The Championship returns on Saturday and Gabriel Sutton is back with his best bets.
Shandon Baptiste to score anytime
Fulham v Brentford
Fulham re-start the Championship whilst entering last chance saloon in the automatic promotion race. Victory in the early kick-off would temporarily close the gap to three points, meaning pressure on second-placed West Brom before they face Birmingham. Scott Parker’s troops, though, will need to quicken the tempo of their build-up play if they are to trouble the top two, having at times looked languid and pedestrian.
23 of Fulham’s 52 league goals have been scored by Aleksandar Mitrovic, which is 44% – the Serb dominates his side’s goal threat and the team can sometimes be found wanting for alternative ideas. That will need to change for the visit of Brentford, who have promotion aspirations of their own, being four points behind their hosts and likely to finish in the top six. The Bees beat Arsenal 3-2 recently and although friendlies do not ordinarily mean a great deal, in this case they could be a reasonable barometer of a team’s capability in comparison with matches that happened three months ago. Plus, this was very much a senior Gunners side that featured the likes of Aubameyang and Nicolas Pepe – and, make of this what you will, they also beat Charlton 6-0.
We saw stellar performances from Brentford’s recruits from Oxford, Tariqe Fosu and Shandon Baptiste, who joined in January. The latter, who scored a fine individual goal, can potentially become one of the most complete midfielders in the Championship. Baptiste possesses a wonderfully unique range of qualities. There’s a positive energy about the way he plays, his tackling and passing ability is top-notch, and his dribbling ability, mesmeric, as we saw for his stunning FA Cup goal against Hartlepool back in early January.
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) January 4, 2020
Baptiste’s outstanding performance against Arsenal might earn him a starting berth ahead of either Mathias Jensen or Josh Da Silva, in which case, he would be likely to be the most advanced in a three-man midfield. Plus, Fulham’s protection for their defence is questionable and either Kevin McDonald, who has declined over the last two seasons, or Harrison Reed, recovering from a calf injury, might struggle to combat Baptiste’s physicality. By kick-off, 5/1 on the Grenadan to score anytime could look outstanding value.
Both teams to score - yes
Blackburn Rovers v Bristol City
Blackburn are enjoying a progressive season under Tony Mowbray. Their 2018-19 campaign was a year of consolidation and they relied on much of the personnel that got them promoted in 2017-18, but this year, Mowbray has been looking to evolve the squad and style. A top 10 finish would have been the target for most in pre-season, so their current position of 10th is pleasing – and they are just three points off the Play-Offs. Part of the reason Rovers are still in with a chance of snatching sixth spot is because the prime contenders have been in poor form. One of those sides is Preston North End and the other is Blackburn’s forthcoming visitors.
Bristol City have taken just eight points from eight games since dynamic midfielder Josh Brownhill joined Burnley in late January. It seems reasonable to suggest that Brownhill’s exit was a cause for the drop in form, but it has hardly helped that City have struggled to keep their best midfield in place since then. Midfield metronome Adam Nagy and French talent Han-Noah Massengo have rarely been fit simultaneously, whilst key creator Kasey Palmer has also been out for the long haul – although Massengo is hoping to start here next to the conservative Korey Smith.
As evidenced by the recent 3-2 loss at Southampton, City have some defensive issues and had some difficulties blocking out the gaps between the back-four and the midfield – there may be more question marks about them at the back than Blackburn. Equally, City have more firepower; a strike-partnership of Famara Diedhiou, who looked very sharp at Southampton, and potentially Nahki Wells running off him will ask questions of defences. Right-winger Niclas Eliasson has a good understanding with Diedhiou, too and right-back Jack Hunt can pick out some accurate crosses, while left-back Tommy Rowe loves a brisk, first time pass down the line. If Diedhiou and Wells are not performing, then Johnson can call on Palmer and Benik Afobe; the former’s vision complements the latter’s movement very well – Afobe has scored 84 career goals and is still only 27.
Rovers, meanwhile, have got a very dynamic midfield talent in Lewis Travis and their attacking play will be helped by the mooted return of key creators, Bradley Dack and Lewis Holtby – forward Adam Armstrong has scored nine goals in his last 19 games, too. Expect goals at both ends.
