GOTW: Bolton v Ipswich

Norwich beat Middlesbrough in last weekend’s game of the week:

That wasn’t the end of Middlesbrough’s misery either. On Tuesday evening they also lost at home to Bristol City, a result that leaves Tony Pulis’ side in eighth place.

Overall there wasn’t much change at the top last weekend: I think the top four have probably sewn the automatic promotion places up although there are still 21 points to play for and arguably any of the top seven sides could still reach El Dorado without negotiating the playoffs.

I’ll come to the bottom of the table when I get to the game of the week preview, but that situation hasn’t changed at all.

However, we know a little bit about how 2019/20 will look:

Steve McClaren was sacked by QPR earlier this week with former Watford and Derby midfielder John Eustace taking over as caretaker manager for their game against Norwich tomorrow lunchtime (Sky Sports Football/Main Event 12:30).

McClaren had been in charge at Loftus Road for almost a year but had recorded his lowest win percentage in club management since his stint at Newcastle a few years ago.

Surprisingly, we also know the identities of two of the clubs that have been relegated from the Premier League: Fulham and Huddersfield will be back after one and two seasons respectively in the Promised Land. This is the earliest that two clubs have been relegated from the top tier since Ipswich and Leicester at the end of the 1994/95 season.

Bolton v Ipswich

An important game at the bottom of the table but one that is unlikely to be the start of a miracle escape from relegation.

The tumult continues in Lancashire: the players took strike action in support of backroom staff on Monday, on Wednesday the club was given until May to pay off the remaining debt on the tax bill and although administration appears to have been avoided, this is hardly the sort of preparation the players need before such a big game.

On the field, the story for Bolton is dire. Two home wins since the start of October with just even goals in fourteen games over that period tell the story of how bad things are on the playing side.

Ipswich’s record on the road is just as bad, but there are signs that Paul Lambert has made them into a team that’s difficult to beat away from Portman Road. They’ve not lost an away game since mid-February but although they’ve not won on their travels since October, they’ve drawn their last three matches and were really unlucky not to win at Wigan at the end of February. That might stand the Tractor Boys in good stead next season, but has come too late to save them now.

Head to head: the last four encounters at Bolton have finished all square. The last time Wanderers beat Ipswich was in a Premier League game just over 17 years ago.

The other games worth tracking this weekend are matches where playoff contenders play teams that could find themselves relegated if the next few weeks don’t see an upturn in their fortunes. It surprised me to find out exactly how bad WBA‘s record at Millwall has been: admittedly the Baggies haven’t exactly been visitors to Bermondsey in recent years, but they’ve never won at the New Den and you’ve got to go back to April 1987 for their last win at the old Den.

Tomorrow will be Wigan’s fifth game at Ashton Gate since the start of the century but the Latics have only beaten Bristol City once, sixteen years ago. Three of those last five encounters have ended all square and with the hosts not having won at home since mid-February there’s a slight chance that might happen again….although Wigan haven’t won on the road since August and have lost five of their last six away matches.

All being well, I’ll be back next Friday. Enjoy the weekend.

GOTW: Middlesbrough v Norwich

First post for a while and there’s a load to get through.

The big news over the last couple of weeks was Birmingham’s nine point deduction for final irregularities last Friday, although the correct technical term is ‘a breach of profitability and sustainability’ rules.

As has been pointed out on twitter over the last week, it’s funny how clubs that have been managed by A Certain Manager have found themselves on the wrong end of these penalties. Know what I mean Harry?

It’s a shame for Birmingham City though. They were one of the most improved teams this season yet over the last few weeks they’ve had a lot of negative publicity after the assault on Jack Grealish and now the points deduction – which leaves them on the verge of a relegation scrap that looked unlikely for most of the season.

Then there’s Bolton. They have until April 3rd to sort their unpaid tax bill out or else they’ll be the first EFL club to go into administration since Aldershot almost six years ago. A potential points deduction would confirm relegation for the Trotters –  who are likely to be returning to League One anyway – and would basically reduce the situation at the bottom of the table to just one relegation spot.

On the field, at this moment only Norwich look like they might be heading back to the Premier League; having said that, Sheffield United have an easier run in and are probably a more balanced team, but Leeds still cannot be discounted as contenders for automatic promotion.

I think I’ve mentioned this scenario before, but the playoff positions look as if they’re going down to the wire. It may be significant that WBA still haven’t appointed a successor to Darren Moore, which makes me wonder if they’re preparing to for automatic promotion next season rather than in 2018/19.

At the bottom, it’s probably any one from Millwall, Reading and Rotherham that’ll be accompanying Bolton and Ipswich on the journey to League One next season, although neither Wigan nor QPR aren’t exactly safe as it stands right now.

