EFL pundit Gab Sutton picks his best bet for Bank Holiday Monday’s action.
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Birmingham City v Middlesbrough
Half-Time/Full-Time – Draw/Middlesbrough
Results and performances have dipped since the World Cup return for Birmingham, who now have just one win in their last six league games after a 1-0 home defeat to Hull.
John Eustace has done an incredible job as Blues boss this season, to the point that some had even dared to utter the words “Play-Offs” when they were four points off with a game in hand in November, but a lack of depth has held his side back of late.
Some would argue Eustace might have started the tenacious Jordan James in favour of an off-colour Juninho Bacuna against Hull, last time out, especially seeing as the former made an impact from the bench, but options are otherwise limited.
The bench against the Tigers was a mix of senior players who, right now, are more League One standard than Championship – Lukas Jutkiewicz, Jordan Graham, Jonathan Leko and Neil Etheridge – with youngsters like Jobe Bellingham and Alfie Chang who are still finding their way.
None of them, bar James, would it have been very difficult to leave out of the XI, or tempting to bring off the bench, and that’s where there has to be a lot of sympathy with the challenges the management team inherited.
It could be a suitable time, therefore, for Middlesbrough to visit this part of the Second City.
Boro may be unchanged from the side that won 2-1 at Blackburn last time out, a sixth win in nine under Michael Carrick’s guidance, but in that case they’d still have the wherewithal to bring on potential game-changers in Duncan Watmore and Isaiah Jones.
Birmingham might be solid and well-organised in the first half, with Middlesbrough bringing on pace to stretch things after the interval.
“Middlesbrough are one of the form sides in the Championship, and have been rewarded for their progress under Michael Carrick by attaining a spot in the top six. Birmingham are looking a little jaded with their wafer-thin squad, so I’d back the visitors to do the business in the second half.”Gab Sutton
Wigan Athletic v Hull City
Hull to win
Hull are a different proposition under Liam Rosenior.
It’s just one defeat in seven league games for the Tigers since the former Derby boss took the helm on Humberside, and that loss to Reading could easily have been different on another day.
It’s not as though they’ve suddenly become world-beaters in a particularly astonishing way, more that they’re now just brilliant at the simple things, which hasn’t been said about City for a long time.
Sharp, crisp passing. Smart decision-making. Excellent organisation. Players instinctively know what to do and where to be. You can see an underlying plan and structure.
And, in a Championship season in which no-one outside the top two has set pulses racing with any sort of consistency, this steady blueprint could get Hull a lot of points, especially if they add well in January.
Three of those points may come from this trip to Wigan, who are bottom of the Championship having lost nine of their previous 12 league encounters.
Kolo Toure will be glad the transfer window has opened and will be looking to make 5-6 additions to his squad for the Latics to have a chance of beating the drop.
“From a betting perspective, Hull are the team to get behind in January, because they’ve got a great chance of getting a hefty points haul, without being expected to in the eye of the traders based on league position.”Gab Sutton
Barnsley v Bolton Wanderers
Barnsley to win
There’s one category of three teams hoping to challenge for automatic promotion from League One this season – Ipswich, Sheffield Wednesday, and Plymouth Argyle.
There’s another category of five teams hoping to reach the Play-Offs – Bolton, Peterborough, Portsmouth, Wycombe and Derby.
Barnsley find themselves somewhere between those two categories, because they’ve shown to have a better-rounded first XI as well as arguably stronger coaching than the teams in the latter category, but don’t have the same depth as those in the former.
With the right January additions, combined with some luck on the injury front whilst staying largely free of suspensions, Michael Duff’s side could break into the automatic promotion race: Mads Anderson in defence and Luca Connell in midfield are having truly outstanding seasons for the Tarn.
Conversely, a bad window along with some ill-fortune could see them sweat over their place in the top six, offering encouragement to the chasing pack.
Part of that chasing pack is Bolton, who have only won one of their last five league games but lost just one in seven.
The Trotters were at their best in the 2-0 victory over Exeter, but that was a level of performance we’ve not seen often enough from Ian Evatt’s side in the last few months.
