Championship: Swansea City v Wigan Athletic

Swansea to win

Wigan will want to avenge November’s 2-1 home defeat to Swansea, in which they had much of the play and created the better chances but were denied a point by a late goal.

Unfortunately, that has been the story of their season to date – long periods of promise let down by shorter periods of naivety.

Paul Cook’s side started well against Bristol City last week through Josh Windass’ pressing, Kieran Dowell’s left-footed deliveries, Joe Williams’ passing and Antonee Robinson’s direct running from left-back; substitutes Joe Gelhardt and Joe Garner looked bright, too.

They were just let down by a lapse in concentration and failure to track runners at key moments, which enabled their opponents to strike twice in a two-minute second half period and ultimately condemn them to defeat.

Swansea City, meanwhile, drew 0-0 at rivals Cardiff last time out.

Steve Cooper can take positives from the performances of Ben Cabango and his centre-back partner, Ben Wilmot; both dealt well with the pressure that came their way and, at 19 and 20 respectively, showed a willingness to embrace the derby spirit.

The Swans came closest to scoring, too, as Bersant Celina hit the post in the first half, although their attacking players were broadly kept quiet, with Matt Grimes unable to dictate with the authority he is normally capable of.

Rhian Brewster, on loan from Liverpool, will hope to get more opportunities to show his goalscoring potential this week after something of a baptism of fire.

The hosts should be backed, even at odds-on quotes.


Championship: Birmingham City v Cardiff City

Birmingham to score: No

Birmingham head coach Pep Clotet has come under pressure in recent weeks, with his side seeing just two wins in 13 league games.

There are question marks about whether Clotet has the charisma to succeed in the role, or influence games with substitutions, although he is undoubtedly an excellent coach.

There is a genuine debate to be had, too, about whether Blues are making progress at a rate in line with summer transfer business.

One hopes, however, that the board does not base any decision regarding the Spaniard’s future on supposed “top six” aspirations, because there is a long process for the club to go through before it can realistically expect to be among the best at this level.

With attempts to evolve the style of play yielding mixed results, Clotet went back-to-basics for last week’s 2-1 victory at Luton, where all-rounder Gary Gardner and ball-winner David Davis started in central midfield.

Blues have struggled to maintain a settled centre-back pairing.

Jake Clarke-Salter has only started seven league games, Marc Roberts has spent six weeks sidelined through injury and is only now coming back, Harlee Dean is passionate but erratic, Geraldo Bajrami is inexperienced while Wes Harding and Gardner are simply not centre-backs – so a more conservative approach is being employed to mask imperfections at the back.

By contrast, Cardiff will likely have a strong centre-back pairing: Sean Morrison is one of the best centre-backs in the Championship when it comes to the fundamental basics and he is now partnered by the athletic Curtis Nelson.

Aden Flint, of course, scored twice in the midweek 4-3 FA Cup Third Round reply win at Cardiff, but he is limited in how far up he can hold a line.

With the pace of Nelson in defence, Neil Harris can start to implement the high line that we saw his successful Millwall teams operate with.

It is, therefore, hard to see the Blues breaching the Bluebirds.


League One: Gillingham v Oxford United

Under 2.5 goals

Gillingham have reportedly been in talks to sign John Akinde, but the striker’s brace after coming off the bench for Lincoln in a 5-1 win over Bolton could make it harder for Steve Evans to strike a deal.

Either way, it is important they add a striker in Akinde’s mould – someone with height and physicality as well as pace – to give themselves a more balanced set of forwards.

So far this season, they have had quick, versatile forwards like Alex Jakubiak, Brandon Hanlan and Mikael Ndjoli available, but only one player who can act as a genuine focal point – and while Mikael Mandron is a useful squad player, he may not be somebody to rely on deeply at this level.

Even if Akinde does not sign, Gillingham – who win on average 30.7 aerial duels per game – would have a physical advantage over Oxford, who struggled with a similar mismatch in last week’s 3-1 home loss to Rotherham.

Do the Yellows have more technical ability? Yes but, having scored just five goals in their last eight league games, they need to have the courage to show it against an imposing side.

Gillingham, themselves, have scored just 11 goals in their last 14 league outings, so a low-scoring affair looks likely.


League One: Tranmere Rovers v Ipswich Town

Ipswich to win

Two of Ipswich Town’s better players this century have signed from Tranmere Rovers.

Centre-back John McGreal served the Tractor Boys for five years after swapping Prenton for Portman and was part of successful sides led by George Burley, then left-back Aaron Cresswell made the same move and ultimately went on to West Ham.

