This weekend, the key game comes in Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off. Derby and Nottingham Forest need a win to boost confidence, as both sides are hitting something of a goal drought. Charlton are looking to build on a good start to Jose Riga’s reign, but they will have their work cut out against 2nd-place Burnley. Bad boys Leeds and Millwall may not have the friendliest of encounters, while relegation strugglers Yeovil and Barnsley have winnable home games against Bolton and Bournemouth respectively.
Derby vs. Nottm Forest
In terms of pride, this rivals clash will mean everything to both sets of fans. In terms of points though, the game bears more significance on Nottingham Forest’s fate. They are without a win in seven, and facing a battle to hold onto their play-off place. Failure to win in this early kick-off, would hand Reading and Brighton a chance to leapfrog them. By contrast, local bragging rights will be the main motivating factor for Derby. The Rams are ten points off the automatics, but seven points ahead of those below the play-offs, so they are left with little to aim for. The reverse fixture defeat back in September was arguably a blessing in disguise for Derby, because it led to their change of manager, which has propelled them to a promotion push. Both teams are struggling to score goals at the moment, so this is bound to be a tightly-fought contest. 1-0.
Barnsley vs. Bournemouth
Each of the three goals Barnsley conceded at Watford last week, came from them giving the ball away. They have got to cut out these simple errors, because defensively, the likes of Ramage and M’Voto have no turn of pace. Whenever Barnsley lose possession, their players struggle to re-organize quickly enough. Bournemouth have shown that they can keep the ball well this season. The Cherries were unfortunate to lose at Charlton on Tuesday, and they are improving at the back, with some solid performances from captain Steve Cook of late. Before the season started, you would not have expected there to be a gap of twelve places between these two sides. On paper they should be quite evenly-matched. 1-1.
Birmingham vs. Reading
After a poor run of form, Birmingham could be bang in trouble. Having looked relatively comfortable for most of the season, they may find themselves in the drop zone if they lose to Reading here, and at relegation rivals Millwall on Tuesday night. Reading have taken as many points away as they have at home this season, and could be buoyed by the chance to climb back into the play-offs, if Nottingham Forest drop points at Derby in the early game. Right winger Gareth McCleary has been Reading’s main creative outlet this season, and he could have a good game against Birmingham, who are struggling for left-backs at the moment. This could be a ninth away win of the season for the Royals. 1-3.
Blackburn vs. Leicester
With such an unassailable lead, in a way the challenge for Leicester will be to stay motivated. At this point, there is potential for them to have one or two games where they take their eye off the ball. It would only be natural for a few of the players to have their minds on the implications of getting into the Premier League, rather than the game in front of them. Jordan Rhodes looks as though he is rediscovering his form for Blackburn, netting a clinical hat-trick at Huddersfield last week. He is the kind of striker who, when playing with confidence, makes scoring goals look easy. I’ve got a feeling Leicester will have a bit of an off-day here, and Blackburn can end their sixteen game unbeaten run. 2-0.
Blackpool vs. Huddersfield
If Blackpool do sign Robert Earnshaw on a free transfer, that could turn out to be a decent piece of business. Earnshaw has scored goals throughout his career, and at the moment, Blackpool need an injection of finishing quality. Their top scorer is Ricardo Fuller, and he has only netted five times. If you look at four of Huddersfield’s last five results, you would not have guessed that they recently beat Barnsley 5-0. The Terriers are on a poor run of form, and in the 4-2 loss at home to Blackburn, they looked quite vulnerable through the middle. These are two teams who are not playing with much confidence at the moment, and this has the makings of a dull draw. 1-1.
Brighton vs. Ipswich
Brighton’s play-off prospects have improved this March, because they have taken ten points from four tricky games. The Seagulls could go above Nottingham Forest with a win this weekend, and they have played one game less than Reading, a side above them on goal difference. Ipswich have only scored six goals in their last eight games, and five of those came from set pieces. That tells you a lot about their midfield. Ipswich do not have enough players who are capable of breaking forward and chipping in with goals. Lewis Dunk had an excellent game at centre-back for Brighton last week, while Matthew Upson could return to the back four. I would fancy Brighton to pick up a nineteenth clean sheet of the season, and grind out a win. 1-0.
