Game Of The Day: Derby v Wigan

The Watford/Nottingham Forest clash went the way I thought it might, which meant the major beneficiaries on Tuesday night were Derby -who took over at the top after a single goal win courtesy of a late Chris Martin penalty at Blackpool – and Wolves, who shut out Middlesbrough at Molineux.

Despite losing at Charlton, Bolton moved off the bottom of the table but are unlikely to move out of the bottom three this weekend unless they beat Brentford by four clear goals (something they’ve never done) and hope other results go their way. Fulham came from behind three times at Rotherham to put even more pressure on managerless Birmingham City, who lost at Blackburn and had Neal Eardley sent off.

Without further ado, let’s move on to the game of the day at the iPro Stadium, where Wigan are the visitors.

I’m not going to beat around the bush, I thought Derby were unlucky not to win promotion last season. Steve McClaren has kept faith with most of the players who lost at Wembley in May but has made some interesting moves. Stoke ‘keeper and England international Jack Butland, Sheffield Wednesday striker Leon Best and Liverpool midfielder Jordon Ibe have all joined the Rams on loan, all of whom are valuable upgrades.

Although Derby haven’t lost at home since March, the season got off to a slowish start and it’s appropriate to point out that County have only won half of their six homes since start of the season. Having written that, the current leaders have only dropped two points from 21 available in seven games against bottom half teams this season and should continue that trend against Wigan; the club record for consecutive clean sheets was broken at Blackpool during the week and that’s always a good indicator of decent team.

Wigan’s last home and away wins were both against Birmingham, which probably only indicates that the Latics are better than the Blues rather than anything else; last season’s playoff semi finalists appear to be suffering from the customary hangover this season and have only beaten teams that are currently below them this season. As usual, there’s an alternative hypothesis: Wigan were 14th at the end of December 2013, only cracked the top ten for good in mid February and they may just be slow starters, but there’s also been quite a big turnover in playing staff. Only three of the team that lost at Loftus Road in extra time in May started against Millwall this week and with Jordi Gomez and Nick Powell plying their trades elsewhere, last season’s need for a proven goalscorer has become a little more desperate.

The head to head stats are very interesting. The Rams have only won one of their half dozen games against Wigan at home in the league since the mid 1980s with the sole win coming in December 1985! Wigan only won one of their eight games against the teams that eventually finished above them last season…see if you can guess who they beat.

Have a good weekend 🙂

Wednesday Hit For Seven

The Capital One Cup was the usual mixed blessing; Bournemouth, Brighton, Derby and Fulham are the only teams left in the competition and the gulf between the top of the Premier League and the middle of the Championship was exposed when Manchester City battered Sheffield Wednesday 7-0. Much was made of all the goals coming in the second half, but five of them were scored after Kamil Zayatte had been sent off. There’s one all Championship game in the next round when Derby travel to Fulham (week commencing 27th October) but I think it’s fair to say that whoever wins that match will probably be the last Championship side left in the competition.

This weekend Nottingham Forest may not have a better chance to extend their lead at the top of the table: they’re the only club in the top six at home this weekend but any those teams could occupy top spot on Saturday evening.

The games of interest this weekend are those featuring sides at the bottom. So far there’s only been one game between the current bottom six teams (Bolton beat Rotherham 3-2 two weeks ago), but only ten of the 30 games between the clubs that finished in those positions in 2013/14 ended in home wins, which may be good news for Fulham.

Birmingham City v Fulham

First meeting between these two at this level since August 2000. Fulham have only won three of their last ten trips to St Andrews, but the hosts have only won TWICE at home in the Championship at home since October 1st 2013. As Fulham’s away defence is the worst in the competition so far (they’ve conceded at least once in the first half of all four of their road trips this season) I can honestly say I’ve got no idea what’s going to happen. Even if the visitors win – which is a distinct possibility considering they had a lead at Forest after 66 minutes – they can’t climb out of the bottom three.

Blackpool v Norwich City

Bit of a rarity as this is only the fourth time the clubs have met at Bloomfield Road in a league game in the last four decades. The hosts have something of an incentive here: if they win, there’s a reasonable chance that they might not be in the relegation zone by the start of next week. The Tangerines also have a far better home record than Birmingham (two wins in their last ten games is almost Real Madrid compared to Birmingham’s dire performance at St. Andrews) but the hosts have not scored more than once in front of their own fans since the end of November. Cameron Jerome has been a prolific goalscorer for the Canaries recently and has already scored more goals this season than he has in the last two campaigns put together, so he’s the obvious threat to Blackpool.

