Game of the Week: Bournemouth v Middlesbrough

First of all, congratulations to Reading who reached the Semi Finals of the FA Cup for the first time for almost a century following an emphatic 3-0 victory over Bradford on Monday evening.

Returning to the bread and butter, Waford took over at the top of the table for the first time since the start of November following a 2-0 away win at Wigan. Another Patrick Bamford goal helped Middlesbrough win at Derby, a result that means the Rams have now gone five games without a win and are now five points off the title pace. Bournemouth failed to close their game at Cardiff but could go back to the summit this weekend.

Wigan’s home defeat means that the Latics are now six points from safety; Millwall earned a point against Brighton but the bottom three is beginning to look done and dusted.

The game of the week is the no brainer between Bournemouth and Middlesbrough (Sky Sports 1, 12:00pm) but spare a thought for the travelling Boro supporters, who had to make the first leg of a 650 mile round trip in order to arrive on south coast for a 12:15 kick off because Sky Sports decided to televise the game.

The Cherries have lost only once at Dean Court in their last fifteen games in the Championship but three consecutive home draws in February has hampered their progress in the race to the Premier League and the recent goalless draw against Blackburn was the first time they’d not scored in front of their own fans this season.

Tuesday night’s victory at the Pride Park was Middlesbrough’s first away win in five games and couldn’t really have come at a better time. They’ve yet to play at both Watford and Norwich, but with three of their remaining four home games against teams in the bottom six their away form is vital if they’re going to return to the Premier League for the first time since 2008/09.

If past performance is anything to go by, this is a game that Bournemouth shouldn’t lose: Middlesbrough’s only victory at Dean Court came in a League Cup tie in October 1991 and tomorrow’s visitors have never won there in the league. However, four of the five meetings have been drawn, an outcome that would mean that Watford’s game against Ipswich a couple of hours later becomes incredibly important for the Hornets. If the current leaders win after a draw on the south coast, they’ll have put some breathing space between themselves and their rivals before the international break.

It’s looking increasingly likely that I’l not be able to cover the entire Easter weekend, so the revised plan is that I’ll be back at some point during the week following Easter Monday with a recap. I’ll catch you then.

Reading Need To Step Up This Evening

Tonight’s big question is whether Reading can reach the semi finals of the FA Cup for the first time in donkey’s years – coverage of the quarter final replay against Bradford City is on BBC1, kick off 7:30pm. The Royals are favourites but have only won three of their ten home games in the Championship since the start of November and four of their ten home ties in the FA Cup since January 2007. The 2-1 victory over Brighton last Tuesday was their first at home since the end of January and the first of Jamie Mackie’s goals was the first time Reading had scored at home in the league at home for almost six hours.

Then there’s this gem: Reading’s record at home against Bradford is awful. One win in Berkshire in the last ten meetings can’t really be interpreted as anything else, but the only time Reading have beaten the Bantams in a cup game at home was way back in February 1988, when Bradford lost in extra time of the quarter final of the long forgotten Simod cup.

Extra time is a possibility this evening. The prize is a trip to Wembley to face Arsenal in the middle of next month, but I’d be surprised if either side got past the Gunners in the semi final.

There’s more or less a full midweek programme on Tuesday and Wednesday, but with eleven points between Bournemouth and Wolves and the possibility of any of the top five taking over at the top the overall situation remains as unclear and competitive as it has been for most of the season. The outstanding game is Derby v Middlesbrough. The Rams came from behind to earn a draw at Carrow Road on saturday, whilst Middlesbrough ultimately ran roughshod over Ipswich in the lunchtime game. Derby have won three of the last four encounters in the league when they’ve had home advantage over Boro, but those wins are the only victories in eight matches in Derby since the start of the century.

The bottom of the table got fractionally more interesting following Wigan‘s win at Rotherham, but with Blackpool and Millwall both losing it’s only really the last relegation place that’s still to be decided. Despite the victory, Wigan are still six points adrift of safety and have to play Brighton, Millwall and Fulham in an eight day period next month as well as entertaining Watford tomorrow.

I’ll be back on Friday for a look at the weekend’s games but after that I’m taking a break although I may be back for Easter Monday’s games.

Holloway Pays The Price

It probably wasn’t much of shock to either Millwall fans or readers of this blog, but Ian Holloway parted company with the Lions earlier this week. I think it’s fair to say that the basic expectation at the New Den in August was avoiding relegation, but with ten games left, the Lions are ten points from safety and only Blackpool have a worse goal difference.

Having not covered league games for a couple of weeks, it’s also not much of a surprise that only goal difference seperates the top four, with Norwich only one point behind. So this week, we’ll take the first look at the run in from the perspective of the current top six and in the next post I’ll see if we can expect much change at the bottom.

