Shock, Horror: Easter Weekend May Be Interesting.

So it’s been almost two weeks since I last posted and this is a ‘catch up’ for me as much as anything else.

Regular readers know that I don’t get hysterical about how important Easter is: Leicester were one of my picks to win the Championship in August, just as Burnley were one of my picks to win promotion. At the bottom of the table, three of the five sides I mentioned in that post are facing the drop and as I never tire of repeating, Christmas is far more important if you want a long term view of what’s going to happen.

Anyway, Leicester are up regardless of what happens. Burnley have an eight point lead over Derby with four games left, with – in all likelihood – the Rams and QPR having clinched playoff places. After that, I’d say any of the teams in the top eight could win the last two playoff spots with sixth place – as now – being a toss up between Brighton, Reading and Ipswich. Wigan were leading Arsenal in last weekend’s FA Cup semi final before succumbing to penalties and it’ll be interesting to see how they react to two successive defeats.

There are a couple of stories from the ‘there’s always next year’ angle: Stuart Pearce will be taking over as manager of Nottingham Forest in July and Massimo Cellino’s takeover at Leeds United has finally been ratified. Call me a cynic, but I’ll be surprised if either of these developments will be as successful as the hype currently surrounding them. Wolves will be back in the Championship next season after winning promotion from League One and it’s looking increasingly likely I’ll be posting about Cardiff next season.

At the bottom, Yeovil are five points adrift of safety and even though Barnsley won at Charlton on Tuesday, I still think the Tykes will go down. Charlton now only have one game in hand over their nearest competitors in the bottom six but any of the clubs from Huddersfield onwards could find themselves in trouble with just a couple of poor results over the next couple of weeks. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Millwall overtake Blackpool before the end of the month, but anything could still happen.

Rather than look at the weekend’s programme as a whole, I’ll look at Monday’s games separately. There’s quite a compelling reason to do that as there’s a televised double header on Friday which is not only rare, but also features two of the day’s more intriguing matchups.

The outstanding game of the 3:00pm kick offs is Wigan v Reading. The Latics surprisingly lost at home to Millwall last Tuesday to end an eleven game run without a home defeat and it’s worth pointing out that although Wigan haven’t beaten any of the sides above them at the DW Stadium, they’ve only lost one of their six games against the other teams currently in the top half. Reading lost at Bournemouth on the same night to end their six game undefeated away streak, but the Royals don’t have a great record at Wigan, having only won once in the five league meetings between the two clubs in Lancashire and that was the first time they met – in December 2003.

Friday’s televised games are the Lancashire derby between Blackpool v Burnley (Sky Sports 1, 5:15pm) followed by the (ahem) ‘six pointer’ at the Keepmoat between Doncaster and Derby.

Quite frankly, Blackpool’s record at Bloomfield Road has been horrible: since mid December they’ve only won twice in twelve attempts and although they’ve beaten Wigan and Reading this season, the last of those victories was in mid October! Although I’ve got some sympathy for Barry Ferguson, the malaise that the Tangerines find themselves in has been self inflicted and although they’re facing relegation back to the third tier for the first time in eight seasons, if Blackpool manage to stay up but the situation of the field continues in such a shambolic way then next season will be an absolute disaster.

Burnley haven’t lost on the road since Boxing Day but have alternated wins with draws since then and if that pattern continues this one will be a draw – something that’s not happened in games between the two local rivals at Bloomfield Road since 2000 and an outcome that neither of them can really afford at such a crucial point in the season.

At one point recently it looked as if Doncaster’s form at the Keepmoat might keep them up, but with consecutive defeats against Birmingham and Bolton have cast a fairly substantial shadow over Rovers’ prospects of avoiding relegation. To be fair, Donny haven’t lost three homes in a row since they were relegated two seasons ago and have beaten Leicester, QPR and Wigan at home this season. It looks like Derby’s work may be cut out for them in this game, especially as their form has been patchy away from Pride Park recently – one win in five – and there’s never been a draw between the sides in a league game in South Yorkshire.

The only game on Saturday worth keeping an eye on is QPR’s visit to the King Power Stadium to take on champions elect Leicester, although if Derby win at Doncaster that might effectively end any hopes Rangers might have of automatic promotion and could even make them this year’s victims of The Curse Of Fourth Place. Remarkably, Leicester have only won two of the last six league meetings they’ve hosted against QPR but one of the reasons Harry Redknapp’s side have fallen off the pace over the last few months is that they can’t score on the road against their fellow promotion challengers – a fact that doesn’t bode well for their playoff prospects.

