Neither Spanish giant is cutting it this season, so let EFL pundit Gab Sutton turn your attention to the heated grudge match in League Two among six weekend selections in his EFL Weekend Preview.
Norwich to win
Norwich City v Middlesbrough
Norwich look a class above the rest of the Championship.
The Canaries are six points clear at the top. That is despite having had an extensive injury list for much of the campaign.
Teemu Pukki, for example, was absent for the hosting of Bristol City in their previous league game and some feared it would affect their performance.
Jordan Hugill, though, grabbed his opportunity with both hands and scored a brace.
Pukki brings Norwich selfless running into channels and intelligent link-up play, whereas Hugill provides that physical dimension.
Daniel Farke’s side do not have to play direct to accommodate Hugill. But when they do get into advanced wide areas and are ahead of a packed rear-guard, they have the option to cross the ball in a way they cannot when Pukki is on the field.
At the other end, experienced goalkeeper Tim Krul has returned to bring organisational qualities, while left-back Dimitris Giannoulis – quick, strong and full of quality belonging at the top level – signs from PAOK Salonika.
Giannoulis’ arrival means Jacob Lungi Sørensen is no longer forced to deputize at left-back when Xavi Quintilla is absent, which means Farke now has another option in midfield, where competition is stiff.
All-action Oli Skipp has been Norwich’s stand-out signing so far on loan from Tottenham while dynamo Kenny McLean has been in excellent form.
This trip to Norfolk, therefore, looks ominous for Middlesbrough, who fell to a 3-0 home defeat to Rotherham last time out and could quite easily have lost by more.
In fact, Boro have been defeated by Birmingham, Blackburn and the Millers in their last four games.
Kenny McLean was absolutely outstanding yet again.
– 8 duels won
– 4 aerial battles won
– 3 tackles one interception
– 1 chance created
– 3 recoveries
— Daniel Emery (@DanielEmeryRS) January 20, 2021
Norwich have won their last three games and looked in control against Bristol City last time out. With Middlesbrough out of form, I expect Daniel Farke’s side to go nine points clear at the top before the 3pm fixtures.Gabriel Sutton
Half-Time Result: Draw
Blackburn Rovers v Luton Town
Blackburn won 1-0 last time out at Middlesbrough, where a draw might have been a fair result.
Tony Mowbray selected a conservative midfield trio of Jacob Davenport, Lewis Travis and Bradley Johnson, who was forced off after 10 minutes through injury.
Their line of engagement in the first was deep while their use of the ball was not conducive to unleashing the pace of 17-goal man Adam Armstrong.
In fact, the Newcastle-born striker has only scored five first half goals against 11-man opposition, two of which coming against a freakishly wide-open Wycombe side in September.
That would suggest two things:
Firstly, that Armstrong does not have the back-to-goal qualities – strength, vision and selflessness – required to thrive in tighter periods of games that we tend to see in first half.
Secondly, that Blackburn can be found wanting for creativity in their midfield trio, which would be essential to bringing Armstrong and co. to life during those initial phases.
Luton have perhaps the opposite problems to their hosts.
The Hatters are extremely well-coached under Nathan Jones, they set up to attack and can create a lot of chances, but also have players who have jumped up one or two divisions and are still acclimatizing to life in the Championship after staying up last term.
That means the Bedfordshire outfit are overly reliant on impressive Leicester loanee Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall and their goalscoring record reads just 21 scored in 25 games.
Kiernan Dewsbury Hall will stay at Luton Town for the rest of the season. Other Championship clubs – including Swansea, Bournemouth and Brentford – enquired this month about taking the highly rated Leicester midfielder on loan #lcfc #ltfc pic.twitter.com/cehvuZnf7I
— Mr Geoff Peters (@mrgeoffpeters) January 14, 2021
Blackburn have scored just one first half goal in their last 10 games in all competitions, while Luton have scored just nine before the interval – the joint-fourth fewest in the Championship.Gabriel Sutton
Rochdale to win and BTTS
Bristol Rovers v Rochdale
Rochdale have conceded more goals than 23rd-placed Wigan, but they have also scored more than leaders Lincoln.
Dale have one home win all season but 4-0 and 5-0 thumping’s are among four victories on the road.
They are winless in seven, but are the division’s joint-top goalscorers in that timeframe.
Brian Barry-Murphy’s side possess only one player among the top 21 goalscorers in the division, midfielder Matty Lund, while Gavin Bazunu averages three saves per 90 minutes – the fourth-most out of all the goalkeepers who have made a double-figured number of League One appearances this term.
Confused? Join the club.
Rochdale’s campaign to date represents a bottomless goldmine of statistical oddities. And when so many positives are entangled with plenty of negatives, they are a difficult side to make sense of.
The consistency of their attacking output, though, combined with the variety of the threats posed and the quality of the goals scored underpins a certain confidence, which can rarely be said of an out-of-form side.
That is not to say that Dale’s defensive deficiencies do not need to be addressed, but that the fact they can go through poor form without losing their quality, belief or core identity, suggests they will come out the other side.
There are comparatively fewer reasons to side with Bristol Rovers, even if their own winless run is currently two games shorter than their visitors.
Paul Tisdale’s side have failed to find the net in four of those five encounters, which would point to a conservative setup.
George Williams, steady and experienced as Tisdale knows from their time together at MK Dons, has come in at right wing-back but neither he nor Luke Leahy on the left have natural pace.
That is especially problematic given that the Gas already have three centre-backs, a defensive midfielder in Josh Grant and a ball-winner in Abu Ogogo all protecting similar areas.
Without pace or creativity from deep, Rovers rarely have the means to bring a potentially dangerous front-three of Erhun Oztumer, Sam Nicholson and Brandon Hanlan out of the game’s periphery.
