League Cup Quarter Finals Preview

Just a quick preview for the League Cup quarter finals today – but yes, I am aware of what happened last weekend and I’ll be addressing that on Friday #badpredictions

Liverpool v Leeds United (this evening, Sky Sports 1, 7:30pm)

First meeting in any competition at Anfield since October 2003, which is a sobering thought for those of us that can remember when the pair always seemed to be battling it out – often literally – at the top of the old First Division.

Leeds have never beaten Liverpool in the competition and although United reached the same stage of the competition three seasons ago, they’ve not gone any further since they were beaten finalists over in 1996. It doesn’t look particularly promising does it, but Leeds are in a particularly good run of form away from Elland Road at the moment and you could argue that Liverpool have bigger fish to fry.

Liverpool 2, Leeds 0

Hull v Newcastle United (this evening, no TV coverage)

Only previous meeting in the competition was in October 1997, when Newcastle won 2-0 at St. James’ Park. Premier League strugglers Hull have only beaten Newcastle at home on one occasion in seven meetings: a 2-1 win in a league game in October 1990.

Newcastle are familiar with the latter stages of the competition but haven’t actually reached the semi finals of the League Cup since 1976, when they went on to lose the final against Manchester City after beating Spurs in the semi-finals. As I wrote last week, they’ve been irresistible on the road this season and I think they’re the best chance we have of a team from the Championship reaching the semi finals.

Hull 1, Newcastle 1 (Hull w0n 3-1 on penalties)

I’ll update the scores, but otherwise I’ll be back on Friday – when I’ll have some explaining to do 🙂

Only Forty Games To Go…

A busy week for most of the clubs in the Championship – there’ll be at least one game featuring teams from the competition until next Thursday – but for those of you dreaming of life in the Premier League next season or worried about the prospect of League One, be careful what you wish for.

A quick look back at the Championship table from a year ago shows that although QPR were top with the same amount of points as Brighton have this season, only one club from from the current top six were in the playoff positions last September: Cardiff City, who were eliminated in the playoff semi finals.

It’s a similar story at the bottom of the table – a year ago only one of the clubs that were eventually relegated featured in the bottom six (Preston) and only Bristol City find themselves in a similar position to the one they were in last season: the Robins eventually finished 15th.

Another indication that we’re still too early to make any sense of what’s happening is that there are six teams that are unbeaten away but have lost at least once at home. That group includes four teams in the top ten, including West Ham and -yes, you’ve guessed it – Cardiff City.

There were some significant results last weekend. Despite – or possibly because of – a fan protest against the current owners Coventry picked up their first win of the season when they beat Derby 2-0 having only won six of their last 20 games at the Ricoh Arena: Watford’s victory by the same score at the Madejski Stadium was a rarity as Reading hadn’t lost consecutive home games for almost two years.

This weekend, five of the top six and four of the bottom six are away from home and there are a couple of local derbies, although that’s probably the most understated way of describing them.

The action starts at 12:30 on Saturday lunchtime when Millwall travel ten miles or so across London to West Ham for a league game for the first time in six and a half years; the Lions have never won at the Boleyn Ground but even though the Hammers picked up their first home win of the season against Portsmouth last weekend, there was yet another late goal. Greg Halford’s 97th minute strike for Pompey didn’t make any difference to the outcome, but once again West Ham have shown that they have a tendency to switch off at the end of games if they think the job is done.

Half an hour later the game between Derby and Nottingham Forest kicks off at the City Ground and it’s almost a ‘must win’ for Steve McClaren as if results go against the Tricky Trees they could find themselves in the bottom three of the Championship for the first time since they narrowly avoided relegation in 2008/09. History appears to be on their side though: the Rams have only won once in their last ten trips along the A52 and although Forest are notoriously slow starters they generally perform well at the City Ground.

It’s hardly ‘game of the week’ material, but probably the most important match this weekend is when the bottom two clubs meet at the Madejski. Although Doncaster’s poor start was expected, the curse of the playoffs seems to have really affected Reading as they’ve only won one of their last five home games in the Championship.

Having said that, the last time Rovers won at Reading ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’ was about to replace ‘Careless Whisper’ at Number 1 and the Yorkshire side have failed to score in half of their last ten visits to Berkshire. Once again, it’s far too early to tell but Doncaster might be in for the type of season Sheffield United in 2010/12.

Birmingham’s trip to Southampton and Ipswich v Coventry (Monday night, Sky Sports 1 at 7:45pm) complete the league programme for this weekend, but then we’re straight into the third round of the Carling Cup. With only one guaranteed place in the fourth round and five clubs facing Premier League opposition, it’s fair to say that the chances of a Championship club winning the trophy are slim at best. However with Leeds (Manchester United), Brighton (Liverpool) and Cardiff v Leicester all being showcased on Sky next week there’s a good chance to show the standard of Championship football to an audience that may not normally be interested.

Who will gain automatic promotion to the Premier League?

