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…

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 🙂

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)

Easter: 2016/17 Edition

Here we are again: a week before Easter, I’m off to France on Monday an so here’s the annual post about how the rest of the season is going to pan out. But before we go any further, here’s the frankly ridiculous refereeing brain fart by Keith Stroud during the Newcastle/Burton game on Wednesday:

Newcastle won regardless of Stroud’s mistake and with Brighton beating Birmingham the top two are as good as up with the only remaining issue being who wins the title. As usual the playoffs are a little bit more complicated – it’s still mathematically possible that Preston could still reach the post season.

It’s a little clearer at the bottom: Rotherham are already down and with Wigan seven points adrift of Blackburn, it still looks likely that the last relegation spot will be between Blackburn, Bristol City and Nottingham Forest.

TOMORROW

Nottingham Forest v Huddersfield Town

Forest haven’t been any lower than 20th this season, but their recent form has been awful and they could drop into the bottom three if they lose this one and results elsewhere go against them. That being said, they’re far better at the City Ground – two defeats in the last six – than on their travels and they’ve only lost once at home against any of the other clubs in the top six. Fun fact: the last drawn league game between these two in Nottingham was in October 1972.

Wigan Athletic v Rotherham United

An absolute must win for the hosts, but even a victory might not save them from the drop.

Sheffield Wednesday v Newcastle United (Sky Sports 1, 5:30)

Newcastle haven’t lost at any of the top six teams this season, but Sheffield Wednesday’s victory against Huddersfield in January is the only time the hosts have beaten any of their immediate rivals for promotion at Hillsborough. On paper this is more important for Wednesday than Newcastle, but I’m sure Rafa Benitez has exhorted his team to finish as Champions and to some extent the pressure is off Newcastle.

GOOD FRIDAY

Nottingham Forest v Blackburn Rovers

As I mentioned above, Forest are much better at home than they are on the road and with Rovers having not won an away game since the end of November, a defeat for either side at the City Ground could leave them with a mountain to climb before Easter Monday’s matches. However…Blackburn have only lost two league games in ten at the City Ground since 1994.

Newcastle United v Leeds United (Sky Sports 1, kick off 7:45pm)

First meeting between the sides at St. James’ Park since January 2004, which seems almost inconceivable to me. They’ve met in the League Cup since then, but Leeds do not have a good record on Tyneside. Good choice for a televised game though.

EASTER MONDAY

Blackburn Rovers v Bristol City

This looks like the game that could settle the last relegation spot. Rovers have been halfway decent at Ewood Park against teams in the bottom half of the table and haven’t lost at home to City since December 1990. The Robins have only recorded three away wins all season and may have to rely on their home performances to give themselves a fighting chance of staying up.

Brighton v Wigan Athletic

Reading v Rotherham United

From this point onwards I’ll be providing the usual service, but as it stands these are the games that will matter at both ends of the table:

Saturday 22nd April

Burton Albion v Leeds

Huddersfield Town v Fulham

Nottingham Forest v Reading

Saturday 29th April

Reading v Wigan

Brighton v Bristol City (Sky Sports 1, kick off 5:30pm)

Looks as if it was deliberately chosen to showcase Brighton’s promotion and/or City’s relegation: if that’s the case, it should be compelling viewing, especially if both issues can be decided simultaneously.

Sunday 7th May – last day of the season, all games kick off at noon.

Burton Albion v Reading

Sheffield Wednesday v Fulham

Wigan Athletic v Leeds United

There’s a chance that we could see a familiar name return to the Championship from League One tomorrow, so I’ll update this post sometime tomorrow evening.