In the Championship this weekend, the key games are at the upper end of the table. Nottingham Forest, who will now be without six key players, face a Wigan side who have won their last four. There’s a six-pointer in the race for automatic promotion. Burnley will go five points clear of the play-offs with a win over third place Derby, yet a win for the Rams would see them leapfrog their opponents and move into second. Charlton will be looking to clinch an unlikely double over runaway leaders Leicester, as the Addicks have shown promise of getting out of trouble lately, while QPR cannot afford any more dropped points, they host midtable Leeds in lunchtime kick-off. Here is our preview of the games.
QPR vs. Leeds
QPR lost a third game in a row at Charlton last weekend, and are in serious danger of falling away from the automatic promotion race. What’s more, this is a bad time to hit poor form. If these defeats were happening around Christmas, they would have the time to put things right and regain momentum, yet now we are approaching the run-in period, with Burnley and Derby in much better form. Leeds have signed Connor Wickham on loan from Sunderland, which could be a coup for Brian McDermott. His side have failed to score more often than not since the turn of the year, and a target man, next to wingers Kebe and Stewart, should suit Leeds’ direct style of play. Wickham scored eight goals in eleven games for Sheffield Wednesday, so he should boost their goal tally. Neither side are playing with too much confidence at the moment and this might be a draw. 1-1.
Bolton vs. Blackburn
Blackburn are a frustratingly unpredictable team. There’s never really been a point in the season where you can say that they are in good or bad form, because they’ve never won, or lost, more than two games back-to-back. Even after they won 1-0 at Reading, reducing one of the best teams in the league to just one shot on target, it is hard to say whether they will generate enough momentum to break into the top six. Joe Mason returned for Bolton in their win over Watford, and that could be a big plus for the Trotters. In previous weeks they have played with just the one striker, and have not quite created enough, but the forward partnership of Jutkiewicz and Mason looks very promising. Bolton’s home form may be improving gradually, with just one defeat in five at the Reebok since New Year, so I’ll go with my gut and back them to pick up three points. 2-1.
Bournemouth vs. Doncaster
Doncaster’s only away win was back in September, and they have only scored once on their travels in their last two months. This is a chance for Bournemouth to put right their difficult run of form, just one win in nine, albeit against the division’s better teams. Both managers brought in a striker in the last month. Eddie Howe signed Yann Kermorgant from Charlton, while Paul Dickov loaned Jordan Bowery from Aston Villa. Neither have hit the ground running, as both forwards are yet to score for their new side. These teams were promoted from League One last season, so there is not much to separate them, and a draw is the likely outcome. 1-1.
Burnley vs. Derby
Whenever Burnley play, they simply never look like they will be beaten. If they avoid defeat today, they will have gone a year unbeaten at home, a feat which might just enter the Championship record books. The latest challengers at Turf Moor though, are Burnley’s biggest threat to their ambitions of automatic promotion. Derby County are just two points behind the Clarets in third, and are on an unbeaten run of their own, stretching to seven games after a third straight 1-0 win last week, over Bournemouth. It is surprising that Steve McClaren has brought in left-back Lee Naylor, whose contract was recently cancelled at League Two Accrington Stanley, because Craig Forsyth has been a reliable fixture at left-back for Derby. I’ve doubted Burnley too many times to do so again, and I think they’ll pick up a massive win, to go five points clear of third. 2-1.
Huddersfield vs. Barnsley
This game should provide an interesting tactical match-up. Many have said that for Barnsley, a central pairing of Frimpong’s tenacity, and Mellis’s flair, looked promising against Millwall. However, Huddersfield can congest the midfield with their 3-5-2 system, so if he plays, Jacob Mellis will perhaps be required to work harder than usual. The dilemma for Danny Wilson is that if you play Mellis, do you also play Patrick McCourt on the right? He has looked lively for Barnsley and could do well given the absence of a fullback on Huddersfield’s flanks, yet like Mellis, McCourt falls into the luxury player category. He does not tend to track back so much. The other factor is that Huddersfield’s defenders, particularly Tom Smith and Peter Clarke, are not the best in the air and could struggle against the height of O’Grady and Proschwitz. 1-1.
