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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.