The first thing to notice is that Middlesbrough have a horrid schedule ahead of them and both Bournemouth and Brentford only have one game left against the top six as it stands. Without wanting to sound premature, these games will probably also be games of the week and as you can see below, a lot of them will be televised. However, given the fluid nature of the top of the competition at the moment, thi will change. I’ve taken a look at my spreadsheet and I think that that any team from Wolves upwards could still go up. It’s also saying that Bournemouth will win the title on goal difference from Derby, Watford are this season’s most improved team, Birmingham and Charlton may be next season’s dark horses, Wigan have regressed the most and Huddersfield and Nottingham Forest have stayed exactly as they are.

The remaining fixtures between the current top six are as follows:

Saturday 14th March: Norwich v Derby

Tuesday 17th March: Derby v Middlesbrough

Saturday 21st March: Bournemouth v Middlesbrough (Sky Sports 1, 12;00pm)

Friday 3rd April: Derby v Watford (Sky Sports 1, 7:30pm)

Monday 6th April: Watford v Middlesbrough (Sky Sports 1 12:00pm)

Saturday 11th April: Derby v Brentford (Sky Sports 1 12:00pm)

Friday 17th April: Norwich v Middlesbrough (Sky Sports 1, 7:30pm)

The first thing to note is that that only seven of the 23 games – 30% – finished as away wins, with three of them coming at Brentford including one of the three away successes Norwich have managed against that group. That’s fascinating, because as you can see from the list, Brentford don’t have any more games at Griffin Park against their immediate rivals and Norwich don’t have any road trips against the same teams. It’s also entirely consistent with the amount of away wins for the entire competition, which is probably even more bad news for ‘boro.

My original plan was to write a preview for Norwich v Derby, but multiple blue screens of death, a bizarre mouse failure, the left hand shift button failing and a broken standard lamp all conspired against me. The main facts are that Norwich have beaten the Rams in seven of the last 10 league meetings at Carrow Road, there hasn’t been a draw at the same venue since March 1978 and the Rams have already lost at Middlesbrough and Brentford this season.

With any luck, I’ll be back on Monday for Reading v Bradford City Part 2 and a quick look at Tuesday evening’s games. If you’re wondering why Blackburn aren’t playing Liverpool in their replay next week, it’s something to do with silly rules about the Champions League.

Midweek Preview 3rd/4th March 2015

The major beneficiaries of the weekend were Norwich and Watford, who both won to put pressure on the top two, who both lost. The Hornets were 2-0 down after 19 minutes at Leeds, but two second half goals from Matej Vydra earned all three points. Norwich’s win over Ipswich was far more straightforward; Bradley Johnson hit a stunner to open the goalscoring.

Wigan won 3-1 at Blackpool, a result which effectively relegates the Tangerines. They are now fifteen points from safety with 36 points left to play for: it’s mathematically possible for Blackpool to stay up, but Einstein proved that time travel is also mathematically possible. Whether it’s possible for a 23 year old to be an effective chairman of Wigan Athletic now that Dave Whelan has stepped down is another matter entirely.

Rotherham came from behind to beat Millwall in South Yorkshire to put six points between them, but Brighton lost 1-0 at Bolton and are now back in the relegation mix.

There are only two more full midweek programmes before the end of the season and this one could be the most important in determining finishing positions in May. There are three games tonight and one on Wednesday that are between the top and bottom six.

Brighton v Derby

Albion have won two of their last three home games and have won half of their last ten games against the Rams in Sussex…four of their six remaining matches at the Amex are against teams from the top six, so a win would be very useful indeed…three of Derby’s five away defeats this season have occured against teams in the bottom half of the table, including being beaten at Fulham on Saturday which was their first away defeat since before Christmas…haven’t won away or kept a clean sheet since 2-0 win at Cardiff at the end of January

Middlesbrough v Millwall

Boro have won seven of their last ten games on Teeside and had been unbeaten at home in twelve until the recent defeat by Leeds…four of their last six homes are against teams currently in the bottom six…haven’t beaten Millwall in the league at home since October 1994, despite four attempts since…Lions have lost four of their last six on the road and have only picked up two points from 15 available in their away games against the current top six…aren’t that bad defensively away from Bermondsey but only Rotherham have scored fewer away goals this season…Shaun Williams hasn’t been booked since the middle of last month.

Watford v Fulham

Hornets have won six of last ten at Vicarage Road and haven’t drawn a game since October…have only kept four home clean sheets this season, but have lost all three home games when they failed to score..Nigerian striker Odion Ighalo is having the best season of his career and is set to return this evening…Fulham have only kept two away clean sheets since August and haven’t won on the road since the middle of December…have only scored twice in five road trips in 2015…first meeting at Vicarage Road since October 2006, Watford have won two of the five league meetings between the clubs in Hertfordshire since World War II.

