We’re back with some Championship action this weekend and Benjamin Bloom is here to preview everything you need to know ahead of the big weekend, with odds from Betfair throughout.
MATCH TO WATCH: Derby County v Sheffield United
Derby and Sheffield United are both in the midst of contrastingly fascinating seasons. We don’t need to talk about the problems off the pitch at Derby any more than we have already: things are bad and need a definitive solution in double-quick time. The chasm between Derby’s determination to deal with the hopeless hand they’ve been dealt and the foreboding picture surrounding the lack of a takeover really does take some getting your head around.
The staggering statistic surrounding this game is that without their 21-point deduction, Derby would be on 32 points and level with opponents Sheffield United this weekend. Of course there’s the mitigating factor that Sheffield United have three games in hand, but only in the Championship could one of the pre-season favourites for promotion be anywhere close to the nailed-on relegation certainties.
There are several striking contrasts that sum up Sheffield United’s season. Expectations vs reality, Jokanovic vs Heckingbottom, and the past five games vs the rest of the season. Speaking of those last five games the Blades have won four, drawn one and kept four clean sheets, a period far more in keeping with that of a year one parachute team. With all of this contrast and contradictory narratives both clubs would happily play out the rest of the season with boring predictability, and on the basis of the recent games for both that would mean a winning run. It’s a long way to the play-offs for the Blades and a long way to survival for the Rams, but maybe the next contrast we’ll be looking at is the league table now and the league table in May.
TEAM TO WATCH: Stoke City
Elvis Presley beautifully captured the essence of the Italian song ‘O Sole Mio’ and with some English words transformed it into the timeless ‘It’s Now Or Never’. Sixty years later, the King has probably unwittingly also captured the essence of a great number of Championship teams in the content of his lyrics. For Stoke City it’s less a case of ‘my love won’t wait’ and more the Premier League won’t wait, with the painfully implicit understanding that ‘tomorrow will be too late’.
It feels a lot like we have a compound crossroads here for the season, the manager and the club. The seasonal crossroads has Stoke trailing the play-offs by five points with key players missing and on a run of one point in their last three. We’ve been here before very recently with Stoke, last season the Potters were sat just outside the play-off spots at game 20 but between then and the end of the season they won six of 26 games with only three teams scoring fewer points.
The managerial crossroads is an obvious one. Michael O’Neill joined in winter 2019 to clear up the mess left by Gary Rowett and Nathan Jones. The first season was encouraging, the second season dropped off massively and now the third one could go either way. Stoke fans will rightly point out that O’Neill has had huge injury issues to put up with for probably the past two years, but the three years in the Championship has far from met the club’s expectations.
This is where we get to the crossroads for the club. The parachute payments have gone, the last set of financial results were eye watering, and with FFP biting, the only copper-bottomed solution is promotion fast. That last point seems to have caused much hardship at many clubs, but the words of Elvis couldn’t be truer at Stoke.
MANAGER TO WATCH: Marco Silva (Fulham)
A single game or victory shouldn’t necessarily sway our opinions one way or the other, but when it’s a second 7-0 away win of the season it’s easy for that to happen. With that being said, could it be full steam ahead on the Fulham goal machine juggernaut once again?
By most standards Fulham haven’t been very good recently – yes, they’ve had games postponed but their recent run of four points in five games is far more bottom of the table form than top. Prior to that five-game run Fulham had been in utterly irresistible form, recording seven straight wins and scoring an average of over three goals per game during the streak. Tuesday night’s utter demolition of Reading has got us all wondering whether another run is on the way. Were Fulham to pull off another seven-game winning streak they would reach game 30 on 66 points; if that were the case surely the remainder of the season would be a downhill freewheel to promotion.
It’s clear manager Marco Silva has great resources to work with, bringing on €8m Rodrigo Muniz at 6-0 up in a game frankly feels a little like showing off. Aleksandar Mitrovic is now up to 24 goals for the season and it won’t be long before Harry Wilson has double figures in both goals and assists. If Fulham are promoted this season it could be that Marco Silva is doing the best possible thing with his attacking approach to Championship life. Looking at the recent first seasons at the top level of Leeds and Sheffield United suggests that a front foot aggressive approach is nowadays far more useful than a passive reactive one.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Daryl Dike (West Brom)
This weekend sees the return of Daryl Dike, one of the big success stories of last season. The term ‘final piece of the jigsaw’ is probably overused when we retrospectively analyse how it was a team improved, but Dike’s arrival at Barnsley seemed to take the Tykes onto a new level. The USA striker made his Championship debut on Valentine’s Day 2021 with Barnsley in 15th place in the table, from that point on nobody scored more points than Barnsley as they rocketed up ten positions and secured an unlikely play-off place.
The comparisons between last season and this are obvious for all to see. Dike has once again been signed by Valerien Ismael and the challenge this time is not to move from the bottom half up to the play-offs, but from fourth place into the top two. The glaring inadequacy with West Brom has been putting the ball in the back of the net, Dike did that nine times in just 13 starts at Barnsley last season and given the extra resources West Brom have in comparison, will be expected to do at least the same.
It’s not just the goals though that Dike will bring. Anyone who’s watched a Big Val team in English football knows that the number nine’s main role is to set the tone for a level of pressing so intense you wonder how his players complete a full 90 minutes. Dike’s physicality and willingness will be a key trigger for the full-on style West Brom have tried, and not quite mastered consistently this season. If the jigsaw piece clicks like it did last season, the top three will need to be on their guard.
Odds correct at the time of publication. 18+ Please Gamble Responsibly. Visit begambleaware.org
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