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 ūüôā

2017/18 Preview Part I

Welcome to the first part of the previews for the 2017/18 Sky Bet Championship season. Over the next four weeks we’ll be publishing club by club previews, finishing with the traditional ‘What to expect’ post on the first weekend of August.

All prices for promotion and relegation were taken from Oddschecker.com on July 1st and in all likelihood¬†won’t be correct when you read these posts. They’re always interesting to refer back to though: they formed the basis of the Market Reports I introduced last season and were really quite interesting in their own right.

Aston Villa

Manager: Steve Bruce (October 2016), second season in the Championship
Last 10: 5-2-3
Promotion: 15/8F, Relegation: 50/1

Villa haven’t played consecutive seasons in the second tier of English football since the early 1970s and to be honest the transition from bad Premier League team to average Championship side was one of the non-stories of last season. Villa only lost three times at home in 2016/17 but only scored 14 goals in away games and to be brutally honest, when you spend ¬£15 million on a striker you’d expect him to score more than five goals away from Villa Park. This season: you’d expect a Steve Bruce side containing John Terry to win a lot of games 1-0 and Villa might flirt with the playoffs, but unless they stop being a damp squib on the road another mid table season is highly likely.

Fun fact: Villa won both games against just three clubs last season. Two of them – Wigan and Rotherham – were relegated. The other: QPR.

Barnsley

Manager: Paul Heckingbottom (June 2016), second season in the Championship.
Last 10: 1-5-4
Promotion 33/1, relegation 15/8

Momentum is a funny thing: although last season was their best performance at this level since the turn of the century (at the end of January the Tykes were seventh), then they’ve not won at Oakwell since the start of 2017 and conceded more goals at home last season than any other club other than Rotherham. Barnsley may have over achieved last season and could find themselves struggling in 17/18: their away record was far better – they recorded the most victories of the non-playoff sides –¬†¬†but if their away success evaporates and they can’t win at Oakwell the bookies think they could be in trouble.

Fun fact: last season Barnsley failed to beat any of the sides that finished in the top six.

Birmingham City

Manager: Harry Redknapp (April 2017), seventh season in the Championship
Last 10: 2-4-4
Promotion: 6/1, relegation: 11/1

Where do you start? The new owners made a stupid decision to fire Gary Rowett before Christmas and replace him with Gianfranco Zola; if Bristol City had scored in the last game of the season this preview would have been appearing on Buzzin’ League One Football rather than on¬†this blog. It’s not hard to see what the problem was: the Blues kept only kept eight home clean sheets last season and conceded more than twice in five games at St. Andrew’s in 2016/17. If Harry Redknapp can sort that out then a mid table place isn’t out of the question but although the price for promotion is ridiculous, the odds for relegation might not be.

Fun fact: the only other team to beat Fulham twice last season was Brighton.

Bolton Wanderers

Manager: Phil Parkinson (June 2016), promoted as League One runners up
Last 10: 6-2-2 (League One)
Promotion: 33/1, Relegation: 9/4

Back following one season in League One following a gradual but obvious decline from 2013 onwards, it’s entirely possible that Wanderers may be more prepared for the Championship than Sheffield United. The big question mark is over Phil Parkinson, who hasn’t exactly got the best managerial record at this level. Gut instinct is that they’ll be better than they were when they last played at this level – they can’t be any worse – but that might have to mean spending the entire season in the bottom half of the table.

Fun fact: last time Bolton were promoted from the third tier as runners up, it only took them two seasons to reach the Premier League.

Brentford

Manager: Dean Smith (November 2015), fourth season in the Championship
Last 10: 5-2-3
Promotion: 7/1, Relegation: 10/1

Apart from a brief appearance in the playoffs at the end of September, The Bees buzzed around mid table for most of the latter half last season and I’d be hard pressed to tell you what – if anything – I wrote about them. Two things to notice though: this is their best run in the second tier since the end of World War II and only Fulham and Newcastle scored more away goals last season. They might be dark horses for the playoffs this year, but Bees fans might have to settle for another season of mid table consistency.

Fun fact: Brentford lost all of their away games at the teams that were relegated at the end of last season.

