Can Bristol City Survive?

This weekend is a really good example of the competitive nature of the Championship: with two games left,  the title is still up for grabs, there’s one automatic promotion left, two relegation places to be decided and three clubs competing for the final playoff spot.

However by the time ‘El Clasico’ kicks off in Barcelona some of those issues could be resolved due to the outcome of just one game but I’ll come to that in a minute. Looking back at Tuesday’s games it looks like Southampton have sown up the other automatic place while West Ham have avoided the Curse Of Fourth Place (they can’t finish lower than third) but should be mindful that only seven teams that finished in third place have been promoted via the playoffs in the last 20 seasons.

The biggest issue at the top of the Championship this weekend is a combination of policing and TV scheduling. The game between Cardiff and Leeds is a 12:30pm kick off, which means that Middlesbrough will know exactly what sort of result they need against Southampton (tomorrow Sky Sports 2, 5:20pm) in order to keep their playoff hopes alive. However, if the Saints win at the Riverside, it doesn’t matter how West Ham do at Leicester (Monday, Sky Sports 1, 7:45pm) as automatic promotion will have been settled.

At the bottom, things couldn’t be any simpler. If Bristol City beat Barnsley, then both Coventry and Portsmouth will be down regardless of how they do. The game between the Robins and the Tykes is automatically the most important game this weekend.

The similarities between the teams are worth mentioning. Apart from beginning with ‘B’ and wearing red shirts and white shorts, both clubs lost their best strikers to West Ham in the last transfer window and although they’ve been consistently poor away from home over the last couple of seasons, in 2011/12 their home form has collapsed to the same level you’d expect from teams struggling against relegation. If Bristol City survive this season, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise if they’re joined by Barnsley amongst the favourites to go down a year from now.

Bristol City’s recent performances have turned what looked like a hopeless situation a few weeks ago into one where they control their own fate: the problem is that it’s unclear whether this is the start of a medium term improvement or the end of desperate yet possibly successful attempt to avoid relegation. Five of City’s last nine defeats at Ashton Gate have been by one goal and despite having scored the same amount of goals as Coventry this season they’ve only failed to score twice in the last ten home games.

On the other hand, Barnsley’s away from has been atrocious for some time. Since drawing with Millwall in August they’ve only won three times on the road and have lost eight of their last ten aways: the game at the New Den at the beginning of the season was also the last time they kept a clean sheet away from Oakwell. Although the Tykes are safe, you have to wonder if that’s going to work in their favour tomorrow or not. They aren’t under any pressure but facing a side desperate for Championship survival backed by a partisan crowd isn’t exactly a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon – especially when you consider that Barnsley haven’t won at Bristol City since 1993.

Considering both clubs have had trouble scoring this season there could be a few goals tomorrow – there have been 36 goals in the last ten league meetings between these two at Ashton Gate with 14 of them coming in the last two.

I’ll be back tomorrow with an update, but it might not be until after the Middlesbrough/Southampton game.



Doncaster Down: Reading Up

Welcome to Tuesday’s edition of ‘if, then, else’ which features the four crucial games on tonight’s programme. Once again, it’s hardly worth commenting on the various scenarios that have been better outlined elsewhere see the relevant Betfair football betting odds for the Championship scramble as I have a feeling very little will be resolved tonight.

However, one of the relegation spots has been settled and we already know one of the teams joining the Championship next season. It’s been a fairly poor couple of seasons for Doncaster Rovers and it wasn’t really a surprise that they were relegated after losing at home to Portsmouth on Saturday.

Charlton Athletic will replace Doncaster after three seasons of League 1 football: it looked obvious that they’d come up from day one and given the impact that recent promoted sides have had then it’d not come as much of a surprise to see the Addicks challenging for promotion next season. But that’s another discussion for another day, so in the meantime it’s a case of congratulations to Chris Powell and his staff.

Friday night’s title decider between Southampton and Reading finished with the Royals winning 3-1, with two goals coming from Adam Le Fondre. The bookies have cut the’ odds of the Berkshire side winning the title to 2/9: yet more proof that the team that usually wins the Championship is a team that’s played at least one season in the Championship – it also seems to help if you play in blue and white hoops.

So on to tonight’s games. Reading have a very good chance of promotion tonight when they entertain Nottingham Forest, but that depends on which Forest decide to turn up. If it’s the team that’s capable of winning at Blackpool & Birmingham then Reading might have to wait until the weekend to start celebrating: however, Forest aren’t mathematically safe from relegation yet and although they’ve only lost three of their last ten road games they’ve only won twice at Reading since Christmas 1930. This could be the type of game that is over by half time: I can’t imagine that Brian McDermott won’t remind his players about what happened at the end of last season.