Norwich v Wigan (Wednesday)

Only the fourth league meeting between the sides in Norfolk…the hosts have won seven of their last ten homes, keeping clean sheets in their last three a Carrow Road so almost 300 minutes without conceding a goal…winless streak in the autumn seems a long time ago now…Latics have won last two away games but it’s been almost exactly a year since they won three…will need to produce a similar performance to the one at Derby in October to get anything from this match, especially as they’ve never won at Carrow Road in any competition.

I’ll be back on Saturday with the FA Cup preview and a quick look at any games of interest in the league.

Are Brentford Making A Mistake?

The scenario: you’re the owner one of the smaller clubs in London and you’re having the best season in the league since the early 1950s. Promotion is still a possibility, even though it’ll probably have to be via the playoffs. Just over a year ago, your manager was pretty much unknown but he got an opportunity because his predecessor left for a ‘bigger’ club: it quickly became clear that the former boss might not have been as good as his assistant.

You also own a company that specialises in producing football statistics and you decide to take a slightly different approach to team recruitment and management to the one that’s currently working. It’s supposed to be a ‘European’ method, but to one cynical blogger in particular it looks an awful lot like the approach that Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s used during the ‘Moneyball’ era; it seems to remove a lot of the responsibility previously held by the current manager. And it’s worth remembering that there’s no equivalent to ‘walks’ in association football.

In a nutshell, that is why Mark Warburton is leaving Brentford at the end of this season. Seven years ago they were in a mid-table team in League Two and the last time the Bees played at this level, they were relegated after one campaign. They’ve exceeded expectations this season but although Warburton’s departure and Matthew Benham’s insistance on a new direction may be a watershed for the direction of the club, you can’t help but think the powers that be at Griffin Park are making a big mistake. The earliest clue will be who replaces Warburton; it’s a foreign manager with no knowledge of the Championship then I’ll practically guarantee you that Brentford won’t do anywhere near as well as they have done in 2014/15. I can’t imagine Warburton will be without a job for long, but given his stand on this issue I can think of a few clubs that he won’t be interested in: that includes Nottingham Forest, who announced this week that Dougie Freedman is only on a three month contract. I might actually apply for the job next time.

In the FA Cup last weekend, Blackburn and Reading continue to wave the Championship flag in the FA Cup but the draw for the quarter finals was a mixed bag. Both clubs are on the road: Rovers travel to Liverpool whilst Reading visit Bradford City. The law of averages says one of them should reach the semis, but I’ll take a closer look at which club that might be nearer the time.

Nothing much has changed at either end of the table over the last week: Bournemouth failed to beat Huddersfield last Saturday, which meant Middlesbrough have gone back to the top of the table after coming from behind on Wednesday at Birmingham. Both Derby and Ipswich have a chance to go top on Saturday and without anyone really taking the competition by the scruff of the neck this season any of the top ten could probably still go up. At the bottom, Blackpool and Wigan both picked up points over the last week: the Tangerines were down to nine men but still managed to earn a draw against Nottingham Forest with an equaliser in the 97th minute (Well fancy that! Forest blew a lead and ended up with a point!) whilst the Latics won at Reading, who may have been out of sorts following their cup win at the weekend.

There are only a couple of games worth following this weekend; Fulham visit Millwall and Watford entertain Norwich. There were some signs that Kit Symonds had started something of a revival at Craven Cottage after being appointed in September but six defeats in their last ten have seen the Cottagers drop back into the bottom six for the first time since the start of November. From a slightly less gloomy perspective, Fulham haven’t lost five away games on the bounce since they were relegated and haven’t lost at Millwall in the league since April 1982. The Lions haven’t won at home since October, have lost six of their eight games at the New Den since beating Cardiff and are averaging less than a goal a game in Bermondsey since then.

Norwich’s trip to Watford could well be a playoff game in May: the Canaries have only lost one of their last half dozen away games and seem to have put their autumn slump behind them. They’re now back in the top six for the first time since November and are only a couple of wins away from an automatic promotion spot, so although it’s probably too early to tell, Alex Neil’s appointment seems to have been the right decision. It also helps that the Canaries have three decent strikers: between them Cameron Jerome, Lewis Grabban and Gary Hooper have scored almost 60% of City’s goals this season.

Four straight defeats in November may have undermined any chance of Watford winning automatic promotion but the Hornets have only lost three of their last dozen outings in the Championship and they’ve not lost at home since Boxing Day. They’ve failed to beat any of the current top six sides but haven’t lost at home to Norwich since April 2004 and so I’d not be at all surprised if this ends all square. Eight of the 19 games between the teams currently in the potential promotion slots (42%) have been drawn and with no draw at Vicarage Road since October then I’d be tempted to have a couple of quid on the 5/2 on offer with some firms.

There’s a full midweek programme next week, so I’ll be back then.

Unless anyone else gets sacked.