Are Leeds Going To Blow It?

Welcome to this week’s episode of ‘typical anti-Leeds drivel’, if you’re a Leeds fan of a certain disposition you might not want to continue reading.

Here’s what happened at Elland Road last weekend in the clash between the top two:

Leeds have now lost four of their last six games after a seven game winning streak that ended at the end of December. It’s unclear if this is a blip or not – after this weekend’s game they don’t face another top six club until next month – but there’s suddenly a defensive frailty about them. If any Leeds fans want to take a look at what happened to Marseille in the 2014/15 season, they might see something that should worry them.

As we go into this weekend’s games, only ten points separate the top seven, which could mean the last third of the season is more unpredictable than we might have imagined even a month ago. Currently no-one looks like a side that could win automatic promotion, but to put that into context the only team that has more or less no chance of mathematically reaching the playoffs is Ipswich.

Nonetheless, Middlesbrough v Leeds (tomorrow 1pm, no TV coverage) is our game of the week this week even though neither team is currently on fire. Boro were dumped out of the FA Cup earlier this week by Newport, which probably shouldn’t have been that much of a shock considering their record at the Riverside since mid-September – where Tony Pulis’ side has won just twice in ten games. That being said, their away form has sustained their league position and Boro haven’t lost at home to any of the teams currently above them in 2018/19.

Leeds’ recent come from behind win at Rotherham was their first away success since before Christmas but although they’ve got a reasonably straightforward looking run in, this game will be their last chance until the start of next month to win any away points due to QPR‘s continued involvement in the FA Cup.

Leeds have only won one of their last five visits to the Riverside – an early Alex Mowatt goal earned all three points in February 2014 – and the last time both of these teams scored in a game at Middlesbrough was just under eight and a half years ago. Given that Boro have the best defence in the division, I wonder how likely it is to happen again?

The only other game that will have an impact on the table is at Millmoor, where Wigan are the visitors. Reading would have to win at Sheffield Wednesday to overtake Rotherham, but considering Wigan haven’t won a game away from home since August (thirteen in a row), the Latics might be due a rare success. The Millers have only won twice at home since October but actually have a decent home record against the other strugglers.

TV games: Aston Villa v Sheffield United (this evening, 7:45pm), Stoke v WBA (Saturday 5:30pm) and Norwich v Ipswich (Sunday, noon) all look as if they were chosen well in advance. The Old Farm derby is usually televised but might well be one to avoid given the respective positions of the protagonists in the table: Norwich have beaten Ipswich twice by three clear goals in the last 25 years and I’d not be surprised if that happened again in what might be the last league derby between the teams for a while.

I’ll get back to the FA Cup next weekend, but with six teams left in the competition, I’m beginning to wonder if something rather rare might happen. With all due respect to Newport, imagine the possibilities if Manchester City were drawn against the winners of Chelsea/Manchester United in the quarter finals…

FA Cup Fourth Round Preview

With the exception of a game that’ll come to later, this weekend is all about the Fourth Round of the FA Cup.

Although there’s only one guaranteed place for a Championship in the next round, I think it’s likely that at least four teams should qualify.

This post is in a similar format to the most recent previews although this time round I’m covering the games featuring Derby and QPR at Buzzin’ League One Football. All matches kick off at 3pm on Saturday unless stated.

All Championship

Bristol City v Bolton (Friday, 7:45pm)

The only tie between clubs from the Championship is a chance for the hosts to reach the Fifth Round for the first time in eighteen years, an ambition that may be more realistic that winning promotion. Bolton got to the semis in 2011 and the Sixth Round the following year but they’re probably more preoccupied with avoiding relegation to League One. The only previous meeting at Ashton Gate in the FA Cup was 40 years ago and City won 3-1, but their most recent clash in the league was earlier this month – and The Robins won that too.

Championship v Premier League

Brighton v WBA

As you might expect from a team that’s recently been in the Premier League, West Brom have reached the fifth round or better in half of the last six seasons, but they’ve not won at Brighton since April 1990 and could be forgiven for focusing on their efforts to return to the promised land.

Chelsea v Sheffield Wednesday (Sunday, 6pm)

The timing and the nature of Maurizio Sarri’s comments about his Chelsea team were both interesting and appeared to work against Spurs on Thursday, but even so you’d have to expect Sheffield Wednesday to play at the very top of their game to win at Stamford Bridge, something they’ve not done for 26 years despite making eight trips there since. The last time Wednesday won at Chelsea in the FA Cup was before England won the World Cup.