Middlesbrough v Norwich (5:30pm, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

Three – yes, three – home wins in fourteen games since mid-September is hardly promotion form even if two of those victories came against Sheffield United and WBA. Boro’s problem has been the same for the entire season: at home only Sheffield United have conceded fewer goals but only Ipswich and Bolton have scored fewer. Boro haven’t found the back of the net more than twice at Riverside since August and their leading goalscorer at home – Jordan Hugill – hasn’t notched since the middle of January and has only scored four goals.

As it stands this will be Norwich’s penultimate away game of the season against a team in the top half of the table: as I mentioned above, the Canaries have a straightforward looking run in and having lost only once on the road since the start of September this game doesn’t look to troublesome for them.

The fun part is the head to head. Norwich have only won twice in their last ten league games at either the Riverside or Ayresome Park and although their last win was in September 2017, the previous occasion was in 1988. Boro have won half of those last ten encounters, including three of the last five. The most important game between the two was the 2015 play off final:

In all likelihood I’ll be back next week…

 

 

GOTW: Leeds v WBA

To start this week’s post, an announcement.

Due to a major change in my professional life, for the next few weeks I’ll be posting on an ‘as and when’ basis due to being a lot busier than normal. I’m going to aim to post something at least once a fortnight, so please bear with me.

GOTW: Leeds v WBA (this evening, 7:45pm, Football/Main Event)

Only four points separate these two going into this evening;s game – Leeds have only lost twice at Elland Road since October but they’ve only won one game on the road this year and that’s the reason they’ve dropped out of the automatic promotion places. The Baggies have won four straight away games but haven’t won five in a row away from the Hawthorns at this level for ten years.

Baggies wins at Elland Road are few and far between: the last time they met in the league was 12 years ago and although West Brom won that encounter, they hadn’t won in Yorkshire before then since October 1978.

Other matches with implications at both ends of the table: Ipswich v Reading, Millwall v Norwich and Wigan v Middlesbrough

Neither Ipswich nor Bolton can escape the gravitational pull of League One this weekend but Reading have been thrown a lifeline by Rotherham‘s inability to win any of their last six games. Millwall and Wigan both have some breathing space but if they lose at home to their top six opponents they’ll be dragged right back into the relegation scrap.

The only other televised game this weekend is the Steel City Derby at Hillsborough on Monday (Sky Sports Football/Main Event, 7:45pm): it would take an improbable set of events for Sheffield United to leap into pole position, but it is possible – so I’d say if it looks likely, it’s probably a must watch.

I’ll be back soon, if anything dramatic happens I’ll post ASAP.

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: Sheffield United v WBA

Another brief one this week.

It’s a bumper Christmas Holiday Special next Friday and to be honest, not much has changed over the last seven days. I also had a technical issue this afternoon I could have done without!

Last week’s encounter between Millwall and Hull ended all square:

That result didn’t harm either team, but Millwall could drop back into the bottom three if they lose at Preston this weekend.

It looks increasingly likely that the Boxing Day leaders will be either Leeds or Norwich, although Derby and Sheffield United are in with a shout – tonight’s televised game features the latter.

Sheffield United v WBA

(this evening, 7:45pm kick off, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

The Blades haven’t scored at home for almost four hours; Billy Sharp’s third goal of his hat-trick against Wigan at the end of October was the last time they scored at Bramall Lane. It’s beginning to look as if United are one of the better teams in the division but may not be good enough to go up: the recent defeat at home against Leeds was their third defeat in four games against the current top six. They also face another big test on Boxing Day, when they host Derby.

The Baggies have picked up wins at Ipswich and Swansea since their most recent away defeat and have only lost one of their four aways against the current top ten this season, but there are indications that they might fall off the pace at the top. Although they’re only one of two sides to score 40 or more goals so far this season (the other is Aston Villa) only 34% of their goals have been scored on the road and Albion have not kept an away clean sheet this season.

Verdict: the key to this game is Sheffield United’s defence. Only four teams have conceded fewer goals than Blades this season and it was only a mistake by Dean Henderson a couple of weeks ago that stopped them from keeping a clean sheet against Leeds. On the other hand, WBA haven’t kept an away clean sheet this season and haven’t scored more than two goals on the road since the end of September; their last win at Bramall Lane was in February 2004 but over the last nine years the sides have only met twice. I don’t this game will end all square, so I’m tentatively going for a Sheffield United win.

The games to watch out for tomorrow are Bolton v Leeds and Rotherham v Reading, the latter could give an indication of which of those sides are up for a relegation battle. There are couple of other televised games this weekend: leaders Norwich travel to Bristol City tomorrow evening and on Sunday lunchtime Nottingham Forest take on Derby County.

I’ll be back next weekend for the Christmas Special, which I’m looking forward to putting together 🙂