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…

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 🙂

Weekend Preview 23-25th November

It’s a brief post this week due to work commitments.

Somewhat different from swanning off to France, but at least one will pay for the other 🙂

At the top there’s five point gap between the top six – altough if Norwich lose at Swansea they could be overtaken by Leeds, Middlesbrough or Sheffield United. I fell into a typical Championship trap by praising Leeds last post didn’t I! I don’t think anyone saw them losing so heavily at WBA – it’s well over 30 years since they lost by three goals at the Hawthorns.

At the bottom: Ipswich are five points adrift but only two points separate the six clubs immediately above them. As I noted in the previous post, I was expecting Bolton to get trapped in a relegation battle but the only team in that group that’s moving in a positive direction is Preston.

As luck would have it, two of the three games that are contenders for game of the week are both being shown on Sky Sports Football/Main Event. Ipswich v WBA (this evening, 7:45pm) and Rotherham v Sheffield United (Saturday 12:30pm) both feature teams from either end of the table: Ipswich have only won two league games at Portman Road since January, but before any Baggies fans get carried away, it’s only fair to point out that West Brom haven’t won on the road since the end of September.

The twelve Yorkshire derbies we’ve had so far have been fairly well balanced (half have been drawn with the remaining games split evenly between home and away wins), but whilst Rotherham have only picked up one point in three attempts, Sheffield United have earned four points in the same number of games.

The other game of note is between Millwall and Bolton – in six meetings in all competitions in London since the turn of the century, the Lions have only won once (six years ago), but Wanderers have only scored one away goal since mid-September.

Additionally Brentford v Middlesbrough (Saturday 5:30) and Aston Villa v Birmingham (Sunday, noon) are also being televised – the former shouldn’t be any surprise considering how close Griffin Park is to the Sky Sports HQ and I don’t think many of us would have predicted that the first Second City Derby of the season would have seen the protagonists only separated by goal difference.

All being well, I’ll be back next Friday although that may also be a brief post.

Crystal Ball Scratching

With just under seven weeks to go until Christmas, the next couple of months are very important for clubs chasing promotion or trying to avoid relegation.

As there are no particularly outstanding games in the Championship this weekend I thought I’d gaze into my crystal ball this week to make some quick predictions – especially as we’ve got another bl**dy international break coming up next weekend.

  • It looks as if I’m going to have to eat my words about Leeds – they’re much better than I thought they’d be and there’s a chance that by Boxing Day they may have secured pole position – their key game before the festivities is a trip to Bramall Lane on December 1st. Looking further ahead, February may be the key month for Leeds but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
  • Leeds’ biggest rivals for automatic promotion are Middlesbrough and WBA, but although Marcelo Bielsa’s side are well balanced, Tony Pulis and Darren Moore’s men have glaring issues: Middlesbrough don’t score enough goals, whilst WBA’s defence is non-existent. Only four teams have conceded more goals than the Baggies and two of them are in the bottom three.
  • Along with Leeds, Birmingham and Nottingham Forest are unrecognisable from last season – the latter pair have become tough to beat, but may need to wait another season for a realistic chance of promotion. Forest’s best case scenario is the playoffs.
  • Norwich aren’t as good as the current table suggests: they’ve done well against the bottom half of the table, but have already lost at home to Leeds and WBA. They have a reasonable looking schedule this month; December will be far harder.
  • Sheffield Wednesday are worse than the current table suggests: current owners of the worst defensive record in the division they’ve played 12 games against the teams currently above them and lost seven of those contests, winning just twice. They face Sheffield United on Friday (Sky Sports Football/Main Event 7:45pm this evening) and Derby later in the month.
  • As it stands, Paul Lambert has a well nigh impossible task of keeping Ipswich from dropping into the third tier for the first time since the late 1950s, but I’d expect Rotherham and Bolton to be drawn into the relegation battle over the next few weeks: both teams are struggling to score goals – at the moment there are three other clubs that have scored less than a goal per game, including QPR who are currently eleventh and are second in the eight game form table behind Norwich.
  • Reading and Preston will continue to make progress up the table and although I don’t think Reading will trouble the top half, Preston are more than capable of doing that even though they look as if they’ve left it too late for a playoff challenge.

Televised games this week – Sky Sports Football/Main Event unless stated:

I’ve already mentioned the Sheffield derby, which is always entertaining and shouldn’t be missed if you’ve got the opportunity to watch. The other game on Sky Sports this weekend is between WBA and Leeds at The Hawthorns (tomorrow, 5:30pm) – for some of us, that’ll bring back memories of a very controversial game from the 1970/71 season…