Nick Albert

Your EFL Five

It’s the calm before the storm for the 72 clubs in the Football League as managers and players prepare for a flurry of fixtures over the festive period. Before then though, here are your five standout matches across the three divisions this weekend.

Friday - Sheffield United vs West Brom (19:45)

The Championship

The Goal Poacher’s Derby: Third plays fifth in the latest meet of sides vying for promotion with just one point separating the Blades and the Baggies.

Few would have had Sheffield United down as promotion contenders prior to the campaign yet they’ve remained in the mix and merit their position with almost half the season played.

Success has come largely from a settled side led by mainstays Basham and Norwood. But it’s the goals of Billy Sharp that has United where they are. The 32-year old already looks likely to surpass last season’s tally of 13.

With 11 goals in 19, Sharp has been fully living up to his name in front of goal and is the go-to man for manager Wilder, a point proved at the Madjeksi last weekend when Sharp, afforded a rest, came off the bench to break the deadlock in the 83rd minute.

Fellow Championship goal poacher, Dwight Gayle, has also been demonstrating his goal scoring prowess. He’s on ten for the season, as is his partner in crime Jay Rodriguez, the two combing to good effect so far to see Darren Moore’s team as the most potent attackers in the division with 44 goals from their 21 games.

Former Baggies defender Moore will be seeking an improvement in his side’s defending though. They could be a lot closer to the top two as it stands but a fallible backline, without a clean sheet in 13 and breached more times than second bottom Bolton, continues to be their downfall.

Saturday - Aston Villa vs. Stoke (15:00)

The Championship 

Looking to kick-on: Two clubs expected to fight it out for the automatic places are only now mounting recoveries after shaky starts.

Changing a manager mid-season can sometimes prove a gamble. For Villa, though it seemed the inevitable option with things becoming stale under Steve Bruce.

His replacement, self-confessed Villa fan Dean Smith, has, so far, proven himself to be the up and coming manager which persuaded his new employers to prise him away from Brentford in the first place. He has Villa playing with an attacking verve absent from Villa Park for some time.

They’re not just scoring a hatful of goals though (17 in the last 5), they’re winning at a better rate and seeing off fellow promotion rivals with ease. Three wins in their last five, including comprehensive victories at Derby and Middlesbrough (no mean feat) and a derby thrashing of Birmingham sees Villa on the up and well placed in eighth.

Another managerial casualty looked likely at the Britannia too based on Stoke’s early season form. Pottering along with a series of draws and a handful of wins, Gary Rowett has demonstrated his knowledge of the league to see Stoke rise to tenth.

There are still too many draws than he’d like - three in the last five is far from ideal when trying to make up ground. However, they’re unbeaten in eight and have suffered just one defeat in twelve.

Pivotal figures in their revival have been Joe Allen and Tom Ince, both of whom have chipped in with crucial goals of late. They’ll need to be on their game against free-scoring Villa too, a defeat will be damaging and undo the hard work of the last few weeks, especially ahead of a favourable block of games to come. 

Aston Villa Vs Stoke City

Stoke are waking up to the challenge of the Championship

Saturday - Barnsley vs. Portsmouth (15:00)

League One 

Two unbeaten records on the line: Top of the table Portsmouth head to Oakwell having just suffered a first defeat in ten. The hosts are looking to get back on track too.

Daniel Stendel is making positive strides with Barnsley. The former Hannover boss has a been a breath of fresh air since arriving in South Yorkshire during the summer, turning The Tykes into one of the most attractive to watch teams in the league, while helping to lift the gloom that automatically comes with relegation.

His side, on a run of three without a win, host the league leaders, beaten for the first time in ten during midweek. Both will be desperate to return to winning ways but those expecting Pompey to turn it back on might not be aware of Barnsley’s unbeaten home record.

How Kenny Jackett’s players react to a first defeat in over two months adds to the intrigue of this clash. An unexpected defeat to Charlton in midweek, just their second loss of the campaign, was a stark reminder how competitive this league can be.

Fortunately for Portsmouth, top spot is still intact, while their unbeaten away record should stand them in good stead at Oakwell. But they would have preferred an easier game to get back up and running with.

Saturday - Macclesfield vs. Crawley (15:00)

League Two

Already a crucial week for Campbell: He’s only been in his first managerial job five minutes. Yet you could say Sol Campbell’s first home match as Macclesfield boss is a ‘must not lose’.

