Thursday, 24 April 2014

Gabriel's Championship Predictions: 26th April

Both Yeovil and Barnsley face the possibility of losing their Championship status this weekend, on trips to Brighton and Middlesbrough respectively. Back-to-back wins for Nottingham Forest have seen them return to the play-off picture, and they travel to Bournemouth, whose fleeting play-off hopes appear to be over. At the Keepmoat, there’s a key game at both ends of the table. Doncaster’s poor form sees them 1 point above the drop zone, while a win for Reading would see them maintain their play-off position going into the final day. Here’s a preview of all the matches.

Gary Johnson
Brighton vs. Yeovil
Brighton are unbeaten in 6, but missed a great opportunity to stay in the play-offs when they drew against Blackpool. The Seagulls lacked creativity and perhaps played at too slow a tempo, which has been their problem for much of this season, they struggle to really stretch teams. Yeovil are effectively down. The only thing that could save them would be a remarkable 14-goal swing between themselves and Birmingham in the remaining games, as well as the three teams above them taking zero points. Manager Gary Johnson is resigned to the drop, and failure to win in the Friday night game would rubber-sap his side’s relegation. Brighton to put the Glovers out of their misery. 2-0.

Burnley vs. Ipswich
At the third game of asking, Burnley are over the promotion line, and can play their final home match without any pressure. The focus therefore, is entirely on Ipswich, because they still have a chance of getting that final play-off spot. The Tractor Boys could not hold onto their win over Bournemouth, they dropped points from a winning position, and that is not the first time that has happened. You always think of Mick McCarthy’s teams as solid and hard to break down, but maybe the problem has been that the midfield has sat back too much, and they’ve invited pressure onto themselves. The fact that Ipswich had 40% possession against Bournemouth, suggests that this could be the case. Even though Burnley’s fate is secured, I think they’ll remain professional until the end. 2-1.

Birmingham vs. Leeds
Nikola Zigic
Birmingham had as many as 5 different players out of position against Blackburn on Monday. They changed to 4-4-2 in the second half, and the introduction of Nikola Zigic made a difference, but improvement was hollow in the face of a 4-goal deficit. Leeds had 69% possession, and 25 shots against Forest on Monday, but they still lost 2-0. Possession football is not exactly something you’d associate with Leeds under Brian McDermott, but they couldn’t get the ball into the dangerous areas, so early defensive mishaps proved costly. Neither side are playing with too much confidence at the moment, making this a tight game in prospect. 1-1.

Bournemouth vs. Nottm Forest
While Bournemouth’s play-off hopes have faded in the last couple of weeks, Nottingham Forest’s have re-ignited. A couple of new faces coming into the team has led to a resurgence from Forest. Academy graduate Ben Osborn had barely played before the appointment of Gary Brazil, but he has impressed, and was voted fans’ man of the match against Birmingham. Likewise Stephen McLaughlin, who had been on loan at Bristol City, grabbed an assist on his debut against Leeds. These additions have given the side a much-needed shake-up. Realistically, Bournemouth had to win at Ipswich to stay in the play-off race, but take nothing away from the season they’ve had. I’m fancying Forest for this. 1-2.

Charlton vs. Blackburn
Marvin Sordell
Just when you were thinking Charlton haven’t got a goalscorer, Marvin Sordell pops up with a hat-trick. Sordell has always had pace, but he showed some quality finishing at Sheffield Wednesday too, which is a good combination for any striker. Blackburn still have an outside chance of reaching the play-offs. With four teams between them and sixth, you get the impression that too many sides would need to drop points for them to get in, and that’s in the event that they take maximum points. Rudy Gestede will get much credit for his hat-trick at Birmingham for Rovers, but right winger Josh King was a real threat down the right flank. We could soon be seeing more of the Norwegian’s talent, which once attracted the attentions of the Manchester United youth setup. If the game is level in the closing stages, Blackburn will be forced to push men forward, and this could open things up for Charlton to utilize Sordell’s pace. 2-1.

Derby vs. Watford
Watford let go of a second half lead at QPR, and with that went their thin play-off chances. By all accounts it was an encouraging performance at Loftus Road, however. The recent form of Lewis McGugan has enhanced what is now looking like a very strong midfield, so Massimo Cellino will have plenty of positives to take into the summer. Derby look certain to secure 3rd place, which may be an advantage in the play-offs. Below 5th place Wigan, there is a relatively big gap in quality, so it will be best to play the team that finishes 6th in the semi-finals. At the moment, it looks as though Derby will have momentum on their side, having won four consecutive games. Still, Watford can get a result here. 1-1.

Doncaster vs. Reading
Abdoulaye Meite
Reading play better away from home, although Doncaster is not necessarily the type of team they tend to do well against. Reading have generated a lot of their positive away results by hitting teams on the counter-attack, but Doncaster are a side which seem to be set up quite defensively. They are built to defend a lot of the time, and Paul Dickov will be wary of Reading’s pace on the break, so he could approach this one in a cautious manner. Rovers certainly did tha at Millwall, having just 33% possession and failing to get a shot on target, though much of that was due to Abdoulaye Meite’s red card. If Doncaster do sit back for long spells, the challenge for Reading will be whether they can pro-actively unlock their defence. It’s something they have struggled to do this season. 0-0.

Huddersfield vs. Leicester
Easter Monday saw both teams meet their final objectives of the season. Huddersfield ensured safety thanks to an injury-time goal at Yeovil, a belter from Adam Clayton. Meanwhile, Leicester wrapped up the Championship title with a win at Bolton. Lloyd Dyer came on as a substitute to bag the winner, his first goal since the end of January, and it could be quite an important one for him. Dyer has struggled with an Achilles problem in the second half of this season. Despite enjoying excellent form earlier, he won’t automatically be part of Nigel Pearson’s plans for the Premier League, if fitness problems persist. This could be a relaxed, slow tempo type of game where both sides are ‘on the beach’ to some extent. With Leicester’s quality, they are more likely to find a winner. 0-1.

