All the top three failed to pick up victories last time out in the league whilst at the other end of the table, Blackpool are quietly picking up points. In mid-table it remains as tight as ever and we are drawing into the final few months of the season. We preview five of the big games from the weekend in detail.
Middlesbrough v Leeds United
After the midweek draw at Birmingham, Middlesbrough went top of the Championship by a single point and will look to claim all three against an improving Leeds in the early kick-off to put pressure on the chasing back.
After falling out of the FA Cup last weekend at Arsenal, Middlesbrough will have their eyes firmly set on at least a top two finish in the Championship to return to the Premier League. They had a big chance to pull clear in mid-week playing on Wednesday after their nearest rivals all dropped points, but it was not to be. The home form of Boro has been relentless and emphatic, however now at this stage of the season it is simply about getting the wins on the board on a consistent basis. With five successive wins at the Riverside it would take a fairly strong gut instinct to bet against Middlesbrough making it six on the bounce. Lee Tomlin has seen his game really progress under Aitor Karanka. He picked up the Championship Player of the Month award for January and his creativity is key to the Boro attack. Tomlin is this game’s key man.
It all seems to have gone a bit quiet at Leeds, but this rarity has clearly acted as a blessing for Neil Redfearn and his players as they have been given the chance to go about their business without madness in the boardroom every week. Just one defeat in seven and four wins in their last five shows that Redfearn is most definitely the right man at the right time for Leeds. He has found a balance between the continential contingent that make up a large section of his squad and the talented youngsters that have come up through the youth ranks. Even the bookies seem to think that Leeds do not stand a chance in this one, with them priced up at 5/1 to claim the three points. We all know the Championship too well by now and when theses sides met back in August it was Leeds who got the win. It is going to be a tough ask, but if they can keep Boro quiet early doors, expect a far closer game than some are predicting.
Score prediction: 1-0 Middlesbrough win
Brentford v AFC Bournemouth
An interesting atmosphere is set to shadow over Griffin Park this weekend with the news that Mark Warburton will be relieved of his duties at the end of the season and with Bournemouth in town looking to return to the summit of the division it could be a difficult afternoon for Bees’ fans.
Never have I seen a situation like the one at Brentford in my time following football. Mark Warburton has got his side promoted from League 1 and not only that, in their first season in the Championship they sit in hte play-off places with a serious chance of promotion. Madness, utter madness.This news had been speculated for some weeks and it seems to have impact on the Brentford players. Just one win in their last four has seen a gap form between themselves and the top three. A win this weekend would perhaps silence the talk off the pitch for the time being and provide a much needed boost for the players. Both James Tarkowski and Alan Judge are set to return from injury.
This game is absolutely massive for Bournemouth. After consecutive draws at home in rather different games against Derby and Huddersfield they were displaced from the Championship top spot for the first time in a while. A trip to Brentford will be a real test of their character and of late their away form has impressed winning four of their last five on the road. Midfield dynamo Harry Arter picked up his 10th booking of the season last weekend giving Eddie Howe a selection headache with Dan Gosling and Eunan O’Kane both injured. It could provide Shaun MacDonald the opportunity to step up and start for the first time in the Championship this season. Striker Callum Wilson finds himself back amongst the goals scoring Derby, Wigan Rotherham and at Aston Villa in the FA Cup. His 15 goals have been a massive part of Bournemouth’s success and he is this game’s key man.
Score prediction: 2-1 Bournemouth win
Derby County v Sheffield Wednesday
The Rams failed to seize on Bournemouth’s slip-up last week, only managing a draw at Rotherham on Tuesday evening. The three points will be the priority against a Sheffield Wednesday side who are fixed firmly in mid-table.
Derby strengthen well during the window and have seen the fruits of the labour with Tom Ince and Jesse Lingard both having an impact on their recent results. They showed superb character to come back from a goal down twice at Bournemouth for a share of the points, however they were knocked out of the FA Cup by Reading and failed to get a win at Rotherham which would have seen them climb into the top two above Bournemouth. Their consecutive draws in their last two, was only the third time this season that they have not won in two successive games this season. This suggests that Sheffield Wednesday are travelling to the iPro at just the wrong time. Tom Ince has returned to the Championship and immediately reminded defenders of how he used to torment them for Blackpool. Three appearances for the Rams, five goals scored with at least one in each game shows that he has already become a key player for Steve McClaren. Ince is this game’s key man.
