EFL Sky Bet Championship Preview 2018/19

We’re only a couple of hours from the start of another nine months of fascinating and frustrating action in the Championship so here’s my take on what to look out for in 2018/19.

I decided to abandon the club by club previews for this season because – to be perfectly honest – I needed a break after the World Cup, which ended less than a month ago. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy – far from it!

Seven of last ten Championship winners had spent the previous season in the competition, although four of last five seasons have been won by teams that had either been relegated at the end of the previous campaign or hadn’t even finished in the top nine – atlhough I need to point out immediately that two of the three teams that bounced back immediately were Newcastle United. The last unsuccessful playoff team who went on to win the Championship were Leicester in 2013/14, which isn’t good news for Aston Villa. Stoke are the current favourites – which makes sense, but as the Racing Post pointed out in their excellent preview earlier this week, over the last decade only one of the antepost favourites to win the title have done so – Newcastle a couple of seasons ago.

Automatic Promotion

It’s a similar story in the battle for second place, which in six of the last ten seasons has been won by a team that has played at least one season in the Championship, but only two clubs that had been unsuccessful in the playoffs at the end of the previous have managed that –Middlesbrough fans take note. Teams between eighth and thirteenth were far more likely to bridge the gap between just missing out on the playoffs to becoming genuine promotion contenders: so based on last season’s performances Bristol City and Millwall cannot be ruled out. It’s been eight seasons since one of the relegated teams finished second: depending on your point of view that means it’s about time someone managed that again or it shows how difficult it is to adapt to the second tier. I’d prefer the latter explanation.

Playoffs

Last season Fulham became the first team since Swansea in 2011 to win promotion via the playoffs after a top ten finish in the Championship at the end of the previous campaign. Other than that, there have been strong performances from relegated teams (four of the last ten winners) and from sides nobody expected to do well – Blackpool, Crystal Palace and Huddersfield all finished in the bottom half of the table in the season before they won the so-called ‘richest game in the world.’ I’m not saying that Nottingham Forest or QPR fans should get overexcited, but they’re precisely the sort of teams that fit the description: Forest appear to be this season’s trendy pick but we’ll see about that.

Relegation

Slightly easier to predict. Last season Sunderland became only the second club in the last decade to suffer consecutive relegations (the other team was Wolves) so it’s safe to say that there’s only a remote chance that the new arrivals from the Premier League will find themselves in the bottom three next May. Only six of the last 30 teams that were relegated from the Championship (20%) went down after being promoted from League One so even though Rotherham are among the favourites for the drop, that might not be the case. If you’re looking for teams that could struggle, your best bet is to look at clubs that finished in seventeenth place or below last season: half of the teams that were relegated over the last ten years had performed poorly in the competition during the previous season – although in 2017/18, only Burton had finished the previous season in the bottom six. Bolton and Reading look particularly vulnerable this time round: the Trotters finished two points clear of Barnsley despite not being in the bottom three from January until the penultimate game of the season and – to use one of my favourite cliches – the Royals were lucky that there were three teams worse than them last season. If you’re looking for an outsider for relegation, don’t rule out Hull – they were marooned in the bottom third of the table from the end of October, slipped into the bottom three at the start of February and only won eight more points than Barnsley. Not to mention that I think Nigel Adkins is incredibly overrated as a manager.

Rash Predictions:

Neither Aston Villa nor Bristol City will perform as well as they did last season, but the consequences for the Robins will not be as dire as they will for the Villans. Especially if Thierry Henry actually does replace Steve Bruce.

It’s been over five seasons since Marcelo Bielsa has coached a club side for more than 20 games. The recent history of the Championship has been littered with ‘big’ names that couldn’t manage at this level and I will be very surprised if he’s the still manager of Leeds this time next season. I was tempted to add ‘at Christmas’ there, but I said that about Ian Holloway last season and he managed to last the entire season before being binned by QPR.

I’m not sure which of the former Premier League teams will have the best season, but Stoke pinching Gary Rowett from Derby is a canny move that might work out well. On the other hand, I’m prepared to wait and see how his replacement at the Rams will do: on paper Frank Lampard should be a decent manager, but five consecutive top ten finishes show just how frustrating it must be to support Derby and Lampard will be doing well if he can make that six.

Despite having picked up a couple of pre-season injuries that could scupper their start to the season, Preston could be dark horses for promotion if they start winning the type of games they drew last season.

Sheffield Wednesday’s decline will continue although I don’t think they’ll be relegated. Staying in South Yorkshire, don’t be too surprised if Paul Warne suddenly becomes the target of bigger clubs if Rotherham defy expectations.

