GOTW: Ipswich v Aston Villa

It’s mid August and everyone’s played at least twice.

Eleven clubs without a win, there are ten sides that are unbeaten and unlike League One, everyone’s scored or conceded at least one goal.

Last weekend’s game of the week was the first time Derby had been beaten at home by Leeds by more than one goal since March 1998, when the Rams were stuffed 5-0 in a Premier League game:

It’s hard to know how to interpret that result at the moment. We’re two games in and Leeds are either destined for the Premier League or it’s a repeat of last season’s fast start – United were top of the table until late September before dropping out of the top six altogether a month later. Derby scraped a late victory at Reading on the opening weekend before their heaviest home defeat since the end of March – against Sunderland, who were relegated.

Arguably the simplest interpretation is that Marcelo Bielsa is a better manager than Frank Lampard. Let’s see where we are at Valentine’s Day: I’ve added a reminder to my online calendar.

The game of the week is at Portman Road, where Ipswich entertain Aston Villa in a bottom six/top six match. The hosts have only won one of their last ten home games in the competition and haven’t beaten Villa in a league game since September 1984. Without counting the playoff win at Middlesbrough at the end of last season, Steve Bruce’s side have won half of their last ten aways: I find myself wondering if it’s Villa’s turn to score a few goals this weekend…

In the League Cup, only seven teams were eliminated at the first hurdle including last season’s semi finalists Bristol City. Four clubs needed penalties to win their ties including Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest, who beat a pair of League Two sides (Notts County and Bury respectively) on spot kicks after being behind on three occasions (Boro) and for 88 minutes plus playing for most of the game with ten men (Forest).

This weekend’s televised games are Birmingham v Swansea (Friday, Sky Sports Football/Main Event, 7:45pm kick off) and Preston v Stoke (Saturday, Sky Sports Football/Main Event, 5:30pm). The first was clearly chosen for the Garry Monk angle and is the first time the clubs have met in a League game at St Andrew’s (I refuse to call it the new name) since December 2008; the first competitive meeting between Preston and Stoke was in the inaugural season of the Football League – on 6th October 1889 the Lillywhites thrashed Stoke 7-0 and went on to win the first ever league title by eleven points, the equivalent of 17 points these days.

There’s a full midweek programme next week, which means that next week I’ll be able to bring you some very early performance analysis. Not sure when that’ll be though, due to a Bank Holiday commitment…

EFL Sky Bet Championship Preview 2018/19

We’re only a couple of hours from the start of another nine months of fascinating and frustrating action in the Championship so here’s my take on what to look out for in 2018/19.

I decided to abandon the club by club previews for this season because – to be perfectly honest – I needed a break after the World Cup, which ended less than a month ago. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy – far from it!

Seven of last ten Championship winners had spent the previous season in the competition, although four of last five seasons have been won by teams that had either been relegated at the end of the previous campaign or hadn’t even finished in the top nine – atlhough I need to point out immediately that two of the three teams that bounced back immediately were Newcastle United. The last unsuccessful playoff team who went on to win the Championship were Leicester in 2013/14, which isn’t good news for Aston Villa. Stoke are the current favourites – which makes sense, but as the Racing Post pointed out in their excellent preview earlier this week, over the last decade only one of the antepost favourites to win the title have done so – Newcastle a couple of seasons ago.

Automatic Promotion

It’s a similar story in the battle for second place, which in six of the last ten seasons has been won by a team that has played at least one season in the Championship, but only two clubs that had been unsuccessful in the playoffs at the end of the previous have managed that –Middlesbrough fans take note. Teams between eighth and thirteenth were far more likely to bridge the gap between just missing out on the playoffs to becoming genuine promotion contenders: so based on last season’s performances Bristol City and Millwall cannot be ruled out. It’s been eight seasons since one of the relegated teams finished second: depending on your point of view that means it’s about time someone managed that again or it shows how difficult it is to adapt to the second tier. I’d prefer the latter explanation.

Playoffs

Last season Fulham became the first team since Swansea in 2011 to win promotion via the playoffs after a top ten finish in the Championship at the end of the previous campaign. Other than that, there have been strong performances from relegated teams (four of the last ten winners) and from sides nobody expected to do well – Blackpool, Crystal Palace and Huddersfield all finished in the bottom half of the table in the season before they won the so-called ‘richest game in the world.’ I’m not saying that Nottingham Forest or QPR fans should get overexcited, but they’re precisely the sort of teams that fit the description: Forest appear to be this season’s trendy pick but we’ll see about that.