Reading v Wolves is the only televised game this weekend (Sunday 1:15pm, Sky Sports 1); the home team in this series have only won three of the last ten games and Reading haven’t won more than two consecutive home games since this time last year.

I’ll be back on Tuesday (I promise) for another midweek installment.

Sky Bet Championship Preview 13th/14th September

Before I continue, Chris Powell has returned to Championship management, being named as new gaffer at Huddersfield Town nine days ago. I thought Powell’s dismissal from  Charlton earlier this year was rather harsh so I’d like to wish him all the best with the Terriers.

Watford replaced Beppe Sannino with Oscar Garcia, who was last seen around these parts after Brighton lost to Derby in last season’s playoffs. Having decided that Tel Aviv was too dangerous, Garcia returns to management in the more peaceful surroundings of south west Hertfordshire.

Looks like the bottom of the table will be where the movement is this weekend: five of the bottom six are at home (the exceptions are Fulham travel to Reading) and as I’ve decided to make Charlton v Watford the game of the week let’s look at the pair of games that almost made it…

Blackpool v Wolves

How to tell if the season is going to be a potential disaster: it’s the first game of September and even if Blackpool win they won’t be able to climb out of the bottom three. As well as six consecutive home defeats and no home win since March, the Tangerines haven’t scored more than once in a league game at Bloomfield Road since last November and have recorded only one victory in eight home games against Wolves from February 1971 onwards. There are plenty of rumours about Owen Coyle replacing Jose Riga, but you’d have to be pretty desperate for a job to consider the Blackpool job.

Wolves defensive prowess has continued from last season, but the defeat at Rotherham is still worth remembering before anyone gets carried away about back to back promotions. I think we’ll have a far better idea of how Kenny Jackett’s team are going to do by the end of this month, but they shouldn’t lose this one.

Ipswich v Millwall

I don’t think there’s any real reason for fans of the Tractor Boys to worry about their home form contributing to their slightly ropey start: the defeat against Norwich in the recent East Anglian derby was only their second league defeat at Portman Road since February. They’ve also beaten Millwall in four of their last six Championship encounters in Suffolk

As I wrote last week, Millwall have probably won games they’ve been expected to win so far, which means this one is probably their first reasonable challenge at home. That being said, the Lions are currently on a six game unbeaten away run, something they’ve not done for a couple of seasons: they looked like playoff contenders at that point until their league form collapsed whilst they enjoyed their run to the FA Cup semi finals. If they pick up all three points on Saturday then it’ll making Doubting Thomases like me take them more seriously as promotion contenders.

Game of the week: Charlton v Watford

This is the first in a sequence of three games this month that should determine whether the Addicks are long term promotion contenders. Charlton’s revival is an interesting one: they’ve won half of their last ten games at The Valley with two of their four losses in the period coming against teams no longer playing in the Championship – the other pair of defeats were against teams challenging (unsuccessfully as it turned out) for playoff places.

The revelation this season is Angolan striker Igor Vetokele, who arrived from Danish club Kobenhavn in the summer. The Championship player of the month for August has already scored as many goals as last season’s leading scorer (Marvin Sordell) managed in 2013/14, but Bob Peeters’ recruitment drive has seen experienced defenders Andre Bikey-Amougou and Tal Ben-Haim return from Greece and Belgium respectively whilst journeyman ‘keeper Stephen Henderson has also been added to the squad.

This is Watford’s second away game this season against a top six side and they lost 3-0 at Carrow Road last month, which is consistent with their performance in 2013/14. Last season the Hornets failed to beat any of the sides that finished above them on the road (compared to four wins in five games during the season they lost in the playoff final) and as I wrote last week I wonder if Beppe Sannino had seen the writing on the wall.

The Hornets are still more or less recognisable from the team that almost won promotion to the Premier League in 2013. Eight of the 19 players that have so far made at least one appearance in the Championship this season were at Vicarage Road during 2012/13. That group includes Troy Deeney and Fernando Forestieri as well as the returning Matej Vydra, who clearly isn’t good enough for either the Premier League or Serie A but is too expensive for Watford to sign permanently.

