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.

GOTW: Lions v Tigers

Making a goalkeeping mistake in a high profile game to give your nearest rivals a vital away win is never a good idea.

Yet that’s exactly what happened to Sheffield United last Saturday lunchtime:

I managed to get my predictions for that one – and the WBA/Brentford game on Monday – wrong, so perhaps I should lay off the crystal ball gazing for a bit 🙂

The focus shifts to the bottom of the table this week, although there’s only one game between the bottom six tomorrow so Millwall v Hull automatically becomes Game of the Week.

There’ll be brief details of the FA Cup draw at the end of the post, but suffice to say this will be the first of two meetings in a less than a month between these two at the Den.

Although the Lions have gone five games without a win, their record at home isn’t that awful: the recent reverse at the Den against Birmingham City was their first defeat at home since the end of September and having already hosted six of the current top ten, Neil Harris’ team can look forward to a somewhat easier run of home games in 2019. That being said, Millwall are two points worse off at this stage than they were when they were relegated at the end of 2014/15 and having seen them live recently I have to say that it’s no surprise that they’re struggling.

Hull currently have a three game away unbeaten streak going and have discovered their shooting boots after a run of five games where they only scored once between the end of August and mid October. Fraizer Campbell has scored three of their seven goals in the last three games and he’ll need to keep that type of run going over the next few months: the Tigers still have to play at eight of the teams currently in the top ten including a visit to Leeds at the end of the month. On the flip side, they’ve won three of their four encounters with the sides that are currently below them and if their recent form continues the best possible scenario is a mid table finish.

Head to head: Hull have only won twice at Millwall in ten games since December 1984; the Tigers last win at the Den was almost six years ago. Last season’s encounter in South London finished 0-0 – Hull have only scored twice in their last five visits to Millwall.

Verdict: in games between the bottom six this season, the home team has only lost three times but none of those duels featured either Hull or Millwall. The Tigers have already won at Rotherham and Bolton this season and I’d not be too surprised if they earn at least a point tomorrow.

There are two other games to note that could have an impact at both ends of the table. Bolton travel to Norwich having not won any of their last ten games and having not won at Carrow Road for eighteen years; in the Saturday evening televised game, managerless Reading play Sheffield United – the Royals finally dismissed Paul Clement on Wednesday, a move that shouldn’t have come as a massive surprise to regular readers of this blog.

The other televised game takes place this evening: WBA v Aston Villa would have been Game of the Week if Villa had been in the top six. This is the first time the clubs have met outside the top tier since 1987; Villa haven’t won at the Hawthorns for just over a decade.

Finally this week, the draw for the third round of the FA Cup resulted in seven ties against Premier League opposition (only Bristol City and Derby were drawn at home), four all Championship games, six clubs play League One opposition, Sheffield United will host Barnet of the National League and both Bolton and Middlesbrough are currently waiting for next week’s replays to find out their opponents. Off the top of my head, Derby are capable of beating Southampton and Ipswich will be lucky to escape Accrington Stanley with a replay. More to follow in the first post of 2019.

I’ll be back next weekend!

Crystal Ball Scratching

With just under seven weeks to go until Christmas, the next couple of months are very important for clubs chasing promotion or trying to avoid relegation.

As there are no particularly outstanding games in the Championship this weekend I thought I’d gaze into my crystal ball this week to make some quick predictions – especially as we’ve got another bl**dy international break coming up next weekend.

  • It looks as if I’m going to have to eat my words about Leeds – they’re much better than I thought they’d be and there’s a chance that by Boxing Day they may have secured pole position – their key game before the festivities is a trip to Bramall Lane on December 1st. Looking further ahead, February may be the key month for Leeds but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
  • Leeds’ biggest rivals for automatic promotion are Middlesbrough and WBA, but although Marcelo Bielsa’s side are well balanced, Tony Pulis and Darren Moore’s men have glaring issues: Middlesbrough don’t score enough goals, whilst WBA’s defence is non-existent. Only four teams have conceded more goals than the Baggies and two of them are in the bottom three.
  • Along with Leeds, Birmingham and Nottingham Forest are unrecognisable from last season – the latter pair have become tough to beat, but may need to wait another season for a realistic chance of promotion. Forest’s best case scenario is the playoffs.
  • Norwich aren’t as good as the current table suggests: they’ve done well against the bottom half of the table, but have already lost at home to Leeds and WBA. They have a reasonable looking schedule this month; December will be far harder.
  • Sheffield Wednesday are worse than the current table suggests: current owners of the worst defensive record in the division they’ve played 12 games against the teams currently above them and lost seven of those contests, winning just twice. They face Sheffield United on Friday (Sky Sports Football/Main Event 7:45pm this evening) and Derby later in the month.
  • As it stands, Paul Lambert has a well nigh impossible task of keeping Ipswich from dropping into the third tier for the first time since the late 1950s, but I’d expect Rotherham and Bolton to be drawn into the relegation battle over the next few weeks: both teams are struggling to score goals – at the moment there are three other clubs that have scored less than a goal per game, including QPR who are currently eleventh and are second in the eight game form table behind Norwich.
  • Reading and Preston will continue to make progress up the table and although I don’t think Reading will trouble the top half, Preston are more than capable of doing that even though they look as if they’ve left it too late for a playoff challenge.

Televised games this week – Sky Sports Football/Main Event unless stated:

I’ve already mentioned the Sheffield derby, which is always entertaining and shouldn’t be missed if you’ve got the opportunity to watch. The other game on Sky Sports this weekend is between WBA and Leeds at The Hawthorns (tomorrow, 5:30pm) – for some of us, that’ll bring back memories of a very controversial game from the 1970/71 season…