Millwall v Everton (Saturday, 5:30pm, BBC1)

Definitely one to watch if you’re near a telly on Saturday tea time.

The Lions – who have got this far in the competition twice since reaching the semis in 2013 and have lost a home FA Cup tie for just over three years – will be up for this, especially as they’ve not been beaten by Everton in either of their previous encounters in the FA Cup in South London. The Toffees have lost four of last five road trips in the Premier League and haven’t won an away FA Cup tie for three years: don’t be too surprised if there’s a replay.

Championship v League One

Swansea v Gillingham

I’m pretty sure someone, somewhere has wasted an afternoon searching for a team that’s played Cardiff and Swansea in consecutive rounds of the FA Cup, but I’m not that person. The Swans reached the Sixth Round last season but it’s been fifteen years since Gillingham got as far as this and they’ve not beaten Swansea since 2006. The last time the teams played each other in this competition in South Wales, it ended with a convincing Swansea win – and with Gillingham involved in a relegation scrap, that might be the case once more.

Championship v League Two

Middlesbrough v Newport

Comparatively speaking Middlesbrough have been strong performers in the FA Cup recently,  having only failed to reach this stage in two of the last six seasons. Newport got to the Fourth Round last year but haven’t progressed any further since the previous incarnation of club managed to in 1949; they’ve lost both of their previous meetings with Middlesbrough, which were league games in the old Division Three in the late 1980s.

Championship v National League

Barnet v Brentford (Monday, 7:45pm BT Sport 1)

The last tie of the round and I’m also the last person to mention that it’s the Bees againt the Bees. It’s been a while since either team qualified for the Fifth Round and although the last meeting between them that Barnet hosted ended goalless (in the old Johnstone’s Paint Trophy just over eight years ago), Brentford won the only previous meeting in the FA Cup – at Griffin Park way back in November 1925.

The highlight of the League programme this weekend is at Carrow Road, where Sheffield United are the visitors. Only two  points separate the sides but unless Leeds suffer a surprise defeat at Rotherham, then Norwich will have to be content with second place even if they win. Sheffield United won the corresponding game last season, but that was only the second Blades victory at Norwich since 2000 and United have never won consecutive games at Carrow Road.

If anything unexpected happens I’ll update this post as and when, but otherwise I’ll be back next weekend.

Updates: Millwall beat Everton, Middlesbrough drew with Newport.

Championship Xmas Post 2018

Welcome to the annual renewal of the Post of Christmas Past.

This week – as is usually the case in this post – you’ll be learning who will probably win promotion and who will probably be relegated at the end of the season.

However, this year there’s something different about Christmas in the Championship…but naturally you’ll have to read the entire post to find out what it is.

Despite thinking that the Sheffield United had a decent chance of beating WBA last weekend, the actual result didn’t disprove my theory that Chris Wilder’s team aren’t automatic promotion candidates even if they are one of the better teams in the division.

On to the sprouts and turkey. Over the past half decade, a team is more likely to be promoted if they’re in the top three on Boxing Day evening. Only once in the last half decade has a team been promoted after being outside the top six on 26/12 and that was Norwich in 2014/15, but last season Bristol City became the fourth club in the last five seasons to be in the top six at close of play on Boxing Day not to win promotion.

Here’s where the plot thickens and where I’m also likely to risk drawing the wrath of Leeds fans once again – but I’d recommend reading the rest of these next couple of paragraphs. I wouldn’t be too surprised if either Derby or Leeds are in the top six at the end of Boxing Day and end up blowing promotion – both clubs have been in exactly that position at least three times over the last five years and haven’t managed to cross the line. Derby in particular seem to have issues: they were third in 2014 and top a year later but blew it; that’s why it’s actually really difficult to gauge Frank Lampard’s ability as a manager: the Rams could have a cardboard cut out of Brian Clough in charge and still be ‘there or thereabouts’ every season. If we go back a few years, the same was true of Cardiff, who are now two points outside the Premier League relegation zone and preparing to face Manchester United tomorrow.

If – as looks likely – Leeds are in the top two, that’ll be their highest position after the Boxing Day programme since they were promoted back to the Championship in 2010. This season they’re arguably the most balanced team in the division and finally look like the real deal, but because I’m a neutral it would be wrong of me not to have a nagging doubt about their promotion chances. We’ll see but I’ll be pleased if I’m proven wrong.

