Who’s Going To Blink First?

After all the excitement in the various cup competitions, it’s back to the bread and butter of the league this weekend…even though I think we’ve got a pretty good idea of what the final top four teams are going to be. Here’s a quick run down of the situations at the top and bottom:

At The Top

Three teams could be top at 5:00pm on Sunday evening. Both Swindon and MK Dons are away tomorrow, whilst Bristol City are at home against Fleetwood on Sunday afternoon. The Dons blew their chance to take over pole position during the week when they were held to a 1-1 draw by a rapidly improving Scunthorpe side.

Preston are in the same kind of no-man’s land they were in last season: five points behind the top three but nine points in front of fifth placed Chesterfield. More of the Lillywhites later.

Any of the teams currently in the top half of the table could sneak into the last two play off spots.

At The Bottom

Yeovil and Crawley are stuck in the bottom four even if they win. Leyton Orient can escape the relegation zone if they beat Scunthorpe and Barnsley lose at home to Port Vale by more than one goal. Despite having the second worst goal difference in the competition, Crewe have only lost one of their last five games but are still far from safe and Coventry could drop into the bottom four if they lose at home to Rochdale, who currently occupy the last playoff place.

Got it?

Don’t worry if you haven’t. There are going to be multiple twists and turns before May and there could be a few this weekend.

Saturday

Chesterfield v Doncaster Rovers,  Crawley v Preston, Crewe v MK Dons, Sheffield United v Swindon

I wouldn’t normally look outside the top or bottom six for potential games the week but with almost all League One fixtures having some importance this weekend it’s hard to choose one. Only three points separate Donny from Chesterfield and Rovers have a game in hand on the Spirerites; only one of the ten most recent league clashes between these two has produced more than two goals and half of those matches have finished all square – considering Donny have a better away record than they do at the Keepmoat right now, another draw wouldn’t be a surprise.

The current table indicates that the trip to Crawley is Preston’s easiest remaining away game: half of their remaining away days are against clubs currently in the top ten but although Crawley are currently on a fourteen game winless streak, they have only lost once at home this season to a team in the current top six, a 4-0 reverse against Rochdale in September. This is the third meeting between the sides in Sussex and Preston have yet to win.

Crewe’s home record against the top six is almost exactly the same as Crawley’s: the Alex lost 5-2 at home against Rochdale back in August, but have apparently launched a relegation escape bid at the right time, having only lost one of their last half dozen league games. MK Dons haven’t lost away from home since losing at Bristol City in September, but they’ve only won two of their eight games since then and have scored half as many goals on their travels as they have at home. This is the fifth meeting between Crewe and MK Dons in all competitions at Gresty Road and the Dons have yet to win.

At Bramall Lane, a lot depends on how Sheffield United react to their narrow midweek defeat in the Capital One cup semi final: their cup exploits have obscured the fact that they’ve only won twice at home in League 1 since October and to be honest, if Nigel Clough is serious about promotion then early exits from all three cup competitions next season might be the Blades’ best chance of getting back to the Championship. Swindon have had a fortnight off and haven’t lost an away game since the start of November but having written that, Swindon’s record against the Blades is awful: their last league win in South Yorkshire was in February 1970 even though they’ve had thirteen opportunities to put that right since then.

Sunday

Bristol City v Fleetwood

Believe it or not, it’s possible that Bristol City could actually go back to the top of the pile without playing tomorrow but what’s more likely is that the Robins will know exactly what they have to do to regain top spot. Fleetwood have had a week off and only played four games in January, whereas City played seven times in various competitions and will have had two days rest after the JPT semi final. This is the first time that the sides have ever met at the building site formerly known as Ashton Gate and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there’s only one goal in it: the Cod Army have already lost by one goal at Swindon, MK Dons and Preston this season.

I’ll update the results as we go along and there’ll be a brief FA Cup post next week, but I can tell you now that there will be a single game of the week next weekend and it may very well be a season defining match for both sides…

Can The Blades Wound Spurs?

