In the final round of EFL fixtures before Christmas, who will enjoy a merry festive period and who may suffer a bleak mid-winter?


Championship: Reading v Derby

Under 1.5 goals

New Reading manager Mark Bowen is doing enough to put his side on track to stay up, with 15 points accrued from his first 10 in charge and only 10 conceded in that time due to tightened defensive gaps.

The Welshman, though, is not quite doing enough to satisfy natives that he is the man to take the club forward long-term, because the quality of football has been underwhelming.

The former Stoke assistant has seen his side struggle without the creative influence of John Swift, the attacking craft of George Puscas and even the thrust of right wing-back Andy Yiadom, although Chris Gunter has put in some solid shifts in the latter’s absence.

As we saw in Derby County’s 1-0 home loss to Millwall, which saw them hit the target just once, the Rams are also struggling for creativity, which is partly due to an imbalanced setup.

Their standard approach is to give the ball to Tom Lawrence, who invariably cuts inside from the left, from which point Martyn Waghorn darts from the right into the centre-forward position and there are not enough players occupying the outside positions.

Equally, none of those central players have the pace to run in behind, so a well-trained rear-guard can give them nowhere to go and double up on Lawrence in the process.

We can expect Reading to do that but, having failed to hit the target in last week’s 0-0 draw at Stoke, they may find it hard to create chances, so one goal for either side may suffice.


Championship: West Brom v Brentford

Double Chance: Brentford/Draw

West Brom and Brentford both achieved one-goal victories last weekend with contrasting performance levels.

The Bees did not create too many fewer chances in their 1-0 win over sixth-placed Fulham than they did in the 7-0 thumping of 21st-placed Luton, so they are no flat-track bullies.

The BMW trio of Saïd Benrahma, Bryan Mbuemo and Ollie Watkins interchanged seamlessly and give Brentford arguably the most exciting attack in the league on current form.

Mathias Jensen, Christian Norgaard and Josh Da Silva had been Thomas Frank’s preferred midfield trio but recently, Kamohelo Mokotjo has come to the fore.

The South African brings power and dynamism, which could allow the Bees to show more of their true potential on the road.

Of their five wins and six defeats away from Griffin Park, Mokotjo has started in four wins and just two losses, so the West Londoners boast a two points per game road return when he starts.

West Bromwich Albion are favourites, having won seven of their last eight, but certain recent performances have been arguably below-par.

In last week’s 3-2 win at Birmingham, they were behind in the second half and needed substitute Charlie Austin’s clinical finishing to bail them out.

Austin is an asset, but Albion have conceded the first goal in 11 of their 22 games and have kept a clean sheet on just five occasions, so they must be careful not to rely too heavily on their powers of recovery.

Brentford’s compelling displays suggests they have enough about them to avoid defeat at the Hawthorns.


League One: Gillingham v MK Dons


Gillingham had been too easy to play against over the previous three seasons and underwhelming at home, but manager Steve Evans is solving both problems.

The assertive Scot is building a team strong in the press and brave at the back, with Connor Ogilvie proving a defiant defender, whether at centre-back or left-back.

The Gills now possess a stronger record at Priestfield, where they have won five of their 10 league games; positive recruitment has helped, with Thomas O’Connor plus Alfie Jones proving excellent loan additions and Mikael Mandron offering a key target man option.

MK Dons, meanwhile, are improving under Russ Martin, who has been helped by the injury return of Joe Mason; the intelligent forward produced a cultured finish in the 1-0 win over Oxford.

The Buckinghamshire outfit look well-organised; midfielder Alex Gilbey remains a spirited influence while Regan Poole and Callum Brittain have formed a strong right-sided combination.

Martin certainly has the charisma to re-enthuse a whole club but he needed help on the tactical side, so he enlisted the assistance of coach Luke Williams; a fantastic tactician who perhaps does not have the same leadership skills.

Put together, they could form an effective management team and a Prestfield point would ease the pressure.


League One: Portsmouth v Ipswich

James Norwood to score anytime

Portsmouth’s top six ambitions took a hit last week, when they lost 4-1 at Accrington Stanley.

Manager Kenny Jackett has often taken criticism after defeats or underwhelming draws this season but, in this case, it had more to do with personnel available.

Key left-back Lee Brown picked up a long-term injury and alternative options Brandon Haunstrup and Joe Hancott were also sidelined, so Anton Walkes – a composed presence in central midfield – had to fill in on his unnatural side.

Tom Naylor had to cover at centre-back, too, next to Sean Raggett, with Oli Hawkins and Christian Burgess sidelined and this is just the defensive areas – Pompey feel they need a midfielder and number 10 in January, too.

Ipswich Town manager Paul Lambert has also struggled to find tactical consistency, lately, overseeing a 2-1 home loss to Bristol Rovers last week.

The Scot, though, has been able to welcome James Norwood back to the side and the striker, who scored 29 League Two goals for Tranmere last season, bagged last week

With Flynn Downes, Kayden Jackson and possibly Alan Judge creating for Norwood, he will get chances against a patched-up Pompey rearguard and looks good value for a goal at 2/1 quotes.


League Two: Grimsby v Scunthorpe

Scunthorpe to win 2-0

Grimsby Town are having an underwhelming season.

Their August promised so much, with the Mariners boasting the best attacking record in the division after six games, but they have taken just 10 points from the subsequent 13 matches, scoring a paltry seven goals.

Early on, it looked as though target man James Hanson would give them the dimension to go more direct than they could last season, but in fact it has made them more predictable, because they have gone long to him too often.

Scunthorpe United have done the opposite to their neighbours.

They were 10 points below their rivals, bottom of the table with one point from a possible 21, in early September, but have since taken 24 points from 14 games, putting them as high as third in the form table.

Manager Paul Hurst has been helped by defensive stability, with the back-four of Jordan Clarke, Rory McArdle, Harrison McGahey and Kgosi Ntlhe staying in place for a four-game streak.

Going forward, meanwhile, the Iron possess the flair of Kevin Van Veen, the direct running of Alex Gilliead and the graft of Lee Novak.

Those players have helped them secure back-to-back 2-0 away wins and we could see a third in succession, here, as Grimsby continue their month-long dithering over the permanent managerial replacement for Michael Jolley.


League Two: Mansfield v Northampton

Double Chance: Northampton/Draw

Mansfield Town owners John and Carolyn Radford had given John Dempster every opportunity to grow into the manager’s job, but with theoretically one of the best squads in League Two languishing in 18th following a 3-0 home defeat to Cheltenham, they felt they had to part ways.

Replacing Radford is Graham Coughlan, who leaves Bristol Rovers fourth in the division above, reportedly in order to move closer to his family.

Coughlan’s main strength at the Mem was his ability to create a siege mentality and get his players putting bodies on the line for the cause, but the expectation there was not quite as high as it will be at Mansfield, so the test will be how he handles a different type of pressure.

Northampton Town boss Keith Curle, who has backed generously in the summer, has handled such pressure well in his job.

The Cobblers are seventh in League Two and have taken 19 points from the last 24 available with the team finally getting to grips with his favoured 3-4-3 formation and a lot more tactical consistency this year.

Nicky Adams has been in inspired form from his advanced left wing-back role, defenders Charlie Goode and Scott Wharton have made key contributions in both boxes and, as last week’s 1-0 win over Forest Green showed, they can get results without the influential Alan McCormack.

Odds are correct at the time of posting

Join the discussion