At the wrong end of the table, the teams in the bottom five after the Boxing Day games are far more likely to be relegated – in fact, over the last five seasons all of the relegated teams were in the bottom five on the evening of December 26th. The bottom two are usually – but not always – doomed and I think it’s probably time to stick a fork in Ipswich and Bolton. The Tractor Boys have to beat both Sheffield United and QPR in their next two games to stand any chance of escaping the bottom three and Bolton have been in this predicament in three of the last four seasons.

As for who might accompany them, it also shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that both Millwall and Rotherham are struggling either but if Sheffield Wednesday‘s defence gets much worse they’ll have a fight for survival on their hands – and as I was writing this, they sacked Jos Luhukay. I’d also keep an eye on Brentford, the wheels seem to have come off since Dean Smith left for Aston Villa, with new boss Thomas Frank losing eight of his first ten games. Reading – who have a tough looking three game schedule coming up – aren’t out of the woods either.

I normally take the mickey out of the scheduling of live games over the festive period, but this is where the big difference is this season. There is ONE Championship game over Christmas and that’s Sheffield United v Derby (Boxing Day 3pm); Sky Sports seem to have finally realised that showing multiple games over the holidays is a waste of time. The new contract with the EFL has not gone down well at all with the clubs (especially the so-called ‘bigger’ ones or as I like to call them, the moaners who think they should be in the Premier League) and I suspect the midweek red button service may not have gone down as well as Sky Sports may have thought it might have done.

Saturday December 22nd

An interesting one as three of the top six are away at teams in the bottom six: Middlesbrough‘s trip to Reading features two sides that have combined for one win in their last twelve outings. I can’t see Sheffield United having any problems with Ipswich or Rotherham troubling WBA. As I wrote that, I suddenly had the feeling that at least one of those games will provide the weekly upset that the Championship is well known for.

Sunday December 23rd

Aston Villa v Leeds (Sky Sports Football/Main Event, 1:30pm kick off)

Wednesday December 26th

I’ve already mentioned Derby v Sheffield United, but the games at Norwich, Bolton and Millwall all look like they’re worth following – especially as Rotherham are the guests at Bolton and Reading make the journey to South London. It could be one of those key afternoons at the bottom of the table.

Saturday December 29th

Norwich host Derby and Ipswich travel to Middlesbrough.

Right, that’s me done for another year. Back for the FA Cup Third Round, have a Happy Christmas and thanks for reading.

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 🙂

Game Of The Week: Huddersfield v Fulham

Two games worth following this weekend: the first is between two rivals for playoff berths, the second features a team staring relegation in the face against a club who has one final – but slim – chance of winning automatic promotion but could guarantee home advantage in the playoffs with a victory.

Huddersfield v Fulham

With only two wins in their last six, it looks as if the wheels have come off the Terriers’ campaign to reach the Premier League, but they’ve only lost four home games this season. Half of those defeats have been against other teams in the mix for promotion, so this is a really good test for both teams.

Despite have the toughest run in, Fulham have been impressive recently with four wins in their last six. They’ve also got a good record against the teams above them, having only lost three of their eight contests against those sides.

Bonus fact: Huddersfield haven’t beaten Fulham in a home league game since September 1993 and have lost two of the last four meetings in Yorkshire.

Nottingham Forest v Reading

Two wins since the start of March – or to put it another way, one win since Mark Warburton took over – confirms my suspicions that the problems at the City Ground were inherent before he took over. Fortunately for Forest, this is a home game and they’ve not been too bad against the promotion contenders – something that Reading should remember considering their brittle away defensive record. Only Norwich and Rotherham have conceded more goals on their travels this season and Jaap Stam’s side have only kept two clean sheets in away games since the start of the year.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there are a few goals in this game – five of the last six meetings between the clubs at the City Ground have seen three or more goals but Reading have only won three of their last ten visits. This one os going to come down to desire: Forest’s to stay in the Championship and Reading’s to escape it.

That’s all for this week, if anything dramatic happens I’ll update this post tomorrow evening.

Huddersfield reduced their chances of automatic promotion to practically none after losing 4-1 at home to Fulham – despite taking an early lead. If Newcastle beat Preston on Monday, they’re up.

At the bottom, Wigan will have to win both of their remaining games to stand any chance of reaching safety but that will be irrelevant if Birmingham earn a point against Aston Villa tomorrow. Blackburn also need to win their remaining games, but will have to score at least nine clear goals in order to overturn a significant disadvantage regarding goal difference.