GOTW: Millwall v Sheffield United

The big news last weekend was that Leeds lost at home for the first time since March.

Two Che Adams goals in the first half an hour gave Birmingham their first away win since April and their third victory at Elland Road in the last five years.

And yes, I have tried to look for official highlights from either team but none seem to exist.

That result – combined with Middlesbrough’s goalless draw with Swansea – means that there’s now only a three point gap between Leeds and seventh placed Brentford.

At the bottom it was a fairly straightforward win for Reading:

The victories for Birmingham and Reading change the landscape at the bottom a little bit: nobody is in danger of being cast adrift this weekend but I’m beginning to wonder if Alex Neil will last the entire season at Preston.

There are two teams left in the League Cup: Derby (who beat Manchester United on penalties) and Nottingham Forest (who beat Stoke). For any casual Premier League fans reading this, Derby are slightly better than they were last season: Donald Trump could be their manager and they’d still finish in the top six without getting promoted.

We reach the ten game milestone this weekend – it’s hard to believe we’re already a third of the way through the season even though there’s another eight months left. After this weeks games we’ll have a far clearer picture of what’s going to happen although the next 15 or so games between now and Boxing Day will make it even clearer. If you’re going to win promotion or avoid relegation now’s the time to make a move: which is why this weekend’s game of the week is an important one for both teams.

Millwall v Sheffield United

The Lions aren’t that bad at home and I’d expect them to avoid relegation, but there are a couple of things Neil Harris needs to tweak. Only Ipswich and Rotherham have scored fewer goals so far and although Millwall have only lost two of their last ten games at the New Den, they’ve blown leads in three of their four outings in South London this season. Swansea beat them at the start of the month despite playing with ten men for most of the game after Courtney Baker-Richardson’s straight red card for an awful tackle on James Meredith.

The Blades recovered from their recent defeat at Bristol City by picking up four points from the next two matches. I know I’ve picked their matches for two of the last three games of the week but I think they’re a good measure of the comparative strength of the top six as I think there’s a possibility that they’re overrated at the moment. 80% of their points have been earned against teams currently in the bottom half of the table and they’ve got a habit of conceding late goals.

Millwall have won seven of the last ten games between the clubs in South London – the last time the game ended in a draw was in a Third Division game at the Den in March 1980, so it’s about time that outcome happened again.

There are two other games to look out for tomorrow, both of which are bottom six/top six matches: Hull v Middlesbrough and Preston v WBA.

This weekend’s televised games are as follows:

This evening: 7:45pm: Bristol City v Aston Villa (Sky Sports Red Button), Sheffield Wednesday v Leeds (Sky Sports Football/Main Event); on Saturday at 5:30pm it’s Rotherham v Stoke (Sky Sports Football/ Main Event), which is a rare one as they’ve not met since August 2004 and Stoke haven’t won at Rotherham since April 1993.

Finally another reminder that there will be no post from me for the next couple of weeks, although if anything dramatic happens I’ll post a quick recap.

GOTW: Leeds v Middlesbrough

The World Cup Final was less than seven weeks ago but this is the last post before we have the first of this season’s international breaks.

I still think it’s ridiculous having international football this early in the season but at least there’s a televised game of the week to tide us over for a fortnight.

Back to last weekend and QPR finally won – a goal from Tomer Hemed was enough to see off Wigan – but Nottingham Forest had to come from behind to draw at home against Birmingham in a game that I described last weekend as having draw written all over it.

Leeds v Middlesbrough

(This evening, 7:45 om Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

If there’s a winner in this one they’ll have a significant psychological advantage: if the hosts earn all three points then I’d be more willing to take them seriously as promotion candidates but if Boro win at Elland Road for the first time in seven years that would strengthen the case that they’ll likely return to the Premier League in May.

After five games last season, Leeds were in third place having earned two fewer points. They’re currently on a run of seven matches without losing a Championship game at Elland Road but arguably the toughest home game until they face Brentford at the start of October – which is about the time it all started going wrong last season. One of the reasons they finished in the bottom half of the table last season was their appalling record against teams in the top half of the table (17 points from 72 available, the only team from the top half that failed to beat them was Bristol City) and that has to change.

This time last season Boro had already lost twice: they didn’t really look like promotion contenders until Tony Pulis took over on Boxing Day but even so their record against the top half of the table last season was similar to Leeds. Middlesbrough won more points than the Whites but failed to beat any of the sides that finished above them, even though all of those games were close. Again, that’s something that needs to change in order for Premier League football to return to the Riverside again, as does their defensive record on the road: including the draw at Aston Villa in the playoffs last season, Boro have only kept three clean sheets in their last ten aways.

Stats corner: Leeds have won half of the last ten at home against Middlesbrough, but four of those wins were in the last five meetings and Boro haven’t won at Leeds since August 2011.

Verdict: it’s a statement of the bleedin’ obvious, but if you want to do well in a league competition it’s a good idea to minimise your home defeats. A draw wouldn’t be the worst result for either side but based on the results between the top six at the end of last season and the recent history of this fixture, that’s the least likely outcome.