Relegation

Slightly easier to predict. Last season Sunderland became only the second club in the last decade to suffer consecutive relegations (the other team was Wolves) so it’s safe to say that there’s only a remote chance that the new arrivals from the Premier League will find themselves in the bottom three next May. Only six of the last 30 teams that were relegated from the Championship (20%) went down after being promoted from League One so even though Rotherham are among the favourites for the drop, that might not be the case. If you’re looking for teams that could struggle, your best bet is to look at clubs that finished in seventeenth place or below last season: half of the teams that were relegated over the last ten years had performed poorly in the competition during the previous season – although in 2017/18, only Burton had finished the previous season in the bottom six. Bolton and Reading look particularly vulnerable this time round: the Trotters finished two points clear of Barnsley despite not being in the bottom three from January until the penultimate game of the season and – to use one of my favourite cliches – the Royals were lucky that there were three teams worse than them last season. If you’re looking for an outsider for relegation, don’t rule out Hull – they were marooned in the bottom third of the table from the end of October, slipped into the bottom three at the start of February and only won eight more points than Barnsley. Not to mention that I think Nigel Adkins is incredibly overrated as a manager.

Rash Predictions:

Neither Aston Villa nor Bristol City will perform as well as they did last season, but the consequences for the Robins will not be as dire as they will for the Villans. Especially if Thierry Henry actually does replace Steve Bruce.

It’s been over five seasons since Marcelo Bielsa has coached a club side for more than 20 games. The recent history of the Championship has been littered with ‘big’ names that couldn’t manage at this level and I will be very surprised if he’s the still manager of Leeds this time next season. I was tempted to add ‘at Christmas’ there, but I said that about Ian Holloway last season and he managed to last the entire season before being binned by QPR.

I’m not sure which of the former Premier League teams will have the best season, but Stoke pinching Gary Rowett from Derby is a canny move that might work out well. On the other hand, I’m prepared to wait and see how his replacement at the Rams will do: on paper Frank Lampard should be a decent manager, but five consecutive top ten finishes show just how frustrating it must be to support Derby and Lampard will be doing well if he can make that six.

Despite having picked up a couple of pre-season injuries that could scupper their start to the season, Preston could be dark horses for promotion if they start winning the type of games they drew last season.

Sheffield Wednesday’s decline will continue although I don’t think they’ll be relegated. Staying in South Yorkshire, don’t be too surprised if Paul Warne suddenly becomes the target of bigger clubs if Rotherham defy expectations.

I might be alone here, but I can’t see Ipswich struggling. The Tractor Boys have been stuck in a rut for years now but they aren’t suddenly going to get worse overnight. Paul Hurst did a great job at Shrewsbury last season and I think the doom mongers are extraordinarily premature and are basing their predictions on the last ten games of last season when Town had absolutely nothing to play for and nobody had a clue who the next manager would be.

I’ve left the easiest one until last: last May it was 38 years since a second tier club won the FA Cup. It won’t happen this season either.

A couple of interesting stat lines for those of you that are interested in that kind of thing:

The most popular score line in the Championship over the last five seasons has been 1-1; it won’t come as a massive surprise that over the same period, both teams have scored in just over half of the games in the division.

Last season was the second season in the last three where fewer than 2.6 goals per game were scored; four of the last five campaigns have featured an average of over 2.5 goals per game.

Playoff Semi Finals Preview

Just like that, we’ve reached the playoffs again.

Once more the Championship becomes the most interesting element of English football. The world will hold its breath whilst waiting to see which team that wasn’t as good as Wolves or Cardiff will finish in the bottom half of the Premier League in May 2019.

Way back last July one of my pre-season predictions was that Fulham would win promotion and so I’m committed to backing the Cottagers this year. That’s usually been the kiss of death since I started writing for this blog, although it’s worth remembering that over the last decade the third and fifth placed teams have won seven of the last ten finals.

Having written that, it’s fair to say that nothing really jumps out from the dozen games between the four playoff contenders other than Aston Villa and Fulham  were better than Derby and Middlesbrough. There were only two home wins in those matches – Villa and Fulham beat each other once – but with Boro having quickly adapted to Tony Pulis’ style of football, I’d agree with the bookies and say that Derby are the outsiders.

Derby v Fulham (this evening, 7:45pm, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

In a scenario that will have been horribly familiar to Derby fans but not entirely out of the blue for the rest of us, having been second at the start of February The Rams almost dropped out of the playoffs last month. A team that can lose 4-1 at home to Sunderland yet still has a chance of winning promotion is an outstanding example of not only how daft the Championship can be but also indicates that Derby’s record of five consecutive top ten finishes without promotion will probably continue next season. It’s fair to say that if you neutralise Matej Vydra you can stop them and the defence has only kept one clean sheet at home since February.