After last weekend’s excitement, it’s probably time to come down to earth with a bump. To put it simply, Sheffield United will have to do something unprecedented to face Chelsea in the Capital One cup final in March.

Losing the first leg – albeit by one goal – isn’t the end of the world, but the the three third tier clubs that have reached the final since the mid 1960s all avoided defeat in the first leg of their semi finals. Here’s how those games panned out:

January 17th 1967: QPR won 4-1 at Birmingham, who were more or less where they are now – mid table in the second tier. Rangers won the old Third Division title by twelve points, which is eighteen points in today’s money. By August 1968 QPR were in the First Division.

November 20th 1968: Swindon won 2-1 at Burnley, who were then seventh in the old First Division. The Robins only lost once at home in the league that season – to eventual champions Watford – and were promoted as runners up on goal difference.

December 16th 1970: Aston Villa drew 1-1 at Manchester United; at that point the midlands side were third in the old Third Division, having been relegated at the end of the previous season. Villa finished the campaign in what would now be the playoff positions, but in these days only two clubs were promoted; they won the Third Division at the end of the following season.

Using my trusty spreadsheet, I looked at the league record of those three clubs immediately before the second legs of their semi finals and all of them had better league records then than Sheffield United have now. The QPR and Swindon sides of yesteryear extremely similar records to the current top three (Swindon, Bristol City and MK Dons) and the 1970/71 Aston Villa team were at about the same level as Preston before they beat Manchester United at Villa Park

The Blades haven’t met Spurs in this competition at Bramall Lane since November 1990, when both clubs were in the old First Division: in fact, Spurs have only won two of their last ten meetings in the league against Sheffield United, with their last victory coming in December 1975. But this isn’t a league game and third tier clubs don’t have much of a recent history of reaching the final of the competition. Although I’d love to see the Blades get to Wembley almost a century after they beat Chelsea in the ‘khaki’ FA Cup final, I don’t think it’s going to happen.

There’ll be an update later on, but the next scheduled post will be on Friday.

Update: despite two quick goals by Che Adams that gave Sheffield United a 2-1 lead, Spurs are through after Danish wunderkind Christian Eriksen scored the second of his brace. That’s the Capital One Cup for this season, League One teams will resume in August.

FA Cup Fifth Round Draw

Bradford City v Fulham or Sunderland
Preston or Sheffield United v Cambridge or Manchester United

More tomorrow, when I’ll be previewing the second leg of the Capital One Cup semi final. I’ll also be updating this post with the result of the Northern Area Final of the JPT.

Update: congratulations to Walsall, who reached the final of the JPT after a 2-0 aggregate win over Preston. The final will be the Saddlers’ first appearance at Wembley.

FA Cup 4th Round Preview

League One will provide at least one qualifier for the Fifth Round, but I’ve got to be honest here and write that I think two or even three might be too much to hope for. Not surprisingly, Bristol City are the shortest price to win any of this weekend’s ties where League One teams play clubs from either the Premier League or the Championship (3/1), whilst the bookies give Bradford City almost no chance of beating Chelsea. We’ll see, so without further ado, here are the games:

Saturday 24th January (3:00pm unless stated):

Chelsea v Bradford City

Have never met in the FA Cup at Chelsea, last meeting in the competition was in February 1912, which the Bantams won 2-0 but can’t really be considered a shock as Chelsea were a second division side and City were ninth in the First Division. The last time Bradford won at Chelsea was eight months later! The Bantams haven’t reached the fifth round since 96/97 but they were a second tier side then: in 1960 they reached the fifth round when they were in the old Third Division, so it’s fair to say history is against them: they also lost at Yeovil last Saturday, their first away defeat since October. Best case scenario is Bradford holding on bravely for an hour.

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For the record:

Chelsea (2) 2 (Cahill, Ramires) Bradford City (1) 4 (Stead, Morais, Halliday, Yeates)

Bradford City: Williams, Darby, Meredith, Davies, McArdle, Liddle, Knott (Yeates), Morais (Clarke), Halliday (Routis), Hanson, Stead.

