FA Cup Fifth Round Special

Considering that only three Championship teams reached the Fifth Round of the FA Cup last season, a 100% increase in that level combined with one guaranteed place in the Quarter Finals represents an improvement.

I’ve got a hunch that the winner of Swansea v Brentford might not be the last second tier club left in the Cup – and who knows what might happen after that, especially if the draw for the Quarter Finals in favourable.

Before we go any further, I’ll be covering Millwall’s game at Doncaster Rovers at Buzzin’ League One football and due to a combination of factors I’ll be limiting this post to the FA Cup only.

One of the interesting aspects of this weekend’s ties is how many of the second tier clubs left in the competition haven’t reached this stage for a while.

QPR v Watford (this evening, 7:45pm, BT Sport 2)

First meeting in the competition, which surprised me. Will be the ninth meeting between the clubs since 2000; Watford have only won twice (3-1 December 2010), first meeting for almost five years. First time QPR have got this far since 1997 largely because their home form in the competition is awful; they haven’t reached the quarter finals since 1995 and haven’t won in the Championship at Loftus Road since Boxing Day.

Brighton v Derby (Saturday 12:30pm, BT Sport 2)

Although this will be their fourth encounter in the cup, it’s the first since a Third Round game in January 1961 that Brighton won 3-1 at the old Goldstone Ground. The last league meeting was a couple of years ago and the last time the Rams won at Brighton was the 2014 playoff semi final: they also won the corresponding league game in the previous August. The Rams have been regulars at this stage in recent seasons but haven’t gone beyond it since 1999.

Bristol City v Wolves (Sunday 1pm, BT Sport 2)

Only other meeting in the FA cup was at Molyneux 46 years ago when Wolves won by a single goal and went on to reach the semi finals before losing to eventual runners -up Leeds. Wolves have won half of their last six visits to Ashton Gate, all three wins coming since 2010 including a dramatic victory in December 2016. City haven’t got this far for 18 years and haven’t reached the Sixth Round since 1974 – for those of you with long memories, that was the season the Robins beat Leeds United in a replay at Elland Road.

Swansea v Brentford (Sunday 3pm, no TV coverage)

It probably should not come as a huge shock to see that the tie that guarantees at least one Championship club a quarter final spot doesn’t get any TV coverage. Third meeting in the competition, although once again you’ve got to go back to the early seventies for the last one which Swansea won at Griffin Park after a draw at the Vetch Field. Swansea got this far last season before losing to Spurs in the next round, but Brentford haven’t reached this round since 2006 and it’s been 30 years since they got any further.

Back next weekend, if there any upsets I’ll update this post.

2017 Championship Xmas Preview

Those of you who have read the Christmas Post before know what’s coming!

First of all, I know I promised to update the League Cup preview if there was an upset, but I thought I’d save it for today. In the absence of any official video highlights, I’ve chosen the best footage available of a dramatic and unexpected win for Bristol City at Ashton Gate:

City’s reward for beating Manchester United: a semi-final draw with Manchester City.

Back to the league and for new readers, there’s a definite correlation between where teams are in the table at the end of 26th December and where they are at the end of the season. So let’s begin:

  • In four of the last five seasons, the team that were top on Boxing Day finished as Champions. The exception: Derby in December 2015 – who eventually finished fifth.
  • In all of the last five seasons, the team that was promoted automatically was in the top five at the end of Boxing Day – in four of those seasons they were already in second place. The exception: Watford (26th December 2014) although the Hornets were in sixth place, seven points behind eventual title winners Bournemouth.
  • At least one of the playoff finalists was in the top six at the end of Boxing Day and in three of the the last five seasons both of them were.
  • At the other end of the table, the team that was bottom on Boxing Day finished bottom at the end of the season, but the interesting aspect here is that in every one of the last five campaigns the teams that were going to be relegated at the end of the season were already in the bottom five at the end of the Boxing Day programme. It’s normally the bottom two that have the most to worry about.

One aspect of the promotion battle I’ve not looked at before is the gap between the top six at close of play on Boxing Day. This time round I’ve found both the resources and the time to do so.

In four of the last five seasons only a point or two separated the clubs in the top two positions: we don’t know yet if Wolves will be top on Boxing Day (it’s a reasonable assumption), but if that’s the case then they could well have equalled the five point gap that Cardiff had over Hull five years ago. December 26th 2012 also saw the biggest gap between the first and sixth placed teams: Watford were 13 points behind Cardiff at that stage. The current gap is 14 points: if that remains the case then Wolves could win the Championship at a canter.