Sheffield Wednesday’s season has gradually drifted into one of mediocrity. There have been signs of real quality but a lack of cutting edge up front to get the goals required for success in this division has been their shortcoming. Nevertheless, they could mount a late play-off charge and this season can be seen as one of transition as Stuart Gray is in charge of the Owls for his first full season. 2015 has not been a year to remember so far. Just the one win to their name and without a victory in six league games. I would like to mount a case for the Owls in this game, however Derby are just to strong at home and I can only see this going one way unfortunately. In terms of selection, Gray has Chris Maguire back after suspension and Will Keane may be fit to play some part in the game.
Score prediction: 3-0 Derby win
Blackburn Rovers v Blackpool
A Lancashire derby to wet the appetite at Ewood Park with Blackburn enjoying fine cup success and Blackpool somehow avoiding being completely cut adrift at the foot of the table. The form book says home win but this is the Championship after all.
Blackburn may be somewhere off of where they had hoped to be in the Championship table at his stage of the season, but cannot complain about making it into the quarter-finals of the FA Cup with a trip to Anfield knowing a win would take them to a Wembley semi-final. For now though they must focus on the league and attempting to bridge the ten point gap that has formed between themselves and the play-offs. They will be without midfielders Ben Marshall and David Dunn who have both provided some key performances for Rovers so far this term. They do still have a certain 15 goal striker to call upon and I am not talking about Jordan Rhodes. Rudy Gestede has seized the limelight this season and is this game’s key man.
Ten points seperate lowly Blackpool and Championship safety. That seems to big to overhaul, but larger margins have been bridged in football and it would be right up the Championship’s street for this to happen. For one second do not quote me as saying they will however. For me they have been down since the autumn. They are nevertheless showing glimpses of being able to pick up points. A win at home to Brighton was a fine result and last weekend’s 4-4 draw with Nottingham Forest was a sing of character if not class. Realistically they need to half the gap to safety within the next eight games and this is probably not one of the games they are targeting to knock of some of those points.
Score prediction: 3-1 Blackburn win
Nottingham Forest v Bolton Wanderers
Dougie Freedman has come in and steadied the ship at Bolton and will be looking to maintain his record of never losing to a former side with Bolton looking to end any doubt of their Championship status for next season.
Doubts over Freedman’s long term future at Forest were ended when owner Fawaz Al Hasawi spoke out this week saying he had signed an 18 month contract. But we do contracts mean nowadays anyway. Three games unbeaten for Forest gets them heading in the right direction, although there is plenty to be done if this side is to reach its true potential. Last week’s 4-4 draw at Blackpool was a crazy game that the Reds should really have won. A big area to work on for Freedman is turning the City Ground into a fortress again. Just one home win in six Championship games is not good enough. Definite room for improvement. Henri Lansbury looks like he is on the way to his best game and his goal last week was out of the top draw. He should be a big player for Forest and is this game’s key man.
Bolton have certainly been providing some entertainment in the recent matches if not quite getting the desired results. 29 goals scored at both ends in their last six matches is value for money, however just seven points from a possible 18 has put an end to the great early success under Neil Lennon. Wanderers still have a little bit of work to do to end any late risk of relegation, but they should have more than enough to survive. It is now the case of building a settled side to prepare for next season, Lennon’s first full season at the helm of an English club and I for one am excited to see how he does.
Score prediction: 2-2 draw
Other fixtures with score predictions
Saturday 3pm kick offs
Brighton 1-1 Birmingham
Huddersfield 2-1 Cardiff
Ipswich 2-0 Reading
Millwall 0-1 Fulham
Watford 2-2 Norwich
Wolves 2-1 Rotherham
Wigan 0-3 Charlton