I might be alone here, but I can’t see Ipswich struggling. The Tractor Boys have been stuck in a rut for years now but they aren’t suddenly going to get worse overnight. Paul Hurst did a great job at Shrewsbury last season and I think the doom mongers are extraordinarily premature and are basing their predictions on the last ten games of last season when Town had absolutely nothing to play for and nobody had a clue who the next manager would be.

I’ve left the easiest one until last: last May it was 38 years since a second tier club won the FA Cup. It won’t happen this season either.

A couple of interesting stat lines for those of you that are interested in that kind of thing:

The most popular score line in the Championship over the last five seasons has been 1-1; it won’t come as a massive surprise that over the same period, both teams have scored in just over half of the games in the division.

Last season was the second season in the last three where fewer than 2.6 goals per game were scored; four of the last five campaigns have featured an average of over 2.5 goals per game.

Crystal Palace Promoted To The Premier League

Congratulations to Crystal Palace – the Eagles were promoted back to the top flight for the first time in almost a decade thanks to an extra time penalty from ancient striker Kevin Phillips. Crystal Palace became the first fifth placed club to be promoted via the playoffs since Burnley beat Sheffield United four years ago and only the second fifth placed finishers to be promoted in the last decade.

Since the Premier League was formed in 1992, Palace have never played more than one season in that competition, but we’ll see how they get on in August. As I pointed out last week, I’d expect that Watford might struggle at the start of next season but for now it’s time to have a couple of weeks off. Unless or until something dramatic happens, the next scheduled post will be in the middle of next month, when next season’s fixtures will be released.

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nPower Championship Play Off Final: Will The Hornets Sting The Eagles?

The old clichés about the ‘richest game in the world’ will abound on Monday afternoon when Crystal Palace and Watford face each other in the nPower Championship playoff final.

I’m going to start by looking at the game from a slightly different angle. It’s all very well for the media to chuck ridiculous numbers around, but it’s actually quite interesting to see exactly what the winners can expect next season. Six of the last ten playoff winners were relegated immediately, with their average finishing position being 16th. In that time frame, only West Ham (9th, 2006) finished in the top half of the Premier League.

The fate of the losing team is far simpler. I’ll be returning to my own set of well used phrases in the autumn when I start using the term ‘playoff hangover’ to describe Brighton, Leicester and Monday’s losers when they’ve lost to Yeovil or Bournemouth instead of Chelsea and Manchester United. Only six clubs in the last 20 seasons lost the playoff final and were promoted to the Premier League at the end of the following season and another three clubs reached the playoffs but lost in the third round. The good news for the playoff losers: only once in the last 20 seasons has the playoff runner up been relegated (Leeds in 2006)

Watford’s current team isn’t as good as the sides that won promotion in 1999 and 2006, both of which spent one season at the top level before finishing in last place. The current Crystal Palace side is roughly around the same level as the teams that were promoted via the playoffs in 1997 and 2004, but once again, both those squads were relegated after one season.

So who will join Cardiff and Hull in having to buy a new heat transfer machine for replica shirts next season? It’ll have to be another different angle here, as it’s an away game for both teams. As I mentioned in the semi final previews, neither of these teams have exactly been in form recently. Palace’s 2-0 win at the Amex a couple of weeks ago was only their second win in their last ten away games and although they’ve been better defensively of late, the last time the Eagles won consecutive away games was around the time the clocks went back. Watford have managed to win four of their last ten games away from Vicarage Road, but they lost five of the other six – it’s either boom or bust for the Hornets.

From a wider perspective, the Championship playoff final is normally a straightforward game. Sixteen of the last 20 games were settled in normal time and of the four that went into extra time, only half were decided by penalties – the last time that happened was in 2002, when Birmingham beat Norwich at the Millennium Stadium.

In the context of third v fifth finals, the stats are bit cloudier. There have been six games that fit the bill in the last two and the higher placed club has won three of the last five, but the interesting angle here is that these games usually feature a few goals. Here’s the rundown:

1996: Leicester 2-1 Crystal Palace (AET)

2003: Wolves 3-0 Sheffield United

2006: Watford 3-0 Leeds

2009: Burnley 1-0 Sheffield United

2011: Swansea 4-2 Reading

2012: West Ham 2-1 Blackpool

What’s interesting about that is that eight of these clubs are currently still in the Championship – only Swansea and West Ham are still in the Premier League and both the playoff finalists from a decade ago will be playing in League One in August.

Verdict: I’m expecting a cagey half an hour to begin with, but in the fifteen minutes before half time in their last ten away games, Watford have scored three times as many goals as Palace have – this is basically Troy Deeney time. Palace are vulnerable during this period – they’ve conceded five goals in that time frame, including two at Brighton and three at Ipswich. It’s also worth mentioning that in their last ten away games, Palace have only scored twice in the first half, whilst Watford scored seven times.