Emotions was high last night …
But now is the time WE all need to STICK TOGETHER!
The Boys have shown they are ready to FIGHT for BBM & Each Other!
We are STILL out of the Relegation Zones when everyone gave us no chance!
— ROCHDALE AFC FAN PAGE💙 (@RochdaleFan) January 27, 2021
Rochdale are the most intriguing team in the EFL and they certainly need to fix their defensive mishaps, but they are so exciting to watch going forward with new players starring every week – I don’t expect their winless run to last much longer.Gabriel Sutton
Hull to win -1 handicap
Hull City v Swindon Town
Hull’s promotion ambitions took a hit with Tuesday’s 2-0 loss at Accrington Stanley – the same team they had beaten 3-0 earlier that month – but there is reason to think they will bounce back.
Grant McCann’s side responded defiantly to three straight defeats around Christmas and have more than enough depth to respond to this setback.
Dan Crowley came off the bench in East Lancashire and lit up the game with his creative qualities, while fellow substitute Gavin Whyte brought pace and direct running.
McCann has the luxury of bringing both players, who have played at Championship level with Birmingham and Cardiff respectively, into the starting XI and that could give the Tigers a huge lift.
Crowley, if selected in the three-man midfield, would need some licence to roam, making the formation more akin to 4-2-3-1 than the 4-3-3 with which McCann has long been associated.
The former Arsenal academy graduate’s natural technical ability, though, belongs well above League One, so if the system around him is solid – with a midfield all-rounder in George Honeyman and a disciplined anchor man in Richie Smallwood – Crowley could thrive against Swindon.
The Wiltshire outfit are languishing in 22nd in League Two with 15 defeats: the most in the division.
Town have on paper a decent squad that could be midtable under suitable management, but John Sheridan’s ideas look at odds with the personnel available – especially in the absence of a tall, strong centre-forward.
— Hull City News🎗️ (@HullCityStats) January 26, 2021
Hull lost at Stanley last time out but they should rediscover their mojo once Crowley and White come into the XI, especially against a struggling Swindon side.Gabriel Sutton
Cheltenham draw no bet
Forest Green Rovers v Cheltenham Town
Cheltenham have never had the wherewithal to compete sustainably with Swindon or either Bristol club, but have not met Gloucester City since 1997 while Hereford, another historic rival, went out of business in 2014.
The Robins, therefore, have only one option for a local feud and that is Forest Green: a grudge catalysed by the National League title race of 2015-16 and maintained by philosophical differences.
This year’s “El-Glosico” takes on extra significance, with both sides among the automatic promotion mix in League Two.
Cheltenham had endured a blip, with seven league games without a win. But their showing against Manchester City has given them and Alfie May the confidence booster they needed to resume their promotion push.
The FA Cup heroics were followed by a 2-0 victory over Oldham, which turned their winless streak into a five-game unbeaten run.
Charlie Raglan, Ben Tozer and Will Boyle’s long-held understanding at centre-back has helped Michael Duff’s side to 10 league clean sheets, more than any defensive trio in the division, while Finn Azaz brings flair and skill in midfield.
Forest Green, though, have won just one of their last five league games.
It’s worth noting that, apart from 2017-18, Mark Cooper’s side have generally fallen away in the second half of their campaigns.
Cooper is known for having a slightly abrasive man management style which has worked for him at certain times in his career. But quite how well he can motivate his players when results dwindle remains to be seen.
— CTFC (@CheltTweets) January 24, 2021
That performance against Man City has given Cheltenham a huge lift and I fancy the Robins to win an El-Glosico that will have a bearing on the promotion race, as well as deciding local bragging rights.Gabriel Sutton
Southend to win 1-0
Port Vale v Southend
Southend sit bottom of League Two having lost their last three games. But of their previous opponents, Cambridge are top of the league while Mansfield and Bradford are two of the divisions form sides.
Before those defeats, the Shrimpers had accrued 15 points from an eight-game sequence, beating Scunthorpe, Grimsby, Colchester and Barrow.
That shows Mark Molesley’s side can thrive against the division’s weaker sides, a category that Port Vale would fall into on current form.
The Valiants were level on points with the automatic promotion places after winning the reverse fixture 2-0 at the end of October. Since then, they have won just two of 16 league games.
Structurally, the Burslem club may still be in the safe hands of Kevin and Carol Shanahan, who have it’s best interests at heart. But the sense of positive momentum after a progressive 2019-20 campaign has gone out of the club due to the on-field struggles.
Vale have not been able to maintain a settled side this year due to injuries and it remains to be seen whether rookie Danny Pugh, currently in caretaker charge, has the expertise to guide them away from trouble.
Southend have in Molesley somebody who has achieved successive promotions in his career – albeit in non-league with Weymouth – and his side now has some experience.
John White and Shaun Hobson have produced some solid displays against the division’s lower sides, while Timothee Dieng returns from the one-match suspension he served against Bradford to anchor the midfield, allowing James Olayinka and Jason Demetriou to support the attack.
In Reeco Hackett-Fairchild, meanwhile, the Essex outfit possess a lively right-sided forward who can do damage at key moments.
Alan McCormack has signed a contract extension at the club: "As soon as I came into the club, even though with everything that was going on around it, I’ve still loved every moment being back here." [SUFC] #Blues
— Shrimpers Report (@shrimpersreport) January 19, 2021
Port Vale shouldn’t be odds-on given their form and there could be value in going against Danny Pugh’s side. Three of Southend’s five wins this season have come by the 1-0 scoreline, so I’m willing to dip into the correct score market.Gabriel Sutton