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: Lions v Tigers

Making a goalkeeping mistake in a high profile game to give your nearest rivals a vital away win is never a good idea.

Yet that’s exactly what happened to Sheffield United last Saturday lunchtime:

I managed to get my predictions for that one – and the WBA/Brentford game on Monday – wrong, so perhaps I should lay off the crystal ball gazing for a bit 🙂

The focus shifts to the bottom of the table this week, although there’s only one game between the bottom six tomorrow so Millwall v Hull automatically becomes Game of the Week.

There’ll be brief details of the FA Cup draw at the end of the post, but suffice to say this will be the first of two meetings in a less than a month between these two at the Den.

Although the Lions have gone five games without a win, their record at home isn’t that awful: the recent reverse at the Den against Birmingham City was their first defeat at home since the end of September and having already hosted six of the current top ten, Neil Harris’ team can look forward to a somewhat easier run of home games in 2019. That being said, Millwall are two points worse off at this stage than they were when they were relegated at the end of 2014/15 and having seen them live recently I have to say that it’s no surprise that they’re struggling.

Hull currently have a three game away unbeaten streak going and have discovered their shooting boots after a run of five games where they only scored once between the end of August and mid October. Fraizer Campbell has scored three of their seven goals in the last three games and he’ll need to keep that type of run going over the next few months: the Tigers still have to play at eight of the teams currently in the top ten including a visit to Leeds at the end of the month. On the flip side, they’ve won three of their four encounters with the sides that are currently below them and if their recent form continues the best possible scenario is a mid table finish.

Head to head: Hull have only won twice at Millwall in ten games since December 1984; the Tigers last win at the Den was almost six years ago. Last season’s encounter in South London finished 0-0 – Hull have only scored twice in their last five visits to Millwall.

Verdict: in games between the bottom six this season, the home team has only lost three times but none of those duels featured either Hull or Millwall. The Tigers have already won at Rotherham and Bolton this season and I’d not be too surprised if they earn at least a point tomorrow.

There are two other games to note that could have an impact at both ends of the table. Bolton travel to Norwich having not won any of their last ten games and having not won at Carrow Road for eighteen years; in the Saturday evening televised game, managerless Reading play Sheffield United – the Royals finally dismissed Paul Clement on Wednesday, a move that shouldn’t have come as a massive surprise to regular readers of this blog.

The other televised game takes place this evening: WBA v Aston Villa would have been Game of the Week if Villa had been in the top six. This is the first time the clubs have met outside the top tier since 1987; Villa haven’t won at the Hawthorns for just over a decade.

Finally this week, the draw for the third round of the FA Cup resulted in seven ties against Premier League opposition (only Bristol City and Derby were drawn at home), four all Championship games, six clubs play League One opposition, Sheffield United will host Barnet of the National League and both Bolton and Middlesbrough are currently waiting for next week’s replays to find out their opponents. Off the top of my head, Derby are capable of beating Southampton and Ipswich will be lucky to escape Accrington Stanley with a replay. More to follow in the first post of 2019.

I’ll be back next weekend!

GOTW: Sheffield United v Leeds

Televised game of the week alert!

I’ll get to that in a moment, but first here’s a quick overview.

The current top seven are still on course for a trip to the playoffs at the very least – it’s going to be tight but I also still think Leeds, Middlesbrough and WBA are the best bets for promotion. We’ve got a few weeks until the annual Christmas Prediction Fest so let’s see what happens before then.

I’ve not bothered covering the midweek games for a while but the encounter at Villa Park on Wednesday was somewhat eventful:

At the bottom it looks increasingly as if it’s a case of select two from five to accompany Ipswich into League One at the end of the season. Over the last five seasons the only team that was in last place at the end of November and wasn’t relegated was Bolton last season; Ipswich are slightly better than Rotherham and Blackpool were when those clubs spent the entire season adrift at the bottom of the table, but that’s about the only positive spin you can put on this situation.

As for the other contenders for the drop, over the last half decade the bottom six at the end of November has provided us with at least two of the teams that were relegated and between 2014 and 2016 all three of the teams that were demoted at the end of the campaign were in nineteenth place or worse.

Sheffield United v Leeds (today, 12:30 kick off, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

The Blades are currently on an eight game unbeaten streak at Bramall Lane but that’s going to be tested this month as they host Derby, Leeds and WBA. Leeds’ recent away form is patchy: although they’ve only lost twice in their last six road trips, they’ve only won at Hull and Wigan.

