Weekend Preview 23-25th November

It’s a brief post this week due to work commitments.

Somewhat different from swanning off to France, but at least one will pay for the other 🙂

At the top there’s five point gap between the top six – altough if Norwich lose at Swansea they could be overtaken by Leeds, Middlesbrough or Sheffield United. I fell into a typical Championship trap by praising Leeds last post didn’t I! I don’t think anyone saw them losing so heavily at WBA – it’s well over 30 years since they lost by three goals at the Hawthorns.

At the bottom: Ipswich are five points adrift but only two points separate the six clubs immediately above them. As I noted in the previous post, I was expecting Bolton to get trapped in a relegation battle but the only team in that group that’s moving in a positive direction is Preston.

As luck would have it, two of the three games that are contenders for game of the week are both being shown on Sky Sports Football/Main Event. Ipswich v WBA (this evening, 7:45pm) and Rotherham v Sheffield United (Saturday 12:30pm) both feature teams from either end of the table: Ipswich have only won two league games at Portman Road since January, but before any Baggies fans get carried away, it’s only fair to point out that West Brom haven’t won on the road since the end of September.

The twelve Yorkshire derbies we’ve had so far have been fairly well balanced (half have been drawn with the remaining games split evenly between home and away wins), but whilst Rotherham have only picked up one point in three attempts, Sheffield United have earned four points in the same number of games.

The other game of note is between Millwall and Bolton – in six meetings in all competitions in London since the turn of the century, the Lions have only won once (six years ago), but Wanderers have only scored one away goal since mid-September.

Additionally Brentford v Middlesbrough (Saturday 5:30) and Aston Villa v Birmingham (Sunday, noon) are also being televised – the former shouldn’t be any surprise considering how close Griffin Park is to the Sky Sports HQ and I don’t think many of us would have predicted that the first Second City Derby of the season would have seen the protagonists only separated by goal difference.

All being well, I’ll be back next Friday although that may also be a brief post.

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.

GOTW: Reading v Hull

Something a bit different this week, but first a quick recap.

Last weekend’s game of the week ended in 1-0 victory for Bristol City over Sheffield United, but the most significant action came at Carrow Road:

That was Boro’s first defeat of the season and their first setback on the road since April. The damage wasn’t as bad as it could have been though as Leeds drew at Millwall and then both of the leading pair won their midweek games – which means Leeds are now a point ahead of Middlesbrough and are the only unbeaten team left in the Championship.

This week’s game of the week is between two clubs that are struggling at the moment. Rather than preview the game of the week, I’m going to take a wider look at the current situation at the bottom of the table, specifically where I think a managerial change might be imminent. There are five clubs that are seriously under performing so far this season:

Hull City

It’s been well over half a decade since Nigel Adkins had any sort of success as a manager: he’s been in charge at Hull for almost twice as many games as his predecessor (the hapless Leonid Slutsky) but is only fractionally more successful than the Russian was (0.23 of a point per game). As it stands, Adkins and his toothless tigers are lucky there are three teams worse than they are: if they survive this season, they may not get the same chance in 2019/20. Regarding tomorrow’s game, they’ve only lost three of their last ten aways in the Championship but only kept clean sheets in two of those matches – and as you’ll read in a minute, that’s cause for optimism at the Mad House.

Ipswich Town

Second favourites for relegation. Paul Hurst was only appointed at the end of May and hasn’t even been the boss at Portman Road for ten games, yet there were some dire predictions being made about Town’s fortunes this season before a ball was kicked in anger that I laughed off before the season but seem to be coming true. This time last season Ipswich were in the playoff places and were eleven points better off, but one win in their last ten games is cause for concern; the only other team without a league win so far are Birmingham, but they’ve only lost twice and seem to have turned something of a corner under Garry Monk.

Millwall

This is a ‘wait and see’ situation that is complicated by the presence of a club legend. The Lions didn’t exactly start last season particularly well either, but they improved a lot from December onwards. Don’t be surprised if that happens again in 2018/19 but also be aware that Neil  Harris has been in the job for three and a half years and since the start of the century only Kenny Jackett has been in the job longer. If their away form improves, they should climb up the table; if it doesn’t then Harris may be under pressure.

Preston North End

This is a surprise. After eight games in 2017/18 the Lillywhites were in fourth place and although they didn’t quite make the playoffs they were never out of the top ten after the end of January. I’m tempted to say that they’re in this position due to a particularly tough opening set of away games, but losing at home to Reading indicates a deeper malaise than I think anyone may have suspected. Alex Neil is doing a slightly better job with Preston than he did at Norwich, but that ultimately that wasn’t good enough to save his job in East Anglia and he may be heading the same way if the current poor run continues.