Middlesbrough vs. Barnsley
Danny Wilson
A defeat will mean Barnsley are back in the third tier of English football, for the first time since 2006. Even if Danny Wilson's side get a draw, and the two sides above them lose, they cannot stay up due to their goal difference, so it’s win or bust for the Tykes. This might feed into Middlesbrough’s hands. Under Karanka’s setup, the goals they have scored have come in short bursts of attacks, and by looking to get the shots away quickly. This is best approach to have against a team that desperately need to win, because Barnsley will be more susceptible to lapses in defensive focus. Even though Middlesbrough have lost back-to-back games recently, I would not be surprised if they won this at a canter. 3-0.

QPR vs. Millwall
Quality versus grit. QPR have by far the biggest wage bill in the Championship, and on paper, you’d say they’ve got a much better side than Millwall. Joey Barton, Ravel Morrison and Charlie Austin are all quality players for this level. Collectively however, QPR have suffered from both complacency and an all-round lack of effort this season. Millwall are 6 games unbeaten at the moment, though Ian Holloway must see their 0-0 draw against Doncaster as 2 points dropped, considering they had a man advantage. The one promising factor for the visitors, is that their away form has improved lately, with 3 consecutive wins on the road. I would back Millwall to grab a point here. 1-1.

Sheff Wed vs. Bolton
Miguel Llera
Sheffield Wednesday were involved in yet another high-scoring game on Monday, a 3-2 loss against Charlton. All three of their opponents goals came due to a lack of pace in defence, and you wonder if this is an area which manager Stuart Gray will address in the summer. Miguel Llera, in particular, has been at fault for a lot of the goals they have conceded. Bolton, by contrast, have been much more solid in recent weeks. The Trotters have only let in 3 goals in their previous 7 matches, although they did lose their last game 1-0 to Leicester. In that match, Dougie Freedman moved to a system of three centre-backs of David Wheater, Zat Knight and Matt Mills. It seems like a strange decision, because their defence had performed perfectly well beforehand. These are two teams who started the season in the thick of the relegation battle. In October, had you offered both sets of fans a lower-midtable position, without doubt they would have taken it. 1-1.

Wigan vs. Blackpool

There is an incentive for both teams here, because a win for Wigan mathematically secures their play-off place, but the pressure will be more on Blackpool. A calamitous season for the Tangerines may well end in relegation, although a point at Brighton on Monday suggests players are still fighting. It was a fantastic equalizer from Stephen Dobbie, and Blackpool need more moments like that to survive the drop. But Wigan are looking much more likely to provide those moments of quality, as they simply have more intelligent, skilful players. They know how to press teams high up the pitch and overload areas to their advantage. Blackpool have taken 10 points since the start of December, which does not put them in a favourable position to stop Wigan. 2-0.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Championship Easter Review

This Easter, we’ve seen the Championship relegation battle condense, with 2 points now separating 5 teams. We’ve also seen Burnley secure promotion, while Leicester have wrapped up the Championship title. Here’s a look at two clubs, whose situation in the relegation battle has worsened over this Easter period. Barnsley look destined for the drop, while Birmingham’s position is looking ever more precarious, after some questionable tactics from manager Lee Clark.

Barnsley are resigned to the drop
Tomasz Cywka
It will take a minor miracle for Barnsley to stay up now. The Tykes would need to win back-to-back games, something they have only done once all season. In addition, they must hope that results for two of Blackpool, Birmingham, Millwall and Doncaster, go dramatically in their favour.

The one positive for the team in recent weeks, has perhaps been more consistency in team selection. David Flitcroft used 27 different players before leaving in November, whereas Danny Wilson appears to be identifying his best side. Since the start of April, Danny Wilson has made an average of less than 1 ½ changes per match, which implies his belief in tactical consistency.

However, some criticize Wilson for being too defensive minded. He favours the solid, ‘team player’ types such as Liam Lawrence and Stephen Dawson, over those who look to pro-actively stretch teams.  Paddy McCourt, signed after leaving Celtic this summer, has the pace and skill to beat players, yet he’s only started once since Wilson took over. Likewise, Tomasz Cywka had barely started a game under Wilson until March, but has since been deployed as a second striker behind target man Chris O’Grady. Nick Proschwitz looked to have formed a good partnership with O’Grady, yet both lacked pace, hence the introduction of Cywka, and a more prominent role for left winger Dale Jennings. A big factor in Barnsley’s revival last season, was the high-tempo they played at under David Flitcroft, but fans have not seen so much of this in recent months.

If the Tykes do go down, small amendments to the squad may be made. They will need to slightly reduce quantity and slightly increase quality, which is what Wilson did when he took over, and led to an improvement in form. Despite getting rid of several fringe players such as Chris Dagnall and Jim McNulty, the connoisseurs of the David Flitcroft regime, Danny Wilson still has a relatively big squad. If Wilson remains in charge, a summer of minor tweaks will be required at Oakwell.

Time for Clark to leave Blues?
Lee Clark
Birmingham lost 4-2 at home to Blackburn on Monday. For that particular match, manager Lee Clark can be held responsible, because he fielded a large proportion of the team out of position. Birmingham had a central midfielder playing on the left, a centre-back playing at right-back, a left-back playing at centre-back, a midfielder playing at left-back, and a right-back playing in midfield.

Though Clark has had to work under difficult financial constraints off-field, this is not the first time he has been talked about with regards to baffling tactics on it. A recurring theme for Blues since January, has been that they have not started positively enough. Since the turn of the year, Birmingham have conceded the opening goal in a match on 16 out of a possible 20 occasions. They always start by sitting back too much, giving the opposition too much space in their half, falling behind, and then going for the win.