“Barnsley find themselves in a category of their own, somewhere between the Play-Off scramble and the automatic promotion race. I think they’re a slightly better side than top six contenders Bolton, when operating at full strength.”Gab Sutton
Sheffield Wednesday v Cambridge United
Sheffield Wednesday -1 handicap
Darren Moore was happy with his side’s performance in Thursday’s 2-0 victory over Port Vale.
The former West Brom boss praised the tempo and movement in the Owls display, as well as the contributions of mobile target man Michael Smith, who bagged himself a brace.
The midfield trio of Barry Bannan, George Byers and Will Vaulks looks particularly strong – Bannan brings grace, class and vision, Byers offers selfless, energetic movement while Vaulks is the destructive option with a belter of a long throw.
Wednesday have one of the best two squads in the league and, after missing out via the Play-Offs last season, the pressure is on them to make it count.
Three points is a must against Cambridge, who are hoping to steady the ship following a slip from 5th in September to 20th in December: four points from two games, lifting Mark Bonner’s side to 19th, is a start.
The U’s have bolstered their ranks, too, by recalling versatile, dynamic full-back Liam Bennett from his impressive loan spell at Walsall, which will help their cause.
Bonner doesn’t need to be reminded, though, that his side were thumped 6-0 in last season’s trip to this side of the Steel City, and that was when Cambridge were performing as a steady, midtable side: the gulf in class may be evident again.
“Bannan, Byers and Vaulks is arguably the strongest midfield trio in League One, and with all respect to Ben Worman and Lewis Simper, one of whom is likely to start at Hillsborough, it could be difficult for the Cambridge talents to compete with experienced, proven Championship quality in that area.”Gab Sutton
Barrow v Rochdale
Richie Bennett to score anytime
The blueprint that has got Barrow to promotion contention in League Two might not be the blueprint that keeps them in the mix.
The Bluebirds have made huge strides under Pete Wild with a high-octane, pressing game, and an emphasis on getting the ball forward quickly, shooting opportunistically, and threatening from set pieces as well as moments of quality, chiefly from Ben Whitfield and Josh Gordon.
The drawback of this approach is that when Barrow prioritise having the agility and mobility of Gordon as the central forward in the press, they can also miss out at times on having a target man presence.
This wouldn’t be a problem if they were excellent at progressing the ball from deep, but George Ray and Niall Canavan aren’t particularly skilled ball-playing defenders, so it tends to be a case of going long to Gordon, him sometimes losing the header and then trying to press for the ball again.
That’s unlikely to work against Rochdale, who are expected to set up defensively and won’t give Gordon many chances to press for the ball in the final third, so target man Richie Bennett may get the nod from Wild.
Bennett gives Barrow a genuine focal point and will be a threat from crosses and set pieces – it could be his day…
“Barrow’s Plan A has worked brilliantly for much of the season, but they’re getting to the stage where that’s been worked out and they need a Plan B – Pete Wild hopes Richie Bennett can provide it against struggling Rochdale.”Gab Sutton
Northampton Town v Leyton Orient
Orient draw no bet
Leyton Orient have given themselves a huge cushion, both at the top of League Two and in the automatic promotion race.
Richie Wellens’ side have shown their defensive mettle in recent games, having gone four goals without conceding, and while they’ve not quite been at their best going forward against Stevenage and Newport, they’ve shown an impressive resilience.
Omar Beckles has forged a formidable centre-back pairing with Dan Happe, while Lawrence Vigouroux remains one of the top goalkeepers in the league.
If Paul Smyth and George Moncur bring their A-game, the O’s have a great chance of emerging with all three points from this key promotion clash.
Northampton have quality of their own in Marc Leonard and Sam Hoskins, but it’s just one win in four for Jon Brady’s side, who have seen the gap to fourth cut to four points.
“Leyton Orient haven’t quite been at their best in the last two games, but they’re six unbeaten having conceded just once in that time, and I back Richie Wellens’ side to find their mojo again at fellow-promotion contenders Northampton.”Gab Sutton