Are Leeds Going To Blow It?

Welcome to this week’s episode of ‘typical anti-Leeds drivel’, if you’re a Leeds fan of a certain disposition you might not want to continue reading.

Here’s what happened at Elland Road last weekend in the clash between the top two:

Leeds have now lost four of their last six games after a seven game winning streak that ended at the end of December. It’s unclear if this is a blip or not – after this weekend’s game they don’t face another top six club until next month – but there’s suddenly a defensive frailty about them. If any Leeds fans want to take a look at what happened to Marseille in the 2014/15 season, they might see something that should worry them.

As we go into this weekend’s games, only ten points separate the top seven, which could mean the last third of the season is more unpredictable than we might have imagined even a month ago. Currently no-one looks like a side that could win automatic promotion, but to put that into context the only team that has more or less no chance of mathematically reaching the playoffs is Ipswich.

Nonetheless, Middlesbrough v Leeds (tomorrow 1pm, no TV coverage) is our game of the week this week even though neither team is currently on fire. Boro were dumped out of the FA Cup earlier this week by Newport, which probably shouldn’t have been that much of a shock considering their record at the Riverside since mid-September – where Tony Pulis’ side has won just twice in ten games. That being said, their away form has sustained their league position and Boro haven’t lost at home to any of the teams currently above them in 2018/19.

Leeds’ recent come from behind win at Rotherham was their first away success since before Christmas but although they’ve got a reasonably straightforward looking run in, this game will be their last chance until the start of next month to win any away points due to QPR‘s continued involvement in the FA Cup.

Leeds have only won one of their last five visits to the Riverside – an early Alex Mowatt goal earned all three points in February 2014 – and the last time both of these teams scored in a game at Middlesbrough was just under eight and a half years ago. Given that Boro have the best defence in the division, I wonder how likely it is to happen again?

The only other game that will have an impact on the table is at Millmoor, where Wigan are the visitors. Reading would have to win at Sheffield Wednesday to overtake Rotherham, but considering Wigan haven’t won a game away from home since August (thirteen in a row), the Latics might be due a rare success. The Millers have only won twice at home since October but actually have a decent home record against the other strugglers.

TV games: Aston Villa v Sheffield United (this evening, 7:45pm), Stoke v WBA (Saturday 5:30pm) and Norwich v Ipswich (Sunday, noon) all look as if they were chosen well in advance. The Old Farm derby is usually televised but might well be one to avoid given the respective positions of the protagonists in the table: Norwich have beaten Ipswich twice by three clear goals in the last 25 years and I’d not be surprised if that happened again in what might be the last league derby between the teams for a while.

I’ll get back to the FA Cup next weekend, but with six teams left in the competition, I’m beginning to wonder if something rather rare might happen. With all due respect to Newport, imagine the possibilities if Manchester City were drawn against the winners of Chelsea/Manchester United in the quarter finals…

The Championship’s Biggest Movers in Early 2019

Blades 4-1 Tigers” (CC BY 2.0) by domfell

The Christmas period can often play a crucial part in shaping the course of the league heading into the New Year.

With games coming thick and fast, teams can easily drop out or force their way into contention for automatic promotion and the play-off places.

This year has been no exception with some of the top teams faltering while a couple of upstarts have forced themselves into the reckoning.

Leeds United lost two games in a row in January at the turn of the year, but as of 16th January, retained a four-point gap at the top thanks to poor results for their rivals. That includes Norwich City, who went on a four-game winless run, and West Bromwich Albion, who drew two and lost one following their Boxing Day win over Wigan Athletic.

Blades at the sharp end

This opened the door for Sheffield United who won four in a row over the festive period, leapfrogging into second place. Prior to that, they had only won three in 11 and looked out of contention for automatic promotion. Chris Wilder’s men are now third favourites for the title in the Championship betting markets and priced at Evens to get promoted.

Robins bobbing along nicely

Looking a little further down the table, Bristol City are another club on an upward trajectory. The Robins bounced back from four straight defeats to go unbeaten from the end of November through to the middle of January. Before that run, Lee Johnson’s men were languishing down in 15th place, but they now sit in seventh, just two points outside of the play-off places. Despite their uplift in form, they can still be backed as long as 20/1 to achieve promotion.

Tigers on the prowl

Three points and three places further back, Hull City are the league’s in-form team. With five straight wins from the middle of December topping off an 11-game unbeaten run, Nigel Adkins’ men have powered their way into playoff contention. On 23rd October, they were second bottom with just nine points from their opening 13 games and looked certain to become relegation candidates.

Now, just four points outside of the playoff zone, the Tigers are still not getting much attention from the bookies, who had them as long as 25/1 for promotion at the time of writing, but no team has a better record over the last 13 games. If they can bolster their squad in January while maintaining their current momentum, they could well be in the mix come May.