Even away victories against Blackpool and Doncaster, have come from improved second half performances, when the team converts to 4-4-2. Should Clark have learnt from this lesson, and started with 4-4-2, rather than waiting for the opponents to take initiative? Arguably so.

Lee Clark did a good job for the Blues last season. In spite of an injury crisis and being forced to dip into the youth academy, he guided the team to a good run of form from February onwards, to a safe midtable finish. Yet now, the ex-Huddersfield boss seems to have lost the plot. Chants from sections of supporters of ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’ had been present in the match against Bournemouth a few weeks ago, and were louder on Saturday. If Birmingham do stay up, which is looking a big ‘if’ at the moment, it may be best for all parties if Clark were to leave at the end of the season.

The Blackburn View

Before Birmingham's match against Blackburn on Easter Monday, I interviewed opposition fan Mikey Delap. He writes The Wild Blackburn Rover blog, and you can find him on Twitter @MikeyDelap. Having been a supporter since the early 90's, Mikey tackles the factors behind his club's decline since winning the title, the treatment of ex-manager Steve Kean, and reflects on a quiet season for his club.

You’ve been midtable throughout this campaign, and you’ve not changed manager. A fairly quiet season by your recent standards?
You can say that again, it's been as refreshingly welcome as it has been encouraging. After the last few seasons of complete and utter turmoil with a plethora of incompetent individuals steering the ship, it stands us in good stead to finally look like we have half a clue what we are doing.
It's been much better to have stayed out of the headlines and being the "go to" club for the footballing nation's light comic relief. Thanks Leeds United, you're really doing a stellar job in our spot this season.

Rhodes - a goalscorer
Would you agree that you’ve been reliant on Jordan Rhodes’s goals this season? Any other attacking players to keep an eye on?
We were certainly reliant on his goals over the course of the first half of this season and even more so last year when we were god awful, but there is a slight hint that the goals are being shared around a little bit more since the January transfer window.
Rhodes will of course be our main supplier, there is no hiding or getting away from that, but keep an eye out for his new partner in crime Rudy Gestede - signed from Cardiff (permanently) in January.
He's certainly not as graceful or as prolific but he's a big, imposing chap with an attacking threat about him. He's been impressive... imagine Nikola Zigic with a layer of muscle and some actual drive ;)

Can’t picture him. You’ve got a young squad, many of whom boss Gary Bowyer worked with in the reserves. Is this an advantage, in terms of the relationship between players and management?
I suppose it is difficult to tell for sure from a purely observational capacity, but most of the players have been keen to stress their happiness with Bowyer in charge of things.
By and large, Bowyer has stuck to the formula that works for him - a nucleus of young, hungry players with points to prove and it has improved us this season.
Having that continuation of Bowyer being in charge of a small group of players development (Hanley, Lowe and Henley) likely helps, but it's the handful of Championship suitable players bought in that seem to have given most cause for optimism.
So in answer to your question, yes I guess it does help, but probably not to any massive extent.

We beat you 3-2 at Ewood Park back in December. After a 3-0 half-time lead, we were hanging on at the end - did you feel you’d equalize?
Blues win reverse fixture 3-2
I was just more in a state of stunned silence that we were somehow 3-0 down, with the greatest of respect Rovers gave a masterclass in gift wrapping a practically unassailable lead for a visiting side.
We probably should have equalised at the death with Scott Dann's late bundle, but aside from a spirited last 30 minutes I'd be hard pressed to convince you that we deserved to emerge with anything from that game. A bad for us that one.

Away fans have been banned from the Fernhurst pub by the ground. If we’re in the same division next season, where would you recommend instead for pre-match food & drink?
Take your pick - Uncle Jack's and the Brown Cow are both away fan friendly and non-threatening places for a pre-match beverage, even the Postal Order is a pretty good shout in the town centre itself - especially if you need dining as well as just a beer. But that is a good 20 minute walk from the ground so allow plenty of pre-match time for that one.

You won the league title in 1995. What do you feel led to your club’s decline?
Blackburn won the title in 1995
Even though I was a younger, more naive individual back in the day (I was 11 the day we won the title just for reference) I was still fairly aware that my team of choice's day in the sun had a shelf life attached to it.
Rovers were never "meant" to be amongst the game elite. It was only through the generosity, spirit and desire of Jack Walker that allowed us to climb to the heights we did.
We held our place pretty well after our title win for well over a decade - yes we got relegated in '99 but that was more a blip than a terminal decline. Rovers sustained a good spell at the top table during the 2000's due to excellent and prudent management of the club under the likes of John Williams, Graeme Souness, Mark Hughes and Sam Allardyce. The money was on the way out of the club under the Walker Trust but our general health was sustained by careful management of the relatively limited funds in comparison to the other Premier League sides around us.
Kind of ironic given what was to follow and our current predicament. The decline truly started when the Rao family bought the club.... as dramatic as that sounds.

Your fans campaigned relentlessly to get Steve Kean sacked, and he resigned when you were near the top of the Championship. Was the stick he got justified?
Fans wanted Kean sacked
No-one deserves personal threats or a small portion of the bile that was generated in Kean's direction, as fans we shouldn't condone some of the toxic atmosphere that was created.
Having said that - yes, Steve Kean absolutely deserved the flak that came his way.
A horrible, odious, self-serving slimeball who did nothing in the best interests of the club and lived in a fantasy world populated only by his own ego and Bradley Orr.

Kean hid behind the convenient little media protection bubble he was afforded by the likes of Sky Sports and rode the coattails of the Rovers gravy train he and his mates were enjoying right until till the bitter end.
I am aware many won't agree, but he deserved everything he got and we are 500 times better off with him having departed.

