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.

Burnley v Leicester: Winner Takes All?

Well, I wrote at the end of January that I wouldn’t mention Leicester by name again until one of the other promotion contenders were within three points of them – and 56 days later that’s the case!

The only reason the leaders have been caught is because they’ve dropped points against Blackburn and Yeovil in their last couple of games – and as most of you are probably aware, they were seconds away from losing to the Glovers on Tuesday. With the rest of their challengers having either lost or found momentum recently, both Leicester and Burnley have shown a remarkable degree of consistency this season: neither of them have been outside the top three since September and they’ve occupied the top spots since the beginning of last month. If – as seems likely – they both win promotion, it’ll be the first time both teams have played together in the top flight of English football since the mid 1970s.

I’ve looked at tomorrow’s game from multiple angles and the outcome is very unclear, which is all the more reason to watch it on TV (12:15pm, Sky Sports 1) if you can’t actually be at Turf Moor. To begin with, Burnley have only won two of their last ten league meetings with Leicester at home with the last victory coming in August 2010, but the Clarets haven’t lost at home in the Championship for over a year and have won the three home games against the other clubs in the top six. They’re also currently on a five game home winning streak.

From Leicester’s point of view, they’ve only lost four away games this season and three of those defeats fall firmly into the category of surprises. Although they’ve yet to play at either Reading or Wigan, tomorrow’s clash is the first time the  Foxes will have played on the road against a team in the current top six since before Christmas. Losing tomorrow wouldn’t be that big a surprise, which makes you wonder if it’s Burnley’s year long streak without a defeat that might be more at risk than any adverse outcome for Leicester.

Burnley need to stop Leicester – and particularly Jamie Vardy – from scoring first. In nine  of their last ten away games the Foxes took the lead and only lost once; they won six of those matches but it’s worth remembering that four of those victories were against teams currently in the bottom half of the table. Vardy – who has notched six times in nine away games since the defeat at Sheffield Wednesday – is the only Leicester player other than Anthony Knockaert and David Nugent to have scored more than one goal in that period, but – like Burnley –  the current Leicester squad is well balanced and isn’t over reliant on one goalscorer.

When Danny Ings picked up a ligament injury in the middle of the month, Burnley fans might have been forgiven for thinking they might be struggling for goals without him. That’s not happened: Scott Arfield and Sam Vokes in particular have taken on the job in recent games but the defence – currently the stingiest in the Championship along with Brighton – is the foundation of the side: hardly a surprise given that Sean Dyche was one of the best central defenders in the lower half of the league in his playing days.

Looking at the bigger picture, a point would be ideal for both sides but it depends on how much winning the Championship means to both sets of players and their managers. With a ten point gap between Burnley and QPR it’s also conceivable that if either side lost it might not make any difference to their promotion chances.

Before I go, it would be amiss for me not to point out that there are two other games to watch out for: the bookies were probably delighted that Barnsley won at Reading on Tuesday, but the Tykes have to travel to Yeovil tomorrow. Gary Johnson’s side has shown a lot of fighting spirit recently and could even escape the bottom three if Charlton are battered at Derby.

I’m not sure when the next post will be as I’m on a short break before Easter, so until next time enjoy your weekend and I hope your team wins.