Reading are hoping to prove this weekend that not all Royals are divided, as EFL pundit Gab Sutton picks his best bets in his EFL Weekend Preview.
Hear more from Gabriel Sutton on this week’s BetVictor Podcast, as well as our Cheltenham Preview with trainer David Pipe.
Bristol City to win
Birmingham City v Bristol City
Bristol City need a reaction.
Nigel Pearson’s side lost 2-0 at home to QPR last week and their new manager was not impressed with their defending.
It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that City had it within themselves to finish February with 3-1 wins at Play-Off outsiders Middlesbrough and top two contenders Swansea.
Bristol City possess strikers in Nahki Wells and Famara Diedhiou who can do damage when used as a central pairing, with Kasey Palmer creating behind the duo.
Pearson can also call upon the elusive agility of Antoine Semenyo, who loves to skin opponents around the sides of the penalty area.
City’s form might be inconsistent, but they still have the individual quality with which to pile the pressure on struggling Birmingham.
A 1-0 loss at Barnsley leaves the Blues just above the relegation zone, with an identical PPG return to 22nd-placed Rotherham and an inferior goal difference.
Aitor Karanka’s side had picked up their performance levels in the week leading up to that game, but the trip to Oakwell represented a worrying return to old habits: another change of formation, players brought in from the cold and a team worrying more about the opposition’s strengths than they believed in their own.
Apart from Gary Garner, all Birmingham’s midfielders sought to clear the ball when put under pressure, which is why the team mustered a paltry three efforts at goal, failing to hit the target with any of them.
Nigel Pearson's reaction from the Optima Stadium! 👇 pic.twitter.com/1y9oogny21
— Bristol City FC (@BristolCity) March 9, 2021
Birmingham have lost 11 of their 17 home games this season, so I’m amazed midtable Bristol City are as big as 11/4 to win this match.Gabriel Sutton
Lucas João to score anytime
Nottingham Forest v Reading
Ivan Toney and Teemu Pukki might have enjoyed excellent seasons elsewhere, but Lucas João is right up there among the best strikers in the Championship.
João spent much of the previous campaign injured, meaning Reading had to rotate between George Pușcaș and Yakou Meite leading the line.
Pușcaș, though, lacked the physical qualities to play back-to-goal while Meite lacked the deftness of touch to become the Royals’ primary focal point.
João is something of a half-way house between those two players, because he has the physical qualities to hold off defenders and win aerial duels, whilst also having plenty of ability with the ball at his feet – in terms of hold-up play and goals, of which he has scored 18 in the Championship.
Reading will have numerous opportunities to get the ball into João, having had lots of joy with the new 4-4-2 diamond system.
Pușcaș, as a strike-partner to João and teenage talent Michael Olise, at the tip of the diamond, have all brought plenty of quality to support the Portuguese front-man, while Tom McIntyre screens at the base with Alfa Semedo and Josh Laurent putting in the hard yards out wide in the midfield quartet.
What is crucial to Reading’s resurgence, though, is the return of full-backs Andy Yiadom and Omar Richards, even if the latter is set to move to Bayern Munich this summer.
Yiadom and Richards provide pace and precision at right-back and left-back respectively, with both giving the team a lift after centre-backs by trade Tom Holmes and McIntyre deputized there in the 1-0 defeat at Wycombe.
Yiadom and Richards could be crucial to creating chances for João by dislodging a Forest side that tends to set up defensively against the division’s better sides, as we saw in last week’s 1-0 loss at Watford.
The East Midlanders have accrued just 18 points from 23 games against teams above them in the division and could be vulnerable to the João juggernaut.
— Matheus (@MaffRoyal) March 6, 2021
Not all the Royals are in disarray: Reading come into this game off the back of three straight wins, while Forest are yet to forge an identity that allows them to compete against the division’s better sides.Gabriel Sutton
Bristol Rovers to win
Bristol Rovers v AFC Wimbledon
Joey Barton has made an impact at Bristol Rovers.
The former midfielder has a chequered past, but there is no denying his ability to motivate players in a relegation battle and get them to want to fight for him.
Those qualities were reflected in the way the Gas pressed in Tuesday’s 4-1 thumping of Accrington Stanley, the second victory of Barton’s reign.
Barton has brought out the willingness in Luke McCormick, on loan from Chelsea, to ally his talent with tenacity next to the quietly efficient Ed Upson.
Going forward, meanwhile, Jonah Ayunga led the line superbly, supported from behind by dribbler Sam Nicholson and the technical Zain Westbrooke, while wing-backs Alex Rodman and Luke Leahy had no hesitation to get forward.
Bristol Rovers’ resurgence, as well as signs of life elsewhere from Wigan and Northampton combined with Burton’s miraculous resurrection, puts Wimbledon in an awkward position.
The Wombles have a highly-regarded coach in Mark Robinson but, having taken just two points from their last four games, have dropped to 23rd in the division following a 1-0 defeat to the Brewers last time out.
Robinson was disappointed with the goal his side conceded in that match but, more concerningly, they mustered just two efforts at goal with 60% possession, with the Dons lacking the directness with which they are stereotypically associated.
Wimbledon have some attacking quality in reference point Joe Pigott, mobile forward Ryan Longman and technical talent Jack Rudoni, but they arguably miss the quality in the full-back positions required to get those players on the ball.