I bet you’re gutted with how Burnley are doing. Do you think you can emulate them next season?
Could Bowyer take Rovers up?
I wouldn't say I was gutted. When they do reached the promised land they'll have deserved it because they've been unquestionably one of the two best sides in the division this season... fair play to them.
What they've achieved hasn't required a magic formula, just a strong, motivated manager assembling a well drilled squad of solid players and getting them to consistently perform a set plan. It's not a miracle, it's just a well-executed strategy and it's reaping the rewards it deserved.
I hope Rovers can carry the steady progress made this term into next season and make a push for the top, it's more of a wish than a realistic request at this stage but if we can shed some of the bloated wage bill that hampers the club and add 4 or 5 more players the quality of the likes of Craig Conway and Tom Cairney over the summer then we may have a shot.

Thanks for answering our questions. Your prediction for Monday’s game…
We've been finally churning out some half-decent form over the last month or so, after a season of chronic inconsistency. Therefore I am at the least hopeful we can continue that now we're finally getting something like a settled line up.

Put me down for a 2-1 win and a little bit of revenge for the December shambles. Rhodes and Conway with the goals.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Gabriel's Championship Predictions: 21st April

The big game on Easter Monday comes at the AMEX. Brighton are looking to hold onto their play-off place, while Blackpool are in need of a win, after falling into the drop zone for the first time this season. Burnley can secure promotion at the third time of asking with a win against Wigan, while the loser of Ipswich against Bournemouth could be ruled out of the play-off race. Millwall can continue their remarkable recent resurgence against a Doncaster side looking very much part of a tight relegation battle, as this Championship season nears the end.

Birmingham vs. Blackburn
Chris Burke
After Friday and Saturday’s results, the battle at the bottom has become ever tighter, with just 1 point separating Birmingham in 18th, from Blackpool in 22nd. Birmingham lost 1-0 at Nottingham Forest, and the concerning thing is that arguably their most creative player, Chris Burke, does not seem to have the pace he had over the last two years. In fact, two assists at Millwall was the only time Burke has contributed directly to a Blues goal since the start of February. Blackburn remain part of a tantalisingly unpredictable play-off race. None of the teams from 6th to 9th won, which makes Blackburn’s 0-0 draw with relegation bankers Yeovil all the more frustrating. The fact that Blackburn had 21 shots in that match, suggests they ran out of ideas a little bit. With Birmingham’s dreadful home form, most teams will fancy their chances of winning at St Andrews. 1-2.

Brighton vs. Blackpool
Blackpool are rivalling Leeds to be the Championship’s drama club of the season. Fans made their feelings known towards chairman Karl Oyston, but fortunes are no better on the pitch, with just 1 point from their last 6. They are now in the relegation zone for the first time this season, too. Big performances are required at Brighton and Wigan before the final day, which it seems Barry Ferguson will struggle to get from his players. Tangerines fans may take some hope from the fact that home form is not Brighton’s strong suit, as the Seagulls have only taken 7 points from their last 6 at the AMEX. But Brighton are unbeaten in 5 overall, and from Blackpool’s perspective, you wonder where the next point is coming from. 2-0.

Burnley vs. Wigan
Michael Kightly
Burnley just need a win to confirm promotion. Any minor chance of them throwing their lead away was ended with a 1-0 win at Blackpool on Friday, thanks to a well-taken goal from Michael Kightly, so promotion is now a formality. Wigan beat Reading on Friday. The Latics displayed once again the strength in depth of their squad, winning 3-0 despite making 7 changes from the side which played Arsenal. The key thing which stands out from the game, was the importance of positivity. Every time a Wigan player got the ball, they had the confidence to try and beat a player, or have a shot. It’s a confidence that Uwe Rosler has instilled in the team. With Wigan playing so well, Burnley fans might have to wait a few more days to be able to celebrate. 1-1.

Derby vs. Barnsley
A win for Barnsley could take them level on points with 21st place Charlton, you would expect a real battling performance from the Tykes. But against Leeds, they lacked creativity, as Danny Wilson dropped flair players such as Jacob Mellis and Patrick McCourt to the bench. Those are the type of players who you would look to, to provide a key moment of magic for Barnsley. Derby are building up some momentum towards the play-offs, with three consecutive wins. George Thorne scored a belter in the 2-0 win at Doncaster, and he has been another revelation from Steve McClaren in the loan market. Normally a defensive midfielder, Thorne has been vital for Derby going forward too, having scored once and bagged two assists in his last three games. Derby to win this, but Barnsley will have no intentions of making it easy for them. 2-1.

Ipswich vs. Bournemouth
Ian Harte
Both teams lost their last match, making this a key game in terms of the battle for the play-offs. If Brighton beat Blackpool as expected, the loser of this will be 4 points (Ipswich) or 6 points (Bournemouth), off the play-offs, which may be too much of a gap with two games left. Bournemouth have been boosted by the recent news that Ian Harte has extended his contract for another 12 months. His experience can be key for the Cherries, who have scored some 15 goals from set pieces this season, and Harte’s delivery has been key to this. I’ll go with Ipswich, because they win at home more often than not, and I feel an excellent season for Bournemouth might just be petering out. 2-1.

Millwall vs. Doncaster
A crucial match in the relegation dogfight. It’s a game which, on immediate form, you would have to fancy Millwall. The Lions have enjoyed a resurrection in the last few weeks, and are now unbeaten in five. Lanky Austrian striker Stefan Maierhofer picked the perfect time to score his first goals for the club, netting a brace from two Lee Martin crosses, to give his side a valuable win at Middlesbrough. Doncaster have taken just 1 point from their last 6 games. After this match, their final two games do not look favourable. They host a Reading side who will be fighting for their play-off spot, before a trip to Leicester, the champions elect, on the final day. The Millwall miracle is looking on the cards, while Doncaster are bang in trouble. 2-1.

