Liverpool FC: Christmas Crack Me Up Challenge
Top half contenders Brentford are hoping to continue their impressive league form on Saturday, when they welcome Nigel Adkins’ Hull City to West London.
Brentford lost 4-1 at Swansea on Sunday, a result that sees them crash out of the FA Cup in the last-16.
It started well for the Bees, who deserved their first half lead when Ollie Watkins rounded off an incisive counter-attack.
Unfortunately for Thomas Frank, it was a series of breakaways from the opposition that proved his side’s undoing in the second period, as they looked more open than he might have liked.
Frank will be disappointed to exit the cup but, knowing he will almost certainly be managing his team in the Championship next season, he can plan for 2019-20 with some excitement.
Brentford have had all season the sixth-best Expected Goals For (xGR) record in the Championship at 1.46 per game and, if they had not endured that brief transitional phase in the run up to Christmas, they would likely be in a position more reflective of their ability.
Frank has taken time to implement his ideas but the change from 4-2-3-1 to a 3-4-3 formation, as well as more prominent use of more combative, physical performers like Julian Jeanvier and Kamohelo Mokotjo, has been hugely important.
They now have a lovely combination of the capacity for smooth interplay which we have long associated with the Bees, but also a willingness to do the ugly side of the game.
It is important that Brentford get their summer recruitment right and adding a reliable goalkeeper, a quick wing-back or two, a midfielder to challenge Romaine Sawyers to partner Mokotjo and, if Neal Maupay goes, a centre-forward.
However, the club is operating in a loftier market than it was two or three seasons ago and, if they identify the right final pieces of the jigsaw, there is plenty of room for optimism at Griffin Park and we could see positive vibes in evidence on Saturday.
In contrast with the smooth decision-making that goes on at Brentford under the guidance of owner Matthew Benham and director Rasmus Ankersen, Hull have suffered from a blatant lack of leadership at the top.
After the Tigers blew a two-goal lead to draw 2-2 at home to Rotherham recently, it became clear that any Play-Off hopes had been overly optimistic.
Despite knowing they will be in the Championship, the club appear to be working very slowly to prepare for the 2019-20.
Firstly, manager Nigel Adkins, who has worked tirelessly to arrest the slide and re-kindle some positivity at the club, is out of contract and has not been handed the new deal he deserves.
Secondly, eight of the 18-man squad that played Rotherham are not contracted to the club next season.
Influential figures like experienced goalkeeper David Marshall, captain Marcus Henriksen and hardworking front-man Frazier Campbell have deals that expire in the summer – plus there’s no guarantees loanees like Marc Pugh, Todd Kane and Chris Martin will stay on.
This state of limbo hardly helps Hull’s current on-field performances, with the East Yorkshire side suffering from a shortage of numbers at centre-back.
Uncertainty lingers over the fitness of recent absentees Jordy de Wijs and Reece Burke who, along with now-departed Tommy Elphick, had been crucial to their positive form between November and January.
Adkins has been forced to replace de Wijs and Burke with Eric Lichaj, a strong-blooded right-back by trade and Liam Ridgewell, who joined on a short-term contract; hardly the ideal temporary pairing.
Those issues have affected performance over the last four games, during which the Tigers have accrued a reasonable four points but also been posting the second-worst shot data in the division.
Brentford should therefore be backed here at narrow, odds-on quotes.
Brentford to win 8/11