🎙️ "He set the tone for a fantastic team performance"
Here's Rovers boss Joey Barton, talking after his side beat Accrington 4-1 at the Memorial Stadium. He felt striker Jonah Ayunga deserved a goal for his performance. pic.twitter.com/mPzg5g2lkc
— BBC Bristol sport (@bbcbristolsport) March 9, 2021
I’ve seen positive early signs from Bristol Rovers under Joey Barton, so the thumping of Stanley was not a surprise to me – the difference in that game was that they took their chances. I think they’ll do likewise on Saturday to create more daylight between themselves and struggling Wimbledon.Gabriel Sutton
Double Chance: Draw/Shrewsbury
Charlton Athletic v Shrewsbury Town
Steve Cotterill continues to inspire Shrewsbury, even when he’s not on the touchline.
The Cheltenham-born boss is currently in hospital and is wished a full and healthy recovery by all, but despite his personal situation he still has the energy to carry on doing his job superbly.
At half-time against Rochdale on Tuesday, the game was goalless and Cotterill called into the dressing room, telling his players “you’re the better team, you need more belief, because we’ve got better players when we pass the ball and move for each other”.
That message spurred the players on, not least Josh Daniels, who had a tough start to his Shrews career after signing as an inverted left winger but has shown outstanding persistence to work his way back in as a right wing-back in the absence of Donald Love and produced the best performance of his Town career.
Daniels – described as “the best trainer at the club” by Aaron Wilbraham – got among the goals in a 2-0 victory in midweek, with Josh Vela – “an 8 or 9 out of 10 every week” according to Cotterill – grabbing the other one.
The result means Salop are already nine points above the League One drop zone with games in hand and they can move a big step closer to securing their divisional status by avoiding defeat at Charlton.
Lee Bowyer’s side have enjoyed a mini resurgence with seven points from their last three games, but the two victories were one-goal margined wins over relegation strugglers Wigan and Northampton.
The 1-0 triumph in West Lancashire was a functional display all about the way Jason Pearce and co. defended, then the 2-1 win over the Cobblers was similarly uninspiring, with the game hinging on a questionable penalty call.
— AFC Wimbledon (@AFCWimbledon) March 2, 2021
Shrewsbury have taken four more points than Charlton in four fewer games since their change of management, so there is no way the underrated visitors should be 5/2 outsiders.Gabriel Sutton
Matt Jay to score anytime
Exeter City v Cheltenham Town
So tight is the League Two promotion race this season, eighth placed Exeter could move within three points of leaders Cheltenham – with a game in hand – if they win this key promotion clash.
Matt Taylor’s side will be hopeful of doing so, after continuing their fine form last time out with a 2-0 victory at Scunthorpe.
Matt Jay scored the opener for the Grecians, building on the hat-trick he had scored in a 4-0 thumping of Leyton Orient last Saturday.
The 25-year-old is enjoying the best season of his career to date and has forged an excellent understanding with hold-up strike partner Ryan Bowman.
Jay operates in a more withdrawn role than Bowman and he sees a lot of the ball in space, partly because of the work of speedy wide men Robbie Willmott and Joel Randall.
The latter can tear opponents apart down the left when released in transition, so there is that reluctance to leave themselves vulnerable against Exeter which may be part of why Jay is having so much joy.
The academy graduate will be hoping to have more joy against promotion rivals Cheltenham Town, who are hoping to bounce back from a 3-1 loss at Mansfield last time out.
The Robins went ahead through Sam Smith early in the second half in Nottinghamshire, but individual errors proved their undoing.
Repeat those mistakes and Jay will make them pay.
— Exeter City FC (@OfficialECFC) March 6, 2021
Matt Jay has gone up another level this season and, with four goals in his last two games, I think the withdrawn forward could do damage once again in this key promotion clash.Gabriel Sutton
Cambridge to win 1-0
Oldham Athletic v Cambridge United
Harry Out: Oldham have this week dismissed Kewell as manager and replaced the Aussie with Keith Curle.
The 57-year-old has a respectable recent record at this level, having led Carlisle to a top seven finish in 2016-17 and taken Northampton up last season.
The Bristolian’s more successful teams, though, have always had a physical striker: Charlie Wyke at Carlisle, Vadaine Oliver for the Cobblers.
Curle typically has difficulty when forced to adapt to a squad that does not have a centre-forward with any kind of aerial prowess and, with the transfer market closed, that is the situation at Oldham until the summer.
Kewell tended to use Bobby Grant, a 5’11” winger on loan from Wrexham, down the middle while Conor McAleny, 5’10”, has tended to be used as a left-sided forward.
The situation for the Latics going into this game, therefore, is that either they will be pumping long balls up to a striker that is not built to take on that kind of service, or Curle will be forced into coaching football on the deck, which is not something that comes naturally to him.
Either scenario would likely lead to a disjointed performance from the hosts, who face a Cambridge side pushing for promotion.
The U’s were beaten 2-1 at Bolton in midweek, but Mark Bonner may look to draw on the positive of the final quarter of the game, a resurgence inspired by the introductions of fit again ball-winners Paul Digby and Liam O’Neil.
Digby and O’Neil could come into Bonner’s XI here to solidify the midfield for a Cambridge side that have been involved in numerous tight encounters lately.
The CB5 outfit do not tend to dominate games but, in top goalscorer Paul Mullin and key playmaker Wes Hoolahan, they have players who can deliver at key moments.
Paul Mullin 🤝 Goals.
— Football League World (@FootballLeagueW) March 2, 2021
In two of their last four games, Cambridge have won 1-0. Backing that scoreline appeals to me, because I expect Oldham to be re-organized under Keith Curle whilst losing much of the attacking threat they had under Harry Kewell.Gabriel Sutton