Ipswich vs. Birmingham
Ipswich have brought in a creative player, Jonathan Williams from Crystal Palace, at completely the wrong time. After a recent injury to top scorer David McGoldrick, it will now be difficult for them to put away the goals, rather than set them up, such has been the problem this season. Even with that extra spark in midfield, it is difficult to see Ipswich getting back into contention for a play-off spot. Birmingham simply cannot stop winning away. They got their seventh win on the road at Blackpool last week, only Derby and Leicester have won more, and if just away games counted, the Blues would be sixth in the table. Considering that Ipswich have failed to score in their last two, I’ll back Lee Clark’s men to enjoy another away victory. 0-1.
Leicester vs. Charlton
Leicester beat Ipswich 3-0, with three of their strikers getting on the scoresheet. There was a goal for substitute Chris Wood, his first since early November, and he might be able to provide competition for the established partnership of David Nugent and Jamie Vardy. Charlton have shown signs of getting out of trouble in the last week. As well as reaching the FA Cup quarter-finals, the Addicks beat promotion contenders QPR on Saturday. They do tend to fare better against the top teams. Chris Powell’s side actually beat Leicester at home back in August, although one of the goalscorers that day, Yann Kermorgant, has since left for Bournemouth. A win for the Foxes, but it may be harder than most will predict. 2-1.
Millwall vs. Brighton
Two different styles of football on show here. Brighton have kept an average of 61% possession since the start of February, whereas Millwall have the second-lowest average possession % in the Championship, and typically play a long ball game. All of Millwall’s chances against Bolton and Barnsley came from direct balls into the box from deep, whereas Brighton seem to have more of a probing, precision style of play. Millwall’s defence has little pace at the moment, and the way Brighton can keep the ball, I would expect them to break Millwall down eventually. The Seagulls need to rediscover the away form they had in the first half of the season. 0-2.
Nottm Forest vs. Wigan
Nottingham Forest’s momentum seems to have evaporated quickly. After they won 3-0 at Huddersfield, they looked likely to push for the automatics. Yet mood in the camp will have dipped after a few bad results, and now the latest blow is a six week injury to Andy Reid. The midfielder has contributed, through scoring and assists, to twenty of Forest’s fifty-three goals this season. But they seem to be getting countless injuries to key players this season, and you might wonder whether this has something to do with Billy Davies’s training methods. Wigan have won their last four in all forms, and seem to be playing with so much confidence under Uwe Rosler, they won away to fellow contenders Brighton. I’d fancy Wigan for the momentum factor. 1-2.
Reading vs. Yeovil
Yeovil are refusing to lie down, aren’t they? After they lost a third straight game against Leeds a few weeks ago, albeit a decent performance, it was easy to write them off. But they have taken points from each of their last three, and beat Doncaster 1-0 last time, with loanee Dwayne Holmes making a credible contribution on his debut. However, Gary Johnson will be sweating over the fitness of another loanee, Ishmael Miller. It could be largely luck that determines Yeovil’s fate on Saturday. Reading’s recent form reads: won, lost, won, won, lost, won, lost. Inconsistency is the word which springs to mind. The Glovers will be hoping they are not playing Reading on one of their better days, because they have thrashed Doncaster, Bolton and Blackpool at the Madjeski. This could be one of the good days for Reading. With the width in their team, they should stretch this Yeovil defence. 3-0.
Sheff Wed vs. Middlesbrough
Gary Madine has rejoined Sheffield Wednesday’s squad after being released from jail, but from a purely footballing point of view, Stuart Gray does not necessarily need him. This is a striker who has not played for four months, and Wednesday already have Afobe, Nuhiu and Leon Best in the squad, as well as a number of other attack-minded players. It is not as if they have no options. Middlesbrough have now not scored for six games in a row. Their most talented attacking players, the likes of Albert Adomah and Jorge Ledesma have completely lost their form since the turn of the year, and it is difficult to see why. On the other hand, Sheffield Wednesday have only conceded twelve goals in fourteen games since Gray took charge. A Wednesday side who are hard to break down, against a Middlesbrough side who are finding it hard to break teams down. This has the makings of a goalless. 0-0.
Watford vs. Blackpool
Watford have brought in Lucas Neill on a free transfer. This seems like a strange move, considering the fact that Neill has not played since November - and that was in the Japanese league. Four clean sheets from their last six games suggests that defensive solidity is no longer Watford’s problem. Blackpool’s infamous winless run was stretched to sixteen games, when they lost at home to Birmingham last week. Ill-discipline continues to be their problem, as Liverpool loanee Jack Robinson picked up his third red card of the season and, remarkably, Blackpool’s tenth. Watford have kept a clean sheet in five of their last six home games, and the performances Blackpool have been putting in lately, this should make it a sixth in seven. 1-0.