Championship: Birmingham City v Brentford

Brentford to win

So far in February, Birmingham have answered two key questions hanging over them: their ability to overturn losing positions and their ability to beat the best in this league.

Pep Clotet’s side began the month by coming back from a goal behind in the second half to beat Nottingham Forest 2-1, a result inspired by Lee Camp’s penalty save at a key time.

The following Friday, they recovered admirably from a Marc Roberts error that gifted Bristol City a first-minute opener to win 3-1, with Gary Gardner staring in midfield.

Teenage sensation Jude Bellingham has furthered his glowing reputation – the 16-year-old has quality, trickery and a fantastic work ethic – while the talented Jeramie Bela has produced several sumptuous right-wing crosses for Lukas Jutkiewicz to threaten at the back-post.

Jutkiewicz and Scott Hogan, who scored his third goal in as many games since arriving from Aston Villa in Tuesday’s 1-0 victory at Barnsley, is Birmingham’s chief goal threat.

Blues’ strategy at Oakwell was mainly to let their hosts have a lot of possession, defend tightly and expect that one big chance will come to a striker, which was successful.

Brentford, though, are more technically and tactically refined and will therefore pose a far greater challenge.

The Bees will be pleased with Tuesday’s 1-1 draw with Leeds and, as we saw in preceding victories over Hull and Middlesbrough, they have found a way of controlling games without influential midfield dynamo Kamohelo Mokotjo.

Mathias Jensen and Josh Da Silva take turns to pick up pockets of space just wide of the number 10 position and retain possession high up, to feed their sizzling attacking trio of Bryan Mbuemo, Saïd Benrahma and Ollie Watkins.

When both Jensen and Da Silva are marked out, Christian Nørgaard – so often dictating play at the base of the midfield with metronomic control – can confidently take on that extra space.

Because Brentford do not have one established number 10, they are devilishly difficult to read and look good value to thrive in B9 at a price close to evens.

This is a low-pressure game for Blues, though, who just need another seven points to reach the 50 mark and maintain their Championship status.

 

Championship: Charlton Athletic v Blackburn Rovers

Charlton to win and Under 3.5 goals

There is still time for Blackburn Rovers to mount a Play-Off push thanks to Tuesday’s 3-0 win over Hull, but it feels like they will fall short.

The Lancashire club look more stable at boardroom level than they were, yet still do not quite have the budget to secure deals that will elevate the squad another level, which is partly why proposed January deals like the one for high-quality Newcastle winger Christian Atsu fell through.

Given the finances Rovers are working with, a Play-Off finish would necessitate fortune favouring them and, with injuries to key creators like Bradley Dack and Lewis Holtby as well as the versatile Joe Rothwell and defender Derrick Williams, that has not been the case.

Mowbray has had to adapt to various setbacks and most recently, devised a system without an orthodox playmaker.

The fact they put three past Hull would suggest the current setup could be successful, especially with Adam Armstrong looking a real livewire in the number 10 role, but in truth 70 minutes of that game were largely uninspiring before Darragh Lenihan’s scrappy goal opened the floodgates.

Charlton have, themselves, had a hard time with injuries, although they are now without only two players – Jonathan Leko and Lewis Page – which are not particularly costly: recruit Andre Green has proved more productive in the final third than Leko, while Page has only ever been a bit-part player.

Naby Sarr’s return is a huge plus for the Addicks and the cultured Frenchman, from the left of a three-man defence, produced a delightful deep cross for the persistent Lyle Taylor to score the winner in Tuesday’s shock 1-0 victory at Nottingham Forest.

Charlton defended superbly in that game, showing the kind of bravery, commitment and spirit that inspired their early season heroics.

The Londoners were not able to sustain those initial results, but their home record – just five defeats in 16 at the Valley – is the main reason why they have not dropped into the bottom three.

Lee Bowyer’s side have accrued eight points from their last four games in East London, with vital victories over Bristol City and Barnsley sandwiching creditable draws with West Brom and Fulham.

With Darren Pratley and Josh Cullen stoutly protecting what will at times be a back-five, Blackburn may need a subtle form of creativity to unlock the Addicks, which is where the absence of both Dack and Holtby could be problematic.

 

League One: Bolton Wanderers v Wycombe Wanderers

Bolton to win and Under 2.5 goals

Bolton have looked very likely to be relegated from League One all season, due to the 12-point deduction.

The task for Keith Hill and David Flitcroft, therefore, has been not so much about keeping the Trotters up but rather delivering a certain level of performance that will inspire hope of a promotion push in League Two.

There were some positive signs in the recent 2-1 loss at Coventry, where they got their pressing right in the second half – Wanderers arguably had the level of the promotion chasers when it came to testing the opposition goalkeeper.

They do not possess a great deal of creativity in midfield, although right-back Josh Emmanuel can put in some excellent deliveries from deep while dribbler Dennis Politic, hoping to be back from illness, has scored in his last two games.

Crucially, striker Chris O’Grady can display a remarkable ability to make the most of scraps with his strength, persistence and hold-up play.

Hill’s side might just have picked the right time to play the Wanderers of Wycombe, who lost 1-0 at home to Fleetwood on Tuesday night.

The Chairboys mustered just one shot on target against a side that were playing with 10-men for 22 minutes, with a concerning lack of urgency late on that frustrated their fans.

