement in the FA Cup.

Leeds have only won one of their last five visits to the Riverside – an early Alex Mowatt goal earned all three points in February 2014 – and the last time both of these teams scored in a game at Middlesbrough was just under eight and a half years ago. Given that Boro have the best defence in the division, I wonder how likely it is to happen again?

The only other game that will have an impact on the table is at Millmoor, where Wigan are the visitors. Reading would have to win at Sheffield Wednesday to overtake Rotherham, but considering Wigan haven’t won a game away from home since August (thirteen in a row), the Latics might be due a rare success. The Millers have only won twice at home since October but actually have a decent home record against the other strugglers.

TV games: Aston Villa v Sheffield United (this evening, 7:45pm), Stoke v WBA (Saturday 5:30pm) and Norwich v Ipswich (Sunday, noon) all look as if they were chosen well in advance. The Old Farm derby is usually televised but might well be one to avoid given the respective positions of the protagonists in the table: Norwich have beaten Ipswich twice by three clear goals in the last 25 years and I’d not be surprised if that happened again in what might be the last league derby between the teams for a while.

I’ll get back to the FA Cup next weekend, but with six teams left in the competition, I’m beginning to wonder if something rather rare might happen. With all due respect to Newport, imagine the possibilities if Manchester City were drawn against the winners of Chelsea/Manchester United in the quarter finals…

Ay Karanka…

A few seasons ago there were three particularly dysfunctional clubs in the Championship, but that appeared to have changed – until last weekend.

To be fair to Blackburn Rovers, Venky’s have more or less left the club to run itself over the past few seasons.

But then we come to Leeds and Nottingham Forest. The current leaders appear to have known nothing about Marcelo Bielsa’s spying mission before last weekend’s game against Derby although if it had been described as ‘scouting’ it wouldn’t have generated as much comment.

Aitor Karanka’s departure from the City Ground came after I posted last Friday, so I was unable to react to it.

I’ve been pretty clear that Forest had taken a big step this season under Karanka as they’ve moved into the ‘difficult to beat’ category from being a team that could have easily been relegated a couple of seasons ago. That being said, I also thought the best case scenario for them in 2018/19 was the playoffs and that next season could be a better chance for promotion. Yet not for the first time, a toxic mixture of nostalgia, unrealistic expectations (stop me if you’ve read that before) and unwanted advice has taken over at the City Ground. Martin O’Neill hasn’t managed a team in English domestic football for six years and it’s been almost a quarter of a century since he managed a team at this level: it’s also a big risk to return to a club where you were a legend as a player, so we’ll see how this pans out. Give it until next Christmas.

Last weekend’s game of the week ended all square – if anyone’s keeping count that’s the fourth draw in 11 games of the week and the second in the last three.

There was no real change at either the top or the bottom of the table after last weekend’s games. This week there are no outstanding candidates for the game of the week, but there are three games where teams from the top six face teams from the bottom six.

Derby v Reading

Despite being in their usual position, The Rams have only won one of their last six league games and haven’t beaten anyone at home since the start of last month. On paper they’ve got a relatively easy schedule coming up – this is the start of five matches against the bottom seven before the end of February – but they’ve already lost at Bolton, Millwall and Rotherham in 2018/19 and any repeat of those results could have a huge effect on their chances of promotion. I’m still far from convinced about Frank Lampard: the Rams are currently not as good as they were last season.

Reading beat Nottingham Forest last weekend. but haven’t won on the road since beating Preston in mid-September. The Royals have lost all six contests against the teams currently in the top six and new boss Jose Gomez has lost three of his first five games in charge: but before anyone writes off the chances of a possible upset, consider this. Since August 2002 the clubs have met in 16 games at Derby and the hosts have only won five of those contests – and Derby won at Southampton on penalties in the FA Cup earlier this week.

Middlesbrough v Millwall

It may come as a surprise to those of you that don’t follow them, but Boro have only won three games at the Riverside since mid-September and seem to be having particular problems with mid table sides. Their home record against the bottom third of the table is fine though: ten points from twelve and no goals conceded.

Millwall’s impressive form over the holidays was undone by losing at home to Blackburn last Saturday evening; their win at Ipswich is the only away victory they’ve recorded this season. Although I hasten to add that the Lions have earned points at both Bristol City and Nottingham Forest and since the start of the decade they’ve only lost twice in six trips to Middlesbrough.

Bolton v WBA (Monday evening, 8pm, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

An interesting televised contest to round the weekend off.

When you’re involved in a relegation scrap, scoring less than one goal a game and having to play four of the top six over the next month or so far from ideal, but that’s the situation Bolton are in. They didn’t have a bad December at home – only one defeat in four outings – but their 2-1 win over Rotherham on Boxing Day was their first win in seventeen games.

WBA are still very much in contention for automatic promotion but seem to be having their first wobble since they went four games without a win in October/November. The New Year’s Day defeat at Blackburn ended a run of four consecutive away victories but the Baggies haven’t won at Bolton since December 2000 – the last time the clubs met in a league game in Lancashire that wasn’t in the Premier League.

The other televised games this weekend are Norwich v Birmingham (this evening, 7:45pm) and Swansea v Sheffield United (5:30pm tomorrow) – both are being shown on Sky Sports Football and Sky Sports Main Event.

Back to the FA Cup next weekend, so I’ll see you then.