Hang on, that looks a bit like a sentence that you’d find in a rugby league blog.

Head to head: unbelievably, Leeds haven’t won at Bramall Lane since they clinched the old Football League Championship in April 1992! United have won six of the last eight meetings in all competitions since then. Additionally, seven of the thirteen Yorkshire derbies this season have ended in draws.

A couple of extra categories for this one as it’s such a big game – in the top six mini league, the away side has won four of the 13 games between the current top six this season, but all four of those matches involved either Nottingham Forest or Norwich. As I mentioned above, this is the start of a nasty looking run of home games for Sheffield United: Leeds have already won at Norwich but were well beaten at WBA a few weeks ago.

This is the eighth game of the week this season but only two of those matches have finished with a home win. It’s less than six weeks since I last chose a game of the week and to illustrate how much things can change in the Championship, at that point Sheffield Wednesday were sixth. The Owls then lost five of their next six games and are now only three points outside of the bottom six.

Verdict: Leeds won’t win – their previous record at Sheffield United is poor and with three key defenders (Ayling, Berardi and Jansson) all missing, I can see the wait for an elusive win at Bramall Lane continuing. That’s not to say The Blades will win though…

The other televised games this weekend are Middlesbrough v Villa (5:30) and WBA v Brentford (Monday 8pm) – the former looks as if it should be a good one, but I can’t see anything but a home win in the latter.

Finally this week the draw for the Third Round of the FA Cup Draw will be shown on BBC1 on Monday evening at 7:30pm. Tempus fugit as the Romans used to say.

GOTW: Derby v Fulham

First post for a couple of weeks so it’s time for a recap.

Wolves are six points clear at the top despite having failed to win their last three games and Cardiff currently comfortable in second place after beating Bristol City last Sunday.

After that it’s anyone’s guess, but there are eight points between Aston Villa and Sheffield United in the playoff places and it’s feasible that any of the current top eight could still reach the playoffs or even win automatic promotion.

At the bottom: Hull, Barnsley, Birmingham, Burton and Sunderland realistically can’t make the playoffs, but the latter pair probably have the most work to do to avoid relegation to League One. Whatever happens in Sunderland’s game against Millwall this weekend, the Black Cats can’t escape the bottom three.

This probably won’t come as much of a surprise after this season’s performance in the competition, Sheffield Wednesday‘s defeat at Swansea earlier this week ensures there are no Championship teams left in the FA Cup.

Back to this weekend and four of the top six are at home, there’s only one candidate for Game of the Week.

Derby County v Fulham

This week’s game of the week would be a playoff semi final if the season ended last weekend.

The Rams haven’t been beaten at home since the end of November, but having drawn four of their last five games at Pride Park, they’ve not exactly been on fire either. Their record against the other promotion contenders isn’t particularly strong: only one win from their six matches against the other clubs in the top six, against Villa in mid December.

Fulham are in a similar position away from home: six games undefeated since mid-December, but only three wins in their last five away from Craven Cottage. That’s arguably better than Derby’s recent home form and that argument can be strengthened by a quick look at Fulham’s record against the other teams in the top six. Despite losing at both Villa and Wolves, the Cottagers have picked up four wins and two draws.

The problem for Fulham is that they have a dreadful record at Derby. Since the end of World War II they’ve played fifteen league games at either the Baseball Ground or Pride Park and won only two of them – their last victory was by a single goal in a Premier League encounter over 16 years ago. You have to go back to August 1954 for the previous victory.

Verdict: Fulham have only failed to score in two of their last ten away games and Derby have failed to score in only two of their last ten home games so that bodes well for goals. A draw wouldn’t be the worst result for either team – neither would drop out of the top six if that happened – but I’d expect Villa to beat QPR.

Sheffield United v Burton Albion was the other game worth following, but the terrible weather in Yorkshire put paid to that.

Televised games: Middlesbrough v Leeds (this evening, Sky Sports Main Event/Football, 7:45pm) and Wolves v Reading (tomorrow, Sky Sports Main Event/Football, 5:30pm). Can’t see either Boro or Wolves losing those.

There’s a full midweek programme next week but I’ll be back on Friday – unless the rumours about a possible managerial change turn out to be correct.