Bristol City

Manager: Lee Johnson (February 2016), Third season in the Championship
Last 10: 6-1-3
Promotion: 12/1, Relegation: 9/2

The final day home defeat against Birmingham aside, the Robins had an impressive end to 2016/17, but if they can’t replace Tammy Abraham’s goals and their occasionally irresponsible and often disastrous defending doesn’t improve, they’ll be struggling again this season. The summer activity in the transfer market indicates that Johnson has understood both¬†areas need improvement and although the core of the squad now has more experience at this level, mid-table is the best case scenario and even that may be beyond them.

Fun fact: only lost once at Ashton Gate against teams that eventually finished in the bottom half of the table.

Play Off Semi Finals Part Two

Both of the first legs ended in draws – which normally favours the hosts of the second legs. You never know though: Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday are both favourites to win promotion.

Reading v Fulham (this evening, Sky Sports 3, 7:45pm)

Although it might appear that Fulham blew their chances last Saturday, the fact that Reading are unbeaten in ten home league games at the Madejski Stadium is significant. That’s their best run in the Championship since the last time they were relegated from the Premier League, but it also indicates that the Royals will lose at home at some point in the near future: half of their eight wins in that run were against teams that finished in the bottom half of the final table and Reading’s last three home games were against the three teams that were relegated.

Since the start of February, Fulham have only lost at Birmingham and Derby, but they’ve also beaten Newcastle, Huddersfield and Sheffield Wednesday. This evening’s game would be the best time to replicate those performances but don’t be too surprised if The Cottagers concede at some point – they’ve only kept three away clean sheets in their last ten matches, although only Derby have scored more than two goals against Fulham in that period. To put it another way, only Newcastle had a better away record last season and no-one scored as many away goals as Fulham.

Head to head: Reading have only lost three of their last ten league games in Berkshire against Fulham, their last defeat was nine years ago in a Premier League game. The most recent encounter between the two teams ended in a 1-0 win for the hosts: Roy Beerens goal just after half time ensured all three points went to Reading. Fans of Championship nostalgia may enjoy this post from May 2011, the last time that Reading were involved in the playoffs.

Verdict: both of these teams have improved since bottom half finishes a year ago and I’ll put my hand up and say that I didn’t expect this from either of them. I’m still far from convinced by Reading, but having not lost at Craven Cottage last weekend I think their chances of reaching Wembley are very good, although they’ll have to be at their absolute best to beat Fulham, especially as they’re missing Paul McShane and possibly Jordan Obita¬†this evening. It could be a long night.

Reading 1, Fulham 0. Yann Kermogant’s penalty put the Royals through to the final even though Fulham had most of the possession and more than half as many shots on goal again than Reading.

Sheffield Wednesday v Huddersfield Town (tomorrow evening, Sky Sports 3, 7:45pm)

Saturday’s draw at Huddersfield was never really in doubt after the opening exchanges and it wouldn’t really be much of a surprise if a similar result occurred tomorrow evening. Wednesday haven’t lost consecutive home games in the Championship since April 2014 and although this is a one off where potentially anything could happen, the Owls have won six of their last ten at Hillsborough.

Huddersfield were very inconsistent away from home over the latter half of the season: they only won two of their last six road trips and managed to conceded six goals in consecutive games at Bristol City and Nottingham Forest as well as winning at Brentford. They’ve not scored more than two goals in a game since Valentine’s Day (when they pulled off a last minute win at Rotherham) and only Chelsea loanee Izzy Brown has scored more than one away goal since mid February.

Head to head: meetings in the Championship since both teams were promoted in 2012 have been pretty even. Wednesday have won two of the last three and drew the other match, but Huddersfield won the two previous encounters and have recorded four victories in their last ten trips to the John Smiths Stadium since 1983.

Verdict: Looking back at last season’s playoff preview, I wondered if 2016/17 represented a better chance of Sheffield Wednesday winning promotion and having written that, I’m going to stick with it. After having finished 19th last season Huddersfield have surprised a lot of people, but although that represents a huge step forward – similar to that of Sheffield Wednesday in 2015/16 – there were signs towards the end of the season that the Terriers’ wheels had fallen off.

Sheffield Wednesday 0, Huddersfield 0. Huddersfield will play Reading in the final after winning 4-3 on penalties after extra time failed to produce a goal.