Having taken charge of the side propping up the entire football league, the former England defender is only too aware of the job on his hands. But he needs to get them winning. And quick. An average so far of one win every seven games isn’t going to stop The Silkman from hurtling straight back down to the National League.

An ineffective showing in front of goal at Colchester - nothing new given their paltry goal tally of 16 all season - cost Campbell his first defeat in his first game. He’ll be counting on back-to-back home games against Crawley and Port Vale to yield him his first points.

And it’s a golden opportunity when you consider the form of the visitors to Moss Rose. Crawley are on a rotten run on the road having lost their last five.

They too are adjusting to a new man in the dugout with Gabriele Gioffi taking over from Harry Kewell in September. The Italian has overseen five home wins but can’t seem to replicate the same form away from the Broadfield. There’s no doubt this fixture would’ve been identified as one they could profit from though.

Monday - Derby vs Nottingham Forest (19:45)

The Championship 

‘The Brian Clough Derby’: Rounding off the weekend in the EFL is the standout fixture between two clubs who have more in common than just their East Midlands rivalry.

Just three points separate the two great foes and while it’s the hosts who hold the slight upper hand in league position and recent form, Frank Lampard will recall his side being beaten twice before on the big occasion at Pride Park; early on to Leeds and most recently to Villa. He’ll hope both serve as a stark reminder to the threat of getting caught up in the atmosphere of a big game.

The Rams are in decent form though having accrued maximum points in four of the last six. Without tempting the same fate to fall on previous Derby teams, this side moulded by Lampard looks as if it has the right blend of youth and experience to endure the marathon of the Championship. In the short-term however, it’s all about beating fierce rivals Forest.

Aitor Karanka will also be aware of the significance of this derby match, not just for the Forest faithful but in terms of keeping within reach of the play-off spots. But trying to get Forest over the line in certain games is a quandary for the Spaniard. Even more so when you think he has the league’s top scorer, Lewis Grabban, in the ranks.

Amazingly, his 14 goals haven’t been enough to propel Forest into the play-off positions. A league high of 10 draws and a lack of consistency in results is preventing The Reds from picking up any momentum, the key for any side in this division. Will a famous win in this fixture be the kick-start they’re in need of?

Lewis Grabban

Much travelled championship hitman Grabban is doing what he does his best for Forest

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Nick Albert

Wayne Rooney fully deserving of final England cap

The decision made by the FA to award England’s all-time leading goalscorer a 120th and final cap against the USA tomorrow evening certainly came out of the blue. And it has been the source of much debate among ex-players, managers and fans alike despite thirteen years of loyal service, 119 caps and a record 53 goals for his country. But why?   

It could be argued because it’s Wayne Rooney who has never been truly appreciated by England supporters. And perhaps never will.

To be fair, it couldn’t have started any better for the kid who burst onto the Premier League scene at 16 years of age and was making his senior England debut just a few months later.

The old adage of being the ‘closest player we’ve seen since Gazza’ was bandied around at a fair rate with Rooney the country’s new superstar for whom we’d all pin our hopes on for the next decade.

At first, he could seemingly do no wrong, becoming the youngest player to ever score for England (at the time) at 17 years and 317 days in a Euro 2004 qualifier against Macedonia.

He then proceeded to take that particular finals by storm in Portugal, displaying every inch the fearless teenager with several eye-catching performances and four goals, the two against Croatia in the last 16 especially memorable.

“I remember the England fans in the crowd behind the goal going crazy when he scored. They knew what a gem we had" (John Motson)

It was all going swimmingly well until an injury sustained in the quarter finals versus the hosts put pay to Rooney’s involvement, and that of England too.

And as we all know, England’s tournament record in the era of Rooney never improved much beyond this, a fact constantly laid at the feet of the former captain.

But is he the only skipper or player to not win a major trophy with England through his career? I believe not.

And does his unrivalled goals record, level of consistency and years of service at the highest level not at least show Rooney as a class above anything this country has ever produced? You’d have to say, yes.

The reason most are so against the notion of honouring Rooney boils down to his association with an era of underachievement for the national side. It's the stick he is regularly beat with, yet is this something that can be attributed to just one individual? There's only one answer to that.

But for some there has to be a scapegoat and for many it's Wayne Rooney.

The numbers are quickly disregarded because his goals were against so called ‘lesser’ teams and there are certainly players with better goal to game ratios, of that there is no debate. 