I’ll be back on Sunday, but it might be a bit later than usual as I’m travelling during the day.

Burnley v Leicester: Winner Takes All?

Well, I wrote at the end of January that I wouldn’t mention Leicester by name again until one of the other promotion contenders were within three points of them – and 56 days later that’s the case!

The only reason the leaders have been caught is because they’ve dropped points against Blackburn and Yeovil in their last couple of games – and as most of you are probably aware, they were seconds away from losing to the Glovers on Tuesday. With the rest of their challengers having either lost or found momentum recently, both Leicester and Burnley have shown a remarkable degree of consistency this season: neither of them have been outside the top three since September and they’ve occupied the top spots since the beginning of last month. If – as seems likely – they both win promotion, it’ll be the first time both teams have played together in the top flight of English football since the mid 1970s.

I’ve looked at tomorrow’s game from multiple angles and the outcome is very unclear, which is all the more reason to watch it on TV (12:15pm, Sky Sports 1) if you can’t actually be at Turf Moor. To begin with, Burnley have only won two of their last ten league meetings with Leicester at home with the last victory coming in August 2010, but the Clarets haven’t lost at home in the Championship for over a year and have won the three home games against the other clubs in the top six. They’re also currently on a five game home winning streak.

From Leicester’s point of view, they’ve only lost four away games this season and three of those defeats fall firmly into the category of surprises. Although they’ve yet to play at either Reading or Wigan, tomorrow’s clash is the first time the  Foxes will have played on the road against a team in the current top six since before Christmas. Losing tomorrow wouldn’t be that big a surprise, which makes you wonder if it’s Burnley’s year long streak without a defeat that might be more at risk than any adverse outcome for Leicester.

Burnley need to stop Leicester – and particularly Jamie Vardy – from scoring first. In nine  of their last ten away games the Foxes took the lead and only lost once; they won six of those matches but it’s worth remembering that four of those victories were against teams currently in the bottom half of the table. Vardy – who has notched six times in nine away games since the defeat at Sheffield Wednesday – is the only Leicester player other than Anthony Knockaert and David Nugent to have scored more than one goal in that period, but – like Burnley –  the current Leicester squad is well balanced and isn’t over reliant on one goalscorer.

When Danny Ings picked up a ligament injury in the middle of the month, Burnley fans might have been forgiven for thinking they might be struggling for goals without him. That’s not happened: Scott Arfield and Sam Vokes in particular have taken on the job in recent games but the defence – currently the stingiest in the Championship along with Brighton – is the foundation of the side: hardly a surprise given that Sean Dyche was one of the best central defenders in the lower half of the league in his playing days.

Looking at the bigger picture, a point would be ideal for both sides but it depends on how much winning the Championship means to both sets of players and their managers. With a ten point gap between Burnley and QPR it’s also conceivable that if either side lost it might not make any difference to their promotion chances.

Before I go, it would be amiss for me not to point out that there are two other games to watch out for: the bookies were probably delighted that Barnsley won at Reading on Tuesday, but the Tykes have to travel to Yeovil tomorrow. Gary Johnson’s side has shown a lot of fighting spirit recently and could even escape the bottom three if Charlton are battered at Derby.

I’m not sure when the next post will be as I’m on a short break before Easter, so until next time enjoy your weekend and I hope your team wins.

Nottingham Forest Sack Billy Davies

Yet another managerial casualty in the Championship: last year, Derby fired Nigel Clough after losing to Nottingham Forest and Forest fired Billy Davies yesterday after Derby battered them in the East Midlands Derby on Saturday.

Forest’s catastrophic defeat – combined with wins for Wigan and Reading – knocked the Tricky Trees out of the top six for the first time since Christmas. It’s also extremely premature to suggest that Forest won’t get promoted either as they’re still on target for the playoffs despite not winning since the start of last month but as I’ve written before, the ultimate goal for the Al-Hasawi family is promotion to the Premier League and Forest’s current form is the same as that of Barnsley. Neil Warnock has already turned down the job and although the obvious candidate is Malky Mackay, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s thinking ‘once bitten, twice shy’

What’s Michael Appleton doing these days?

To be absolutely honest, the situation at the City Ground is yet another supporting argument for the position I’ve taken over and over again since I began posting here. The simplified version is as follows:

* The Premier League is the glittering prize for Championship clubs. Everyone wants to get there. Unfortunately there are only three places available. On average, those places will go to teams that have done well in the Championship over the past couple of seasons. The reason those clubs have done well is that the board have eventually made the right appointment – a manager with Championship experience – and have had patience with him, even when there have been setbacks and disappointments. This type of club may win promotion – but will struggle mightily in the Premier League.