The fun should start after an hour – this is where Palace could make a breakthrough as Watford have defensive frailties. The Hornets conceded goals at Bristol City and Peterborough in this period, which doesn’t exactly bode well and The Eagles scored twice as many goals in the second half of their most recent away games as they did in the first period.

There’s been a goal in six of Watford’s last ten away games in the last quarter of an hour, but more worryingly for Palace this is another period where they’ve conceded goals. I’m expecting the decisive goal to come at this point in the game.

Verdict: Overall, it’s hard to separate these clubs, but one possibly decisive angle is that Watford were one of the most improved teams away from home last season. The Hornets won twice as many games as Crystal Palace did and their goal difference was the best in the Championship. To put Palace’s away form into some perspective, they averaged less than one goal on the road and Peterborough – who were relegated – had a better goal difference on the road. If this holds true on Monday, it’s possible that this game could a rout and Watford will have earned themselves a lot of money and at least one season in the Premier League.

I’ll be back early next week with some thoughts on the final, but my wife’s younger sister is getting married this weekend. Congratulations to both of them, but in a spectacularly poor show of timing, I’m not going to be able to watch the Champions League final and I’m also not expecting to see much – if any – of the last game of the season in the nPower Championship…

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Watford Reach Wembley, Will Know Opponents This Evening

It’s amazing isn’t it.

24 clubs have played 46 regular season games and four teams have played three playoff games, yet two of the biggest outcomes at the top of the table have been settled when one team scores immediately after their opponents have missed a penalty. That happened at Hull on the last day of the season and it happened again at Vicarage Road yesterday.

At the end of the month  Watford will be attempting to emulate West Ham and Swansea, who were both promoted via the playoffs after finishing in third place at the end of the last two seasons. Third placed teams have won half of the last ten finals and have only been beaten in the semi finals on three occasions since 2002/2003, but the Hornets need to be aware of the following fact:

Third placed teams have a much better record in playoff finals against fourth placed teams than they do against fifth placed teams.

Since 2002/2003, the club that has finished in third place has won four of the five finals in which they’ve played the fourth placed team, but only half of the six finals when they’ve played the fifth placed team.

Or to put it another way, it might be better to face Brighton at Wembley rather than Crystal Palace – which leads me nicely on to…

Brighton v Crystal Palace (Sky Sports 1, 7:45pm)

The evening of Saturday 15th December 2012. Brighton had played out a goalless draw at the Amex Stadium with Nottingham Forest and occupied eighth place, one point behind Watford. Crystal Palace were in second place – two points behind Cardiff City – after failing to protect a two goal lead and dropping two points at Birmingham City.

From that point on, Brighton’s home record and Palace’s away form have been going in remarkably different directions. Palace have won once away from home since then (at Derby in March) and have failed to score in seven of their last ten road trips. On the other hand, although Brighton lost at home to Watford at the end of December, the Seagulls have not lost a home game since and have kept clean sheets in half of their last ten games in front of their own fans.

Quite frankly, this is beginning to look as if this game will go two ways. Either Palace will manage a shock win or Brighton will qualify for Wembley with ease, but let’s not get too carried away with the latter outcome. In the past ten seasons, only two of the first legs between the fifth and fourth placed clubs have ended in draws and the lower placed team won both second legs. Unfortunately for Preston (2006) and Cardiff (2011), they both went on to lose in the final.

In terms of recent head to head form in Sussex, Brighton have the advantage. Although the 3-0 victory  in March was the first time the Seagulls had beaten the Eagles since Christmas 1988, Brighton have won seven of the last ten league meetings.

I discussed Brighton’s dangermen in the previous post, but Kazenga Lua-Lua needs to be added to the list of goal threats. He’s scored three times in as many games at the Amex.

As for Palace…well, let’s put it this way. Glenn Murray hasn’t scored an away goal in the Championship this year and only four of his team mates have managed to score away from Selhurst Park since mid-January.

Verdict: the intense rivalry between these two goes back to the late 1970s when Brighton were perceived to be on the receiving end of some dodgy refereeing in an FA Cup replay – which the Sussex club lost. In 1979, Brighton almost won the old second division title – but Palace won their last game of the season to snatch it away. It would be seen in some quarters as fitting revenge for Brighton to beat Palace in the playoffs and I think that’s the way this game will go.

I’ll be back with an update as soon as possible after the game finishes, but it’s my wife’s birthday today so it may not be immediately 🙂

UPDATE: the Curse of Fourth struck again last night as Palace won 2-0 at the Amex. Crystal Palace will face Watford in the playoff final at Wembley on Bank Holiday Monday. Full preview to follow next week.

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nPower Championship Play Off Semi Finals 1st Leg Preview

One of the most interesting aspects of this season’s Championship playoffs is that at least one of the four sides involved have reached this stage in nine of the last twenty seasons and there’s a possibility that we could have a repeat final. In 1996, Leicester were promoted after beating Crystal Palace.

