GOTW: Leeds v Aston Villa

Apologies for the lack of posts recently, it’s entirely due to work commitments.

I couldn’t really go another week without an update though, so although this is a quick one it contains a lot of information!

WBA v Rotherham (3pm Saturday)

This is more about Rotherham than WBA. The Millers could still save themselves from an immediate return to League One with a win, but given that WBA are on a five game unbeaten streak at the Hawthorns and Rotherham have won only once on the road this season, then it looks unlikely – indeed, the Yorkshire need to at least match Millwall‘s result at home to Stoke to stand any chance of that and they won’t know the score from the New Den until about half way through the first half due to the early kickoff in South London.

Leeds v Aston Villa (noon Sunday, Sky Sports Main Event/Football)

Every season there seems to be a very late season encounter between clubs that either ends up being a playoff final or semi final and lo and behold here we are again.

Leeds have lost four of their last ten at home – including last week’s defeat against Wigan, in which the Latics played with ten men for all but 14 minutes of the game and came from behind to win – whilst Villa have won five straight on the road. That being said, it’s worth remembering that Leeds haven’t lost at home to Aston Villa since Christmas 2000 but three of the last five encounters at Elland Road have been drawn.

At the bottom of the league it’s down to avoiding the last relegation place, with Bolton and Ipswich having already been relegated. The EFL took the unprecedented decision to postpone Bolton’s game against Brentford this afternoon after the Bolton players went on strike over unpaid wages.

That’s it for this week, I’m going to try my best to cover the end of the season even if the posts are briefer than usual.

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…

GOTW: Millwall v Sheffield United

The big news last weekend was that Leeds lost at home for the first time since March.

Two Che Adams goals in the first half an hour gave Birmingham their first away win since April and their third victory at Elland Road in the last five years.

And yes, I have tried to look for official highlights from either team but none seem to exist.

That result – combined with Middlesbrough’s goalless draw with Swansea – means that there’s now only a three point gap between Leeds and seventh placed Brentford.

At the bottom it was a fairly straightforward win for Reading:

The victories for Birmingham and Reading change the landscape at the bottom a little bit: nobody is in danger of being cast adrift this weekend but I’m beginning to wonder if Alex Neil will last the entire season at Preston.

There are two teams left in the League Cup: Derby (who beat Manchester United on penalties) and Nottingham Forest (who beat Stoke). For any casual Premier League fans reading this, Derby are slightly better than they were last season: Donald Trump could be their manager and they’d still finish in the top six without getting promoted.

We reach the ten game milestone this weekend – it’s hard to believe we’re already a third of the way through the season even though there’s another eight months left. After this weeks games we’ll have a far clearer picture of what’s going to happen although the next 15 or so games between now and Boxing Day will make it even clearer. If you’re going to win promotion or avoid relegation now’s the time to make a move: which is why this weekend’s game of the week is an important one for both teams.

Millwall v Sheffield United

The Lions aren’t that bad at home and I’d expect them to avoid relegation, but there are a couple of things Neil Harris needs to tweak. Only Ipswich and Rotherham have scored fewer goals so far and although Millwall have only lost two of their last ten games at the New Den, they’ve blown leads in three of their four outings in South London this season. Swansea beat them at the start of the month despite playing with ten men for most of the game after Courtney Baker-Richardson’s straight red card for an awful tackle on James Meredith.

The Blades recovered from their recent defeat at Bristol City by picking up four points from the next two matches. I know I’ve picked their matches for two of the last three games of the week but I think they’re a good measure of the comparative strength of the top six as I think there’s a possibility that they’re overrated at the moment. 80% of their points have been earned against teams currently in the bottom half of the table and they’ve got a habit of conceding late goals.

Millwall have won seven of the last ten games between the clubs in South London – the last time the game ended in a draw was in a Third Division game at the Den in March 1980, so it’s about time that outcome happened again.

There are two other games to look out for tomorrow, both of which are bottom six/top six matches: Hull v Middlesbrough and Preston v WBA.

This weekend’s televised games are as follows:

This evening: 7:45pm: Bristol City v Aston Villa (Sky Sports Red Button), Sheffield Wednesday v Leeds (Sky Sports Football/Main Event); on Saturday at 5:30pm it’s Rotherham v Stoke (Sky Sports Football/ Main Event), which is a rare one as they’ve not met since August 2004 and Stoke haven’t won at Rotherham since April 1993.

Finally another reminder that there will be no post from me for the next couple of weeks, although if anything dramatic happens I’ll post a quick recap.

Why Stoke Are Still A Good Bet For Championship Promotion

Britannia Stadium” (CC BY 2.0) by yellow book

Many early season predictions from fans and commentators pointed to Stoke City getting promotion from the Championship and regaining their place back in the Premier League.

But after a poor start to the season, even the Staffordshire club’s own fans have started to think the worst.

There’s even some bemoaning Stoke’s high-paid but currently poor-performing players could lead the Potters to another relegation. But that’s the sort of short-sighted thinking that follows a disappointing result.