The forthcoming nPower Championship season looks likely to be as exciting as previous seasons with several clubs in contention for the two automatic places.

Reading, Leicester, Millwall and Ipswich all finished strongly last season, while Leeds United and Nottm Forest will both be targeting a return to their former glories with a return to the top flight, next year.  Also in the mix will be Blackpool, West Ham and the League Cup winners Birmingham after they all faced relegation from the Premier League.

The fortune of the three relegated teams will no doubt rely substantially on retaining their best players and adapting to life in the Championship.  Blackpool are the only one of three to keep their manager, but it looks likely that Ian Holloway is going to lose his captain and star asset, Charlie Adam to either Spurs or Liverpool.  I think Blackpool will suffer from having such a great season in the Premiership that began so well but by January had lost its wheels.

After losing Alex McLeish to Black Country rivals Aston Villa, Birmingham have in my opinion made a fantastic appointment in Chris Hughton who was unceremoniously sacked by Newcastle after he steered them to promotion as champions in the 2009/10 season.

Hughton has said that he is knows he will lose some of his best players and he expects to revamp the squad before the new season.  Defenders Scott Dann, Roger Johnson and goalkeeper Ben Foster are among the players linked with transfer rumours.

The West Ham owners sacked Avram Grant less than one hour after they were relegated in May and in Big Sam Allardyce have appointed a manager with plenty of man-management experience and getting the most out of his squad on a shoe-string budget, but less experience of the Championship than both Holloway and Hughton.  West Ham is destined to lose some of their top players as long as other teams agree to match the big wages West Ham is currently offering the likes of England internationals Scott Parker, Robert Green and Matthew Upson.  But he has already made the signing of the summer with the acquisition of Newcastle’s Kevin Nolan who has chosen to drop down a division to link up once more with Big Sam.

Furthermore, Steve McLaren’s appointment at Nottm Forest is an interesting one.  McLaren is known for his coaching abilities and youth policy which is a great fit with what Forest wants to achieve by re-focusing on their youth academy.  That said they have allegedly made an approach for out-of-favour Sunderland midfield playmaker and former City Ground favourite Andy Reid.  McLaren is also keen to keep out-of-contract duo Rob Earnshaw and Guy Moussi.

Before the transfer merry-go-round has really started, it’s a bit premature to be betting on the teams who will be promoted just yet.  That said, I believe with Big Sam Allardyce and Sven Goran Erikson, given backing from their respective owners, will be able to entice good players to West Ham and Leicester respectively to block any holes left by outgoing players and in doing so look likely to be among the favourites to achieve automatic promotion in what promises to be another thrilling Championship season

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Is Paul Jewell the right man for Ipswich Town?

Following the dismissal of Roy Keane last week, Ipswich Town have appointed Paul Jewell as their new manager.  But for some reason Paul Jewell (Plan B lookalike) decided to sit out the first two fixtures and left Roy Keane’s assistant Ian McParland to sweat it out in the dugout.  After all, it was away to Chelsea in the third round of the FA Cup and at home to Arsenal in the first leg of the League Cup.

Being a wily old fox Paul Jewell probably thought that Ipswich were going to be on the wrong end of a thrashing in both games and subsequently suggested he would leave the team in the capable hands on McParland as he hadn’t got to know the players.

Well, after Chelsea returned to winning ways and thrashed Ipswich 7-0 last Sunday at Stamford Bridge Jewell must have felt rather smug.  The last thing a new manager wants to do is start with a hiding.  So imagine his dismay when he witnessed a gallant Ipswich team beat the mighty Arsenal 1-0 last night at Portman Road from a comfortable seat in the directors’ box, knowing he cannot take an ounce of credit for their best result in ages.

Instead he will take charge for the first time this Saturday when Ipswich travel to Millwall; a game which looking at the form book should result in defeat for Paul Jewell’s Tractor Boys.  The following Saturday Ipswich are at home against Doncaster Rovers.  If Jewell fails to win that game he then faces Arsenal at The Emirates in the second leg of the League Cup semi-final; and on the 1st February Paul Jewell will return to Pride Park when Ipswich take on Derby County where he is bound to get a hostile reception.

So what has Paul Jewell done since he miraculously took Wigan into the Premier League?  Not a lot is the simple answer.  His record at Derby County is not a good one.  He replaced Billy Davies and won his first match in charge when Derby, then of the Premier League, beat one of his former clubs, Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup on penalties.  Four days later they were knocked out of the same competition by Preston North End who was fighting a relegation battle in the Championship. His 16th game in charge saw him lead Derby to a 2-0 defeat to another former club, Wigan, and in doing so set a new club record of 21 league games without a win.  That same year, Derby County were relegated from the Premier League with just 11 points, equalling a 108-year Football League record.

Just three points above the Championship relegation places, if I was an Ipswich Town fan I would be sad but relieved to see Roy Keane given the sack but shaking my head at the appointment of Paul Jewell.  I wouldn’t be too surprised if Ipswich Town get relegated to League One this season while fierce rivals, Norwich City rub salt in to their wounds by winning promotion to the Premier League.