Reading

The Royals have been in the bottom seven of the Championship since last Boxing Day and are among the favourites for relegation. In a similar situation to Ipswich in as far as Paul Clement inherited a mess from the Jaap Stam era, but Clement has had 18 games to sort the situation out and doesn’t seem to have had any impact whatsoever. He didn’t last a full season at either Derby or Swansea and could make this an unwanted hat-trick if Reading don’t turn the corner soon. They’ve lost five in a row at home and haven’t beaten Hull at home for 13 years, despite having four attempts to do so.

Other games to watch out for this weekend: Leeds v Birmingham, Sheffield United v Preston and WBA v Millwall – all of those will have an impact on either end of the table.

Televised games: Wigan v Bristol City (this evening, 7:45pm kick off, Sky Sports Football/Main Event) and QPR v Norwich (Saturday evening, 5:30pm kick off, Sky Sports Football/Main Event). The former – between two sides in the top ten – looks more attractive than the latter, which looks as if it was chosen because it’s not far from Sky Sports’ studios rather than because it’s a decent looking game.

A couple of bits of housekeeping for you: there will be no posts on Friday 5th October (nephew’s birthday), Friday 12th October (international break) and Friday 26th October (family holiday/birthday in France).

But I will be back next weekend 🙂

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.

GOTW: Leeds v Middlesbrough

The World Cup Final was less than seven weeks ago but this is the last post before we have the first of this season’s international breaks.

I still think it’s ridiculous having international football this early in the season but at least there’s a televised game of the week to tide us over for a fortnight.

Back to last weekend and QPR finally won – a goal from Tomer Hemed was enough to see off Wigan – but Nottingham Forest had to come from behind to draw at home against Birmingham in a game that I described last weekend as having draw written all over it.

Leeds v Middlesbrough

(This evening, 7:45 om Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

If there’s a winner in this one they’ll have a significant psychological advantage: if the hosts earn all three points then I’d be more willing to take them seriously as promotion candidates but if Boro win at Elland Road for the first time in seven years that would strengthen the case that they’ll likely return to the Premier League in May.

After five games last season, Leeds were in third place having earned two fewer points. They’re currently on a run of seven matches without losing a Championship game at Elland Road but arguably the toughest home game until they face Brentford at the start of October – which is about the time it all started going wrong last season. One of the reasons they finished in the bottom half of the table last season was their appalling record against teams in the top half of the table (17 points from 72 available, the only team from the top half that failed to beat them was Bristol City) and that has to change.

This time last season Boro had already lost twice: they didn’t really look like promotion contenders until Tony Pulis took over on Boxing Day but even so their record against the top half of the table last season was similar to Leeds. Middlesbrough won more points than the Whites but failed to beat any of the sides that finished above them, even though all of those games were close. Again, that’s something that needs to change in order for Premier League football to return to the Riverside again, as does their defensive record on the road: including the draw at Aston Villa in the playoffs last season, Boro have only kept three clean sheets in their last ten aways.

Stats corner: Leeds have won half of the last ten at home against Middlesbrough, but four of those wins were in the last five meetings and Boro haven’t won at Leeds since August 2011.

Verdict: it’s a statement of the bleedin’ obvious, but if you want to do well in a league competition it’s a good idea to minimise your home defeats. A draw wouldn’t be the worst result for either side but based on the results between the top six at the end of last season and the recent history of this fixture, that’s the least likely outcome.

It’s a bit of a cop out, but I genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen in this one but I’ll repeat what I wrote earlier: if either side wins, take them seriously. Leeds have started well, but three of their five games so far have been against clubs in the bottom half of the table: three of Boro’s five games have been against clubs in the top half.

Elsewhere, it’s the games at Birmingham, Hull and Preston that are worth noting. The Blues and the Tigers entertain QPR and Derby respectively – in one of those odd situations that comes up every now and again, it’ll Derby’s second trip to Hull this week and they’ll be hoping for the same result as Tuesday night’s 4-0 victory in the League Cup. Preston host Bolton in the first Lancashire derby of the season: the Trotters could close the gap at the top if the game of the week ends in a draw and they win at Deepdale for the first time since New Year’s Day 2001.

The other televised games this weekend are Millwall v Swansea (tomorrow, 5:30 kick off, Sky Sports Football), The Old Farm Derby (Sunday, noon, Sky Sports Football – Red Button)  and Bristol City v Blackburn (Sunday, 1:30, Sky Sports Football – Red Button) and  so I’ll see you in a couple of weeks time – unless something dramatic happens.