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 🙂

GOTW: Sheffield United v Leeds

Televised game of the week alert!

I’ll get to that in a moment, but first here’s a quick overview.

The current top seven are still on course for a trip to the playoffs at the very least – it’s going to be tight but I also still think Leeds, Middlesbrough and WBA are the best bets for promotion. We’ve got a few weeks until the annual Christmas Prediction Fest so let’s see what happens before then.

I’ve not bothered covering the midweek games for a while but the encounter at Villa Park on Wednesday was somewhat eventful:

At the bottom it looks increasingly as if it’s a case of select two from five to accompany Ipswich into League One at the end of the season. Over the last five seasons the only team that was in last place at the end of November and wasn’t relegated was Bolton last season; Ipswich are slightly better than Rotherham and Blackpool were when those clubs spent the entire season adrift at the bottom of the table, but that’s about the only positive spin you can put on this situation.

As for the other contenders for the drop, over the last half decade the bottom six at the end of November has provided us with at least two of the teams that were relegated and between 2014 and 2016 all three of the teams that were demoted at the end of the campaign were in nineteenth place or worse.

Sheffield United v Leeds (today, 12:30 kick off, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

The Blades are currently on an eight game unbeaten streak at Bramall Lane but that’s going to be tested this month as they host Derby, Leeds and WBA. Leeds’ recent away form is patchy: although they’ve only lost twice in their last six road trips, they’ve only won at Hull and Wigan.

Hang on, that looks a bit like a sentence that you’d find in a rugby league blog.

Head to head: unbelievably, Leeds haven’t won at Bramall Lane since they clinched the old Football League Championship in April 1992! United have won six of the last eight meetings in all competitions since then. Additionally, seven of the thirteen Yorkshire derbies this season have ended in draws.

A couple of extra categories for this one as it’s such a big game – in the top six mini league, the away side has won four of the 13 games between the current top six this season, but all four of those matches involved either Nottingham Forest or Norwich. As I mentioned above, this is the start of a nasty looking run of home games for Sheffield United: Leeds have already won at Norwich but were well beaten at WBA a few weeks ago.

This is the eighth game of the week this season but only two of those matches have finished with a home win. It’s less than six weeks since I last chose a game of the week and to illustrate how much things can change in the Championship, at that point Sheffield Wednesday were sixth. The Owls then lost five of their next six games and are now only three points outside of the bottom six.

Verdict: Leeds won’t win – their previous record at Sheffield United is poor and with three key defenders (Ayling, Berardi and Jansson) all missing, I can see the wait for an elusive win at Bramall Lane continuing. That’s not to say The Blades will win though…

The other televised games this weekend are Middlesbrough v Villa (5:30) and WBA v Brentford (Monday 8pm) – the former looks as if it should be a good one, but I can’t see anything but a home win in the latter.

Finally this week the draw for the Third Round of the FA Cup Draw will be shown on BBC1 on Monday evening at 7:30pm. Tempus fugit as the Romans used to say.

GOTW: Sheffield Wednesday v Middlesbrough

Welcome to the second – and penultimate – post of October 2018.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I last wrote anything, but although we’re already just over  a quarter of the way through the season something statistically significant may have happened: only the current top six are on course to make the playoffs. I wouldn’t expect to see something like that until much nearer the end of the season. 

As it stands, any of the top four could be in pole position at the end of this round of games and with another midweek programme next week the overall situation still looks pretty fluid. A stat that’s worth considering: only Leeds and Sheffield United have played fewer than three games against their immediate rivals for promotion. On the other hand Middlesbrough have already played four games against the other five team in the top six.

Anyway, without any further ado, here’s the game of the week – a televised Yorkshire derby!

Sheffield Wednesday v Middlesbrough

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

After having predicted another season of slow decline from Wednesday, I’m now going to both eat my words based on their recent performances. They’ve suffered only one home defeat in their last ten (although they’ve drawn the last three at Hillsborough – blowing leads against Leeds and WBA) and only two reverses in their last ten at all venues. Before I get too carried away, I’d still be a bit wary of their defence though: they’ve conceded in nine of their last ten matches.

Middlesbrough’s recent home defeat by Nottingham Forest was their first loss at the Riverside since last season’s playoffs, but before anyone writes Tony Pulis’ side off they should remember that they’ve only lost twice away from home since the end of January. Stopping Boro from scoring is imperative but as you just read, that’s not exactly Sheffield Wednesday’s strength right now.

HTH: Wednesday have won three of the last five games at Hillsborough, but haven’t recorded a victory since two goals in two minutes gave them a 2-0 will in February 2015.

Verdict: there’s only been one away win in the eight games between the current top six so far this season, but half of those games ended all square. I think a draw is highly likely. Incidentally, my GOTW record so far: two home wins, two draws, two away wins.

Other games to follow this weekend are both at the bottom, where Paul Clement and Nigel Atkins will both be attempting to avoid being the next manager without a job:

Hull v Preston: the Tigers have lost four of their last five, but after four consecutive defeats Preston have picked up four points from the last six and could be poised to make one of those impressive runs similar to the one last season that took Millwall from flirting with the drop to dreaming of the Premier League. Talking of which…

Reading v Millwall: this will be Reading’s 20th league game since the end of March and they’ve won precisely three of them: two of those victories were against Preston. After six defeats in seven games, Millwall are unbeaten this month.

The other televised games are between Blackburn and Leeds (noon Saturday, Sky Sports Football red button) and Derby v Sheffield United (5:30pm Saturday, Sky Sports Football/Main Event). Both of those look as if they might be worth watching, although the game from Ewood Park will be overshadowed by the clash between Jose Mourinho’s former employers that’s also being shown on Sky at more or less the same time.

Finally this week, Brentford appointed Thomas Frank as manager following the departure of Dean Smith to former Premier League outfit Aston Villa. The Dane had previously managed at Brondby in Denmark, but has no previous managerial experience in the UK.  And we all know what happened to the last Brentford manager who had a similar record .

I’ll be back be next weekend.

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.