* On the other hand, there are a number of clubs in the Championship that have all or some of the following traits: unrealistic expectations based on former glories, make vanity or marquee appointments at managerial level and either have boards of directors that panic when the slightest thing goes wrong or are in the hands of millionaire megalomaniacs who are often – but not always – criminals. This type of club might finish in the top half of the Championship but will rarely win promotion.

* It’s entirely possible that the first type of club can turn into the second (Cardiff City and possibly Charlton) and the second type of club can turn into the first (the current leaders – and this is also the best case scenario for Leeds).

Nottingham Forest have been the second type of club for a while now.

So we’ve reached the penultimate Tuesday night programme of the season and there are no less than four games that will affect both ends of the table. Yeovil visit the King Power Stadium having blown yet another lead (against Bolton) last weekend, whilst Nigel Pearson’s side have only dropped two points at home from the eighteen available in 2014. Barnsley’s trip to Reading also looks like an exercise in futility: despite Steve Claridge’s rather bizarre outbreak of optimism on last weekend’s ‘Football League Show’, the fact are that the Tykes have one away win in the last calendar year and have only won once in their four visits to Berkshire since 2000.

Millwall host Birmingham at the New Den in an intriguing game: although the Blues demolished Millwall 6-0 in January 2012, that was only their second triumph at either the new or the old Den since 1971. The Lions have won half of the other ten meetings since and despite not picking up three points at home for over two months, Ian Holloway might fancy his team to nick three points against a Blues side that have lost six of their last ten matches and might find themselves amongst the preseason favourites for relegation next season.

The clash between QPR and Wigan at Loftus Road is the game of the round. Rangers’ recent indifferent home form came to end with a 3-0 victory over Yeovil, but they’ve only managed one home win over their rivals for promotion (against Derby at the start of November) and despite winning at Middlesbrough on Saturday they remain ten points adrift of the automatic promotion places with nine games left. As I recently mentioned, Wigan look as if they’ve timed their tilt at the playoffs to perfection: the Latics have 22 points from their seven games and are currently on a four game winning streak away from home. There’s always a catch though: Wigan have failed to win four of their five games in W12 and last beat QPR on the road in March 2003.

Unless Forest make an appointment, I’ll be back on Friday with a closer look at the game between the top two. If I can find a way of not mentioning them by name I’ll try, but I think it might be unavoidable this time.

Sky Bet Championship Preview 22nd March 2014

As I mentioned last week, I’m only going to be covering the battle for the playoff places for the rest of the season. Wigan look as if they’ve timed their run to perfection – or at least it did until Tuesday night. With ten minutes left the Latics were leading 1-0 but then the game caught fire. Yeovil took the lead with five minutes left, but in a sensational finish the match finished 3-3: Luke Ayling scored Yeovil’s equaliser four minutes into injury time after Byron Webster’s own goal had given Wigan the lead for the second time.

That result – combined with QPR losing 3-0 at Sheffield Wednesday – means there’s only three points between the teams in the playoff positions with ten games left: although the match between Derby and Nottingham Forest (Sky Sports 1, 12:15pm) is the obvious contender for game of the week, I’m going to be taking a closer look at two sides outside the top six that still have a chance of winning promotion at Wembley in May.

Since the turn of the year, Brighton have only lost once in seven league outings at the Amex and their defence has kept four clean sheets. The Seagulls are a point behind Forest despite having played one game less and Reading are only ahead of them on a slightly superior goal difference, but there are a couple of trends that emphasise why Brighton aren’t doing as well as they arguably ought to be. Since 1st January they’ve been over dependent on Leonardo Ulloa for goals and only one of their of seven home league goals has come in the first half: Seagulls fans have had to be patient as the other six have all traken at least an hour to arrive. To be fair, that reminds me a lot of Hull City in the last couple of seasons, but the next step is winning more games. Between the end of August and the end of October they drew six of their nine games and that’s another reason why they aren’t further up the table.

Ipswich won at Yeovil last week for their first away victory of 2014: it was their first success on the road since a Boxing Day success at Bournemouth but the fact that they were in bottom six at this point last year indicates an improvement that may have gone unnoticed nationally and could be a sign of things to come next season. After flirting with the top six at the turn of the year, the Tractor Boys have probably been a little too inconsistent: they’ve only won four of their last ten outings and in the last month have only picked up six points from the 15 available but that’s probably due to losing striker David McGoldrick for the season following a knee ligament injury last month.