This weekend

For obvious reasons, Bolton Wanderers v Cardiff City and Sunderland v Birmingham City are the pick of the 3pm kick offs, especially if you don’t want to watch either ‘Frozen’ or ‘Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone’.

Game of the week is Aston Villa v Sheffield United (5:30pm, Sky Sports Football/Main Event) – Villa have only lost once at home in the league this season but they’ve not won at home for a month. The Blades have picked up one point in the last five games and have lost four of their last six aways since winning the Steel City Derby back in September. They’ve not met in a league game for over a decade and United haven’t won at Villa Park since England won the World Cup.

Boxing Day

Hull City v Derby County and Sheffield United v Sunderland are the pick of the bunch if you’re even paying attention at 3:00pm (the King George VI at Kempton is off at 3:15), although for some reason Burton v Leeds is live on Sky Sports Football/Main Event at the same time. Brentford entertain Aston Villa at 7:30pm (Sky Sports Football/Main Event), which is yet another example of Sky’s laughable scheduling – Griffin Park is less than ten miles from Sky Sports’ HQ in Hayes and I’ve lost count how many times Villa have been on telly this season.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy whatever you’re doing over the holiday season and the weather is good wherever you’re doing it. I’ll be back for the Third Round of The FA Cup.

FA Cup Fourth Round Preview

Here we are at Fourth Round weekend with more than half of the clubs in the Championship having been eliminated and  only one guaranteed place in the Fifth Round.  I’d expect MK Dons to be hammered by Chelsea, but I’ve selected three games that will be under the radar over the next couple of days – I’ll also be taking a look at the games between Championship and League One sides at Buzzin’ League One Football, so if you’re a fan of Hull, Sheffield Wednesday or Reading head over there.

All games below are scheduled for 3:00pm kick offs tomorrow.

Bolton v Leeds

Something of a must win for Bolton, who could do with the cash a Fifth Round tie would bring but who haven’t got past this stage since 2012. The problem is that since the World War II they’ve played Leeds twice at home in the FA Cup and lost both games and they’ve also not beaten Leeds at home in any competition since May 2004 (four games since). Leeds haven’t reached the 5th round since 2013 and have lost their last three away ties without scoring a goal, including a 1-0 defeat at Rochdale two years ago.

Nottingham Forest v Watford

Here’s a nice stat to impress your friends. Forest have only hosted Watford twice in the competition, but that was in the first season after World War II when there was no league structure and ties were played over two legs – and in this case, a replay. Forest failed to win either game back then and have been poor against the Hornets recently (three league wins in the last ten games at the City Ground), but Dougie Freedman’s side haven’t lost at home since the start of October. Watford haven’t won an away FA Cup tie since a victory at Plymouth nine years ago nor won a Premier League away game since mid December: it was a decade since the Hornets reached the semis but – like Forest – have only reached the fifth round once in the last ten years.

Reading v Walsall

The Mad House may be where an upset occurs this weekend, although in the three previous FA Cup ties between them the home team has yet to lose and Reading have a good recent record in the FA Cup in home games against teams in divisions below them. The Royals reached the semi finals of the competition last year and although they’re a better team than last season, their recent home form has been inconsistent. For further information go to Buzzin’ League One Football.

The only televised games involving Championship sides are Derby v Manchester United (tonight, BBC1, 7:55pm kick off) and MK Dons v Chelsea (Sunday, BBC1, 4:00pm) but although the ‘national’ angle is how bad Manchester United have been under Louis Van Gaal, almost nobody seems to have mentioned how Derby haven’t won in the Championship since Boxing Day and were beaten 4-1 by Burnley on Monday night.

As if all this FA Cup Action wasn’t enough, there’s a very important game at the bottom of the table tomorrow when Charlton face Rotherham. The Millers’ mini revival at home came badly unstuck when they were beaten by QPR a fortnight ago but nonetheless Rotherham have won four of their last six home games without conceding a goal and Jordan Clarke-Harris, Joe Newell and Daniel Ward all scoring three apiece in that run. In ten games Charlton have won just three points on the road since the end of September and have conceded an average of almost four goals a game over their last five away trips. This looks extremely one sided to me – especially as Charlton haven’t won at Rotherham since April 1963.

I’ll provide updates over the weekend.

Update: Blackburn, Hull, Leeds and Reading are all through after winning on Saturday. They’ll play Liverpool or West Ham, Arsenal (again), Watford and WBA/Peterborough respectively.