Defeat at Birmingham last weekend was Fulham’s first reverse on the road since before Christmas, so was that just a sign of things to come or just acceptance that automatic promotion wasn’t going to happen? Worryingly for those of us backing them, the Cottagers have now gone ten away games without losing, which usually means another defeat is just around the corner. On the other hand, no team scored more goals away from home during the season than Fulham and – combined with Derby’s defensive frailties – could be a recipe for success.

Since 2000, Derby have beaten Fulham in half of their last six league meetings at Pride Park. Fulham won at Derby at the start of March with early goals from Mitrovic and Sessegnon before Huddlestone replied for the hosts.

Verdict: it would not surprise me at all if Fulham won this evening but then drew at Craven Cottage next week.

Middlesbrough v Aston Villa (5:15pm tomorrow, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

Steve Gibson’s rather naive pre-season comment that Boro were going to ‘smash’ the Championship was looking unlikely as early as October, although as I pointed just after Christmas, Middlesbrough couldn’t be ruled out of the playoffs. Although they didn’t crack the top six until the start of March and have only lost twice since then, Tony Pulis’ appointment on Boxing Day clearly suits the players he inherited from Garry Monk: only Cardiff conceded fewer goals at home this season but their ‘defence first’ style at the Riverside has resulted in them scoring more goals in away matches this season. Middlesbrough have only lost two of their last ten home games – they almost earned a point against Fulham – and it’s only a couple of years since they were last in the playoffs.

Aston Villa have been in the playoff spots for most of the season but never really looked like automatic promotion material after losing at Fulham in February and consecutive defeats a few weeks later confirmed that analysis. One of those games (Bolton) appeared to trigger some sort of crisis of confidence as Villa have only won one of their four aways since then; it’s also highly significant that they lost all three games without scoring when they travelled to the teams that finished immediately above them this season.

Head to head: this looks particularly bad for Boro – their last home win against Villa was in December 2004 and they’ve met on Teeside in the league on five subsequent occasions. Boro have lost four of those games.

Verdict: on paper any game between Tony Pulis and Steve Bruce always looks as if it could finish 0-0. However, if Middlesbrough want to win promotion they’ll have to win tomorrow because the prospect of travelling to Villa Park next week without any sort of advantage will be a mountain to climb. I don’t think Boro will lose, but that may not be good enough to reach Wembley.

I’ll be back with an update at some point over the weekend although it’s more likely to be late on Sunday. At that point we’ll also definitely know if Swansea will be returning to the Championship along with Stoke and West Brom.

Result from Friday evening: Derby 1, Fulham 0. I really am the kiss of death 🙂

Proper update: the most overhyped match in the entire history of the galaxy will be between Aston Villa and Fulham. The preview will be posted sometime next week.

Expect The Unexpected?

Some weekends it’s hard to find option for Game of the Week.

Not this time!

There are no less than five games that could decide the remaining issues at both ends of the table – all are simultaneous kick offs at 12:30 on Sunday afternoon. In alphabetical order:

Birmingham v Fulham

What’s at stake: Birmingham can still be relegated, Fulham can still win automatic promotion.

Form: There’s no doubt Garry Monk has made an immediate improvement at St Andrew’s since being appointed, but Fulham are on an eleven game unbeaten away streak. That being said, Birmingham have beaten Cardiff and drawn with Villa this season whilst Fulham have lost at both Burton and Sunderland.

Head to head, Last ten at St Andrew’s in the league: 3-4-3. Fulham’s last win was in September 2014

Verdict: Fulham win – although it may not be enough for automatic promotion. Even if Birmingham lose, they may not be relegated.

Cardiff v Reading (Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

What’s at stake: automatic promotion for Cardiff. Reading have some breathing space due to a better goal difference than Birmingham, but things might get tricky if results elsewhere start getting weird.

Form: Cardiff have only lost twice in their last ten home games and have only dropped one point at the City of Cardiff stadium against teams in the bottom half of the table. Apart from a win at Derby in November, Reading have lost all of their away games at the other clubs in the top six.

Head to head, last ten at Cardiff (Ninian Park/City of Cardiff) in regular season league games: 4-3-3. Reading’s last win in the Welsh capital was at the beginning of last season.

Verdict: an easy win for Cardiff; Reading haven’t won on the road since the end of January and that was at Burton.

Derby v Barnsley

What’s at stake: Derby need to avoid defeat to clinch the last playoff place. Barnsley could still be relegated even if they don’t lose.

Form: Derby have been all over the place at the iPro recently, so this is potentially where the unexpected result might happen. Don’t get too carried away with that thought though -Barnsley have only won two road trips in 2018 and have lost all their away games against the sides that are currently above Derby.