Eighty miles down the M4, West Ham make their first trip to Bristol City for nearly twenty years for a game the Hammers have got to win if they want to avoid the playoffs. Or to look at another way, a game they’ve got to win if they want to avoid The Curse Of Fourth Place. It’s an important game for the hosts as well: although Derek McInnes’ side still has a four point advantage over Coventry at the bottom of the table, an eleventh home defeat this season could make Saturday’s game against Barnsley a must win game and this could be the last game this season the Ashton Gate outfit can afford to lose.

The games affecting the two sides that are still in immediate danger of being relegated are almost too close to call – until you dig a little bit deeper. Portsmouth arguably have the ‘easier’ game this evening when Crystal Palace visit Fratton Park: the visitors have nothing left to play for and have a poor record against their opponents but the main problem for Pompey is that their home form has almost completely deserted them. Although Michael Appleton’s side have only won three of their last ten home games, Palace haven’t won an away game since the end of 2011 and seem to be suffering from a case of ‘what ifs’ after they narrowly lost out in the semi finals of the Carling Cup.

Millwall secured their position in the Championship with a 2-1 win over Leicester on Saturday and if they’re determined to finish the season on a high note they could play the role of spoilers at the Ricoh Arena. Coventry have turned their stadium into a bit of a fortress recently but it’s worth pointing out that the Sky Blues have only won three of their last six games at home while Millwall have been formidable on the road recently – they’ve only lost three in the last ten – and won’t be pushovers. This is a must win for Coventry – a win might put them in a position to overtake Bristol City on Saturday – and anything less could be disastrous, especially if Portsmouth beat Crystal Palace.

As I said at the start of the post, I’d be surprised if anything dramatic happens at the bottom of the table tonight but I’d also be surprised if Reading don’t clinch promotion back to the Premier League. If there’s anything to report, I’ll add an update at around 10:00pm.

Update: a late goal from Mikele Leigertwood earned Reading automatic promotion. The relegation scrap moves on to Saturday.



The End Is In Sight!

Although none of the major issues were settled over the Easter period, it’s fair to say that there were some surprises.

* Bristol City and Millwall won both of their games and in doing so gave themselves a much better chance of survival. Barring disaster Millwall are probably safe, but the Robins have some work to do before the end of the season. I’m not going to go through all the permutations but there’s a combination of results that could both of the bottom two clubs could be relegated as soon as this weekend, but once again I’d be surprised if that happened.

* Considering they’re both in contention for the playoff places, Brighton and Middlesbrough lost twice. Boro’s defeat at Hull was probably the end of their playoff hopes: they’re without a win in eight games since beating Barnsley at the start of March. Based on past performance criteria, only two play off spots need to be filled: Blackpool and Cardiff are the leading contenders but as only seven points separate Cardiff and Derby it’s still possible – but unlikely – that a surprise promotion contender could emerge.

However, tonight we have arguably the biggest game outside of the playoff final when the top two meet at St Mary’s (Sky Sports 1, 7:45pm) . If there’s a decisive result one way or the other, I’d be very surprised if the winner didn’t go on to win the nPower Championship this season.

Not surprisingly considering they’ve spent the entire season in either first or second place Southampton are the favourites. Nigel Adkins’ team is built around players that aren’t exactly household names that are either local products (Adam Lalana), had performed consistently in the lower half of the football league (Rickie Lambert & Billy Sharp) or were unsettled or unwanted elsewhere (Jose Fonte). The Saints have scored the most goals in the Championship this season and although Lambert & Sharp are the main strikers, there are goals throughout the team.

Reading overcame a sluggish start that always seems to plague the unsuccessful team in the previous season’s playoff final and haven’t been out of the top six since Valentine’s Day. Only six of the players that lost to Swansea in last season’s playoff final featured in Tuesday night’s win at Brighton and having turned down a move to Wolves, manager Brian McDermott is obviously committed to Reading reaching the Premier League under his direction, which has been driven defensively this season. The Royals have also been able to mine similar veins as tonight’s opponents: Adam Le Fondre arrived from Rotherham, Nigel Clough might be regretting letting Tomasz Cywka leave Derby on a free transfer and the new recruit that raised a few eyebrows when he dropped down a division to move to Berkshire was striker Jason Roberts.

Curiously, league meetings between the two have been relatively few and far between – there have been just two games at Southampton since 2005 – and the Royals haven’t won in Hampshire since March 1958. Southampton are unbeaten at home against the other clubs in the top six and although Reading have lost at both Blackpool and Cardiff this season, their recent 4-2 win at West Ham showed they’re capable of beating anyone at any venue.

On Saturday there are four intriguing games, three of which are ‘top v bottom’ clashes. As mentioned above, the game between Birmingham City and Bristol City is important to both teams for different reasons but the outcome of that game could also have impact on Doncaster and Portsmouth – and here’s why according to the BBC Sport website.