One of the greatest shocks of all time, particularly due to Chelsea taking a two goal lead after 38 minutes and the Bantams only having 38% of the possesion.

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Derby v Chesterfield

The Derby half of the preview is here. Unbelievably, this is the first time the Spirerites have reached the fourth round of the FA Cup since they almost beat Middlesbrough in semi finals in 1996/1997; before that the last time they even got this far was in 1954. Rams fans should take note that last Saturday’s 3-1 defeat at Swindon was the first time Chesterfield had lost an away game in any competition since the end of October and if they haven’t heard of Eoin Doyle before tomorrow’s game then they should remember the name.

Derby 2, Chesterfield 0

Preston v Sheffield United

The only tie between two League One sides; the Blades have had three attempts to win a cup tie at Deepdale, but although they’ve not won there in the competition, two of those ties were drawn with United winning the replays at Bramall Lane. The most recent FA Cup tie in Lancashire was at this stage 13 years ago, (North End won by the odd goal in three) but with both sides having played during the week and Preston failing to beat The Blades twice in the league this season, I can see this one ending all square.

Guess what. There’s going to be a replay.

Sunday 25th January (2pm)

Bristol City v West Ham (live on BBC1)

Only previous meeting in the FA Cup was at Upton Park in January 1969, which the Hammers won 3-2. Five of the subsequent eight meetings between the clubs in all competitions at Ashton Gate have ended inconclusively, with only one West Ham win. It’s been almost nine seasons since City got to the fourth round and fifteen years since the Robins got any further but City have a very strong home record and this may not be a walk in Greville Smyth park for the Hammers, who might want to look at what happened to the Chelsea side in almost exactly the same league position in January 1990.

It took 81 minutes for a very average West Ham side to break down the Robins defence, but a goal from a Senegalese international who arrived in a limousine was enough to defeat City, who arguably should have made the most of their chances. West Ham then flew home from Bristol Airport.

Monday 26th January

Rochdale v Stoke City (BT Sport, 8:00pm kick off)

Dale – currently on target for one of their best performances in the league since World War II – haven’t reached the fifth round since 2003 but they beat Leeds at Spotland in the third round last season before being narrowly beaten by Sheffield Wednesday. This is only the fourth game between the sides in Lancashire and since a 4-0 win in the old Third Division (North) in April 1927, Rochdale have only won once more: on penalties in the League Cup in August 2007. Easily Dale’s toughest task in the competition this season and although Keith Hill’s side will give it a good go, their defence may not be able to stop Stoke.

I’ll be updating the results as we go through the weekend. There will be a delay on Saturday due to one of my nieces having a birthday party; the draw for the Fifth Round will take place during The One Show on Monday evening (BBC 1, 7:00pm), but if you don’t want to watch the utter tosh that precedes it, tune in from 7:20pm.

Capital One Cup Semi Final Preview

Welcome to the first of this week’s posts and I’ll start with the observation that writing about both of the major domestic competitions in January isn’t something I was anticipating in August!

As I’ve mentioned in the FA Cup previews both this season and last, Sheffield United already had a reputation as being a ‘cup’ team, which is fine if you’re happy with being one of the better teams in League One without apparently being able to win promotion. Since relegation from the Championship at the end of 2010/11, the Blades have three consecutive top ten three finishes and have reached fourth round of the FA Cup at the very least but their record in the League Cup isn’t that great. Apart from reaching the semi finals in 2002/03 (they lost to eventual winners Liverpool) you’ve got to go back to November 1971 for United’s penultimate appearance at this stage and that didn’t end happily as they were thrashed 5-0 by West Ham: it took over 40 years to get revenge for that: this season the Hammers were dispatched on penalties.

Oddly enough, the Blades haven’t faced a Championship side en route to the semi finals and have played more away games in the competition this season than at Bramall Lane. They’ve not beaten any of their opponents by more than one goal (eight of their ten wins in the league this season have been by the same margin) so the rather obvious key to reaching the final is to keep it tight at the back…unfortunately that’s where the problems begin, as Nigel Clough’s side has only kept three away clean sheets in League One this season and only one (at Leyton Orient) in the Capital One cup.

