It’s all to play for in every section of the Championship, with just three rounds of fixtures to go, and Gabriel Sutton gives his previews for Tuesday’s pivotal Gameweek 44 clashes.
Both Teams To Score
West Brom v Fulham
Automatic promotion contenders West Brom drew 1-1 last time out at Blackburn, a result that means there is more pressure on this game – especially with Brentford and Fulham winning to move within three and five points respectively.
The Albion have often underwhelmed in the first halves of games this season then fought back strongly in the second through spirit and substitutions, but it was almost the opposite at Ewood Park.
Slaven Bilic’s side looked at their creative and vibrant best in the first half, when they had a host of chances: the inspirational Matheus Pereira created numerous glorious openings for Charlie Austin, who was not quite his usual clinical self, before Filip Krovinovic turned the ball home shortly before the interval.
Although the Baggies continued to create chances after the break, they left themselves wide open in the final half-hour and gave their opponents numerous counter-attacking opportunities that led to Joe Rothwell’s equalizer and several other chances.
It may not be the greatest coincidence that West Brom became more vulnerable after Jake Livermore went off: although the former Hull midfielder has his limitations, he brings vital grit and discipline to an otherwise technical midfield and the concern for Albion would be that they do not quite have a like-for-like replacement in line.
Fulham’s Harrison Reed, though more mobile and technical than Livermore, is similarly unique in that holding midfield role and his passing range is a massive strength, as we saw in Friday’s 2-0 win over Cardiff.
Credit where it's due. Not many people saw Fulham coming away with 9 points from those 3 games. We've ridden our luck at times but also showed some real grit & determination. Fair play to Scott Parker & the players for turning things round. Big finish to the season incoming #ffc pic.twitter.com/fxneCzrt0Z
— Fulham Focus (@Fulham_Focus) July 7, 2020
Reed will be paired, most likely, with the energetic Josh Onomah and the dynamic Stefan Johansen, who made a real impact when coming on for Harry Arter, who himself starred in the 1-0 win at Nottingham Forest.
Fulham’s run of three consecutive wins is largely down to the performances in central midfield so Scott Parker will have the luxury of being able to keep Tom Cairney, arguably the best technician at this level over the last five years, as a game-changer on the bench.
The Whites possess the division’s top goalscorer in Aleksandar Mitrovic but they have also proven themselves to carry a threat without him, so they will pose a definite attacking threat in a game that could be full of quality.
Wigan v Hull
Hull City have been unable to follow up their 2-1 win over relegation rivals Middlesbrough, subsequently losing three on the bounce.
Manager Grant McCann is trying to remain positive amid intense questioning and he feels as though his team are falling on the wrong side of fine margins; there is a case for that, given that they outshot Bristol City and Millwall, beaten narrowly in both cases by an effort from outside the box.
It must be difficult for McCann, too, managing such an unstable club that had been on a downward trajectory long before he took charge, and seeing his two best players in Jarrod Bowen and Kamil Grosicki sold in January – not to mention the subsequent injuries at the back.
Equally, McCann has not adapted to circumstances as well as he could have done; technician Jon Toral and wide forward James Scott were unused substitutes in the previous game while the lack of urgency is a concern.
The same cannot be said for Wigan Athletic, who are among the Championship’s form teams in 2020, which is a credit to manager Paul Cook.
The former Portsmouth boss has been incredibly defiant in the face of recent news that the club is going into administration – and face a potential 12-point deduction subject to appeal.
75 redundancies have been made including a proportion of Cook’s backroom staff and much of the Liverpudlian’s time has been spent making calls to former colleagues to express his sympathy.
Knowing the character that Cook is, we would not put it past him to inspire his players in such adversity, but there is also a significant possibility that this news will affect the players negatively, which is why it is hard to side with Wigan at odds-on quotes.
It would be difficult, though, to find enough confidence in Hull to bet on the away victory, so a draw looks the value pick for a match that sees both clubs face huge problems, regardless of their divisional status come August.
Cardiff win to nil
Cardiff v Derby
Cardiff’s 2-0 loss at Fulham on Friday was not as costly as it could have been, with just two of their six Play-Off rivals winning – they continue to occupy sixth spot.
Despite back-to-back defeats, the Bluebirds’ return since Neil Harris took charge in November remains impressive: they have taken 43 points from 27 games and have started to look more like the well-oiled machine that won promotion from this level in 2017-18.
Happy Birthday, boss!
— Cardiff City FC (@CardiffCityFC) July 12, 2020
City are happy to forego possession much of the time to steal the ball in the opposing half, then create chances individualistically, as Nathaniel Mendez-Laing has done very well since the restart.
When their opponents camp deep, they threaten via Will Vaulks’ long throws – which tend to be aimed for Sean Morrison – set pieces, and crosses into the box.
Plus, Harris’ troops tend to have game-changers on the bench in enigmatic technician Lee Tomlin, speedy winger Josh Murphy, classy striker Robert Glatzel, and workhorse Danny Ward, who have all played their part since the restart.
Having established a strong defensive partnership between the experienced Sean Morrison and the athletic Curtis Nelson, Cardiff will relish the chance to quieten a Derby County side that have recently looked one-paced.
The Rams, who for a period looked the likeliest challengers to Cardiff for sixth, have appeared second best in each of their last three games – they have collected only one point in that sequence – mustering a combined six shots on target.
Phillip Cocu’s side have a lot of players who like to at various points occupy the number 10 and central midfield areas, but when they have linked up well doing so, it has tended to be because Martyn Waghorn has completed the equilibrium of their attacking play by darting from wide right into goalscoring areas, thus stretching the pockets of space for his more technical teammates.
Waghorn, arguably on a par with Matt Clarke for Player of the Season, remains suspended for one more game and his absence could be a telling factor.
It’s significantly possible that all of Derby’s play will be in front of their hosts and that they will struggle to get the opposing back-line facing their own goal.
Both Teams To Score
Millwall v Blackburn
Millwall boosted their Play-Off hopes on Saturday with a 1-0 win at Hull, thanks to a fine strike from Ryan Leonard.
Manager Gary Rowett has tinkered with the midfield since the restart to find a balance that allows his side to retain the defensive protection that has enabled them to make strides under his leadership, but add more support for the attacking trio in a 5-2-3.
Paired with Ryan Woods, Leonard has been the most recent solution, because the former Southend man has a reputation for being a consummate professional with tenacity and defensive discipline, yet he evidently has goals in him too.
Leonard showed, at Hull, the inclination to break forward in transition and turn the attacking trio into a quartet, which made the Lions harder to read and perhaps detracted some of the attention on the obvious threat of Jed Wallace, who is the only Championship player this term to reach double figures for goals and assists.
Ryan Leonard has been a player totally transformed this season. I know that a lot of Millwall fans, myself included, were heavily critical of him last year but he's certainly proving me wrong now.
— Luke Stallard (@LukeStallard1) July 11, 2020
The closest equivalent to Wallace for fellow Play-Off outsiders Blackburn, in terms of a stand-out attacking player, would be Adam Armstrong.
It is intriguing, therefore, that Rovers picked up, in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with West Brom, after Armstrong was withdrawn as part of a quadruple change just after the hour mark.
Intelligent right-back Elliott Bennett, energetic forward Sam Gallagher, creative maestro Lewis Holtby and versatile midfielder Joe Rothwell all vindicated Tony Mowbray’s decision, giving him a selection headache in the process.
Millwall now have a counter-attacking threat and Blackburn are showing they have the depth of personnel to change games that aren’t going their way.
A draw is no good to either side’s chances of attaining sixth spot, so we can expect a high-scoring encounter.