Updates will follow both games and although I’ve got to write the preview yet, the League One playoff final between Bradford City and Millwall will be posted on Buzzin’ League One Football on Friday evening.

Play Off Semi Final Preview

Remember the curse of fourth? Well that’s not really the case anymore – two of the last three PO winners had finished fourth at the end of the regular season, but what’s really noticeable is that over the last decade third placed teams have been promoted as many times as fourth, fifth and sixth place sides combined.

If the trend over the last decade continues, Reading will be back in the Premier League next season and Fulham will still be knocking around in the Championship. However, this is the Championship and nothing is straightforward: the mini league based on the games between the four qualifiers indicates that Fulham and Reading were far better than the others and Huddersfield were appreciably worse than the other three.

Basically, each team has an obvious weakness and if that can be exploited by their opponents we could have some interesting games. I have a feeling that whoever wins promotion to the Premier League may last only one season: with Middlesbrough rejoining the Championship after losing at Chelsea earlier this week, that’s a distinct possibility.

Fulham v Reading (Sky Sports 2, Saturday, 5:30pm)

Only one defeat in their last ten games at Craven Cottage, but the thing that stands out straight away is that they’ve conceded in nine of those ten games and they’ve had to come from behind in two of them. Only Barnsley and Rotherham conceded more goals at home than Fulham this season, but only Brighton, Newcastle and Norwich scored more goals in front of their own fans. Fulham’s strong point is their home record against the teams that finished in the top half of the table: they lost 2-1 to Brighton at the start of the year, but that’s it.

Reading have won four of their last ten aways but they also lost 7-1 at Norwich over that period, failed to score in three of those games and only kept two clean sheets. However, even though only Brighton, Fulham and Newcastle only won more away games this season, the Royals’ hot streak away from home came in the early part of the season and it’s noticeable that when they were beaten 5-0 at Fulham at the start of December they weren’t nearly as impressive. If they’d not had consecutive last minute away wins at Blackburn and Bristol City it’s fair to say that Reading may not have been in this position: they may be about to be spectacularly exposed.

Verdict: there’ll be goals in this game. Five of the last six meetings in the league between these sides in the league at Fulham have produced at least three goals. Reading have only won two of those encounters, their last victory coming in a Premier League game in May 2013.

The game finished 1-1, but Fulham had to come from behind to earn the draw after Jonathan Obita had given Reading the lead.

Huddersfield v Sheffield Wednesday (Sky Sports 2, Sunday, noon)

On paper, this looks like a classic Yorkshire derby with little to chose from between the clubs. Dig a bit deeper and you start seeing it from a very different perspective.

Town’s highest league position for 17 years indicates that they’re here on merit, but their win over Reading in mid-February was their only victory against their competitors in the playoffs and they’ve only won three of their last ten games – and that includes only half of their last six at home. This season they lost both games to Sheffield Wednesday without scoring and since 2000 they’ve only beaten Wednesday twice in nine games where they’ve had home advantage.

Ominously, Wednesday have been here before and although playoff success following playoff failure is rare, it’s not unknown. They’ve only lost twice on the road since January and were one of only four teams last season that had a positive away goal difference, which is one of the vital statistics for a team looking for promotion. That’s one way of looking at it: the other is that the away wins at Newcastle and Huddersfield were Wednesday’s only victories against teams that finished in the top half of the table and they’ve not improved in that respect since last season.

Verdict: I can see this going two ways. Either it’ll be a cagey, low scoring draw or Wednesday will take a decisive lead into the second leg. I think it’s entirely possible that Huddersfield may be ‘pleased to be here’ rather than having any real expectations for promotion, but I’ve been very wrong before about the playoffs.

Update: cagey, low scoring draw. 0-0.

In other news, Hull City have been relegated from the Premier League. As there’s only one team left to be confirmed in next season’s Championship line up, I’m going to start researching the previews ūüôā

Last Day Preview: Down To The Wire

Here we are again, the last day of the season. With most of the major issues settled, it’s always an odd day for those of us who support a team that’s got nothing left to play for. Regardless, here’s what to look out for when the games kick off at NOON tomorrow:

At The Top:

Brighton properly blew it last week: this was their first home defeat by Bristol City for a decade, when they were struggling at the Withdean.