Although it’s not mathematically impossible yet, it doesn’t look as if Birmingham have much chance of automatic promotion so they need to finish as high as possible to ensure home advantage in the second leg of the playoffs and to avoid the dreaded fourth place. Bristol City’s hard earned consecutive wins over the Easter period have given them a four point advantage over Coventry City but with West Ham visiting Ashton Gate next Tuesday the West Country’s leading team aren’t safe from relegation yet. On paper this looks like a Birmingham win – the Blues have won three of their five home games against the current bottom six while they Robins have lost three of their five aways against the top six – but it’s worth remembering that Bristol City are one of only two sides to win at Southampton this season.

Portsmouth’s trip to Doncaster is their penultimate away game against their fellow strugglers – Michael Appleton’s side travel to Nottingham Forest on the last day of the season. The bad news for Pompey is that not only have they failed to score at Barnsley, Bristol City and Coventry this season but they’ve only scored three times in seven away games since February – two of which came at Southampton last weekend. Doncaster’s only home defeat to another side in the bottom six happened when a single goal from Nottingham Forest’s Chris Gunter in August and this looks like a low scoring game that could end unsatisfactorily for both sides.

The bottom six welcomes a new club this weekend: following Millwall’s mini revival during which the Lions looked as if they’d returned to last season’s form, Barnsley have replaced the South London club. The Tykes have been awful recently: one win in eleven games is hardly inspiring and in some respects Cardiff couldn’t have timed their visit to Oakwell any better: Barnsley have lost all five home games gainst the top six by an average of 2.6 goals and the visitors have only lost twice in their last ten away games. It’s far too early to start making predictions for next season, but Barnsley fit the profile of a team that could struggle next season.

The last game of the four is Blackpool‘s trip to Nottingham Forest, which is the first time these sides have met in the Midlands since the playoff semi final in May 2009 and could also be a tricky match for the hosts. Forest beat Reading back in November but have a poor record against the promotion chasers this season that includes four defeats at the City Ground. A win for Ian Holloway’s side would probably confirm a playoff spot for the Tangerines but if Forest can beat their visitors for the first time since March 1977 then they’ll probably be competing in the Championship next season.

Finally this week, I’d like to pay a belated tribute to Barry Kitchener, who died aged 65 at the end of March. A true one club player – 523 appearances for Millwall between 1966 and 1982 – ‘Kitch’ was one of the first players outside the old first division who I was aware of when I started following football four decades ago. He never played at the top level: I was always surprised that none of the bigger London clubs never made a move for him but it wasn’t due a lack of ability – his heart belonged to Millwall.



Easter Success Is Vital To Escape Relegation

The Easter holiday is a moveable feast – in the last five seasons it’s been as early as the end of March and as late as the end of April – but regardless of the date there seem to be consistent trends in the Championship. I took a look back at the tables going into the Easter programme from 2006/07 onwards and it would appear that Easter isn’t as crucial to any of the main issues as fans and pundits might like to think:

* In every season since 2006/07, the clubs in the top two positions going into the Easter programme have been promoted. In four of those five seasons the team at the top of the table at Easter has gone on to win the Championship.

* In four of the last five seasons, the playoff winners have been in the top six. The only exception: Blackpool, who were 7th at the start of the Easter programme in 2009/10. Only two of the eventual playoff winners were in third place going into Easter – Birmingham City in 2007 and Hull City the following season.

* At the bottom of the table, the clubs in 23rd and 24th place were eventually relegated in each of those five seasons. However in three of the last five seasons the club in 22nd place managed to survive and in two of those seasons it was the club in 20th place that was relegated

It’s worth pointing out that there are still six games and eighteen points left for each team, but if those trends stay the same the following scenario might not be that much of a a surprise at the end of the month:

Southampton & Reading will be playing in the Premier League next season. Only the top seven clubs have a realistic chance of promotion via the playoffs and although West Ham should qualify for the post season, it’s unlikely they’ll be successful in returning the Premier League. At the bottom, Portsmouth & Doncaster appear to be already doomed, Bristol City’s survival is in their own hands and Millwall are not out of the woods by any means.

Although there are a couple of games between the current top six over the next few days, it’s the fixtures at the bottom of the table that are the most interesting, with two clubs currently in the bottom three playing twice against teams in similar positions. Thirty years ago Bristol City were in a very similar position to the one that Portsmouth currently find themselves this season, but both teams are currently in danger of being relegated to League 1 at the end of this month.

It was only four seasons ago that Bristol City were 90 minutes and one win away from playing in the Premier League, but since then there has been an annual decline in their performance in the Championship. At their best, the Robins are a mid table team but they’ve been increasingly unreliable defensively. Combine that with poor starts to the last two campaigns, a bad case of managerial instability and the calamitous lack of goals this term and you have a recipe for Championship disaster that other sides should take note of.

