Even though it’s mathematically incorrect, this weekend’s games mark the point at which all clubs have played at least a quarter of their games.
Regular readers will know that I think that it’s the period between now and Boxing Day that’s the most vital for those clubs either chasing promotion or trying to avoid relegation, so let’s take a look at how the rest of the season might progress.
At the moment any of the clubs currently in the top ten could theoretically win promotion even though only Cardiff City, Sheffield United and Wolves are currently earning an average of two points or more per game. I can’t see any of them sustaining that pace over the winter but that’s not necessarily as bad as it sounds, simply because only Wolves are on target to at least equal the points totals won by Brighton and Newcastle last season.
Unlike last season, the chasing pack looks much more competitive and that seems to be down to last season’s unsuccessful playoff finalists suffering a collective hangover – although Fulham (my pre-season pick for promotion) still have time to turn that round. Bristol City and Preston improved almost beyond reognition whilst Aston Villa, Ipswich and Norwich are better than they were in 2016/17. Leeds‘ recent run of poor form indicates that despite a bright start, they’re currently no better than they were last season which could mean another potential playoff disappointment.
Bolton and Burton were predicted to struggle this season and so it won’t come as much of a surprise that the bookies have written The Trotters off completely – over the past few posts I’ve written more than once that Bolton are currently far worse than Rotherham were last season. Nigel Clough has apparently decided to borrow the keys to the bus from Jose Mourinho and although I try not to let my personal feelings show in these posts, Burton’s brand of anti-football deserves to fail.
The rest of the season seems to be about who is going to accompany Bolton down to League One. The surprise teams at the wrong end of the table this season are Reading and Sunderland: I didn’t think either of them would do particularly well this season, but I didn’t think they’d be this bad either. Last season’s bad defending has finally caught up with the Royals and – as we mentioned last week – the Black Cats seem to be in one of those tailspins following relegation from the Premier League that has happened to Norwich, Southampton and Wolves over the past decade.
Birmingham were another club that I felt would struggle before the campaign started and the recent appointment of Steve Cotterill as manager following the departure of Harry Redknapp seems like a gamble, although if the owners require a gaffer who can get them out of League One they’ve made a good choice. The other team that have struggled so far is Brentford, although the bookies still seem to think Barnsley will be in the mix for relegation even though the Tykes aren’t significantly worse than they were last season.
Back to the present now: there are three candidates for game of the week, I couldn’t pick one as they’ll all have an impact at either end of the table.
Bristol City v Leeds
The Robins have only lost one of their last ten games – a meaningless 1-0 defeat by Birmingham City in the last match of 2016/17 – and haven’t conceded more than one goal at Ashton Gate since April. Leeds have lost half of their last ten aways and haven’t won on the road since the end of August. Since the turn of the century Leeds have won three of their five trips to Ashton Gate in Championship games but their last win in Bristol was in September 2012.
Wolves v Preston
Wolves’ only home defeat this season was against Cardiff in mid-August: at this point last season they’d already lost twice at Molineux and were about to be beaten by Leeds, so it’s fair to say their home form has improved. Preston have only lost one away game so far and are unbeaten in their last four aways – but arguably should have won at Fulham on Saturday after taking a two goal lead at Craven Cottage after less than half an hour. The last six meetings between the sides in Wolverhampton have been evenly distributed, but Wolves have only lost four of the last ten encounters in the Black Country.
Sheffield United v Reading
An impressive start at Bramall Lane has seen four clean sheets in six games since promotion and it’s fair to say that the Blades like to have their home games wrapped up by half time. Reading’s win at Leeds last weekend was unexpected: the Royals still haven’t won at the Mad House since August and had lost three of their previous five road trips. There’s another possible upset here: Reading have won five of their last visits to Bramall Lane for League games although it’s been nine years since they last came away with all the points.
Televised games: Millwall v Birmingham City (tomorrow evening, 5:30pm kickoff, Sky Sports Football), Ipswich v Norwich (Sunday lunchtime, noon kick off, Sky Sports Football/Sky Sports Main Event). The former always reminds me of a vital game at St Andrews in the old Second Division towards the end of the 1971/72 which Birmingham won to ruin Millwall’s promotion chances: it was the first time I can remember a second tier game getting a lot of attention on BBC radio and could well be one of the reasons that I’m writing this post over 45 years later. The Old Farm Derby is always worth watching.
There won’t be a post next Friday, but the next scheduled post after that will be on Friday 3rd November even though that’s just a week before the next round of international dates. Don’t forget that there are four Championship clubs in action in the League Cup next week – although none of those games will be televised.