QPR vs. Watford
Giuseppe Sannino
QPR lost 1-0 at Leicester on Saturday, in a weekend that mathematically ended any hope of them getting automatic promotion, but realistically those hopes died a long time ago. It has not been QPR’s Loftus Road form that has let them down, because they have taken more points at home than Burnley this season, winning two-thirds of their games in West London. Watford are unbeaten in 6, and their game in hand gives them an outside chance of sneaking into the play-offs. However, they have only won once away since Giuseppe Sannino took over in December, and this is the first of three consecutive away games. Due to the contrast in home and away records, I’ll go for a QPR win. 2-1.

Sheff Wed vs. Charlton
Sheffield Wednesday have become the Championship’s ‘Roy of the Rovers’ side over the last few weeks. The last 5 games involving them have included a total of 26 goals, which is a big change from how the team were performing when Stuart Gray first took over, when they were just grinding out results. Charlton, by contrast, saw their miserable season in front of goal continue, with another blank against Bolton on Friday. Tellingly, the average age of the striking options in their squad is under 23, so they are clearly lacking that bit of knowhow going forward. In fact, Charlton have got a young side generally. Apart from perhaps Johnnie Jackson, there are not many players who you’d look to for a cool head, at this high-pressure stage of the season. 2-1.

Yeovil vs. Huddersfield
Kieffer Moore
Yeovil deserve credit for the way they stayed organized at Blackburn. They created a few chances towards the end as well, but ultimately, the finishing was not good enough. The Glovers have only seen 9 goals from the strikers that are currently in the squad, James Hayter and Kieffer Moore scoring 5 and 4 respectively. Likewise, Huddersfield’s top scorer is still 12-goal man James Vaughan, and he has only netted once since 1st October. The one positive for the Terriers is that Nahki Wells has scored 4 goals in his last 8, and is adjusting well to life in the Championship. I would back Huddersfield to end their winless streak here, just because I cannot see Yeovil scoring. 0-1.

Leeds vs. Nottm Forest
The slim chances of us seeing Stuart Pearce back on Match of the Day next season are just about alive, after Nottingham Forest won 1-0 against Birmingham on Saturday. Gary Brazil, the caretaker manager at the City Ground, does seem to favour Matt Derbyshire. The striker was very much a bit part player under Billy Davies, but he has started the last 3 games, scoring in 2 of them. Leeds have at least restored some pride in their season, after back-to-back wins. Before the match against Blackpool, they had only kept 1 clean sheet since Christmas, but now they’ve kept two on the trot, thanks to a more organised defence. Both teams come into the game after a win, following a poor run of form. Draw. 1-1.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Gabriel's Championship Predictions: 18th April

Welcome to the first of two sets of fixtures, over this Easter period. Reading have their work cut out if they want to hold onto their play-off place, the Royals will look to win at a Wigan side revelling from an FA Cup run. Brighton will look to capitalize on the strong possibility of dropped points for Reading, as they travel to out-of-form Huddersfield. Another out-of-form side, Leeds, make the short trip to Barnsley, who are back in the survival hunt after a crucial win on Tuesday night. Having been a legend at both clubs, Birmingham and Nottingham Forest fans will celebrate the birthday of Trevor Francis in a meeting at the City Ground. A clash between Leicester and QPR at this stage, bears less significance than we might have expected, with the fate of both clubs decided.

Blackburn vs. Yeovil
Rudy Gestede
Blackburn picked up what must go down as a disappointing point at Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday, having led 3-1 in the closing stages. At least boss Gary Bowyer looks to have found the perfect partner-in-crime for Jordan Rhodes, in Rudy Gestede. The Frenchman has won the man of the match award in three of his last four starts, scoring three and assisting one. Gestede is 6ft 3, so he has the height and strength to compliment Rhodes’ predatory goalscoring touch. Yeovil could be relegated by Monday night, if they lose their next two and results go against them. It has become a question of ‘when’ they go down rather than ‘if’ for the Glovers, and fans will be looking to savour their last few games of Championship football. Blackburn to keep their feint play-off hopes intact, with a comfortable victory. 3-0.

Bournemouth vs. Sheff Wed
Bournemouth will be without midfielder Harry Arter, who got himself suspended after a rash challenge in that win over QPR. On average, Bournemouth have only lost an average of 0.15 points per game without him in the side, yet you get the feeling Arter is a key player. In the draw with Yeovil, Bournemouth played at a fairly low tempo, so they perhaps missed Arter’s energy, not to mention the impact he can make in both boxes. Adthe Nuhiu scored twice in Sheffield Wednesday’s draw against Blackburn on Saturday, and he got a flick-on to assist the first goal as well. The Austrian does need to build on this though, because he has only started 12 games out of a possible 26 since the change of manager. As a very lanky striker who lacks work rate, you would wonder whether he is part of Stuart Gray’s plans for more progressive, free-flowing football.  Both teams have been involved in high-scoring games lately, so I’ll go for an entertaining draw. 2-2.

Charlton vs. Bolton
Zat Knight
It’s Charlton who go into this one under the most pressure. Riga’s hopes of an instant rise from the relegation mire have been quashed, as the Addicks have now lost three of their last four games. They missed an opportunity to put daylight between themselves and the bottom three when they hosted Barnsley on Tuesday, losing 2-1. Barnsley were Bolton’s previous opponents too, a fixture which saw the Trotters grind out a third consecutive win. Dougie Freedman’s side have not lost an away game since 1st February, and have become very well organised on the road, led by Zat Knight’s knowhow. I cannot see Charlton, a rather inexperienced side, being able to break them down. 0-1.

Huddersfield vs. Brighton
Huddersfield must stop the rot, otherwise they face a minor danger of getting dragged into the relegation dogfight at this late stage. Defensively they will have problems, after 2 members of their 3-man back line were sent off in the 3-1 loss at Derby. This has come at completely the wrong time, because they play a Brighton side who are making significant strides, certainly from a goalscoring point of view. The Seagulls have found the net 10 times in their last 4 matches, thanks to improved performances from Leandro Ulloa, and loanee Jesse Lingard. With 6th place Reading having an arguably harder game at Wigan, Oscar Garcia’s men will fancy their chances of moving into the play-off places. 1-3.

