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: Leeds v Sheffield United

Well the last week or so was eventful.

Whether Darren Moore’s departure from WBA was a shock or not seemed to depend on how closely you follow the Championship.

If you don’t follow the competition closely, it was a surprise. If you do, it wasn’t – his dismissal clearly falls into the category of ‘You were supposed to win automatic promotion’, which clearly shows how little research the WBA ownership had done. There were some structural issues too: the Baggies’ defence is not quite good enough yet. However, what Moore has now is invaluable: managerial experience at this level. I’m pretty sure that we haven’t heard the last of him.

I’m not going to waste my time recapping what happened at St Andrews last Sunday other than to mention the fact that Sky Sports repeated the incident as often as they possibly could – I’m old enough to remember the likes of Jimmy Hill and Brian Moore stating very clearly that they wouldn’t be showing footage of pitch invasions as it was providing hooligans with the publicity they wanted.

Game of the week is a no-brainer: Leeds v Sheffield United (Sky Sports Football/Main Event, 12:30pm) is a Yorkshire derby between the clubs in second and third place who are only separated by two points. There have been four meetings in the league between the local rivals since the turn of the century – and Leeds have only won one of those matches, a single goal win in September 2010.

Other games to keep an eye on: Rotherham v Norwich and Wigan v  Bolton.

Championship involvement in the FA Cup may come to an end this weekend: the two sides left in the competition have home ties against Premier League teams: Swansea v Manchester City (BT Sport 2, 5:20pm) and Millwall v Brighton (BBC1, Sunday 2:00pm)

There’s an international break next weekend, so if it’s at all possible I’ll be back in two weeks.

Ay Karanka…

A few seasons ago there were three particularly dysfunctional clubs in the Championship, but that appeared to have changed – until last weekend.

To be fair to Blackburn Rovers, Venky’s have more or less left the club to run itself over the past few seasons.

But then we come to Leeds and Nottingham Forest. The current leaders appear to have known nothing about Marcelo Bielsa’s spying mission before last weekend’s game against Derby although if it had been described as ‘scouting’ it wouldn’t have generated as much comment.

Aitor Karanka’s departure from the City Ground came after I posted last Friday, so I was unable to react to it.

I’ve been pretty clear that Forest had taken a big step this season under Karanka as they’ve moved into the ‘difficult to beat’ category from being a team that could have easily been relegated a couple of seasons ago. That being said, I also thought the best case scenario for them in 2018/19 was the playoffs and that next season could be a better chance for promotion. Yet not for the first time, a toxic mixture of nostalgia, unrealistic expectations (stop me if you’ve read that before) and unwanted advice has taken over at the City Ground. Martin O’Neill hasn’t managed a team in English domestic football for six years and it’s been almost a quarter of a century since he managed a team at this level: it’s also a big risk to return to a club where you were a legend as a player, so we’ll see how this pans out. Give it until next Christmas.

Last weekend’s game of the week ended all square – if anyone’s keeping count that’s the fourth draw in 11 games of the week and the second in the last three.

There was no real change at either the top or the bottom of the table after last weekend’s games. This week there are no outstanding candidates for the game of the week, but there are three games where teams from the top six face teams from the bottom six.

Derby v Reading

Despite being in their usual position, The Rams have only won one of their last six league games and haven’t beaten anyone at home since the start of last month. On paper they’ve got a relatively easy schedule coming up – this is the start of five matches against the bottom seven before the end of February – but they’ve already lost at Bolton, Millwall and Rotherham in 2018/19 and any repeat of those results could have a huge effect on their chances of promotion. I’m still far from convinced about Frank Lampard: the Rams are currently not as good as they were last season.

Reading beat Nottingham Forest last weekend. but haven’t won on the road since beating Preston in mid-September. The Royals have lost all six contests against the teams currently in the top six and new boss Jose Gomez has lost three of his first five games in charge: but before anyone writes off the chances of a possible upset, consider this. Since August 2002 the clubs have met in 16 games at Derby and the hosts have only won five of those contests – and Derby won at Southampton on penalties in the FA Cup earlier this week.

Middlesbrough v Millwall

It may come as a surprise to those of you that don’t follow them, but Boro have only won three games at the Riverside since mid-September and seem to be having particular problems with mid table sides. Their home record against the bottom third of the table is fine though: ten points from twelve and no goals conceded.

Millwall’s impressive form over the holidays was undone by losing at home to Blackburn last Saturday evening; their win at Ipswich is the only away victory they’ve recorded this season. Although I hasten to add that the Lions have earned points at both Bristol City and Nottingham Forest and since the start of the decade they’ve only lost twice in six trips to Middlesbrough.

Bolton v WBA (Monday evening, 8pm, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)

An interesting televised contest to round the weekend off.

When you’re involved in a relegation scrap, scoring less than one goal a game and having to play four of the top six over the next month or so far from ideal, but that’s the situation Bolton are in. They didn’t have a bad December at home – only one defeat in four outings – but their 2-1 win over Rotherham on Boxing Day was their first win in seventeen games.

WBA are still very much in contention for automatic promotion but seem to be having their first wobble since they went four games without a win in October/November. The New Year’s Day defeat at Blackburn ended a run of four consecutive away victories but the Baggies haven’t won at Bolton since December 2000 – the last time the clubs met in a league game in Lancashire that wasn’t in the Premier League.

The other televised games this weekend are Norwich v Birmingham (this evening, 7:45pm) and Swansea v Sheffield United (5:30pm tomorrow) – both are being shown on Sky Sports Football and Sky Sports Main Event.

Back to the FA Cup next weekend, so I’ll see you then.

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…

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.