This weekend, the attention is on the race for the play-offs. Eighth-placed Brighton host seventh- placed Reading, as both sides bid to break into the top six. Blackburn are aiming to do the same, but on Sunday they have a Lancashire derby against a Burnley side looking likely to go up. The visitors will be hoping for third-placed Derby to drop points against relegation strugglers Millwall, in a match which sees the highest scoring team in the league, host the side with the worst defensive record. A defeat for Millwall is likely to put them in further trouble, with Yeovil, Barnsley and Doncaster all playing at home this weekend. Here is my preview of the games.
Barnsley vs. Nottm Forest
Barnsley go into this match with something of a cloud hanging over them, having lost 5-0 to Yorkshire rivals Huddersfield last week. League-wise that result was not disastrous, because everyone around them lost, and the Tykes are still just two points off safety. However, midfielders Stephen Dawson and Brek Shea responded unsavourily to angry comments from supporters, which draws unwelcome attention to the club. Anger management seems to be a theme in this fixture. Nottingham Forest boss Billy Davies is facing a five match touchline ban, for his behaviour towards a match official, in the game against Leicester a few weeks ago. Confidence will not be particularly high in either camp at the moment, and this might be a dull game. 0-1.
Birmingham vs. QPR
There’s a hint of irony in the timing of this fixture. Italian businessman Gianni Paladini has re-affirmed his interest in buying Birmingham City, and his last job in football was chairman of their next opponents, QPR. The Rs are now owned by Tony Fernandes, who has been hoping to bankroll a return to the Premier League, yet they are now unlikely to go up automatically. After a late goal against Leeds was ruled out, Harry Redknapp’s side lost another two points on second-place Burnley last week. With now a nine point gap between those two sides, QPR may need to start preparing for a play-off place. Despite a 1-0 loss at Ipswich last time out, Birmingham are looking fairly comfortable in seventeenth, so there will be no great incentive for either side. 1-1.
Blackpool vs. Bournemouth
When the reverse fixture of this was played back in September, believe it or not, Blackpool were top of the league under Paul Ince. It certainly seems a long time ago now, as the Tangerines have since changed their manager, and are now enduring a 17-game winless streak. On the other hand, Bournemouth’s season has somewhat plateaued. A thumping 5-0 victory over Doncaster ended any murmurs of relegation, following a run of poor form, with January signing Yann Kermorgant scoring his first goals for the club in style, bagging a hat-trick. For Blackpool, talk of the drop has grown a lot louder than murmurs in recent weeks, and some shambolic defending saw them lose 4-0 at Watford last time out. They cannot afford too many more of those kind of performances. 0-2.
Brighton vs. Reading
Two play-off contenders. Reading have recently been nudged out of sixth place by Wigan, while Brighton are just about remaining in the mix themselves, having won three of their last four matches 1-0. Statistics indicate that over Brighton’s last three matches, 47% of their play has gone down the right side, and that is where this match could be won and lost. Brighton have attack-minded right-back Bruno, while Reading have a similar type of player at left-back, in Jordan Obika. It may be a case of both full-backs trying to catch each other out of position, which should create an interesting tactical battle that can swing either way. 2-1.
Derby vs. Millwall
Derby’s hopes of automatic promotion took a hit when they lost 2-0 at second-place Burnley last week. Chris Martin had a rush of blood to the head, he picked up a red card and one match ban, so it will be interesting to see who Steve McClaren chooses as the main striker. Connor Sammon very rarely starts a game, often preferred as an impact sub, while the likes of Johnny Russell and Patrick Bamford don’t tend to play as a classic number nine. But that should not be too much of a problem, because Derby are the highest-scoring team in the league overall, and Millwall have the worst defensive record. The clocks are ticking for Holloway to fix Millwall, as the Lions are now without a win in seven games, and without an away win since September. That particular win was at Charlton, and came a week after they lost 5-1 at home to Derby in the reverse fixture. They could suffer a similar fate here. 3-1.
Doncaster vs. Huddersfield
Last week, these two teams were on differing ends of a 5-0 scoreline. Huddersfield thrashed Yorkshire rivals Barnsley last time out, as January signing Nahki Wells bagged four assists. Another key factor was the performance of Adam Clayton. The playmaker was at the centre of everything, and all of Huddersfield’s goals seemed to develop from his passes from midfield. By contrast, Doncaster were hit by five against Bournemouth. Left-back James Husband has had some difficult games of late, and he could struggle in this game too. Statistics indicate that during the last five games Huddersfield have won, over 40% of their play has gone down the right flank, through Adam Hammill, who is one of the top assisters in the Championship. Huddersfield might grab a fifth away win of the season here, and plunge Doncaster deeper into trouble. 1-2.
Leeds vs. Bolton
Leeds are now eight points off the play-off places. Contrary to striker Matt Smith’s claims this week, they are unlikely to make the top six, and there is still uncertainty regarding the takeover. Massimo Cellino, an Italian businessman, has been looking to buy the club but is currently on trial for tax evasion, and this could prove an unnecessary distraction for the players. Darren Pratley is out for the rest of the season for Bolton, but he will not be too much of a loss, and the Trotters’ 4-0 victory over Blackburn came without him in the side. Jay Spearing and Medo look much better options in midfield anyway. This will be an even game and a draw is on the cards. 1-1.
Middlesbrough vs. Ipswich
It seems surprising that Craig Hignett has decided to return to Middlesbrough, as assistant manager. He clearly wanted to work with Colin Cooper when he became assistant at Hartlepool, and it is bizarre to leave towards the end of the season, when Hartlepool are not far off the League Two play-offs. You’d have also thought Aitor Karanka would have his own ideas on the coaching staff he wants to bring in, and prefer to explore his Real Madrid contacts than bring in a Boro old boy. On the pitch, Middlesbrough have not scored for seven games now, and their next opponents Ipswich, are having similar problems. They have only scored once in their last three, and although striker Paul Taylor had a good game against Birmingham, he may not sufficiently replace the injured David McGoldrick. 0-0.
Yeovil vs. Sheff Wed
Sheffield Wednesday have not lost away since Stuart Gray took charge. They allowed the opposition, on average, 3.5 shots on target in those seven games, with a total of three goals conceded. Gray clearly sets his teams up to be difficult to break down. Yeovil are starting to look quite well organized too. They certainly had to do their fair share of defending to take a point at Reading, when they had three men sent off, although the suspension to key centre-back Byron Webster has been rightly withdrawn. The Glovers are now unbeaten in four games, with just two goals conceded in those four. Chances will be at a premium here, but I’ll go with Wednesday, by virtue of having slightly better strikers available. 0-1.
Blackburn vs. Burnley
In some ways, this could be a big weekend for Burnley. The day before, Derby will play at home to Millwall, which is in theory a much easier game. It is important Burnley do not let Derby gain any points on them, because that would perhaps eradicate the morale boost of having beaten them the week before. A big factor in Blackburn’s chances will be the fitness of centre-back Grant Hanley. Rovers missed him dearly in the 4-0 loss at Bolton, because Jason Lowe is naturally a midfielder, and does not look as though he has the discipline to play in central defence. Burnley are now eleven games unbeaten and look likely to further dent Blackburn’s feint hopes of a play-off place. 0-2.
With thanks to Who Scored.