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Another weekend of Championship football is upon us and Gabriel Sutton shares his selections.

Cardiff to win 1-0

Preston North End v Cardiff City

8/1

North End’s grasp on sixth spot is in peril. They still occupy it on goal difference but missed an opportunity to stay ahead on points in last week’s 1-1 draw at Luton. Alex Neil’s side enjoyed much of the play at Kenilworth Road, outshooting their hosts 12-5, but they were let down by two major problems: Firstly, the dearth of a quality centre-forward. That is not a problem when they have wide forwards Tom Barkhuizen and Scott Sinclair threaded in on goal in transition by the creative Daniel Johnson, but it could be a problem when they need their front man to be more productive with less service – Sean Maguire would be playing out wide rather than up top were the squad shaped differently.

The other issue is the frequent concession of late goals. Had their 2019-20 matches finished on 75 minutes, they would have eight more points, which would suggest that Neil has not quite had the depth to influence games through substitutions. Second half alterations made a positive difference last week, though, for Cardiff City, who boosted their Play-Off hopes with a 2-0 victory over Leeds.

After Junior Hoilett’s opportunistic first-half strike, Robert Glatzel came on for the Bluebirds and helped them operate further up with his close control and neat link-up play. He hit a fantastic, post-and-in strike from outside the box, too. Glatzel is a technically accomplished front man while his positional rival, Callum Paterson, is more accomplished at the aggressive and physical aspects of the game; two different types of strikers allows Neil Harris to adapt to different scenarios.

We can expect the South Wales outfit to be solid and industrious in Lancashire, as they were last week; the Bluebirds have conceded just 10 goals in 12 when the experienced Sean Morrison has been partnered at centre-back by the athletic Curtis Nelson. In midfield, meanwhile, Will Vaulks and Joe Ralls will bring energy and dynamism against a North End side that have taken 16 points from 21 games against top 14 opposition. In a tight game, Cardiff’s favourable options up top could make all the difference.

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Leeds to win and over 2.5 goals

Leeds United v Fulham

Leeds were off-colour in last week’s 2-0 loss at Cardiff. They did not have too much trouble getting the ball into advanced wide areas but from that point, their usual smooth, one-touch combination play did not materialise. Pablo Hernandez, though, is reportedly back in training hoping to start this match. The Spaniard’s vision, deft touch, and eye for a cute through ball could help Marcelo Bielsa’s side unpick their opponents and bring fluency back into their game.

Another six days of preparation will help, too. Project restart so far suggests it may be easier for possession-based sides to perform well in their second game back, rather than their first, because there is more time for players to refamiliarise themselves with more complex, subtler instructions.

Fulham will hope to be stronger, too, after they suffered a 2-0 defeat themselves, although that game against Brentford could easily have swung their way. Harrison Reed dictated play superbly, considering he has not started a competitive match since New Year’s Day. Reed’s energy and control gave greater freedom to technician Tom Cairney and the effervescent Bobby Reid whose work, along with Joe Bryan’s crosses from the left, meant there were numerous chances for Aleksandar Mitrovic.

Fulham will carry a threat, but so will Leeds and we could see a high-scoring encounter at Elland Road with the hosts coming out victorious.

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Under 2.5 goals

Stoke City v Middlesbrough

Middlesbrough have this week parted company with head coach Jonathan Woodgate, after a 3-0 home defeat to Swansea plunged them closer to the relegation zone. His replacement, Neil Warnock, has the credentials for the job on paper. His career record of eight promotions is well-documented and he has in recent years saved struggling teams in Rotherham and Cardiff from the drop to League One. Warnock’s appointment increases Boro’s chances of staying up, but this squad is not a natural fit for the 71-year-old.

The main thing going for Middlesbrough is their production of young talent, whereas Warnock’s last promotion came with one of the oldest squads in the Championship. It remains to be seen whether his management style can appeal to a younger generation. Plus, while his Cardiff side had plenty of physicality, there is not so much of that in Boro’s crop aside from defender Ryan Shotton plus forwards Ashley Fletcher and Rudy Gestede.

Warnock must quickly right the defensive wrongs of the previous game and identify a strategy that suits his players for his first assignment, which is a trip to a Stoke City side that are also trying to find the right strategy. All of their strikers have one considerable downside – Sam Vokes’ lack of pace, Lee Gregory’s poor finishing and Tyrese Campbell’s back-to-goal limitations. Michael O’Neill could combat that by going two up top, but the Potters have started with two-striker formations on just 11 occasions this term – and they have lost in eight of those games. It’s fortunate for the Staffordshire outfit, who have used nine different formations, that they have an operator in Sam Clucas. He has a fantastic attitude, and his dynamism has allowed him to start every game amid the tactical instability, and play in five different positions.

Stoke could also fare better with James McClean, so direct and persistent in his runs up and down the left flank, coming into the XI after a positive substitute appearance last week along with a natural right-back in Tommy Smith, after four centre-backs by trade started the previous game. Stoke have kept five clean sheets in their last eight home games while Boro will tailor their efforts to starting Warnock’s reign with a strong defensive display, which would point to a tight encounter in the Potteries.

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Wigan draw no bet

Wigan Athletic v Blackburn Rovers

5/6

No Championship team has earned more points in 2020 than Wigan Athletic. And yet, the Latics remain just three points above the relegation zone, which tells us how important this run has been. Paul Cook’s side have been inspired by tenacious midfielder Sam Morsy, who complements the more technical Joe Williams; and left-back Antonee Robinson has shown admirable commitment to the cause, considering his disappointment at a dream, Deadline Day January move to AC Milan falling through.

The turnaround coincided partly with the improvement from speedy forward Jamal Lowe and physical front-man Kieffer Moore, but also the arrival of Leon Balogun, who brought physicality and aerial strength to their defensive line, helping the Latics hold onto more second-half leads. The Nigerian, though, was absent for last week’s trip to Huddersfield, along with fellow defender Chey Dunkley, so Danny Fox had to make his first start since August. The fact Wigan restricted their hosts to one shot on target from 70% possession is testament to their organisation.

The same cannot be said for Blackburn’s previous opponents; Rovers beat Bristol City 3-1 and deservedly so, but that result had a lot to do with the defensive disarray of their visitors, on top of a fine strike from defender Tosin Adarabioyo. Against a more disciplined side like Wigan, Blackburn could struggle without a deep-lying playmaker or an attacking full-back playing on their natural side; Elliott Bennett is a relatively conservative right-back while Joe Rankin-Costello, at left-back, is right-footed.

Wigan may continue their excellent 2020 form, but for those reluctant to back the outright home win, there is the Draw No Bet option which would return your stake if the game ends all square.

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Odds are correct at the time of posting

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