Gareth Ainsworth’s side have lost their last five away games and have a problem in the goalkeeping department, because Ryan Allsop is in a poor run of form but David Stockdale, who joined last month, looks error-prone.

Nick Freeman will likely be the visitors’ main source of creativity but there is reason to think that the tireless Jason Lowe can nullify the midfielder’s influence.

While Wycombe are suffering from a dose of altitude sickness, Bolton – who have scored four more goals (13) than their visitors (9) across the previous 11 games – may have what it takes to grind out a scrappy win.

 

League One: Portsmouth v Shrewsbury Town

Portsmouth to win and Under 3.5 goals

Portsmouth have been arguably the best team in League One since mid-September, having taken 44 points from their last 22 games.

Tuesday’s 1-0 loss at promotion rivals Coventry was a setback but manager Kenny Jackett has addressed many of the issues that plagued his side in the early weeks of the season.

He has introduced players like Andy Cannon – hoping to be back fit here – and Ellis Harrison who suit his direct methods.

The signing of left-back Steve Seddon has been a huge plus, in terms of offering something different going forward when wide forward Ronan Curtis is marked out of the game.

Pompey are managing games more effectively, which suggests they have perfected their protection of leads – they have not dropped any points from winning positions, now, since New Year’s Day.

The Hampshire hosts will be a different beast to the side we saw on the opening day, that lost 1-0 at Shrewsbury.

 

That day, Salop were just as uninspiring going forward as their visitors but won thanks to a long-range screamer from left wing-back Ryan Giles, who has since been recalled by Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Giles had difficulty fitting into Sam Ricketts’ conservative setups; too cavalier to operate as a wing-back yet too wing-focused to play in a three-man attack that needs wide forwards getting into the box.

Ricketts has struggled to maximize the capabilities of attack-minded players in his squad with a conservative style of football, which is the root of local tension.

That was not a huge problem in the first half of the season, when they kept 10 clean sheets in 20 games and there was tangible evidence of the productivity of Ricketts’ organisational qualities.

Now though, Salop are without a clean sheet in nine league games and while fatigue has been a factor due to an impressive FA Cup run, it is difficult for fans to be patient during two months with neither efficiency nor entertainment on domestic offer.

12 of Pompey’s 14 victories have come with three or fewer goals scored, so those who fancy the hosts but want an odds-against selection may be well advised to go for Portsmouth to win and Under 3.5 goals.

 

League Two: Cheltenham Town v Leyton Orient

Double Chance: Draw/Leyton Orient

Cheltenham’s 1-0 loss at Scunthorpe last Saturday forced manager Michael Duff to re-think his plans, but the introductions of Will Boyle, Max Sheaf and Reuben Reid in the following league game all paid off in a 1-0 win at Carlisle.

Still, creativity is found at a relatively low volume for the Robins, who are likely to be competing with a crop of teams for a lower Play-Off spot, rather than putting heat on the top three.

Leyton Orient, meanwhile, are in transition but, since head coach Ross Embleton was given the role on a permanent basis in early January, they have enjoyed an improvement in form with 12 points from nine games, following Tuesday’s 2-1 victory over Mansfield

The O’s could easily have a greater tally, because their spirited performance in the 2-0 loss at Crewe arguably merited a point and they were the more prominent side in 1-1 home draws with Grimsby and Macclesfield.

Embleton has started to establish his best XI, which is likely a 4-3-3 with the midfield combination of Ousseynou Cisse, who has brought a touch of composure to the side, the tenacious Craig Clay, who is starting to prove he belongs in the EFL and Josh Wright, who loves to make well-timed runs into the box – the latter made a huge impact from the bench in midweek.

Crucially, the O’s are starting to cut out some of the errors they made in the first half of the season and have been delivering similar shot data to Cheltenham over the last 16 games, so they could prove underrated in Gloucestershire.

 

League Two: Stevenage v Salford City

Salford to win -1 handicap

Stevenage manager Graham Westley is being relentlessly positive in his side’s battle to beat the drop.

That is understandable in some respects, because the players must try to believe they are good enough to bridge the seven-point gap and stay in this division.

Plus, the January signings of committed defender Patrick Reading, midfielder Diaguely Dabo and exciting, versatile forward Dan Kemp have shown genuine promise.

On the other hand, Boro are on a five-game losing streak and until results improve, it will be difficult for supporters to buy into any positivity.

The Hertfordshire outfit will face little leniency, too, from Salford City, who have taken 23 points from 16 away games, scoring 26 goals including three at Walsall, four at Oldham and four at Cambridge.

The Ammies had difficulty at times in the first half of the season in facilitating manager Graham Alexander’s direct methods, but Tom Elliott gives them a focal point.

As we saw in the recent 0-0 draw with Crawley, they have a lot of quality out wide in Bruno Andrade and Ashley Hunter, who can all put accurate balls into the target man – Craig Conway can do the same from the bench.

If Salford need a fresh pair of legs, they have the tricky Brandon Thomas-Asante to bring on, too as well as James Wilson, who scored a brace within moments of coming on in Tuesday’s 3-2 home loss to Plymouth Argyle.

The visitors’ financial power gives them strength in reserve and if Stevenage are chasing the game in the second half, Salford have the quality to exploit gaps.

Odds are correct at the time of posting

Join the discussion