Gabriel Sutton previews Championship Gameweek 45, the penultimate round of Championship football, with so much to play for.
Wigan to win
Charlton v Wigan
Wigan produced the most incredible result of the Championship season so far on Tuesday, beating Hull City 8-0, with seven of the goals scored in the first half.
📋 Wigan since administration..
✅ Record-breaking win
✅ Squad playing on 20% wage
✅ Club Directors working for free
✅ Manager rang redundant staff
✅ Captain visited fan post-match
✅ £157,000 raised at @WiganAthSC
— talkSPORT (@talkSPORT) July 14, 2020
It was unclear whether news of the club being in administration would galvanize or demotivate the players, who are reportedly now on 20% of their usual wages, but that game proved it’s the former.
Of course, everything that is happening to the Latics is still completely unjust and it is unfair that 75 staff members have sadly lost their jobs – lots of people in the game have to be accountable for this situation.
It is remarkable, though, that Paul Cook managed to inspire his players to produce such a wonderful attacking performance in the most extreme case of adversity.
Mobile target man Kieffer Moore, speedy forward Jamal Lowe, energetic creator Kieran Dowell and experienced wide forward Kal Naismith rotated and interchanged with terrific fluency, while full-backs Nathan Byrne and Antonee Robinson provided excellent width.
The result means Wigan have accrued 37 points in their last 19 games, giving them the Championship’s second-best return in 2020 and making them ominous opposition for Charlton Athletic.
The Addicks have struggled for goals lately, with just two scored in their last five encounters – and a return of two points from that sequence, after a 1-1 draw at Birmingham, has not helped their battle against the drop.
Lee Bowyer’s side have lost the only two players of true quality in their team in unsavoury circumstances – Connor Gallagher was recalled by Chelsea in January, only to be loaned out again to Swansea and Lyle Taylor has refused to play since the restart in pursuit of a lucrative move – both losses have had a negative impact.
Charlton can at times be strong without the ball in their pressing, protection of the penalty area and last-ditch blocks, which is a credit to the spirit Lee Bowyer has fostered – but without that quality on the ball, there is automatically more pressure on their defensive work.
The Londoners will try to be compact against Wigan but if Tuesday proved anything, it’s that at the moment, very little can stop them.
Luton to win
Hull v Luton
Such a humiliating defeat for Hull City has only served to compound the sense of crisis around the club.
Many could have forgiven Grant McCann for a drop in form in the second half of the season after the sale of Jarrod Bowen and Kamil Grosicki as well as the injuries to key defenders like Reece Burke and Jordy de Wijs.
The fact the latter two were present for an 8-0 loss, however, somewhat discredits their absence as a factor for the poor defensive performances pre-lockdown.
McCann is being grilled severely most weeks by local journalists and he’s trying to stay calm so as not to be seen to be losing control, which is understandable, but the lack of outward anger and emotion after such a poor display has alienated some supporters – then again, Hull is an especially difficult club to manage.
There are rumours that McCann is being forced to play 4-3-3 by the board which, if true, would indicate an astonishing lack of trust and respect from the Allam regime.
There is cause for optimism, therefore, for Luton Town, who have improved since Nathan Jones returned – barring a 5-0 capitulation at home to Reading.
The Hatters have accrued seven points from three away games under Jones, with 1-0 and 2-0 wins at Swansea and Huddersfield respectively sandwiching an honourable 1-1 draw at leaders Leeds.
If you’d have offered me a 2 game season for Xmas just gone where we had to beat Hull when they’ve just lost 8-0 and Blackburn who’s on the beach I’d have snapped your hands off……. this is Luton Town people. We were never going to win and make it easy tonight #LTFC #COYH
— Russell smith (@Russltfc) July 14, 2020
They will hope to improve on Tuesday’s 1-1 home draw with QPR, when they had just 33% possession against a side with no immediate objectives to play for and did not muster an open play shot on target until the 86th minute when Dan Potts forced a save from range.
Perhaps part of the reason Jones’ side operated with a low line of engagement was because they were without a natural holding midfielder in Glen Rea; if the 25-year-old is back fit to start here, we might see other midfielders like Luke Berry, Olly Lee, and Andrew Shinnie press forward with more freedom.
With respect to Pelly Ruddock-Mpanzu, a Luton stalwart and legend, he was the deepest of the midfield quartet against the Rs but, because he has a very creative, technically experimental mind that has served him well in his career, he lacks the vigilance that somebody like Rea possesses which is vital for the role.
