Championship Preview: Gameweek 42

Adlene Guedioura

Adlene Guedioura

In the Championship, Millwall continue their challenging quest for survival with a daunting home game against Watford, who are outside the automatic promotion places on only goal difference. Blackburn Rovers’ play-off hopes have long since disappeared, but they look to at least finish the season in good form when they travel to Reading, who may have half an eye on next week’s FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal.

Millwall v Watford

Watford have shown another side to their game over the last few weeks. At an earlier stage in the season, they were a team with plenty of attacking quality, but one that lacked the grit, determination, muscle and stamina to reach their full potential.

However, the team has benefited from the introduction of two midfielders, Ben Watson and Adlene Guedioura. Watson did make one costly mistake in Watford’s 1-0 home defeat to Ipswich, but has otherwise looked solid, while Guedioura has impressed in big games against promotion rivals. Both players are willing to work hard when out of possession, and their arrival has simply made Watford harder to score against. Whereas beforehand, some of the defensive players were seemingly playing on their own at times, fouling in dangerous areas and not considering the team’s tactical setup, there is now a greater sense of discipline and responsibility within the team.

If Watford had not signed Watson and Guedioura, this blog would back them to drop points at the Den, as they face a Millwall side in desperate need of a victory. The Lions have been relatively solid since caretaker manager Neil Harris took over, and seem to have benefited from young Sid Nelson being given a chance at centre-back, alongside Jos Hooiveld. Alan Dunne, although a Millwall legend, lacks both the pace and positional awareness to do well at this level, and it is admirable that Harris has had the bravery to drop him.

Last time out, Millwall picked up a vital win over South London rivals Charlton, having come back from 1-0 down with 20 minutes to go. In that match, the Lions put their opponents, who played most of the match with 10 men, under a lot of pressure. Even when Millwall were 1-0 down, their fans still believed that they could win, and this gave the players that extra bit of strength. They swung countless balls into the box, and eventually, their endeavour was rewarded with a late winner from Hooiveld. If Millwall do stay up – which still seems relatively unlikely – that goal will be looked upon as a turning point.

Millwall will no doubt be fighting every second to save their Championship status, and their position makes this a difficult game for Watford. However, the Hornets are now made of sterner stuff, and if they work just as hard as their battling opponents, the quality of Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo will shine through.

Reading v Blackburn

Both Reading and Blackburn have performed well in the FA Cup this season. Reading are still to play Arsenal in the semi-finals at Wembley, and Blackburn beat two Premier League clubs, before being knocked out in the quarter-finals to Liverpool, only after a replay.

However, when it comes progress in the league, both clubs continue to underwhelm. For a side whose chances of finishing in the play-off places went down to the final day last season, Reading’s Championship campaign has been comparatively disappointing. Their squad at the moment is looking very weak, and the priority for Steve Clarke will be to prepare for what could be a very busy summer.

Reading need strengthening at the back. The defensive frailties of left-back Jordan Obita have led to Reading conceding a lot of goals from opposition attacks down their left flank, and it may be that next season, Clarke decides to move Obita to the left wing. There is also a problem at centre-back, because Alex Pearce has been heavily criticized due to his lack of pace, and is often very vulnerable when isolated against quick, skilful players. Clarke will want to bring in a replacement centre-back, to partner the promising Michael Hector.

Reading’s midfield is looking fairly strong, on the assumption that Nathaniel Chalobah, who has impressed since joining on loan from Chelsea, extends his stay. Chalobah adds muscle to the midfield, and for a natural anchor man, he is relatively comfortable on the ball. Alongside Chalobah, Reading have a more forward-thinking midfielder in Oliver Norwood, who has demonstrated an excellent passing range, but can also contribute defensively. That central partnership looks promising, although Reading still require another winger, given the disappointing season from Gareth McCleary.

Up front, Reading may need a change. Despite some wholehearted performances from Pavel Pogrebnyak since his return from injury, his inconsistency over the last 2 years makes one question whether he can be relied upon to lead the line. Simon Cox started the season fairly well, but has seemingly fallen out of favour with Steve Clarke, and Yakubu has contributed little since joining in February. The rest of the league season for many of the Reading players will be about securing their place in the team for next season, more than anything else.

Blackburn Rovers will look back on this season with a degree of regret. They have had some good memories in the FA Cup, but have not been able to sustain the play-off challenge we expected from them.

The players in the Blackburn team are sufficiently creative and technically gifted for Rovers to be pushing for at least the top 6, however, they are yet to truly mould into a proper unit. Gary Bowyer has changed the back-four far too much, with 6 different centre-backs having been used this season. He has also struggled to find a strong holding midfielder, with Jason Lowe, Lee Williamson and Corry Evans all disappointing in that regard.

Unlike Reading, who need better quality players before they can realistically challenge for promotion, Blackburn need only an element of tactical balance. This blog predicts that Blackburn’s superior quality will see them take 3 points at the Madjeski, but if Gary Bowyer manages to retain the same core of players over the summer, next season will be the one for him to be truly judged.