Head to head, last ten at Derby in the league: 6-3-1. Barnsley’s last win at Derby was in September 2009 – before then you’d have to go back to October 1983 for the Tykes’ last win at Derby.

Verdict: Derby win and claim the last playoff spot and Barnsley go back to League One after two seasons.

Millwall v Aston Villa

What’s at stake: theoretically Millwall could still reach the playoffs but they’d need to absolutely batter Aston Villa to do so and hope Derby and Preston both lose. Villa have nothing to play for.

Form: two very evenly matched teams. Millwall have only lost one of their five games at the New Den against the top six clubs but have only won one of those encounters (a 2-1 win over Middlesbrough in December). In contrast, Villa have only won two of their nine away games against the current top ten.

Head to head, last nine at Millwall in the league: 4-2-3. This will be the tenth meeting in the league at Millwall and the first time Villa have played at the New Den since losing 2-1 in the FA Cup five years ago. Villa’s last win at Millwall was on April Fool’s Day 1975!

Verdict: there’s always next season – for both clubs.

Preston v Burton

What’s at stake: Preston could still qualify for the playoffs but Derby would have to lose to Barnsley or The Lillywhites would have to win by at least ten goals. Even if Burton win they may still be relegated.

Form: Preston’s recent form at Deepdale has been inconsistent and their inability to beat the strugglers at home (one win from five) is one of the reasons they’ve not already qualified for the playoffs. Burton have lost six of their nine aways against teams in the top ten – all six of those defeats were at the clubs currently above Preston.

Head to head: only one previous meeting at Deepdale, which was in November 2016 and finished 1-1. Burton have never beaten Preston.

Verdict: I can’t see Preston losing, but The Brewers are fighting for survival and anything could happen.

There will be an update, but depending on what happens at Twickenham on Sunday lunchtime you might have to wait until Monday for that.

Update: my predictions were up to their usual standard yesterday. Cardiff were promoted despite a goalless draw with Reading while Birmingham thrashed Fulham. At Pride Park, Derby sealed their playoff place with a 4-1 win over Barnsley, who were relegated. Joining them in League One next season will be Burton, who lost at Preston.

We also know the first team relegated from the Premier League: Stoke City.

GOTW: Aston Villa v Derby

Last Friday’s game of the week emphasised the difference between being a contender for the entire season and merely having a good run of form:

Millwall aren’t out of the running for the playoffs by any means, but this defeat saw them drop out of the top six. 

Wolves tied up the title by beating Bolton but with only two games of the regular season left, only Aston Villa, Cardiff and Fulham can still win automatic promotion. This weekend’s game of the week is a Midlands Derby with an awful lot on the line for both teams…

Aston Villa v Derby

Both teams need to win for different reasons: Villa to retain any chance of going up without making the trip to Wembley at the end of next month while the Rams can take a big step towards making the same journey.

Villa have won eight of their last ten games at Villa Park, keeping clean sheets in half of those outings and beating both Wolves and Cardiff in that sequence. They’ve also not lost at home against any of the teams in the top half of the current table

On Tuesday evening Derby ended a three game losing streak by beating Cardiff 3-1, but having had a short recovery time after an emotional high can sometimes be a recipe for disaster. The Rams have only recorded one away win since the end of January, although the only time they’ve lost a game at one of the teams above them was at Molineux two weeks ago.

Historically speaking, this is where it gets bleak for Derby. Aston Villa have won the last ten games between them at Villa Park and have only failed to win three of their sixteen encounters in any competition in Birmingham since March 1978. Derby’s last win at Villa was in November 1988: England legend Peter Shilton was in goal for the Rams and the winner was scored by Dean Saunders.

Villa have already qualified for the playoffs and if Fulham beat Sunderland this evening then Steve Bruce’s side will need to win at Millwall next weekend and hope other results go their way in order to win automatic promotion. That’s unlikely so does Bruce decide to go for it anyway knowing that his team will have home advantage in the playoffs? As for Derby, if they lose tomorrow they could be overtaken by Millwall and that might mean their last game of the season – at home against Barnsley – will be a vital one for both sides.

Villa have less to lose and so I’d be surprised if they do.

The other game of note this weekend is Burton v Bolton, which is far simpler. If the hosts lose, they’ll be relegated: if that happens, expect an update on Saturday evening.

The plan for next weekend’s post is going to be complicated: I’ve got an unusual family interlude that means I’m going to be posting on Friday but I may not be able to provide an update until Sunday evening. One of my brothers in law is playing at Twickenham on Sunday lunchtime and the family is off down there to see him.