The fact that this is a playoff calibre squad makes Sannino’s decision to leave even more baffling. Perhaps he genuinely didn’t know what to do next.

Since the turn of the century, Charlton have only won one of the five games the clubs have played in the league in South London, which was the 3-1 win in April. Before that you’ve got to go back to August 1995 for the last Addicks home win.

A couple of televised games this weekend: Birmingham v Leeds (Sky Sports 1. 12:15pm) probably won’t be of any interest unless you support either team. The same could be said for Forest v Derby (Sunday, Sky Sports 1, 1:15pm) but this game has been a firecracker recently with at least one red card in four of the last five meetings and an excuse to sack the losing manager in both matches last season. The teams play each other at Derby in mid January and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s game of the week.

I’ll be back on Monday with a look at the first Tuesday night programme of the season.

August Review

Before I go any further, it’s time to say arrivederci to Beppe Sannino, who is no longer manager of Watford. The language used in his departure sounds remarkably similar to that used by Gianfranco Zola last December (a riff based on the old classic  ‘I’ve taken the club as far as I can’) although there have also been rumours about a breakdown in his relationship with some players and a possible link up with another Championship club that already has a number of Italian connections.

Anyway, back to the monthly review. Some might argue that five games is hardly a big enough sample size to use when attempting to predict the rest of the season, but looking at the Championship table at the end of August over the last five seasons can certainly give some pointers.

From 31st August 2009 , on average at least one of the clubs in the top six at the end of August eventually won promotion, although last season all three of the sides that went up were in the top half dozen at the end of the month. It’s the same story at the bottom, but in three of the last five campaigns two clubs in the bottom six at the end of August have eventually been relegated.

Using widely available stats with some of my own methods, I’ve divided the current table into four categories based on how they’ve begun. However, it’s worth remembering the words of the old song ‘It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish’:

Contenders:

Nottingham Forest have begun well (undefeated and with the best goal difference) but haven’t played any of the other sides in the current top nine – games against Derby (14th September) and at Millwall the following week should give us more of an indication of their long term prospects. Currently the most improved side in the competition, but given their recent history that may not last for much longer.

Sannino’s departure from Watford surprised many considering the Hornets are top scorers, but four of their five wins and eleven of their 13 goals so far have come against teams currently 17th or worse with the 3-0 defeat at Norwich arguably being result that they should be judged by so far. Watford were also dumped out of the Capital One Cup by a League One side, so it’s plausible that Sannino may have realised that Watford’s apparent success was a mirage.

Wolves: have already beaten two former Premier League teams and one of the pre-season favourites for promotion at Molineux and might be set to repeat the recent feats of Southampton and Norwich by winning consecutive promotions. Norwich are the only club to have played more than once against the other sides currently in the top six, but haven’t lost since at defeat at Wolves on the opening weekend.

Like Watford, Millwall have benefitted from what looks suspiciously like an easy start to the season. Three of their wins have come against clubs that are currently eighteenth or worse and so although I’d be surprised if this form continues, they’re clearly better than they were in 2013/14. If they’re in the top six at the end of this month, I might have to start thinking about revising my initial prognosis.

Playoff material:

Charlton are unbeaten after a good start but have a very tough looking September schedule (Watford, Wolves and Norwich) that might sort them out but it probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Derby are not quite as good as they were last season. Despite only losing once so far, it’s possible that the goals may be slightly more difficult for the Rams to come by this season. Sheffield Wednesday haven’t won at home yet but have already won half as many away games in 2014/15 as they did in total last season. Cardiff and Brentford have yet to be tested.

The Inbetweeners

If you look at the current table, there are eight clubs who have won twice but have lost at least twice: with the exception of newly promoted Rotherham (who have had a very tough start to the campaign), the rest are all underperforming compared to last season, with Middlesbrough playing at a substantially lower level. Both of Boro’s wins have come against teams in the bottom five, but three defeats  against teams from the bottom half of the table indicate that the good form following Aitor Karanka’s appointment may be over. Blackburn clearly didn’t read my pre-season preview about improving their away defence.