The player hoping to maintain the trend of top Tranmere-based transfers for Town is James Norwood, who scored 82 goals in 165 league appearances for Rovers has taken time to hit top form in Sussex, with the striker scoring from just nine of his 56 shots from inside the box.

The 29-year-old though netted in last Saturday’s consummate 4-1 victory over Accrington Stanley, which meant he scored in successive league games for the first time since August – although the team mustered just one shot on target in Tuesday’s 0-0 draw at Oxford.

Granted, Tranmere were improved defensively in last week’s 0-0 draw at Southend but on the flip side, they failed to find the net against statistically one of the worst defensive sides in the third-tier since records began.

After successive promotions, Rovers have found it difficult to elevate the calibre of their squad to the required level.

Out of the 18 players they have added since promotion, one could argue that only Rushian Hepburn-Murphy, Corey Blackett-Taylor and Kieron Morris, plus potentially Peter Clarke, have significantly enhanced the group.

Of those, it is worth noting that Hepburn-Murphy had a mixed League Two stint on loan at Cambridge last season, Blackett-Taylor and Morris were part of a relegated Walsall side in 2018-19 and while Peter Clarke had a positive league debut, he could be tested for pace at 38.

Jackson, of course, has searing pace and could make runs to create the space required for Norwood to fire Town to victory on the Wirral.


League Two: Forest Green Rovers v Salford City

Double Chance: Draw/Salford

Forest Green Rovers won 4-3 last week at Mansfield Town in especially dramatic circumstances, with Aaron Collins scoring the winner as late as the 96th minute.

Mark Cooper will not be overly pleased with how his side defended in Nottinghamshire, because they failed to deal with basic crosses, hopeful punts and long throws.

The signings of Jevani Brown and George Marsh, though, enhanced their attacking play and Junior Mondal made some vibrant runs inside from the right, while Joseph Mills was always a valuable outlet from left-back.

The Green have relied on external investment to reach their current position and the same can be said for Salford City who, although into their debut season at this level, are arguably underachieving in 14th with a top seven budget.

They have strengthened their wide options with the signings of Ashley Hunter, arguably League One’s most naturally creative player over the previous three seasons, arriving on loan from Fleetwood and speedy wide man Bruno Andrade, a key cog in Lincoln’s League Two title win last season, on a two-and-a-half year deal.

If anything, those additions add more pressure to Graham Alexander, who may be equally grateful for the addition of a target man in Tom Elliott who is proven at this level and will facilitate his direct methods, while Michael O’Connor arrives to add tenacity and leadership in midfield.

Alexander was happy with large portions of his side’s performance in last week’s 2-1 home loss to Northampton, in which they created the better chances; Brandon Thomas-Asante was a livewire once again, Richie Towell was typically tenacious in midfield while Hunter produced high-quality deliveries after coming off the bench.

The result leaves them some 12 points off Forest Green, who occupy the lowest Play-Off place, but Salford will hope that their four high-quality January recruits will help them close the gap.


League Two: Port Vale v Leyton Orient


The managerial match-up will be an intriguing aspect of this meeting.

On the one hand, there is the quietly spoken John Askey, who likes to create a calm environment, hoping that his consistency in tactics and team selection will lead to consistency in results.

The Vale have certainly made progress under Askey, whose father Colin was part of the 1954 side that reached the FA Cup Semi-Finals.

They are starting to play some neat football on the deck and, with Scott Burgess and Tom Conlon bringing effervescent energy to the midfield in front of the more disciplined Luke Joyce, they are improving the approach play.

His opposite number, Ross Embleton, is perhaps a more emotional and impulsive speaker, which has its own advantages.

Embleton had a season ticket at Brisbane Road as a kid, he sat with his family in the stands; his ability to connect with fans comes naturally, because he is one.

The 38-year-old has a strong relationship with Director of Football Martin Ling and the hierarchy have been sufficiently impressed with Embleton’s leadership skills to offer him the permanent head coach job on a 12-month rolling contract.

Orient are rarely found wanting for spirit, effort or endeavour; they have exciting talents in dynamic midfielder George Marsh and skilful wide man Jordan Maguire-Drew.

The East Londoners though are guilty of giving away cheap goals and can be short of touches of quality around the penalty area.

The two teams are in a similar place in terms of performance levels this season; both, most weeks, are involved in even encounters and we could see another in Burslem.

Odds are correct at the time of posting

Join the discussion