Stoke City still have a very good chance of finishing the season in the play-off spots or earning automatic promotion. And here’s why. For starters, the relegated Midlands club, which spent a decade in the Premier League having won promotion in 2008, were the early season favourites with bookies to top the league. Manager Gary Rowett has accomplished some astute business in the transfer market, while retaining a number of players with Premier League experience, including veteran striker Peter Crouch.

They’ve importantly still got Welshman Joe Allen in the heart of midfield. He’s Premier League class and could quite easily fit into most squads in the top division. He did, of course, play for Liverpool for four years. Prior to that, he was a regular for Swansea, while he was a crucial part of Wales’ successful run to the Euro 2016 semi-finals. A hard-working midfielder who always wants the ball, Allen is the sort of intelligent first-teamer who will help Stoke dominate possession while providing solidarity when the Potters don’t have the ball.

No Ambition.” (CC BY 2.0) by domfell

Rowett has been backed with the funds to improve the squad by owners who covet England’s lucrative top division. This has seen the club build the Championship’s best squad with plenty of talent in depth. Veterans like former Manchester United favourite Darren Fletcher and attacker Tom Ince, who played for Premier League survivalists Huddersfield Town last year, add guile and flair to the midfield.

Championship betting might have seen the club become a popular outside punt at 40/1 as relegation fodder given the high return after a disappointing start to the season. But Stoke still possess an experienced nucleus to their squad that should see them enjoy success over the long-term. We mustn’t forget they’ve got a top international keeper who went to the World Cup in Jack Butland and some excellent central defenders such as Ryan Shawcross.

And while Rowett is still relying on 37-year-old striker Peter Crouch, Saido Berahino is tipped to come good this season in a new deeper role. If the player who scored 23 goals in 105 appearances for former club West Brom could go from being a “one goal in four” player to a “one goal in three”, Stoke’s early-season fortunes will drastically change.

Stoke have dug themselves a hole they’ll need to emerge from but there are still reasons to be optimistic for Potters fans. They’ve got a strong squad, a decent defence and the potential to score plenty of goals. Swansea City, West Brom, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough will be in the mix but the smart money has to remain on Stoke.

Eight Out Of Ten Stats

The last post of the month is going to be stats driven, so please be patient.

It’s still really early in the season, but after four games there seem to be some surprise team at both ends of the table.

First of all, here are the highlights from last weekend’s game of the week:

This isn’t the best stat of the week, but it’s been over a decade since Ipswich had a shirt sponsor that wasn’t Marcus Evans.

Anyway, I’ve identified a number of teams who were playing in the Championship last season but are currently performing either above or below the level they were in 2017/18. I looked at how they’ve performed against (a) the current teams in the top six and (b) those sides currently in the bottom six, then compared the points they earned from those games against the grand total they’ve earned this season:

This seems to suggest the following:

  • Any club that’s earned more than 50% of their total points against teams from the bottom six has probably had an easy start: Bolton, Brentford, Leeds and Preston fall into that category – although the Lillywhites are currently underperforming compared to last season, which indicates this may be a bump in the road rather than a crisis.
  • Birmingham have had a bad start due to having already played Bolton, Middlesbrough and Swansea, but they don’t have to face another club in the current top six until the middle of next month. That being said, you have to wonder if the Blues would have been in this position if they’d had an easier schedule: I think it’s highly likely that the end of last season was something of a dead cat bounce.
  • I’d be very worried if I was a QPR fan. A couple of seasons ago Rotherham were relegated to League One after finishing 19 points adrift at the bottom but after four games The Millers had one win and three goals under their belts – which is a better record than Steve McLaren’s team currently has.
  • Nottingham Forest have improved – they couldn’t have got any worse without being relegated – but probably not enough to be considered promotion candidates. They to come from behind at both Bristol City and Wigan to earn draws, struggled to beat Bury in the League Cup and lots of teams are going to beat Reading this season.

Once again, although this is far too early in the campaign to make predictions, I think that Aston Villa, Brentford and Middlesbrough will be in the mix at the end of the season. It’s a ‘wait and see’ situation with Leeds (when isn’t it?) but I’d be very surprised to see Bolton in the top half of the table at Christmas. Overall though, I think it’s still wide open at the top.

At the bottom, it’s Birmingham, QPR and Reading who will need to look over their shoulders – I picked Reading out before the season began – but I’ll be honest and thought that QPR were the type of team that could do well. Of course, that could still happen. I deliberately haven’t mentioned any of the new arrivals in this post, but Stoke have had a dreadful start.

Elsewhere I’d suggest keeping an eye on Frank Lampard’s progress at Derby. It could go either way but at the moment I’d suggest their lowest finish in the Championship for half a dozen seasons is a realistic outcome: a guaranteed playoff hangover combined with an inexperienced manager is not a recipe for success.

This weekend’s televised games: Middlesbrough v WBA (this evening, 7:45pm, Sky Sports Main Event/Football) and Nottingham Forest v Birmingham (Saturday, 5:30pm, Sky Sports Main Event/Football). The first one looks like an interesting one, the second one has draw written all over it.

It’s the second round of the League Cup next week and I’ll cover that in next weekend’s post. I may not have a hangover by then 🙂