Bristol City’s first game over the Easter period is at Nottingham Forest (5:20pm Saturday, Sky Sports 2), which isn’t exactly a fixture the visitors have had a lot of success in over the years. The Robins haven’t won at Forest in a league game since November 1955 (fourteen games at the City Ground since) but have at least ground out draws at Portsmouth and Middlesbrough in their last two away games – although drawing at Middlesbrough is arguably the least any visiting club should expect this season. It’s also worth remembering that despite their apparent recent resurgence in form, Forest have only won two of their last ten games at the City Ground and have lost more games than they’ve won against the current bottom six.

On Easter Monday Coventry City are the visitors to Ashton Gate. An own goal from Liam Cooper and a late winner from Cody McDonald meant the Sky Blues won at Hull last weekend for their first away triumph in the league for almost a year, but Coventry have never won consecutive games at Bristol City and have only picked up one point from a possible 12 on their travels against other sides in the bottom six this season. Oddly enough, Bristol City’s home form against their fellow strugglers is the one bright spot at Ashton Gate this season: unbeaten in four games having only conceded one goal.

Having entered administration for the third time since the late 1990s – and with a track record of financial problems dating back to the mid 1970s – Portsmouth have six games to save themselves from being relegated into the bottom half of the football league for the first time since 1982/83. It’s only two years since Portsmouth lost the FA Cup final and were relegated from the Premier League, but it’s worth noting that even without the points deduction the club would be in the bottom six – albeit above Nottingham Forest due to a better goal difference.

The immediate problem Portsmouth face on the field is that they have the toughest Easter games of any of the teams threatened with relegation. Pompey play at Southampton on Saturday lunchtime, which is probably the last game you’d chose under the circumstances: your bitterest rivals are on the point of being promoted to the Premier League, Rickie Lambert is the division’s leading scorer by a mile while you’ve won only one of your last ten away games and have failed to score in six of those games. Not only that, Southampton have won three of their four home games against the current bottom six this season while Portsmouth have lost all but one of their away games against the current top six.

On Monday, Portsmouth play Millwall at Fratton Park in a game where anything could happen. The Lions have a decent record on the road, having lost only three of their last ten away days but then again they’ve only won once at Fratton Park in their last ten visits. Portsmouth’s home form seemed to have improved but their injury time collapse against Burnley last weekend seems to indicate that the uncertainty over the future of the club is taking a toll. I think it’s fair to say that by Monday evening we’ll have a far better idea of the future of Portsmouth FC.

For once there’s a decent amount of Championship football on television over Easter, starting with Reading v Leeds (Sky Sports 1, 2:00pm) and Barnsley v West Ham (BBC1, 5:15pm). I’ve already mentioned Bristol City’s trip to Nottingham Forest tomorrow evening and on Monday evening Birmingham’s trip to West Ham is on Sky Sports 1 at 5:20pm.

All being well I’ll be back on Saturday evening with a quick review of the significant action over the next two days but for now I’ll wish you a Happy Easter…and my next task will be to remember where I’ve hidden my wife’s chocolate egg.



West Ham Close The Gap At The Top, Portsmouth Off The Bottom

We’ve reached an unusual point of the season: with the exception of Birmingham City and Burnley, every team has now played 39 games.

Even though there are still seven games to play, Southampton may have already sewn up promotion. Former Doncaster player Billy Sharp scored both goals at St. Mary’s on Saturday afternoon against his old team in a highly significant win: the Saints are back to earning an average of two points a game – one of those statistics that is dusted off at this time every season to indicate success but is worth keeping an eye on as the season progresses.

After having come from behind at Burnley to earn a point on Saturday, West Ham had to win at Peterborough last night to keep up with Reading and a couple of quick goals before the hour from Ricardo Vaz Te and Gary O’Neil earned Big Sam’s team their first win in five games. The playoff situation still looks like a log jam, but with a ten point gap between the clubs in third and fifth places it looks as if it’ll be a surprise if any of the teams outside the current top eight will be contending for playoff positions. A win for Hull at Portsmouth would have changed the order of the playoff hopefuls, but the hosts are obviously determined to go down fighting and two goals in the first hour ensured that Portsmouth not only beat Hull, but moved off the bottom of the table and are only four points from safety. It’s worth pointing out – and repeating ad nauseum until the end of the season – that Pompey’s goal difference is the second best of the teams in the bottom half of the table and that could be vital next month.

The bottom of the table was congested before Portsmouth’s win last night and with Peterborough losing at home the Posh have been dragged into the battle for survival. None of the bottom seven teams are safe but despite picking up a point at Crystal Palace thanks to an equaliser from Chris Brown, Doncaster’s four season stay in the Championship looks as if it could be over.

There are six games at the weekend that will have an impact on promotion and relegation issues, so I’m off to take a look at them – the next post will be on Friday afternoon before Doncaster’s game with Birmingham City, so I’d better start compiling it!