Who’s Next: George Burley and Roy Keane Form Latest Disappearing Act

The current vogue for getting rid of managers in the Championship continued this week with another two positions becoming vacant: somewhat surprisingly considering his appointment in June and the feeling that Crystal Palace would have been skating on thin ice this season even if Jose Mourinho was in charge at Selhurst Park, George Burley was dismissed as Crystal Palace manager after the Eagles were beaten 3-0 at Millwall on New Years Day.

Roy Keane’s dismissal from Ipswich Town could not have been any less of a surprise. Aside from the Carling Cup run – which more or less coincided with their best form of the season – Ipswich have been terrible since mid October, losing ten of their last fourteen league games and dropping into the bottom six for the first time this season following a 1-0 home defeat by Nottingham Forest. The first leg of Carling Cup semi finals take place next week, but it would be a major upset if Ipswich managed to do anything other than lose to Arsenal on Wednesday, especially as they face Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup on Sunday.

However, it’s not all been bad news for managers this week. Former Hull boss Phil Brown returned to management with Preston and although the approach from Turf Moor was turned down flat, Norwich’s Paul Lambert could be destined for greater things if the right opportunity arises.

If you’re struggling to keep up with the managerial changes, it’s not surprising. Since January 2010, 16 of the 24 clubs have changed their managers at least once and there are currently three open positions. Dave Jones (at Cardiff since May 2005) and Doncaster’s Shaun O’Driscoll (appointed in September 2006) have been in their positions the longest.

The stress of being at the bottom of the table is obviously getting to club mascots as well. Preston’s mascot – a duck, which is an odd choice for a club that has a lamb on their badge – was chucked out of the ground and subsequently arrested after allegedly attempting to distract Derby goalkeeper Stephen Bywater. This led to a protest by ‘Captain Blade’ of Sheffield United on Saturday which delayed the second half kick-off at Bramall Lane.

The first table of 2011 looks similar to the last one of 2010. QPR are five points ahead of Cardiff, Norwich and Swansea who are only separated by goal difference; Queens Park Rangers would have been even further ahead if Bristol City’s Stephen Caulker hadn’t scored a dramatic late equaliser at Loftus Road on Monday afternoon.

Interestingly, a mini league based on form over the holiday period indicates that there may be some changes in the top six over the coming months. Six teams were unbeaten but only Watford and Norwich are currently in playoff positions and the Hornets’ Danny Graham has overtaken Jay Bothroyd as top goalscorer: Nottingham Forest are now seventh but have two games in hand. At the bottom of the table, Tony Mowbray has definitely got Middlesbrough moving in the right direction but Millwall deserve an honourable mention for their efforts – the Lions were unbeaten in their four games and are currently three points outside the playoff spots. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that Kenny Jackett hasn’t been nominated for the December manager of the month award.

The third round of the FA Cup takes place this weekend, but as it’s now over 30 years since a team from outside the top tier of English football won the competition, the description of the tournament as ‘a great leveller’ is no longer the case. As we mentioned in November, the draw wasn’t particularly kind to Championship sides: only seven teams have ties against teams from lower divisions and there’s a possibility that half the clubs in the Championship could be forced to ‘concentrate on the league’ when the third round has finished.

Having said that, there are some interesting games and a couple of possible upsets. Reading and Millwall probably won’t get promoted this season but are in no danger of relegation either, unlike both of their opponents this weekend. The Royals have not lost to WBA in any cup competition since 1948 and knocked the Baggies out if the cup last season: it’s only the second time that Millwall and Birmingham City have met in the FA Cup but the Lions have only lost twice in the last ten games between the sides in South London. There’s a similar type of game between Championship sides at the Ricoh Arena: despite their recent poor form – three defeats in their last four games – mid table Coventry face a managerless Crystal Palace that won’t need the distraction of a cup run.

The short trip to Brighton may not be one that Portsmouth will be looking forward to: the Seagulls have only lost once at the Withdean Stadium this season and Pompey haven’t won at Brighton since March 1986.

Arguably the most interesting tie involving a Championship side is Sheffield United v Aston Villa: both are involved in struggles at the wrong end of their respective divisions, having both lost four of their last six league games. The Blades have only won four of their twelve home games in all competitions this season and were lucky to earn a point at home to Doncaster on Monday while Villa are on an eight game streak without an away win.

Three of the five televised FA Cup games feature Championship sides, although there’s definitely an element of curiosity in the selections. Arsenal v Leeds (ITV, 12:45pm Saturday) provides an excuse to dust off the footage of the 1972 final, while Sunday’s coverage of Leicester v Manchester City (ESPN, 4:00pm) will probably refer to the fact that the two sides met in the 1969 final. ESPN are also showing Derby’s trip to Crawley on Monday night (8:00pm) although the network could be in for a disappointment if they’re expecting a giant killing.