Sheffield United’s record at White Hart Lane isn’t great either. The only other time they’ve played Spurs in London in this competition resulted in a 2-1 defeat in October 1970, which was the season Tottenham won the competition by beating Aston Villa – then playing in the third tier! The last time the Blades won at Spurs in the league was in November 1991 (before the Premier League even existed) and it’s been almost eight years since the sides last met.

Of course, the flip side to this is the fantastic record that third tier clubs have had in the competition. QPR and Swindon won it in the sixties, Aston Villa reached the final in the early seventies and many teams have reached the semi finals. Even if the Blades don’t reach Wembley, they deserve credit for a good run and prolonging interest in a competition that’s normally over for most third tier sides before Christmas.

The game is on Sky Sports 1 tonight (7:45pm kick off), I’ll be back with the preview for the fourth round of the FA Cup on Friday.

Has The Battle Of The Robins Begun?

Swindon went back to the top of the pile after a straightforward 3-0 at Coventry on Monday night, but right now it looks as if the rest of the season could turn into a head to head battle between Swindon and Bristol City, who beat Notts County 4-0 at Ashton Gate on Saturday. The always superb statto.com has City winning the title by a point and although my ‘rough and ready’ spreadsheet indicates a four point title winning margin for Bristol City, there’s every indication that this title race will go right to the wire.

After that though, the position is rapidly becoming less clear. MK Dons and Preston both failed to win last Saturday and will remain in third and fourth places this weekend regardless of how they perform. The Dons have also lost the services of Benik Afobe, who joined Wolves permanently during the week from Arsenal and had scored ten goals this season for the Buckinghamshire club, but Preston are in danger of having exactly the same season they had in 2013/14. At this stage last season, the Lillywhites were fourth but had earned more points: they have the small advantage of starting the weekend off against Leyton Orient this evening (Sky Sports 1, 7:30pm) in yet another televised game that probably looked really good on paper in the summer.

At the bottom, Crewe were two goals up at half time against Gillingham and although Bradley Dack scored early in the second half, Uche Ikpeazu’s goal six minutes from the end earned another three points for the rapidly improving Alex.

Yeovil remain mired at the bottom of the table after a 2-0 defeat at Barnsley and entertain Bradford tomorrow in the only game featuring current members of both the bottom and the top six. The Glovers’ recent home form is diabolical: they’ve haven’t scored more than one goal in any of their league games at Huish Park this season, have scored only once in their last seven games (James Hayter’s equaliser against Swindon in October) and haven’t won at home since the end of September. In contrast, Bradford have won three consecutive road trips and their home defeat against Rochdale last weekend was their first loss in League One since the beginning of November. There’s an odd stat about this game though: this is the fifth meeting between the sides and the home team has never won.

I decided against making MK Dons v Sheffield United an official ‘game of the week’, but their clash is still worth a closer look. The Dons’ recent 0-3 defeat by Walsall was their first home defeat since September but having had to come from two goals down at Crawley last weekend you have to wonder what this current wobble will last and what it may mean to their promotion hopes. The Blades haven’t won on the road since mid November and don’t have a particularly good record against the other clubs currently in the top six (2-1-3) and have only won once in their three league games at Milton Keynes, although they defeated the Dons in the fourth round of the Capital One Cup at the end of October.

The FA Cup replays were always going to mean that two clubs were unlucky and although Bristol City and Chesterfield progressed to the next round after beating Doncaster and Scunthorpe respectively, Bradford’s 4-0 demolition of Millwall probably wasn’t as much of a shock as the media made it out to be as Millwall are on course to make an appearance in these posts next season. The revised fourth round draw is as follows:

Saturday 24th January (3:00pm unless stated):

Chelsea v Bradford City, Derby v Chesterfield, Preston v Sheffield United

Sunday 25th January (2pm)

Bristol City v West Ham (live on BBC1)

As you might expect, next week’s post will be an FA Cup preview, but looking at those ties I’ll be amazed if any of the other sides can join Preston or Sheffield United in the next round. However, before then the Blades are in action against Spurs in the Capital One cup semi final first leg and so I’ll be back on Tuesday evening to preview that tie.