Wigan vs. Reading
Danny Guthrie
Wigan can take heart from their FA Cup semi-final defeat. They matched Arsenal, one of the best teams in England, for 120 minutes, losing only on penalties. The Latics now aim for a second trip to Wembley in the space of a month. They need to regain some of the momentum that they had lost in recent weeks, with just 2 wins from their last 7 league games. Reading’s play-off place is looking under more threat than Wigan’s, and Nigel Adkins has been dealt a blow by the recent news that midfielder Danny Guthrie may be out until the summer. Guthrie looks to be the only player who provides any sort of creativity in the centre of the park for Reading, making his loss of sizeable concern. If the Royals do not win this, maximum points could be needed from their final 3 games. 1-1.

Blackpool vs. Burnley
After this match, you can imagine Burnley fans will be rushing back home to watch the 2nd half of Derby’s game at Doncaster. If Burnley win and Derby drop points, then the Clarets will have their promotion to the Premier League confirmed, after last week’s disappointment. Blackpool have only won 2 of their last 27 matches, and are languishing dangerously close to the relegation zone. To rub salt into the wound, top scorer Ricardo Fuller and recent signing Robert Earnshaw, are both out with injuries for the Tangerines. Burnley should be able to keep a clean sheet, making it a comfortable afternoon. 0-2.

Doncaster vs. Derby
Steve McClaren
Doncaster have a habit of flirting with the drop zone. They go on a good run and you think they’ll pull away comfortably, then lose a few games and they’re right back in it. Right now, they have lost their last three, to Birmingham, Bolton and Ipswich, all of which were relatively winnable games. Since the turn of the year, Doncaster have taken 17pts from 9 home matches, while Derby have barely taken over half of that away, 9pts from 9 games on the road. The Rams do not win enough away games, although they did come out 3-1 victors at Blackpool recently. McClaren’s men may just have to take a draw, which could mathematically end any chance of automatic promotion. 1-1.

Leicester vs. QPR
A good bet is for there to be a goal scored from a set piece in this match. 6 of the last 10 goals Leicester conceded, have come from set pieces. And, for much of the season, defending set plays was QPR’s bread and butter, yet this is no longer the case. 5 of their last 7 goals conceded have come from these situations. The Rs did let in 2 from corners against Nottingham Forest, but this concern was smoothed over, as a late blitz saw them win 5-2. They played so well to score 3 goals in the final 10 minutes, so Harry Redknapp will be wondering why they couldn’t perform like that all season. In January, we all thought this fixture would be a real promotion decider, but in fact the result will change little. Leicester are already up, and QPR are already in the play-offs. 1-1.

Barnsley vs. Leeds
Jean-Yves M'Voto
If Barnsley could pick any fixture at this stage, it would be Leeds at home, for several reasons. Firstly, they have an excellent recent record at home to the Whites, having won the last four Oakwell encounters. Another reason, is that while Leeds are in no danger of going down, uncertainty regarding the ownership situation has led to a dismal run of form, with just 2 wins from their last 13. I don’t think anybody expected Barnsley to go and beat Charlton, but they did so thanks to a strong performance from Jean-Yves M’Voto. The Frenchman got off to a shaky start at Oakwell since signing from Oldham. He has not necessarily been the first name on Danny Wilson’s team sheet, but more solid performances from the centre-back will give his side a chance of staying up. 1-0.

Middlesbrough vs. Millwall
Middlesbrough managed to grind out a 1-0 win at Burnley last time out. That victory was made all the more impressive by the fact that Burnley could have gone up that day, so inevitably they had to defend deep at times. Millwall might be unbeaten in four, but they looked fortunate to take a point against Watford. There was no defensive protection for both of the goals, and they made it too easy for their opponents to have a shot.  The fact that they grabbed a late equalizer, and that Charlton lost on Tuesday, means Millwall’s survival hopes are still alive. The Lions could get past this Boro defence. A small defender in Kenneth Omeruo for Middlesbrough, may struggle against the height of tall strikers like Maierhofer and Morrison. It’s Millwall’s defence that is the problem. 2-1.

Nottm Forest vs. Birmingham
Henri Lansbury
Nottingham Forest are without a win in 12 games, which is the 2nd longest winless run this season, after Blackpool. Perhaps the one minor positive for Forest fans, has been the recent return of Henri Lansbury from injury, and the midfielder grabbed himself an assist in the loss at QPR. Birmingham fans may be encouraged by rumours of a potential takeover, with four consortiums interested, one of which supposedly consists of Blues fans. On the field, Lee Clark’s side need the points, as they remain just three points above the drop zone. This match is fittingly on the same day as the 60th birthday of Trevor Francis, a man regarded as a legend by both Nottingham Forest and Birmingham supporters. Hopefully he’ll be acknowledged by both sets of fans, at what has potential to be a high-scoring game. 2-3.

Watford vs. Ipswich
Watford just do not concede goals at home. They have kept eight out of a possible ten clean sheets at Vicarage Road since Giuseppe Sannino took over, often having less possession than their opponents. Once Watford score, they are happy to sit back for large spells and put the onus on the visitors to break them down. So far, this seems to be working, and it is hard to see Ipswich scoring. The Tractor Boys could be without their main creative outlet, left-back Aaron Cresswell. Mick McCarthy has been dealt another blow, learning that top scorer David McGoldrick will definitely not return before the season’s end. A Watford win to nil is the best bet. 1-0.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Middlesbrough: Next Season's Promotion Contenders?