Charlton vs. Burnley
Three clean sheets, and five points from a possible nine, is a solid start to Jose Riga’s reign at Charlton. They nicked a late goal on Tuesday to take all three points against Bournemouth, and that result could give the Addicks some much-needed confidence, before playing three of the top six. Burnley are still unbeaten since Boxing Day, and came from behind to beat Leeds last week, despite the absence of top scorer Danny Ings through injury. Ings deservedly won the Championship Player of the Year award, but even with him out for a month, that is unlikely to cost the Clarets. The opportunity is there for Ashley Barnes to prove himself at Burnley, because he has not been given much of a chance so far. 1-1.
Doncaster vs. Sheff Wed
These are two teams who seem to be climbing to safety, after looking in trouble for long spells of the season. Doncaster added to back-to-back home wins with a well-earned point at Nottingham Forest. Sheffield Wednesday meanwhile, have found their scoring boots once more, having netted seven times in their last two games. The key clash will be on Doncaster’s right side. Due to an injury to Bongani Khumalo, right-back Paul Quinn has had to move to centre-back, meaning winger James Coppinger has had to fill in at right-back. This could give Doncaster more of an attacking threat on the right, but it could also leave them exposed. On Wednesday’s left flank, you have the inside movement of Caolan Lavery and the overlapping pace of Jeremy Helan, which can cause Doncaster problems. Expect a high-scoring affair. 2-2.
Leeds vs. Millwall
Millwall will have to cope without the injured Danny Shittu in this one. He has not been great for them this season, lacking pace at times, but the Lions will miss his height against tall strikers Connor Wickham and Matt Smith. Leeds wingers Jimmy Kebe and Cameron Stewart have not made much of an impact since arriving on loan. They could be left out of the starting XI for a fourth successive game, and McDermott’s plan may be to simply pump the ball into the box. Millwall have only scored one goal in their last five, while Leeds have lost their last three. This is unlikely to be a classic, but Leeds will put their ownership situation aside to record a first win since early February. 2-0.
Middlesbrough vs. QPR
Just when he was getting game time and building some form, Middlesbrough’s Mustapha Carayol has picked up a long-term injury. Boro defended deeply for a point at Bournemouth, but with Carayol out, you wonder if they will have enough to trouble QPR going forward. Not that QPR’s defence is looking particularly strong at the moment. Surprisingly, reserve goalkeeper Brian Murphy was selected at Sheffield Wednesday in midweek, and he conceded three goals. In that match, centre-back Richard Dunne was sent off, so he will miss this one through suspension. These are two teams who do not have much to play for, so it could be a goalless draw at the Riverside. 0-0.
Wigan vs. Watford
In one of the most dramatic climaxes to a game this season, Wigan dropped two points at home to Yeovil, after a 3-3 thriller. They conceded two of their goals from being careless in possession, but those kind of mistakes may not cost the Latics much in future, just because they are scoring so many goals at the moment. Watford have taken just two points from their last five away games, and the Hornets do not always create enough on the road. And yet, at Vicarage Road, they have recently thrashed Blackpool and Barnsley, and seen some improved performances from Cristian Battochio. Wigan have more reliable attacking options in the squad than the visitors, and Uwe Rosler will be able to make key changes if things are not going to plan. 2-1.
Yeovil vs. Bolton
Away to Wigan, Yeovil showed the kind of battling spirit that is typical of them this season. They refuse to lie down, and could climb out of the drop zone this weekend with a win, though Charlton have three games in hand. Bolton might need one more win before the end of March to consider themselves safe from relegation. The Trotters lost 2-0 to Brighton last week, but they are unbeaten in their last three away games. We will no doubt see another brave performance from Yeovil, but Gary Johnson’s side might just have to settle for the draw. 1-1.