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The action at the top and bottom of the Championship has been enthralling since its return last month and Gabriel Sutton is back with his best bets for the weekend fixtures.

Derby to score under 1.5 goals

Derby County v Nottingham Forest

Derby against Forest is one of English football’s unique rivalries. A grudge match that is always fiery and passionate, yet one driven by similarities rather than differences; both achieved momentous success when inspired by the late great Brian Clough.

This could be one of the most enticing versions of the East Midlands Derby for some time. Forest are set for a groundbreakingly progressive campaign: their first top-six finish and their first season to start and end with the same manager at the helm since 2010-11. The Reds have a clear identity under Sabri Lamouchi. They dominate their defensive third thanks to stellar showings from centre-back Joe Worrall and holding midfielder Ben Watson, they attack down the right via Matty Cash and Joe Lolley, then hope for clinical finishing from Lewis Grabban – it’s often forthcoming, too. 17 of Forest’s 18 league victories, including Wednesday’s 1-0 win over Bristol City through Tiago Silva’s delightful free-kick, have come when they have had less than 50% possession, which suggests they will feel in their element on Saturday, even on their foes’ terrain.

Derby, a possession-based side under Phillip Cocu, have taken 30 points from 15 games since the turn of the year and deserve great credit for their rise into Play-Off contention. Their form though has been based on their use of the central areas just in front of the penalty box – Chris Martin, Tom Lawrence, Louie Sibley and Max Bird all at times drift into the number 10 position in various ways. The Rams, though, could be short on width, especially if Craig Forsyth starts at left-back – Jayden Bogle may be the only attack-minded player who will look to use the outside spaces. Derby’s natural game is to play into the areas that Forest are proven to consistently block out, so it may be worth backing the visitors to either keep a clean sheet or limit their rivals to a solitary strike.

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Leeds to win

Blackburn Rovers v Leeds United

Leeds dropped two points in midweek with a 1-1 draw at home to Luton. The Whites took too long to build up any fluency or tempo, to the extent that it was only when Harry Cornick fired the visitors ahead that they came to life. Ezgjan Alioski and Pablo Hernandez made a difference from the bench and Marcelo Bielsa’s side should have won based on their second-half performance.

Hernandez has not yet started since the Championship resumed but he brings a level of creativity and vision different to anything Mateusz Klich or Tyler Roberts can offer, so may be hoping he has played his way into Bielsa’s XI. That XI will face a Blackburn side very much in last chance saloon as far as the play-offs are concerned, after a 2-0 loss at Barnsley left them five points off.

Rovers have suffered from the absence of a natural left-back in Amari’i Bell, with Tony Mowbray forced to select right-footers in that position like Joe Rankin-Costello and Elliott Bennett, which can leave them vulnerable. Plus, although Lewis Travis and Corry Evans both ran the show in the 3-1 win over Bristol City just after the restart, the Lancashire outfit have looked short on midfield mobility and tenacity with both sidelined. A pairing of Bradley Johnson and Stewart Downing has left them a touch imbalanced. The visitors should prevail.

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Luton draw no bet

Luton Town v Reading

5/6

Luton will be delighted with their 1-1 draw at Leeds on Tuesday. The Hatters needed a fine performance from Simon Sluga, of course, but they also defended heroically at Elland Road, with gallant displays from their centre-backs – Matty Pearson, Sonny Bradley, and Cameron Carter-Vickers; the latter having made a huge impact since joining on loan from Tottenham.

The tenacious Ryan Tunnicliffe also had a great game in midfield. The one-time Manchester United trainee played a lovely ball in behind for the goal that Cornick finished early in the second half. Five points from three tough games – with Preston and Swansea being the previous opponents – represents a good start to Nathan Jones’ return to the Hatters hotseat.

Luton will fancy their chances, too, against a bland Reading side who, since moving 12 points clear of safety on New Year’s Day, have won just three games in 15. In the 3-0 and 3-1 victories at Sheffield Wednesday and Birmingham, they were helped at crucial times by an Osaze Urhoghide red card and a horror Scott Hogan miss, respectively. They were not exactly dominant, either, in the 2-0 home win over Barnsley, which saw them outshot 23-7. There is a lack of tactical coherence about this Reading side, which was ruthlessly exposed in Saturday’s 3-0 home loss to Brentford. Sam Baldock started out as the lone striker, even though the good performances in his career have always come with a strike-partner. Then, when Bowen switched to 4-4-2, we saw midfield talents Ovie Ejaria and Michael Olise shifted out wide, where they struggled to influence the game. That is not to say that Bowen is solely responsible for the Royals’ form, because the players should also be culpable for clear defensive weakness and lack of fight against the Bees.

It could be worth backing the Hatters via the Draw No Bet option, which will pay out with a home win and return your stake if the game ends honours even.

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Draw or Barnsley - Double Chance

Stoke City v Barnsley

3/5

During the lockdown, Stoke City might have considered themselves nearly safe. They had taken 31 points from Michael O’Neill’s 22 games in charge and went into the interlude off the back of a seemingly reassuring 5-1 thumping of Hull City. Since returning, though, the Potters suffered the blow of an injury to Ryan Shawcross in a 1-1 draw at Reading, before losing 2-0 and 3-0 to relegation rivals Middlesbrough and Wigan respectively. Their primary issue lies in midfield, where they have gone from having Euro 2016 star Joe Allen, Russia 2018 stand-out Peter Etebo, and their last top Premier League performer in Badou Ndiaye, to having the likes of Jordan Cousins, Jordan Thompson, and Lasse Sørensen, who are not at the same level. Nevertheless, Michael O’Neill was deeply disappointed with his side’s display at Wigan, admitting they were outfought and outran from the first minute, and that they produced the worst performance of his reign. He even questioned whether the result hurt them enough. There have never been those sorts of question marks around Barnsley, who have pressed with vigour, intensity, and intent in most games this season, with Jacob Brown and Conor Chaplin using their athleticism to great effect off the ball.

In the first half of the campaign, the Reds suffered from a lack of defensive nous, but that has been aided by the addition of Michael Sollbauer, who has brought much-needed leadership and assurance. Since the Austrian arrived in late January, the previously much-maligned Mads Andersen has upped his levels and Gerhard Struber’s side have conceded just eight goals in 11 games – the third-fewest in the division. Stoke have looked lethargic since the restart while Barnsley have looked full of life, so value here can be found by betting against a home win.

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Odds are correct at the time of posting

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