Case in point

On November 5 last year, Fulham were 17th place in the table having won just four of their 16 games. They went on to finish third in the table losing just three of the next 31 games and secured promotion via the playoffs.

Winning runs don’t win Championships or promotion alone and all three teams mentioned will need to maintain consistency over a longer period if they are to stay in contention for ascension to the Premier League.

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…

FA Cup 3rd Round Preview 2019

Happy New Year!

Although it’s the FA Cup that takes precedence this week, you must have failed to notice that there were some interesting (to say the least) games over the Christmas period.

I’ll return to the League next week, but suffice to say the holiday programme in the Championship was as entertaining and unpredictable as ever.

It’s the usual format for the FA Cup: I’ve selected the most and least competitive ties for each of the possible divisional combinations with an ‘honourable mention’ where appropriate for games that might provide some talking points. All kick offs are 3pm today unless stated.

Premier League Opposition

Derby v Southampton

Fifth meeting in the FA Cup, Derby have yet to lose any of their ties against the Saints since their first meeting in the competition 130 years ago. Last match: 2-0, 21 years ago.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Derby couldn’t be any more Derby at the moment: they’ve only lost one of their last six home games but haven’t won since the start of December. The Rams haven’t also won a home FA Cup tie for four years.

Until winning at Huddersfield just before Christmas, Southampton had lost five of their last six away games  although to be fair that includes a League Cup defeat on penalties at Leicester. They’ve only lost one of their last six away FA Cup games, at eventual winners Chelsea last season.

Manchester City v Rotherham (tomorrow, 2pm)

It would go down as one of the all time FA Cup upsets if Rotherham won at the Etihad, but there are a number of reasons to suspect that’s not going to happen.

This game will be their third meeting in the cup: 40 years ago Rotherham drew at Maine Road but lost the replay 4-2 at Millmoor. However it’s worth remembering that since 2010, Rotherham have only won two of their last seven away FA Cup ties and they’ve not won an away game in the Championship since April 2016. Hardly inspires confidence does it?

Possible upset: Bristol City v Huddersfield (today, 5:30pm)

All Championship

A question of priorities in both of these games, with the game at Loftus Road being the most interesting one considering the results over the Christmas period. Leeds and WBA are aiming for automatic promotion, after a poor start QPR are only four points of the playoff places and Wigan‘s recent run of terrible form could mean that the Latics are sucked into a relegation battle that looked unlikely a few weeks ago.

QPR v Leeds (tomorrow, 2pm)

This will be their third meeting in competition, the most recent was in February 1987 when Leeds won by the odd goal in three before reaching the semi finals. The first and only match in the FA Cup in London was 87 years ago (QPR won 3-1) but that was held at the White City Stadium.

Leeds have only lost two of their eight trips to Loftus Road since 2000 and won the last game they played there by 3-1.

WBA v Wigan (12:30pm)

First meeting in the FA Cup but Wigan’s second trip to the Hawthorns in ten days – the Latics lost 2-0 on Boxing Day – but that was the first time West Brom had won at home since mid November and their momentum seems to have slowed down in recent weeks. That’s still loads better than Wigan’s away record: without a win in eleven and earning just two points from the 33 available over that period. It seems inconceivable that they were in the top ten when they beat the Baggies in October.

Honourable mention: Millwall v Hull (Sunday, 2pm)

League One Opponents

Accrington Stanley v Ipswich

Have never met in any competition, but there’s an above average change that this might be the first of many encounters over the next 12 months – this one has upset written all over it. Stanley’s flirtation with the League One playoffs was brief but they seem to established themselves as a solid mid table side in the increasingly polarised landscape of the third tier even though they’ve only won two of their last ten games. Ipswich have lost six of their last seven road trips in the Championship and haven’t scored an away league goal for over seven hours.

Brentford v Oxford

Third meeting in comp but the first since January 1964: in the two previous games at Griffin Park the teams won once each. Neither team has been particularly good form recently: Brentford have only one of their last ten games but weren’t beaten over the Christmas period whilst Oxford haven’t won an away game in League One this season and have lost three in a row in the same competition.

Since 2000 at Griffin Park: 3-1-1, last meeting was a 4-0 Oxford victory in the League Cup in August 2015.

Other games to monitor in this category: Luton v Sheffield Wednesday and Middlesbrough v Peterborough. Head over to Buzzin’ League One Football for a quick look at those matches.

Opponents from outside the EFL

Sheffield United v Barnet (tomorrow, 2pm)

First ever meeting in any competition; the Blades had an outstanding Christmas (more of that next week) and have only lost one home FA Cup tie in the last seven years. Oddly enough, Barnet’s win at Bristol Rovers was only their second victory in an away FA Cup tie in the last seven years: this looks spectacularly one sided.

If anything unexpected happens – and I think it’s possible in a couple of games – I’ll be posting an update on Sunday evening or Monday morning.

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 🙂