It’s a bit of a cop out, but I genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen in this one but I’ll repeat what I wrote earlier: if either side wins, take them seriously. Leeds have started well, but three of their five games so far have been against clubs in the bottom half of the table: three of Boro’s five games have been against clubs in the top half.

Elsewhere, it’s the games at Birmingham, Hull and Preston that are worth noting. The Blues and the Tigers entertain QPR and Derby respectively – in one of those odd situations that comes up every now and again, it’ll Derby’s second trip to Hull this week and they’ll be hoping for the same result as Tuesday night’s 4-0 victory in the League Cup. Preston host Bolton in the first Lancashire derby of the season: the Trotters could close the gap at the top if the game of the week ends in a draw and they win at Deepdale for the first time since New Year’s Day 2001.

The other televised games this weekend are Millwall v Swansea (tomorrow, 5:30 kick off, Sky Sports Football), The Old Farm Derby (Sunday, noon, Sky Sports Football – Red Button)  and Bristol City v Blackburn (Sunday, 1:30, Sky Sports Football – Red Button) and  so I’ll see you in a couple of weeks time – unless something dramatic happens.

GOTW: Ipswich v Aston Villa

It’s mid August and everyone’s played at least twice.

Eleven clubs without a win, there are ten sides that are unbeaten and unlike League One, everyone’s scored or conceded at least one goal.

Last weekend’s game of the week was the first time Derby had been beaten at home by Leeds by more than one goal since March 1998, when the Rams were stuffed 5-0 in a Premier League game:

It’s hard to know how to interpret that result at the moment. We’re two games in and Leeds are either destined for the Premier League or it’s a repeat of last season’s fast start – United were top of the table until late September before dropping out of the top six altogether a month later. Derby scraped a late victory at Reading on the opening weekend before their heaviest home defeat since the end of March – against Sunderland, who were relegated.

Arguably the simplest interpretation is that Marcelo Bielsa is a better manager than Frank Lampard. Let’s see where we are at Valentine’s Day: I’ve added a reminder to my online calendar.

The game of the week is at Portman Road, where Ipswich entertain Aston Villa in a bottom six/top six match. The hosts have only won one of their last ten home games in the competition and haven’t beaten Villa in a league game since September 1984. Without counting the playoff win at Middlesbrough at the end of last season, Steve Bruce’s side have won half of their last ten aways: I find myself wondering if it’s Villa’s turn to score a few goals this weekend…

In the League Cup, only seven teams were eliminated at the first hurdle including last season’s semi finalists Bristol City. Four clubs needed penalties to win their ties including Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest, who beat a pair of League Two sides (Notts County and Bury respectively) on spot kicks after being behind on three occasions (Boro) and for 88 minutes plus playing for most of the game with ten men (Forest).

This weekend’s televised games are Birmingham v Swansea (Friday, Sky Sports Football/Main Event, 7:45pm kick off) and Preston v Stoke (Saturday, Sky Sports Football/Main Event, 5:30pm). The first was clearly chosen for the Garry Monk angle and is the first time the clubs have met in a League game at St Andrew’s (I refuse to call it the new name) since December 2008; the first competitive meeting between Preston and Stoke was in the inaugural season of the Football League – on 6th October 1889 the Lillywhites thrashed Stoke 7-0 and went on to win the first ever league title by eleven points, the equivalent of 17 points these days.

There’s a full midweek programme next week, which means that next week I’ll be able to bring you some very early performance analysis. Not sure when that’ll be though, due to a Bank Holiday commitment…

Christmas and FA Cup Post Mortem

A lot to get through this week.

The Third Round of the FA Cup was the usual mixed bag: only seven clubs definitely through, half eliminated (including Leeds, who lost to Newport) and Cardiff, Reading and Sheffield Wednesday facing replays against League Two clubs next week. 

Kudos to Nottingham Forest though: this doesn’t happen every day.

On Tuesday evening Bristol City were unlucky to lose at Manchester City in the first leg of the League Cup semi final – a late injury time goal from Sergio Aguero was enough to beat the Robins, who had taken a first half lead thanks to a penalty from Bobby Reid.

Back to the league this week and a round up is required.

The table at the close of Boxing Day indicated the following potential outcomes for the rest of the campaign:

  • Wolves will probably win the Championship and may be the first club to crack the 100 points barrier since Leicester in 2013/14.
  • Bristol City were second, but the six point gap between second and sixth indicates to me that the automatic place could go down to the wire. Any of the current top ten could still go up.
  • Bolton and Birmingham were the bottom two sides, but before this weekend’s games there’s only a four point gap between Sunderland and Barnsley

The managerial Changes in brief: Carlos Carvalhal had been on the cards for a while – here’s the link to my pre-season preview – but Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest getting rid of Garry Monk and Mark Warburton respectively deserves further investigation. It’s going to be difficult for anyone to overhaul Wolves at the top of the table, but Boro can’t be ruled out of the playoffs. Forest seem to be moving in the right direction but clearly haven’t improved enough for the new owner’s liking.