Nonetheless, to have the hunger and the continued desire to go and claim the all-time record should be commended.

If it was so easy for players to score bundles of goals on the international stage, why has Bobby Charlton’s record of 49 goals stood for 45 years?

The answer to the debate lies here.

It’s not everyday such a record is broken and so, quite rightly, the achievement should be recognised and celebrated.

Perhaps when it takes another 45 years for the record to be beaten, we will all come to fully appreciate the efforts of Wayne Rooney in an England shirt.

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Nick Albert

Swedish Allsvenskan: AIK set to end nine-year long wait for title

The penultimate weekend of the domestic league in Sweden looks set to be a defining one, not least for one club for whom Sunday represents a golden opportunity in every sense.

Perennial underachievers no more?

The stage is set for AIK. After a nine-year lull in which the Allsvenskan title has evaded them, the chance to banish almost a decade of near misses and underachievement will finally present itself for one of Sweden’s best supported clubs on Sunday evening.

To say this moment has been a long time coming wouldn’t be an exaggeration - four runners-up medals and third and fourth place finishes tells its own story of how close AIK have been in recent years.

Often within touching distance of winning Gold, AIK have watched Malmö, Norrköping, Elfsborg and Helsingborgs IF all finish as Sweden’s number one since their last win back in 2009. But with Malmö beginning the defence of their title in shaky fashion, many sensed 2018 could finally be the year for AIK.

The AIK way

Foundations were laid by the champions-elect in the first two thirds of the campaign by a 20-match unbeaten run, from which they amassed fourteen wins. Prior to eventually losing their unbeaten tag at nearest challengers IFK Norrköping, AIK personified consistency by impressively reeling off eight straight victories.

Some will highlight how little flair AIK have provided en route to their success – three teams have score more than them, while they’ve scored 3+ goals just six times. They’ve hardly set the league alight with their workmanlike style that’s true but league titles are based on a solid defence and AIK are evidence of such a fact.

Their rearguard - well drilled, settled, resolute, and most notably breached on just sixteen occasions (at the time of writing) - is the best in the division by some distance, and has ultimately been key in churning out the wins and keeping the points tally ticking over since the season kicked off in April.

Persistent in pursuit

Few can argue though with how relentless AIK have been – one league defeat all year speaks volumes of this side’s mentality, as does their record in derby games against Hammarby and Djurgården - they were victorious in all but one.

And perhaps they’ve shown the real mark of champions by still pulling results out of the bag under substantial pressure from rivals Norrköping and when circumstance counted against them, as has been the case against Malmö and Östersund in this defining week. 

Gnagnet have one hand on the trophy…

Screenshot 2018 11 02 At 17 52 33

AIK vs. GIF Sundsvall

Friends Arena: 4th November @ 16:30 BST

It’s one in and one out in central midfield for the hosts. Ghanian midfielder Enoch Adu serves a ban for his untimely red card early on in the midweek win at Östersund. However, Seb Larsson returns having served a suspension for his overzealous celebrations equaliser against Malmö. Daniel Sundgren looks set to return at RWB, also having been suspended. His inclusion is likely to be at the expense of Rasmus Lindkvist.

Likely XI:

  • Linner
  • Milosevic, Karlsson, Janssson
  • Sundgren, Larsson, Dimitriadis, Olsson, Rashidi
  • Elyounnoussi, Goitom
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Nick Albert

Talking the EFL: What to look out for this weekend

After a full round of games in midweek, they go again in The Championship, League One and League Two. Here’s what to keep an eye out for this weekend.

The Championship 

Improvement for Ipswich?

Having recorded just one victory since taking over from Mick McCarthy during the summer, Ipswich owner Marcus Evans has lost patience with Paul Hurst. The former Shrewsbury boss has been shown the door with The Tractor Boys at the foot of the Championship with just nine points to show from fourteen games.

Despite his strong connections with fierce rivals Norwich City, Paul Lambert appears the man primed to take over at Portman Road. Confirmation of his appointment is imminent but it will be the job of academy coach to raise spirits in the meantime, starting with a trip to Millwall. Will they fare any better now Hurst has gone?

Monk making moves

Birmingham have quietly remained under the radar this term, perhaps because they’ve recorded just four wins from their fourteen played. However, they’re on a ten-match unbeaten run and could move to within a point of the play-off places should they beat Sheffield Wednesday at St Andrews on Saturday.