Under 2.5 goals
Hull City v Charlton Athletic
Despite having looked like potential surprise packages at times this season, Hull City and Charlton Athletic now appear to be the two teams likeliest to be fighting it out to avoid the third relegation spot. The Tigers had been in outstanding form around November and December, while the Addicks started on fire – they were second at the end of August. Both teams will be grateful for the pre-New Year purple patches that give them a respectable chance of beating the drop, but they may also be glad, from a footballing perspective, of the interlude that interrupted severe losing streaks.
Hull have got key defenders Reece Burke and newly-appointed captain Jordy de Wijs back fit – the absence of both was a factor behind their post-New Year slump – but aggressive full-back Eric Lichaj and imposing midfielder Jackson Irvine will not feature for the remainder of the season after failing to agree new contracts.
We may have lost Irvine and Lichaj today but holding onto players such as Stewart, Kane, Toral, Pennington, Bowler, McKenzie and Batty is a massive boost to our survival hopes. We need players who are committed and ready to give their all for the badge! COME ON YOU ULL! #hcafc pic.twitter.com/QJqMD3eMqw
— Hull City News (@HullCityStats) June 16, 2020
Marcus Maddison will not feature again, so Josh Bowler and Mallik Wilks will be Hull’s wide options. The latter is available for just two more games. Bowler needs to ally intelligence with his aptitude for dribbling and Wilks is a touch raw at this level too. Tom Eaves, though strong on back-post headers, is still missing some ingredients for a reliable Championship striker, so playmaker Jon Toral looks like the only refined attacking player for the Tigers – and he’s played just 71 minutes in seven months.
With Lyle Taylor unavailable for Charlton, Bowyer may turn towards Macauley Bonne, who is full of running but has scored in just one game since November, and Andre Green, who is a decent dribbler but can be wayward in his end product.
Both sides will be short on quality, so while Naby Sarr and Tom Lockyer of Charlton have had their faults at times this season, they are good enough to keep Hull’s attack quiet. With De Wijs and Burke available for the hosts, we could see defences on top.
PNE to win
Luton Town v Preston North End
Nathan Jones has returned to Luton Town as manager and fans have mixed feelings about the appointment. There is no doubt that in his first spell, Jones had inspired some of the best football ever seen at Kenilworth Road. In Luton’s back-to-back promotions, he oversaw the first and laid the groundwork for the second, making him a huge part of the reason why the Hatters are now playing second-tier football. On the flip side, though, Jones left Luton at a controversial time and he is only returning because he did not get the results he wanted at Stoke… that is acceptable from a business perspective, but may jar slightly with the romanticists.
💬NJ | "We don't do things by halves! It has been a whirlwind and you rely on people to help you in these times. I've got a good support network and that enables me to fully commit to this job, because it's a job I love."
— @LutonTown (@LutonTown) June 4, 2020
The biggest problem for the fiery Welshman is that the full-backs, Jack Stacey and James Justin, were so crucial to the way his side played and this Luton squad does not have players who can provide the same level of pace, width, thrust, and quality to make the diamond system work. Jones is very single-minded about the standards he wants from his players and sometimes, especially at the early stages of his reigns when the personnel is not tailored precisely to his liking, this can come at the cost of pragmatism.
Overambitious use of the ball could be problematic against Preston North End, who have been arguably the best pressing team in the Championship over the last three years. The fact they do not have a reliable, orthodox number nine might not be a huge issue in Bedfordshire if they can find their opportunities to attack in transition. Ben Pearson’s tenacity, Alan Browne’s drive, Daniel Johnson’s creativity, Tom Barkhuizen’s pace, Sean Maguire’s movement, and Scott Sinclair’s quality will help North End threaten on turnovers in the opposing half.
Meanwhile, Alex Neil’s side possess a reliable centre-back pairing of Patrick Bauer and Ben Davies, protecting a goalkeeper in Declan Rudd who has been in improved form this term. At odds-against quotes, North End look good value to get the victory they need to guarantee they stay sixth at the end of the weekend’s action.