Aitor Karanka
On Saturday, a Jacob Butterfield goal saw Middlesbrough record a smash-and-grab 1-0 victory, their fourth in succession, over Burnley. Notably, their Lancashire opponents could have gone up that day, so Middlesbrough had to do their share of defending to grind out an impressive win. All in all, the difference Aitor Karanka has made on Teesside is encouraging. Though the Spaniard has not made quite as dramatic an impact as Steve McClaren had at Derby, or Uwe Rosler at Wigan, he has seen steady progress.

If the season had started when Karanka took over at the Riverside, Middlesbrough would be fifth. Given that they were sixteenth when he first took over, this is a big improvement, so it seems as though the team is in the right hands. This summer, he will have had five months to analyse the strength and weaknesses of his squad, and judge which players are part of his plans, and which are not. Middlesbrough have been in midtable in the second half of the season, and have never quite looked like making the play-offs. This could turn out to be an advantage, because evidence below suggests that Karanka is the type of coach to experiment with different players and tactics:
Karanka has made an average of 3.2 changes per match since taking over, so he falls into the ‘tinkerer’ category. However, the average number of changes he makes slightly decreases per month (aside from the two games so far in April), which suggests he is gradually identifying his best players. Left-back George Friend has played twenty-five of his twenty-eight games in charge, so Friend is perhaps the only player whose position is looking secure. The vast majority of the first team struggle to play two-thirds of the matches - not that this is necessarily a bad thing.

Aitor was Jose's assistant at Madrid
The lack of pressure on Middlesbrough for instant success, has perhaps given Karanka the freedom to try out new players and different tactical systems. He has used 4-2-3-1, 4-5-1 previously, and even 3-5-2 in the match against Burnley. While formations have varied, we have seen evidence of Karanka’s preference for high-tempo, counter-attacking football. Attacking wide men and plenty of shots from range are a consistent feature in this current Middlesbrough team, which is showing echoes of Real Madrid’s playing style under Jose Mourinho, to whom Karanka was assistant. In essense, the mediocrity of Middlesbrough’s season means Karanka can approach games with long-term planning at the forefront of his mind, rather than the pressure for three points.

Interestingly, Karanka is yet to field an unchanged side. Whether this is by principle, or by player merit, is unclear. Some may criticize him for this, and the recent success of Leicester and Burnley implies that having a more settled side can be beneficial. Yet potentially, the way Karanka is managing creates a sense of healthy competition within the squad, because nobody is given an excuse to drop standards. The more stalwart members of the first team know they need to work hard to retain their place. Meanwhile, the fringe players are kept motivated in knowing they will get their chance, should performances justify it. Great managers, such as Sir Alex Ferguson, are known for their knack of rotating the squad effectively, and creating a working atmosphere where standards are constantly improving. Karanka seems to be trying to do this.

Peter Kenyon
Middlesbrough have plenty of advantages going into the summer transfer market, compared to other Championship clubs. Their long-standing chairman, Steve Gibson, has a strong relationship with Peter Kenyon, who has an extensive contacts book. Indeed, it has been Kenyon’s work that has led to a change of regime at the Riverside. The ex-Chelsea chief executive is in close communication with Jorge Mendes, dubbed the most powerful agent in football. It was the link with Mendes that instigated a move for Karanka, who in turn, has a strong relationship with the Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho. Already, we can see how these high-profile contacts are accumulating in Middlesbrough’s favour.

Karanka has already imported youngster Nathaniel Chalobah, an energetic talent who can play anywhere in defence and in midfield, from Chelsea. Likewise Kenneth Omeruo joined from Stamford Bridge, another versatile young defender, who has already represented the Nigerian National Team. Both of these players have impressed since their introduction in January, and it is unlikely that the club would have been able to pull those kind of loan signings off, had it not been for a fantastic contact list.
You might think, by making these links and importing players from other clubs on short-term deals, that Middlesbrough are sacrificing their identity and tradition. They are a club notorious for their patience, and willingness to promote from within. Will this new regime take that away?

Luke Williams
It seems not. Aitor Karanka has spoken publicly about his readiness to introduce youth, and has backed it up with his selection policy. Attacking midfielder Luke Williams, who was on loan at Hartlepool just a few months ago, has just started four consecutive games. Defender Ben Gibson, nephew of chairman Steve, has missed just one of the last fourteen games he was available for. Forward Curtis Main had only been given one cameo appearance this season before Karanka arrived, now he has featured twenty-two times. Furthermore, the likes of Mark Kitching and David Atkinson have also been more involved with the first team squad in the last few months. The new coach has hardly disregarded the youth academy.

Middlesbrough also have a youth link with Atletico Madrid, currently at the top of La Liga. In fact, a few months ago youngsters Bradley Fewster, Bryn Morris, and the aforementioned Luke Williams, were sent to Atletico to train with the club for three weeks. This suggests that the development of youth is at the forefront of the club’s plans.

Going into the summer transfer window, the task will be to keep hold of the defensive players. The club will attempt to extend the loans of Chalobah and Omeruo, and Jozsef Varga from Hungarian outfit Debrecen, for another season. Furthermore, contract negotiations have begun on Greek goalkeeper Dimitrios Konstantopoulos, who is only at the club on a short-term deal. He has kept five clean sheets from a possible nine, and pulled off a string of great saves to preserve a point at Bournemouth. Since Karanka’s appointment, Middlesbrough have conceded just twenty-one goals in twenty-seven games. This is an average of just over three-quarters of a goal conceded per game, which would equate to the best defensive record in the league. At the back, it is more about retaining their current players, than bringing in new ones.

Albert Adomah
In attack, they have scored just twenty-nine goals, which gives Middlesbrough an average of just over one goal per game under Karanka. This needs to improve, so the 40-year-old needs to make decisions now on the attacking players he wants. With Ledesma, Adomah, Kamara, Tomlin, Carayol, Butterfield and Williams all capable of playing in similar positions, the manager almost has too many options to choose from, and keep happy. Add to that, Karanka will no doubt have his own ideas on the attacking players he wants to bring in.