Strugglers:

Blackpool were widely tipped to be relegated before the season began and five straight defeats at the start of the season isn’t going to revise that opinion.  However, in terms of pure regression Bolton are going backwards at a rate of knots whilst Huddersfield and – perhaps surprisingly – Ipswich are also in reverse gear. Birmingham City have improved slightly, but there wasn’t much to improve upon in the first place and the Blues are by no means out of the woods when it comes to relegation.

The big surprise at the bottom is Fulham. It’s possible to argue that they’ve had a baptism of fire at this level (three defeats in four games against sides in the top ten) but any team with a worse goal difference than Bolton isn’t going to finish in the top half of the table.

So there you have it. Back at the end of next week.

Weekend Preview Round 5

Quite a bit to get through this week, so we’ll start with the Capital One Cup.

After this week’s games,  just under half of the clubs in the Championship are still in with a chance and we’ll come to them in a moment: Huddersfield, Rotherham, Watford, Millwall, Brentford, Charlton, Birmingham and Leeds will all be concentrating on the league until January and with five of those sides currently in the bottom half of the table I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that is probably for the best. The Millers, Lions and Birmingham all lost to Premier League opposition whilst Watford and Leeds capitulated to League One sides – the latter made a real mess of it against Bradford.

The third round draw means two guaranteed places in the fourth round, but it’s not been particularly kind for those clubs drawn against Premier League teams.

Premier League Opposition: Bolton (at Chelsea), Middlesbrough (at Liverpool), Sheffield Wednesday (at Manchester City), Nottingham Forest (at Spurs)

All Championship: Cardiff v Bournemouth and Derby v Reading

League One Opposition: Fulham v Doncaster (who beat Watford), Norwich (at Shrewsbury)

League Two Opposition: Brighton (at Burton Albion)

Returning to the bread and butter, only Forest, Charlton and Sheffield Wednesday are undefeated so far and in one of those rare moments where all the planets align, game of the week features two of those sides and – even more remarkably – is televised.

Sheffield Wednesday v Nottingham Forest (Sky Sports 1, 12:00pm)

I’d imagine that Wednesday fans would be pleased with their start this season, but will probably remember that they were in exactly the same position two years ago but were in the bottom four by the end of September. The club’s current position is very deceptive: they’ve not won at home since the end of March (three draws and three defeats since) and although a goalless draw with Derby isn’t a bad result, Wednesday should have beaten Millwall a couple of weeks ago but a very late Magueye Gaye equaliser meant they only earned a point.

Since September 2000 Forest have won four of their last seven trips to Hillsborough but they’ve not won consecutive away games in the same season since March 2013 and have already had to come from behind at Bournemouth and Bolton so far. They’ve also been very inconsistent on the road over the last year: six wins in 23 games in the competition doesn’t really indicate that Forest are the type of team to win automatic promotion, especially as they’ve lost half of their last ten league games away from the City Ground.

Ir should be an interesting game, but I’d not be too shocked if it ended all square.

There are two other matches to keep an eye on:

Leeds United v Bolton Wanderers

Leeds beat Bolton at Elland Road on New Year’s Day 2013 but have lost half of the last six meetings between them in Yorkshire in the league and have only been victorious in three Championship games in front of their own fans since March. Given the nonsense with Brian McDermott last season, it should have come as no surprise that Dave Hockaday was apparently sacked and reinstated after last weekend’s thumping at Vicarage Road; I’ll be surprised if he makes it to Christmas (update: Hockaday lasted until Thursday evening)

Bolton got their act together away from home after Valentine’s Day, but although three defeats in their first four games has seen them drop into the bottom three, poor starts have been a speciality since Wanderers were relegated from the Premier League. They’re not the best team in the Championship and although they’re less dysfunctional than Leeds right now, anything could happen in this one.

Watford v Huddersfield Town

One home defeat in their last dozen home games bodes well for the Hornets this weekend, but since the turn of the century their record against Huddersfield at Vicarage Road is poor and includes a 4-1 defeat the last time these sides met back in May. The Terriers have improved since Mark Robbins left, but have only kept four away clean sheets in the Championship in the past year and will be hard pressed to add a fifth on Saturday.

It’s the first of the international weekends next week so there’ll more than likely be a recap next week with an overview of how the competition might develop.