2014/15 Sky Bet Championship Play Off Final Preview

This season’s edition of The Biggest Game in the Entire History of the Universe ™ is here again and this season Middlesbrough and Norwich will compete for roughly a 50% chance of being relegated or a 90% chance of finishing in the bottom half of next season’s Premier League. That’s not me being sarcastic either: since the second tier became the Championship ten seasons ago, five playoff final winners have lasted just one season in the Premier League and only one team (West Ham in 2006) has won the final and gone on to finish in the top half of the Premier League at the end of the following season. Last season’s playoff finalists (QPR) will be rejoining the Championship in August.

Monday’s game is live on Sky Sports 1 (2:00pm) with the actual football starting at 3:00pm. If you’re interested in who is going to win the last promotion place from League One, I’ll make no apologies for making a shameless plug for my League One Playoff Final preview here; why not make a Sunday afternoon of it by watching Hull and Newcastle trying to avoid relegation to the Championship earlier in the afternoon? That was sarcasm by the way…

Middlesbrough

The Curse Of Fourth appear to have ended in dramatic fashion when QPR won last season’s final with a last gasp goal from Bobby Zamora, but that was the first time a fourth placed finisher had won the final since Charlton beat Sunderland on penalties in 1998 and Rangers lasted one season in the Premier League. Boro have spent five of the last six seasons outside the top ten in the Championship and as this is only their second playoff campaign then I think it’s fair to say this game is a rare opportunity to do something unique.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Boro have a good record against the other three playoff teams and although their convincing playoff win over Brentford went to form, don’t forget that Aitor Karanka’s side lost half of their last ten aways. That’s why probably they’re in the playoffs rather than on the beach after the open topped bus parade; Boro had the best defensive record in the Championship this season (21 clean sheets) and the defence first approach that’s worked for Karanka over the past couple of seasons could work in a one off game like this. On the other hand, Middlesbrough scored the fewest total goals amongst the sides in the top six (they were shut out twice by Bournemouth, Leeds and Reading), could find it hard to replace Patrick Bamford if they go up and could struggle to come from behind on Monday.

Key player: Grant Leadbitter. A goalscoring midfielder is what every Championship club needs and the 29 year old Mackem has almost doubled his previous best total this season. Has tons of experience in the Championship but has played at the highest level in the past and could do so again. Won’t need much motivation.

Norwich

Looking back at the pre-season preview for the Canaries, it strikes me that I was pretty much on the mark. Norwich began well after being relegated but were knocked off top spot at the start of October and by the end of the following month had dropped into mid table, which is more or less what I predicted. What many of us didn’t see coming was the appointment of Alex Neil in January; that was the catalyst for a sustained promotion bid and although Norwich never regained top spot, Neil’s record at this level has been very impressive. The problem is that his record also unsustainable; but the immediate issue is whether Neil is a good enough manager to win one game and on current evidence the answer is yes.

There’s no doubt that the Canaries deserve to be one game away from an immediate return to the Premier League. They beat Watford and Ipswich twice during the regular season by aggregate scores of 6-0 and 3-0 respectively. Only Bournemouth lost fewer games this season and Norwich only failed to score in three league games at Carrow Road and four times on their travels. However, here’s where the big red warning sign starts flashing. The only team that stopped Norwich scoring in both league games was Middlesbrough, who were one of only two clubs to win both games against the Canaries (for the record, the other was Reading).

Key player: John Ruddy. The giant goalkeeper made 90 Premier League appearances over the three seasons the Canaries played in the top flight after promotion in 2011 and is still young enough to make an international comeback after a broken finger ruled him out of the England squad for Euro 2012. Ever present this season and helped to keep fourteen clean sheets in 2014/15 which included five in the ten games against the other clubs in the top six.

Head to head

Norwich have only won once in their last ten games against Middlesbrough in all competitions, a 1-0 win in October 2010 that was just after Gordon Strachan’s departure from the Riverside and was also on my list of games to keep an eye on that week. Boro have won five of the remaining nine matches but have been a couple of high scoring draws that might be worth recalling on Sunday. In May 1993 they shared six goals on Teeside and almost 12 years later it finished 4-4 at Carrow Road!

General Facts

This is only the fourth time the teams finishing third and fourth have met in the playoff final over the last decade. The third place finisher has won two of the last three; the last time in 2008, when Hull beat Bristol City. All three of those games finished 1-0.

Since 2005, fourth placed finishers have gone 1-3 in finals and all of those games have been settled by no more than one goal.