If they lose at Villa, Newcastle only need to draw at home to Barnsley to win the title on goal difference.

Aston Villa v Brighton

On paper this is a far tougher challenge for the Seagulls than Bristol City should have been¬†last weekend: Villa have only lost three home games this season, with only one defeat against sides above them. Brighton have only won half of their last six aways and to be honest, if they’re going to compete in the Premier League next season, their away record against the better teams in the Championship should be cause for concern for Chris Hughton during the summer.

Fun fact: Brighton have never won at Villa Park in any competition.

Newcastle v Barnsley

The Toon have lost only one league game at St James’ Park since Boxing Day and haven’t lost at home to Barnsley since September 1982. The Tykes have a very poor away record against the teams in the top half of the competition and could be the ninth team that Newcastle do the ‘double’ against.

The Play Offs

Unless Leeds beat Wigan by fourteen goals and the Cottagers lose at Sheffield Wednesday, Fulham will be travelling to whoever finishes third – and seeing as though there’s almost always a playoff semi final that was a recent league game, it wouldn’t surprise me to see another couple of meetings between Fulham and Wednesday over the next few days.

Due to My Wife’s Birthday, the playoff preview will be posted next Thursday, but the details of games themselves will be featured in the update mentioned in the last paragraph.

The Bottom aka ‘Survival Sunday’

This is where the fun starts. Blackburn are favourites for the drop and it’s not outside the realms of possibility that any sense of tension could disappear quite quickly. One thing that’s worth noting about the three teams trying to avoid the drop: all are owned by Asian ‘businessmen’ who don’t appear to know what they’re doing.

Brentford v Blackburn Rovers (Sky Sports 5)

Rovers will be safe if they win and either Forest or Birmingham lose, but considering that their recent win at Nottingham Forest was their first away victory in eleven games since the end of November, that cannot be taken for granted. Adding to their potential misery is Brentford have been really rather impressive at home recently: four straight wins, conceding only one goal.

The head to head record in league games at Brentford should make sobering reading for Rovers fans: although Blackburn won their last visit by a single goal in March 2016, they’ve lost three of the last four meetings since their previous victory in West London.

Bristol City v Birmingham City (not televised, but I can’t imagine the other two games won’t be interrupted if anything happens)

It could be a very emotional affair in front of the biggest crowd at Ashton Gate for almost 40 years: former City manager Steve Cotterill returns as Harry Redknapp’s assistant for what will probably be Tammy Abraham’s last appearance for the Robins, but City fans with long memories will remember that the Blues practically ensured the hosts were relegated when they won a controversial affair at Ashton Gate in 1999.¬†One of the reasons the hosts are safe is their impressive form at Ashton Gate since Christmas: only three defeats in eleven games, the most recent of which was in mid-February.

I’ve no idea where to start with Birmingham City, other than writing that if The Blues are relegated then their new owners should take a long, hard look at themselves. Vanity appointments in this competition usually end¬†in abject failure and all the work that Gary Rowett did after Lee Clark’s reign almost ended in disaster has been thrown away.

In the calendar year between last May and this, Birmingham City have won only four away league games in 23 attempts: but their record at Ashton Gate has been phenomenal – they’ve not at Bristol City since 1993 and Ashton Gate is something of a lucky ground for them.

Nottingham Forest v Ipswich Town (Sky Sports 3)

Forest have probably done just enough under Mark Warburton to prevent relegation this season, but be under no illusions: they’ve been in obvious decline over the last four years and have been very lucky that Rotherham have been holding the Championship up for most of the season. They’re also lucky they’re playing Ipswich, who haven’t won at the City Ground since December 1999: the Tractor Boys have only lost four of their last ten aways games though, so although a Forest win isn’t guaranteed

Update will follow as soon as I get home from the game I’m attending on Sunday lunchtime. Come back at any time between 3¬†and 5pm and there should be something here…

Update: Newcastle are Champions and Blackburn Rovers have been relegated, despite winning 3-1 at Brentford. Both Birmingham and Nottingham Forest won. The playoff semi finals are as follows:

Saturday 13th May: Fulham v Reading (5:3opm)

Sunday 14th May: Huddersfield v Sheffield Wednesday (12:00)