The common factor in the changes at the Riverside and the City Ground won’t come as much of a surprise. Steve Gibson’s claim that Boro were going to ‘smash’ the Championship this season sounded silly at the time and made absolutely no sense in the wider context of the type of teams that win promotion. As for Forest, the regime may be different, but the perception that they should be a Premier League team remains and will no doubt have become stronger after being Arsenal in the cup.

As for new appointments, Boro recruited Tony Pulis for some reason best known to themselves (he’s not managed at this level for a decade), Sheffield Wednesday have appointed Jos Lukuhay (an excellent choice if you think a Dutchman with a mediocre record in the Bundesliga and no experience in the UK will help you win promotion) and Forest have resumed their eternal quest for the next Brian Clough.

There’s no particular choice for game of the week, but there are three games that will have an impact on both ends of the table.

Cardiff City v Sunderland (Saturday 12:30pm, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

Four straight defeats and a home draw in the cup against Mansfield and suddenly the Bluebirds are 14 points behind Wolves and in danger of dropping out of the top six altogether. Since taking over at the Stadium of Light, Chris Coleman has lost half of the ten games the Black Cats have been involved in: it’s now fair to say that now he’s got a relegation battle on his hands. Additionally, Sunderland have only won two of their last ten games in the Welsh capital.

Barnsley v Wolves

The hosts have gone five games without a win at Oakwell, although Ethan Pinnock’s equaliser against Reading was the Tykes’ first goal at home for seven and a half hours. Wolves haven’t lost on the road since October, but were held at Millwall and scraped past Bristol City at Ashton Gate with a very late winner after both sides had been reduced to ten men. Since the turn of the century, Barnsley have won five of the seven games between them in South Yorkshire, but it would be a big shock if that record became six in eight this weekend.

Birmingham City v Derby County

The Blues haven’t scored more than once at St Andrews since August but consecutive wins without conceding indicate that there are still signs life in B9. Derby are on a nine game away streak without defeat, but are the Blues good enough to stop them? They’ve not beaten Derby at home for four games, so the answer at time of writing is probably not, especially as Gary Rowett won’t want to pass up an opportunity of putting one over the side that sacked him under the most ridiculous of circumstances.

Televised games: the second part of the Steel City Derby is live from Bramall Lane on Friday evening (Sky Sports Football/Main Event 7:45pm) and Nottingham Forest v Aston Villa (Sky Sports Football/Main Event 5:30pm) is the Saturday tea time match. The first involves two teams that have combined for two wins in their last ten games and it’ll be no surprise that Villa are on telly again.

FA Cup Third Round Preview

The Third Round of the FA Cup used to be one of the highlights of the domestic calendar but over the past few seasons it’s become the equivalent of being invited to your teetotal vegetarian sister in law’s on Boxing Day.

Nonetheless, here are four games that should be worth keeping an eye on. All are 3:00pm kick offs on Saturday afternoon.

Blackburn Rovers v Hull City

First meeting in the competition at Ewood Park since January 1954 and Rovers haven’t won any of the previous three ties where they’ve had home advantage. However, this is not going to be an easy one for the Tigers, who have only won two of their last 10 trips to Blackburn in all competitions and have only won once on the road in the Championship this season. I’ll make the case for Blackburn over at Buzzin League One Football.

Bolton Wanderers v Huddersfield Town

Avoiding the drop is the priority for both teams: Bolton have won all four of their FA Cup ties against Huddersfield in Lancashire, but the last of those wins was in 1956 and since the turn of the century they’ve only beaten the Terriers twice in five games at the Macron. Wanderers’ recent home form has been impressive after a poor start – one defeat since the end of September – while Huddersfield have struggled on their travels in the Premier League, failing to score in eight of their eleven games so far.

Ipswich Town v Sheffield United

This is easily the most competitive of the four ties between Championship clubs – the other three look one sided and the Birmingham/Burton game might easily be the least interesting tie of the round.

First meeting in the FA Cup in Suffolk for almost exactly 20 years and the Blades first trip to Portman Road in any competition for seven years. The Tractor Boys had their five game home winning streak snapped by Derby last week and haven’t won a home tie in the competition for almost nine years. United reached the semi finals of the FA Cup almost four years ago,  but have only won one away game in the tournament since then; Chris Wilder’s team haven’t recorded an away win in the Championship since mid-November.

Wycombe Wanderers v Preston

Most recent encounter in the FA Cup was just over four years ago, when the sides were separated by a single Kevin Davis goal for the Lillywhites. Preston have reached the fifth round twice in the last decade and could be poised for another decent run in 2018: they’re currently unbeaten in five away from Deepdale and that run includes wins at both Bristol City and Cardiff.

Televised games: Norwich v Chelsea (Saturday, 5:30pm, BT Sport 2) and Nottingham Forest v Arsenal (Sunday, 4:00pm, BT Sport 2). I can’t see either of those ending in surprise results, but Newport County v Leeds (Sunday, noon, BBC Wales) has plenty of potential for an upset.

Back to the league programme next weekend – it won’t come as a surprise I’ll be concentrating on the recent trio of managerial changes, two of which were somewhat baffling. Before that, on Tuesday Bristol City travel to Manchester City for the first leg of the League Cup semi-final (7:45pm, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)