In terms of advanced strikers, Lukas Jutkiewicz is performing well at Bolton, and will return from his loan spell. You would question, however, whether a gangly target man is the type of player Karanka wants to accommodate his counter-attacking style of play. Danny Graham has improved in recent weeks, with four goals and two man of the match performances in his last nine games, but he remains contracted to Sunderland. With the Black Cats likely to go down and struggling to score goals, the club might want to hold onto Graham.

Middlesbrough have drawn more games than any other side in the Championship. The key will be for Aitor Karanka to use his contacts to bring in a reliable, out-and-out goalscorer this summer, who can convert those draws into victories. Four consecutive wins right now though, suggests things are going in the right direction on Teesside. 

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Solihull Moors 0-2 Barrow AFC

Solihull Moors fell to a 2-0 home defeat to Barrow AFC, on a windy day at the AutoTech stadium. Goals from Andrew Burns and Paddy Lacey secured a deserved victory for the Cumbrian visitors in a low key, end of season game.

Moors were forced to defend deep early on, as Barrow dictated the tempo. They played some intricate football with midfielder Sam Sheridan, previously of Stockport, often at the centre of things. While the hosts dealt with what was chucked at them in the air, they struggled to get to the second ball and lacked composure at times.

Solihull Moors’ first attempt of note came fifteen minutes in. A long throw from journeyman centre-back Exodus Geohaghon, currently at his seventeenth different club, found Richard Taundry, who fired wide from range. The versatile Taundry, a graduate of the successful Walsall academy, then picked up an injury shortly afterwards, to be replaced by midfielder Jay Denny.

That change briefly sparked the hosts into life, and they began to get forward with more ambition than in the first twenty minutes. Dior Angus managed to win one or two free-kicks in dangerous areas, and Barrow were relinquishing control. Moors still lacked quality on the ball, however. Whenever the forwards got the ball in advanced positions, they struggled to hold it up effectively, and were at times isolated. A sharp, neat exchange of passes between right-back Alex Dean and Jay Denny was a more memorable moment in a difficult half for the hosts going forward.

An injury to Omar Bogle did not help the cause of Marcus Bignot’s side, and Bogle was replaced by the stocky Gary Birch. Birch’s technique was very good for this level, he linked play quite nicely, and you got the feeling he could be playing in a higher league if he had more pace. The first half looked to be petering out, after a scrappy ten minutes. Barrow had other ideas, and epitomized this period in play with the opening goal. A cross from the left led to a dramatic scramble in the six-yard box, before right-back Andrew Burns tapped the ball in to put Barrow in front. A very scrappy goal, in what was at that point a scrappy game of football.

A half-time lead for the Bluebirds was justified. You would not have guessed that Darren Edmondson’s men were without a win in seven before today, because they had played much the better football, and kept the ball with ease. While Barrow have one of the better defensive records in the Skrill North, they do have a relatively young side. A 6-0 home loss to Gainsborough earlier in the season, and throwing away 4-2 injury-time lead against Boston United a few weeks ago, suggests they are vulnerable when put under pressure. Unfortunately, Solihull Moors failed to apply it.

The home side were slightly improved after the break, though. Michael Taylor won a free-kick just outside the box after a very dangerous challenge from the offender, who was not even booked, much to the wrath of the home fans. The free-kick was fired over the bar from striker Dior Angus, who had one of his less productive afternoons. Moors were upping the tempo and created a few more set piece situations which, given the lack of physical threat in Barrow’s defence, might have proved fruitful. In truth, Moors struggled to test goalkeeper Tony McMillan, and came closest when Gary Birch headed over the bar from Jay Denny’s corner.

Barrow fired a couple of warning signs at the other end. Jas Singh had to deal with a snap shot from Liam Willis, and shortly afterwards, he was called upon to tip over Robbie Williams’s acrobatic effort.
But with the score at 1-0, the hosts had their best chance of the match, and one which could have changed the game. A high ball from captain Rob Elvins was chased down by Michael Taylor, who managed to find himself one-on-one with the goalkeeper, but his effort was diverted behind for another Moors corner.

It came as a surprise when Barrow doubled their lead. Shortly after the visitors moved to a 4-4-2 system, a cross from Niall Cowperthwaite was put away by Paddy Lacey, arriving in the box late from midfield. That goal killed the game off and led to a rather flat final quarter of an hour, enlivened only by a man running onto the pitch wearing a horse mask, in reference to the Grand National weekend.
It was a victory that Barrow deserved, as Solihull Moors failed to impress on this occasion. There were spells, particularly in the second half, when they put Barrow under pressure. Ultimately, it did not happen often enough, and when it did, they could not test the keeper. Barrow can take heart from their first half display, and their ability to remain organized in the second. As not the most physical side, they were able to withstand the aforementioned Moors pressure, and in possession they looked a lot more assured than the hosts.

The result does little to change the dynamics of either side’s season, as both clubs are in line for a midtable finish. Barrow end their winless run, and ahead of the summer, Darren Edmondson may be looking to use the remaining few games to assess his squad, which he inherited just four months ago. A poor run of form for Solihull Moors continues, as their promotion ambitions a few months ago seem a far cry from their current position, ten points off the play-offs. Marcus Bignot’s side have won just four games out of a possible seventeen since the turn of the year, and will be without key man Ryan Beswick until the end of the season.

Inevitably, going to watch a sixth tier team means seeing a sizeable drop in the standard of football – or a minor one if you’re a Birmingham City fan. But by sacrificing that, you can get a day out watching a football match, where there’s change for a twenty pound note at the end. Furthermore, being able to stand or sit next to the pitch, hugely enhances the match-day experience. £4.50 for any season ticket holder at a Midlands club is a more than reasonable price, so a game at the AutoTech stadium is always worth the trip.