However, with half of the last ten finals being won by the team that finished in third place, Watford appear to be in the driving seat this season. The Hornets also have the best head to head record against the other three participants this season, but the playoffs are a different kettle of fish altogether.

This season’s possible victims of The Curse Of Fourth are Brighton, but rather than boring you with the details, read about that particular phenomenon here.

LEICESTER v WATFORD (tomorrow, 7:45pm Sky Sports 1)

Leicester: playoff winners in 1994 and 1996, runners up 1992, 1993. Last appearance: 2010 (beaten semi finalists)

The hosts have won only four of their last ten and just one of their last six at the King Power Stadium: a 3-2 win over Bolton last month. This season the Foxes have beaten Hull and Brighton at home, but lost to Palace, Watford and Cardiff at home.

Watford: playoff winners in 1999 and 2006. Beaten semi finalists in 1989 and 2008.

Tomorrow night’s visitors have have won five of their last ten road trips, but only two of their last six and they’ve not won consecutive away games since February. Watford won four of their five away games against the clubs that finished in the top six this season.

Head to head at Leicester: Watford’s recent 2-1 win over Leicester was only their second victory in their last ten league games there.

Troy Deeney’s red card against Leeds last Saturday means he’ll miss this game, but Watford have shown this season that they aren’t dependent on one man for goals. Nathaniel Chalobah, Matej Vydra, Ikechi Anya and Almen Abdi are all capable of finding the net. The Hornets scored the most away goals in the Championship this season and nobody won more away games.

On the other hand, Leicester have got problems in front of goal. David Nugent hasn’t scored in front of his own fans since the end of January and although Jeffrey Schlupp, Chris Wood and Harry Kane have picked up the slack, none of them have scored more than three goals at home since the start of the year. Although the Foxes were reasonably tight at home this season, six teams – including Burnley and Derby – had better defensive home records than they did and only three teams in the top half of the table lost more home games than Leicester.

Verdict: neither team come into this game with much recent form, but this is a game that Watford don’t need to win. The sixth placed team has only beaten the third placed team in the first leg twice in the last ten seasons and both of those sides (Palace in 2004 and Blackpool three years ago) both went on to win the final.

CRYSTAL PALACE v BRIGHTON (Friday, 7:45pm Sky Sports 1)

Crystal Palace: winners in 1989, 1997 and 2004, beaten finalists in 1996, beaten semi finalists in 2006 and 2008

One home defeat in the last twenty games at Selhurst Park, which could mean two things: it either shows how good the Eagles are at home or that another one is due. However, Palace have only won two of their last six games since the start of March and haven’t beaten a top six side in 2013.

Brighton: beaten finalists in 1991.

Only two defeats in their last six aways, but nine draws in their last 20 road trips in the league and 18 ties this season proves the Seagulls are the draw specialists. Have won at Cardiff and Watford in 2012/13, but lost (and failed to score) at Hull, Palace and Leicester.

Head to head at Selhurst Park: Palace have won four of the last six games in the league, but Brighton haven’t scored more than one goal at Palace since Christmas 1983.

Only a desperately late strike from Mile Jedinak last Saturday earned the points necessary to confirm a playoff place for Crystal Palace. Defensively they’ve only kept two clean sheets at home since January, but they’ve performed well at home against the other sides that finished in the top six, only losing to Watford on the first day of the season. For a large part of the season, Palace were over-reliant on Glenn Murray for goals, but Ian Holloway’s signing of Kevin Phillips was inspired. Between them, Murray and Phillips have accounted for thirteen of the nineteen goals the Eagles have scored in the league at Selhurst Park since goalless draw with Bolton in January.

If ever there was a team that was built for the playoffs it’s Brighton. Leonardo Ulloa and Andrea Orlandi and aren’t exactly household names, but along with David Lopez and Will Buckley they are more than capable of scoring goals away from home. One thing that’s been overlooked so far is that Brighton conceded less than one goal per game during the regular season (only Leicester and Charlton conceded fewer goals on their travels) and actually lost fewer away games than both Hull and Cardiff. The other side to that particular coin: they failed to beat any of the relegated clubs away from home – a couple of extra points could have resulted in automatic promotion.

Verdict: Brighton’s defence is the key to this game. Having shipped three goals in the corresponding league game in December, Albion have kept more away clean sheets since then than Palace have at Selhurst Park in the same period. If the Seagulls can keep Murray and Phillips under wraps they should be able to take some sort of advantage back to the Amex Stadium next week, but if Palace can duplicate the same performance as they did in December this tie could be over before the second leg. Having said that, four of the last five first legs between fifth and fourth placed sides have finished with one goal or less and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if that happened again on Friday.

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