Although Ipswich have only lost two of their last ten league games at Brighton, their last win was in May 1989 at the old Goldstone Ground but they’ve come away with a point in five of the last six meetings between the clubs in Sussex. I wouldn’t rule out a draw, but given that Mick McCarthy’s side have only beaten struggling teams on the road this season, I’ll be mildly surprised if Ipswich win.

At the bottom of the table, the point that Doncaster earned at Forest on Saturday means that Charlton, Millwall, Yeovil and Barnsley are five points adrift of everyone else going into the weekend. A last minute goal from Dorian Devite helped the Addicks beat Bournemouth on Tuesday and Charlton now are level on points with Millwall with three games in hand. The obvious problem for Jose Riga (apart from me getting his name wrong a lot recently) is that Charlton will have to play two games a week to catch up – the key matches are when they face Yeovil and Barnsley at the Valley on consecutive Tuesdays in a month’s time.

There’s a full midweek programme on Tuesday, so if I get a chance I’ll post before then. Otherwise I’ll be back next Friday…for what could be the game that decides who wins the Championship.

Sky Bet Championship Preview 15th March 2014

Although the leaders won on Tuesday and Burnley earned a point that arguably should have been three last night,  both were significant results that had implications for the rest of the season.

To put it simply, both of the top clubs guaranteed themselves at least a playoff place – which means from now on that the other six clubs in the top eight scrapping for what’s left. So I think it’s entirely appropriate that it’s time to apply the same rule to Burnley as I did to the team that’s top of the Sky Bet Championship: I won’t mention the Clarets by name for the rest of the season unless one of the other promotion contenders is within six points of them.

Having got that out of the way, Saturday’s games feature three games that will have an impact at both ends of the table. Nottingham Forest – who haven’t won at the City Ground in the Championship since the start of February – host Doncaster Rovers, who haven’t managed an away win since the end of September. Rovers don’t have a bad record at Forest in recent years: they’ve only lost one of their last four games in the Championship there, although Forest’s defensive problems (they’ve conceded the first goal in all of their games since losing to Sheffield United in the FA Cup) may not be exposed by Donny, who have failed to score in six of their last ten away games and haven’t scored more than two goals on the road since August.

QPR have struggled at home since the end of January, so although a visit from Yeovil might look like three points, the Glovers have only lost half of their eight most recent away games and were on a five game unbeaten streak until they lost at home to Ipswich last weekend. Rangers have had similar defensive issues to Nottingham Forest recently: they’ve not kept clean sheet at Loftus Road since before Christmas and with their visitors scoring in five of their last six road trips (James Hayter and Ishmail Miller have been on target more than once in that period) this might not go according to plan for the favourites.

Charlton earned a point at home to Huddersfield in their first game under new manager Jan Riga, but they need to start picking up wins in their games in hand in order to escape the bottom three. A trip to Millwall in a South London derby with relegation for both clubs a distinct possibility isn’t exactly what the doctor ordered: the Addicks last won at Millwall in December 1995 and have only one away win against a team in the bottom half of the Championship.

I did a quick search on the blog to see when I first mentioned that Chris Powell might be in danger of losing his job: the answer was early December when it was becoming obvious that last season’s performance was not going to be repeated. Birmingham, Millwall and Barnsley have all regressed at a similar rate from last season, but Charlton are currently showing the biggest disparity between 2012/13 and 2013/14 and it’s not much of a surprise that they’re bottom: it was the timing of the decision to sack Powell that was the head scratcher as the damage in the league had been done before the FA Cup defeat on Sunday.

The main event on Saturday is at the Mad House, when Derby are the visitors in a game that could be repeated in the playoffs. If we take a detailed look at the head to head record between teams that are currently between third and eighth, it’s something of a surprise to find Reading haven’t beaten any of their immediate rivals for promotion at home and even though we’re not even half way through March this may be the Royals last chance to do so. The Rams haven’t won in Berkshire for almost a decade though and haven’t beaten a team in the top half of the table since they won at Wigan at the beginning of December. Incidentally, it’s the Latics who have the best record in group of teams in playoff contention.

Finally this week it’s emerged that Carson Yeung probably shouldn’t have been allowed to take over Birmingham City back in 2009: although that’s an issue that the Premier League should have spotted at the time, there have been rumours floating around that Yeung’s recent conviction has had an adverse affect at St. Andrews. The Blues were in the same position this time last year and played themselves out of it, but it remains to be seen if they can repeat that and they might struggle mightily next season.