A league high of eight draws has stopped them from making significant strides in the standings and is perhaps why nobody is making too much of The Blues right now. Securing a fourth win on the bounce though will make people sit up and take note, in particular of the job Monk is doing. The former Leeds and Swansea boss has been stopped from making any new signings due to the ongoing transfer embargo hanging over the club but is working wonders with what he has.

Perfect week for Derby?

Can Lampard be the difference for Derby? That was the question raised prior to the season kicking off. But so far, so good for the managerial rookie who has adjusted well to life in the dugout and appears to be mastering the role just like he did the Chelsea midfield.

With his manager’s hat now firmly on, Frank has been rather frank about his side getting too carried away at being just two points off the top of the league. He’ll find it hard to keep playing down talk of this being the year Derby finally go up if his side carry on the way they’re going however. Excellent victories over Sheffield United last Saturday and at West Brom in midweek can be capped with a third win in a row against a fellow promotion rival in Middlesbrough.

Efl Championship Betting Tips

Having seen off Sheffield United and West Brom, Derby head to Middlesbrough in great spirits

League One

Bassong in at The Posh

In one of the more bizarre transfers of the season so far, Peterborough manager Steve Evans has signed up ex-Tottenham, Newcastle and Norwich defender, Sebastian Bassong on a deal until the end of January. The one-time Premier League centre back had been without a club since leaving Norwich at the end of the 2016/17 campaign.

Taking into account how well Peterborough have started – The Posh occupy second place – the move appears a strange one on the surface. But Evans has seen a chance to add to his options at the back where his side have been as consistent conceding goals, as they have been scoring them. Whether Bassong is the man to help remains to be seen.

Bradford to arrest slide?

After competing in and around the League One play-offs for a number of seasons, the demise of Bradford has been quite alarming. Yet, you could say this has been coming with Valley Parade resembling a job centre of late. Numerous names have come in, only to leave a short while after; Stuart McCall, Simon Grayson and Michael Collins have all held the manager’s position at some point this year, with Bradford now onto their fourth in just over seven months.

David Hopkin is that man but like those before him, he too has struggled to reverse the fortunes of the Bantams. Four straights defeats and seven losses in nine since taking the reins at Valley Parade, has Bradford slumped at the very bottom of the division. Another loss at Gillingham and, who knows, the job could once again become vacant.

Mackems making a noise again

Sunderland supporters have endured a torrid couple of seasons with the upheaval on and off the field brought about by back-to-back relegations. Manager Jack Ross has acquitted himself well so far though, slowly rebuilding a club that was on its knees when he joined and, most importantly, helping to bring the fans back onside.

His team can make it four wins in row, and potentially move into the automatic spots on Saturday when they entertain Southend on home turf. The match represents their first at the Stadium of Light since the start of the month so a large crowd will be expectant of another three points as The Mackems push on in their recovery.

Sunderland Jack Ross

Slowly but surely, Ross is restoring belief at the Stadium of Light

League Two

Tisdale and MK aiming for sixth straight success

Two successive play-off final defeats prompted both Exeter and Paul Tisdale to part ways and seek pastures new in the summer. The move seems to be benefitting both parties, not least Tisdale, now at MK Dons. Five straight wins has culminated in his new side riding high in second, just a point and a place above Exeter, of course!

Not that he’ll be getting ahead of himself; Tisdale has been here many times before and won’t be counting any chickens until the medals are handed out in May. Another three points at Mansfield this weekend will do nicely though. Not only will it keep momentum going, it may see them close the gap on leaders Lincoln, who head to fifth place Colchester on the back of a defeat.

Early season six pointer at the Abbey

Macclesfield, having fired manager Mark Yates after failing to win any of the club’s first 12 games, managed to put their first points on the board last weekend, finally. They were quickly brought down to earth though by a thumping 0-5 defeat at home to Northampton and so remain rock bottom.

Next up for the Silkmen, returnees to this level after six seasons in the Conference/National League, is a trip to the Abbey stadium to face Cambridge. The U's sit just five points above in 21st giving the clash the feel of an early season six pointer. A defeat for the visitors could leave a substantial gap between themselves and those above come Saturday evening, not an attractive prospect for the prospective new manager.

Notts County to begin climbing?

Harry Kewell was incensed by the decisions that went against his Notts County side in the week but he’ll be pleased to be back at Meadow Lane after two away games yielded no points. The former Crawley boss had looked to have been onto something prior to these defeats after going five games unbeaten.