Swindon Take Over – But For How Long?

So for the first time since mid September, we have new leaders: having already been knocked out of the FA Cup, Swindon managed to salvage a point at Fleetwood last Saturday to go top of the table on goal difference. However, their lead might be temporary: the Wiltshire Robins don’t play until they visit Coventry on Monday night (Sky Sports 1, 7:30pm) and by that time either Bristol City (who need to avoid defeat to Notts County at Ashton Gate – the Magpies haven’t won there in the league for almost 20 years) or Preston (who need to win by at least seven goals at Sheffield United and hope Bristol City lose) will have overtaken Mark Cooper’s outfit.

The split between the top six became even more pronounced over the holidays: there’s now an eight point gap between MK Dons and Bradford City and – incredibly – a three point difference between Sheffield United in sixth and Doncaster in 15th. After that, there’s only ten points between Donny and Yeovil, who sank to the bottom of the table after losing at Bristol City on Boxing Day.

There are a couple of candidates for game of the day: Preston probably won’t manage to score seven goals at Sheffield United (the last time the Lillywhites scored more than one goal in a league game at Bramall Lane was in December 2001) but if the visitors maintain their current away form – they’re unbeaten in the last four – they’ll keep pressure on the other sides at the top. I’m not sure if the Blades’ cup exploits are helping or hindering their chances of promotion but their home form certainly is. One win in their last six -and that was in October – is nothing to be proud of and their win at Bradford in the same month is their only victory against the current top six in five attempts. The rest of the month is a nasty one for United: games against MK Dons and Swindon in the league plus an FA Cup game at Preston and a two legged Capital One Cup semi final against Spurs.

At the other end of the table, Gillingham travel to Crewe in a relegation six pointer. The Kent side recorded their first away wins of the season last month but reverted to form last weekend when losing at Port Vale and were comprehensively dismantled by Bristol City in the first leg of the Southern Area Final of the JPT during the week. Crewe’s form at home since mid October has been unrecognisable: one defeat in seven, three clean sheets and a win over Bristol City last month. The Alex haven’t beaten Gillingham at Gresty Road since October 2006 (four games since) and haven’t beaten any of the other six clubs surrounding them this season so this might not be as straightforward as it might appear.

All the FA Cup third round replays featuring League One teams take place next week, so I’m still trying to work out the best way to cover them. I’ll definitely have something posted on Wednesday evening though. The second legs of the JPT semi finals won’t take place until the end of the month, but after this week’s games it looks as if Walsall may be making their first ever appearance at Wembley…

FA Cup Round Up

In: Sheffield United, Preston, Rochdale and Chesterfield and Scunthorpe (who are still in the third round…)

Out: Yeovil, Barnsley and Colchester, all of whom lost by two goals to opponents from the Premier League or the Championship.

Replays: Bristol City v Doncaster, Bradford City v Millwall

Regular readers won’t be too surprised about the clubs that got through to the fourth round; I’ve mentioned the Blades and the Lillywhites in FA Cup previews previously and although their momentum in the league has dropped off a bit, you could argue that Rochdale have punching above their weight this season. Chesterfield have ridden their luck a bit (they’re playing at Scunthorpe tonight) but became the second team to win without conceding a goal at MK Dons in a week and have cemented their place in trivia quiz history.

The draw for the next round is an interesting one: Preston and Sheffield United face each other, Bristol City or Doncaster, Rochdale and Bradford (if they beat Millwall next week) will all play Premier League opposition and if Chesterfield reach the fourth round they’ll travel to Derby. There are a lot of ifs, ands or buts to go yet.

In other news…Crawley and Gillingham are under new management after John Gregory stepped down due to illness and Peter Taylor was dismissed. The first legs of the JPT Area Semi Finals both take place this week and there’s a full programme this weekend. I’ll be back on Friday.