Six of the last ten finals have featured less than two goals and in seven of them only one team has scored. So it won’t come as much of a surprise that 1-0 has been the most common score in the last ten seasons and even less of a surprise is that eight of the last ten finals have been won by a margin of one goal. Only Watford in 2006 and Swansea in 2011 have had a higher margin of victory, which implies next season’s final might be one sided…

This will be the first final without a team from London, the South East or Lancashire taking part since 2008.

Verdict

If – as seems likely looking at the stats immediately above – we’re looking at a tight, low scoring game then the advantage is with Middlesbrough. That’s also the pattern in the recent games between the sides but as I mentioned earlier in this post, if Norwich take the lead then Boro may be forced out of their comfort zone and I’m not sure that coming from behind is their strength.

All being well I should be able to update after the game. If you’re interested in who might be coming up from the League One final, why not have a wander over to Buzzin’ League One Football to read the preview.

Update: Norwich were promoted to the Premier League following a 2-0 win over Middlesbrough his afternoon. The Canaries scored twice in the first 15 minutes and as I mentioned above, Boro were unable to come back.

In other news…Leeds hired Uwe Roesler…Derby have fired Steve McClaren…Preston will be back in the Championship after thrashing Swindon 4-0…and I’ll be back next month with the first day fixtures for next season and any other housekeeping.

Title, Playoff Places On The Line

So who’s ready for the last day of the regular season?

At the top:

Either Watford or Bournemouth will win the title. Middlesbrough could theoretically be promoted, but there’d be a very serious enquiry if that was the case. Ipswich, Derby, Brentford and Wolves will have to divide two playoff places between them, with a very real possibility of a Norwich/Ipswich playoff semi final.

Bookie’s verdict: The Hornets are short priced to win the title; but they can’t split Norwich or Boro to win the playoffs. Surprisingly, Wolves are the rank outsiders.

At the bottom:

Just the sound of apathy and broken dreams combined with tumbleweed.

Where to watch it:

Sky Sports have two live games (Derby v Reading, SS1 and Blackburn v Ipswich on SS2), which means that in all likelihood the ex-pros on Sky Sports news will spend a couple of hours screaming and making daft noises every time something even moderately exciting happens between noon and 2pm. If for some reason you miss everything, the one thing the Football League Show will probably be remembered for are their time stamped montages and so you’ve got the choice of waiting until almost midnight to watch the highlights on BBC1 or recording/downloading/whatever.

What to watch out for:

Sheffield Wednesday have only won twice in their last ten league visits to Vicarage Road and haven’t won consecutive league games there since the mid 1980s; they won last season’s game…Bournemouth have only won two of their eleven away games against the teams in the current top half of the table in 2014/15 – remarkably, that includes their astonishing 8-0 win at Birmingham City in October. Stat of the entire season: the Cherries have only ever won four times at Charlton in the league, but the last two victories were forty years apart. The last success: April 1975.

Three of the four teams competing for the last couple of playoff places are at home: the odd men out are Ipswich, who haven’t beaten Blackburn at Ewood Park in the league since August 1991. Town’s victory at Watford last month has been their only win in their last half a dozen away games; I mentioned this a couple of weeks ago, but I think it’s a case of ‘there’s always next season’ for Ipswich.

It’s not that straightforward for the other three either. Between them, Derby and Wolves have failed to beat Millwall, Reading and Wigan at home this season, which goes some way to explain why both of them are having to go the long way round to reach the Premier League. Brentford drew with Millwall and beat Reading at Griffin Park, but with both the Bees and Wolves having to play teams that have already been relegated it’s hardly a walk in the park. For the record, Wigan have won four of their last five league games at Griffin Park, Reading have won four of their last five league games at Derby…and Millwall haven’t won at Wolves since August 1928.

Something you may have missed (I know I did):

Last week Blackpool became the first team to go an entire season without an away win in the second tier since Bradford City ‘achieved’ that feat in 1989/90. Their last away success was a 2-0 win at Wigan just over a year ago…

There will be an update as soon as the games finish, but you’ll have to wait until Sunday to find out if either Preston or MK Dons will be joining Bristol City in next season’s competition.

Update: Bournemouth won the Championship with a win at Charlton forty years after their last one; Watford drew with Sheffield Wednesday. Norwich/Ipswich and Middlesbrough/Brentford are the playoff games. Reading won their fifth game at Derby in the last six to send the Rams down to eighth place and emphasising once again that the defeated playoff finalists from previous seasons don’t have much of a chance to win promotion at the end of the following season.

I’ll be back on either Wednesday/Thursday with the playoff preview.