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.

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.

FA Cup Fourth Round Preview

With the exception of a game that’ll come to later, this weekend is all about the Fourth Round of the FA Cup.

Although there’s only one guaranteed place for a Championship in the next round, I think it’s likely that at least four teams should qualify.

This post is in a similar format to the most recent previews although this time round I’m covering the games featuring Derby and QPR at Buzzin’ League One Football. All matches kick off at 3pm on Saturday unless stated.

All Championship

Bristol City v Bolton (Friday, 7:45pm)

The only tie between clubs from the Championship is a chance for the hosts to reach the Fifth Round for the first time in eighteen years, an ambition that may be more realistic that winning promotion. Bolton got to the semis in 2011 and the Sixth Round the following year but they’re probably more preoccupied with avoiding relegation to League One. The only previous meeting at Ashton Gate in the FA Cup was 40 years ago and City won 3-1, but their most recent clash in the league was earlier this month – and The Robins won that too.

Championship v Premier League

Brighton v WBA

As you might expect from a team that’s recently been in the Premier League, West Brom have reached the fifth round or better in half of the last six seasons, but they’ve not won at Brighton since April 1990 and could be forgiven for focusing on their efforts to return to the promised land.

Chelsea v Sheffield Wednesday (Sunday, 6pm)

The timing and the nature of Maurizio Sarri’s comments about his Chelsea team were both interesting and appeared to work against Spurs on Thursday, but even so you’d have to expect Sheffield Wednesday to play at the very top of their game to win at Stamford Bridge, something they’ve not done for 26 years despite making eight trips there since. The last time Wednesday won at Chelsea in the FA Cup was before England won the World Cup.

Millwall v Everton (Saturday, 5:30pm, BBC1)

Definitely one to watch if you’re near a telly on Saturday tea time.

The Lions – who have got this far in the competition twice since reaching the semis in 2013 and have lost a home FA Cup tie for just over three years – will be up for this, especially as they’ve not been beaten by Everton in either of their previous encounters in the FA Cup in South London. The Toffees have lost four of last five road trips in the Premier League and haven’t won an away FA Cup tie for three years: don’t be too surprised if there’s a replay.

Championship v League One

Swansea v Gillingham

I’m pretty sure someone, somewhere has wasted an afternoon searching for a team that’s played Cardiff and Swansea in consecutive rounds of the FA Cup, but I’m not that person. The Swans reached the Sixth Round last season but it’s been fifteen years since Gillingham got as far as this and they’ve not beaten Swansea since 2006. The last time the teams played each other in this competition in South Wales, it ended with a convincing Swansea win – and with Gillingham involved in a relegation scrap, that might be the case once more.

Championship v League Two

Middlesbrough v Newport

Comparatively speaking Middlesbrough have been strong performers in the FA Cup recently,  having only failed to reach this stage in two of the last six seasons. Newport got to the Fourth Round last year but haven’t progressed any further since the previous incarnation of club managed to in 1949; they’ve lost both of their previous meetings with Middlesbrough, which were league games in the old Division Three in the late 1980s.

Championship v National League

Barnet v Brentford (Monday, 7:45pm BT Sport 1)

The last tie of the round and I’m also the last person to mention that it’s the Bees againt the Bees. It’s been a while since either team qualified for the Fifth Round and although the last meeting between them that Barnet hosted ended goalless (in the old Johnstone’s Paint Trophy just over eight years ago), Brentford won the only previous meeting in the FA Cup – at Griffin Park way back in November 1925.

The highlight of the League programme this weekend is at Carrow Road, where Sheffield United are the visitors. Only two  points separate the sides but unless Leeds suffer a surprise defeat at Rotherham, then Norwich will have to be content with second place even if they win. Sheffield United won the corresponding game last season, but that was only the second Blades victory at Norwich since 2000 and United have never won consecutive games at Carrow Road.

If anything unexpected happens I’ll update this post as and when, but otherwise I’ll be back next weekend.

Updates: Millwall beat Everton, Middlesbrough drew with Newport.

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.

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…