Mpanzu played in more advanced parts of the diamond midfield during the promotions from League Two and League One so it seems slightly unfair on him that he is handed greater defensive responsibilities at a more demanding level.
If Rea returns, though, Luton’s superior form should be evident on Humberside.
Middlesbrough v Cardiff
Cardiff’s midweek 2-1 win over Derby kept them in pole position for the final Play-Off spot.
The Bluebirds showed once again that they are powerful, well-organised and hardworking side, whilst still being able to create chances in transition.
Very professional performance, didn’t look like there was any pressure on us at all💪🏼
Everyone put in a hell of a shift, Pack, Bennett and Tomlin my standout trio🙌🏼
It’s in our hands👀
— CCFC Fans (@FansCCFC) July 14, 2020
Manager Neil Harris freshened up the team for the visit of the Rams by bringing Lee Tomlin and Marlon Pack into the starting XI and both fared well; energetic right-back Dion Sanderson and committed midfielder Will Vaulks, who have also been excellent in the second half of the season, could come back in fresh.
Ironically, the victory kept Neil Harris’ side in sixth, two points ahead of Millwall – the club the former striker had a long-held association with.
Talking of managers facing their former clubs: Neil Warnock will always be a well-regarded figure at Cardiff, primarily for inspiring them to promotion in 2017-18.
Warnock took over Cardiff when they were battling relegation and he has inherited a similar situation at Middlesbrough, where a run of three wins in six has taken them almost out of trouble.
Thanks to a 2-1 victory at Reading, Boro are likely to need from their remaining games just a solitary point – that, they should achieve, because they are better than they were under Jonathan Woodgate at doing the basics, winning the simple duels and avoiding costly errors.
Bringing goalkeeper Aynsley Pears into the XI at the Madejski was a big help because the former Gateshead loanee is commanding and vocally imposing, which helped a makeshift back-four comprising of a left-winger in Marvin Johnson at left-back, a left-back in George Friend at centre-back and right-back Anfernee Dijksteel making his first start since November.
That defence was protected by the disciplined Jonny Howson, with two energetic midfielders in Marcus Tavernier and George Saville ahead of him.
A draw would mean for Cardiff that, to secure the final Play-Off spot, they need only beat crisis-ridden Hull on the final day – if they maintain a better goal difference than Millwall.
This is not something that Harris will say to his players – and Warnock will not tell his that a draw is OK either – but circumstances may dictate mentality and it feels like a case of both sides entering this match with the mind-set of protecting something, rather than chasing it.
Preston to win
Preston v Birmingham
Preston North End’s Play-Off hopes are now hanging by a thread after a 1-0 loss at Brentford on Wednesday.
The result means they need to accrue all three points this Saturday whilst hoping Cardiff fail to win at Middlesbrough to keep their season alive, mathematically, going into the final day.
Considering the gravity of their situation, some fans may be slightly underwhelmed by the lack of urgency and intensity on display at Griffin Park, which is ironic considering North End have based their Play-Off pushes over the previous three seasons on being one of the best pressing sides in the league.
Alan Browne acted as, effectively, a false nine in a 3-4-3 and he was the only one troubling the opposing centre-backs, while Tom Barkhuizen and Sean Maguire were more consumed with chasing back the Bees’ full-backs.
Of course, Brentford are a good side and should be treated with respect but considering Neil’s side realistically needed a victory, they could have committed to the press with two or three players rather than just the one.
It will be a different story for them, though, against a Birmingham side who are in a vastly different position in terms of being content with the occasional point to secure their Championship status.
There is no getting away from the reality that the Blues’ performances since the restart have been deeply disappointing, but at this stage it is just a case of limiting the damage and ensuring their recent capitulations do not result in League One football in 2019-20.
Thankfully for the Midlanders, their performance was much improved in Wednesday’s 1-1 draw with Charlton, with 24 shots registered to seven.
📸😍 𝗧𝗵𝗲 𝗹𝗮𝘁𝗲 𝗹𝗮𝘁𝗲 𝘀𝗵𝗼𝘄!
What a 𝐁𝐈𝐆 goal 🔵✊ pic.twitter.com/NXEfEy5CWx
— Birmingham City FC (@BCFC) July 15, 2020
Aggressive centre-back Harlee Dean and wide playmaker Dan Crowley among the stand-outs for Birmingham, although they needed a scrappy, 93rd-minute goal from talismanic target man Lukas Jutkiewicz to rescue a vital point.
The result means six-point hauls from Luton or Wigan in the last two games are likely to come at the cost of two of Barnsley, Hull, Charlton and Huddersfield, rather than Blues, who could secure their Championship status even in defeat.