Yet, he’s still to find the consistency from his side to see them pull away from the wrong end of the EFL, frustrating for him personally considering he quit Crawley, currently perched around the play-off places, to take over what he only could’ve thought was a club with more potential. Will they soon begin to climb the league?

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Nick Albert

UEFA Nations League - Winners and Losers

With the focus swiftly moving to club football, we couldn’t let slip the opportunity to reflect on a week of international football to remember.

Many were sceptical of the newly formed Nations League at first and few knew how the format worked. Yet, the tournament has helped provide competitive games packed full of drama and intrigue - you could go as far to say it has helped revitalize international football.

There are certainly some nations enjoying it more than others though. Offside reflects on the contrasting fortunes of six countries in particular.

On the Up

Gibraltar 

Since being accepted as a UEFA member in 2013, Gibraltar have been getting used to international football the hard way. A record of ten defeats from ten Euro 2016 qualifiers against the likes of Germany, Poland, Republic of Ireland and Scotland was matched when it came to participating in FIFA World Cup qualifying in a group containing Belgium, Greece and Bosnia.

But allowing teams such as Gibraltar to play teams of equal ability is one of the reasons the Nations League was invented and it’s fair to say they’ve grasped the opportunity with both hands.

Prior to their double header with Armenia and Liechtenstein in Group D4, the smallest UEFA member had lost 22 competitive games on the bounce, including the first two of this competition to Macedonia and Liechtenstein.

They’re officially on the board now though. After claiming their first ever points with a 1-0 victory away at Henrik Mkhitaryan’s Armenia, newly appointed coach Julio Ribas inspired his players to come from behind to win and secure back-to-back victories.

Quite a week for Gibraltar for whom this Nations League will be regarded as a huge success and a significant building block in their bid to climb the rankings, regardless of the outcome of their final two fixtures at home to Armenia and in Macedonia.

Finland

There are a handful of countries with 100% records across Leagues A-D but none have chalked up more victories than Finland.

Four games in and they’ve won every game, head coach Markku Kanerva leading his side to victories over Estonia (twice), Hungary and most notably, Greece. Perhaps more impressively, they’ve done so without conceding a single goal.

Avoiding defeat in one of their two remaining games away in Athens and Budapest in November will confirm Finland’s promotion from League C and serve as welcome recognition for an ever-improving side that has tasted defeat just once in their last 14 internationals overall.

Finland Supporters Nations League

Suomi supporters are certainly enjoying the ride

England

Despite their World Cup heroics, England weren’t fancied to contribute much to a group also containing their World Cup nemesis, Croatia, and a newly energized Spain, especially having lost their opening match to the Spaniards at Wembley.

The prospect of relegation to the second tier, or League B, was thrown about prior to this round of games but as we’ve discovered this year, Southgate personifies calmness and isn’t one to be flustered.

And as he’s done time and again since becoming England manager, he proved the doubters wrong by coming away with four points from two tricky away games, with yet more youngsters given a chance to impress on the international stage.

Deemed unlucky to take only a point away from their eerie experience in Rijeka, the general consensus was that Spain would have too much for an England side that would not be able to cope with the fluidity of a team that had taken previously taken Croatia to the cleaners with a devastating attacking display.

Southgate and England hadn’t read the script though and instead it was they who were to wreak havoc in Seville. Deservedly three up by half time, joyous England fans hadn’t seen anything like this since Munich in 2001 and were quite rightly in dreamland.

As expected Spain came back at them strong but the youngest England starting lineup since 1959 showed maturity beyond their age to hold out for the win, made even more impressive considering it was the first victory England had registered in Spain in more than thirty years.

On their way down 

Republic of Ireland

There was always the sense that the heavy loss the Republic of Ireland suffered to Denmark in the World Cup play offs last year was the right time to make way for a new regime. Yet, despite many calling for the pair to go, Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane signed contract extensions up until the end of qualification for Euro 2020.

But even they must now be thinking twice about their decision to carry on, especially with criticism of O’Neill’s coaching methods coming under scrutiny more and more. In terms of result he can have few complaints; his side have been nothing short of woeful in this competition so far.

From the moment they set out in this competition, Ireland have resembled a team lacking any commitment to the cause and are perhaps fortunate to have one point to their name, while their only goal was a mere consolation after shipping four in Wales. Barring a miracle, they will be relegated, a scenario that will crank up the pressure on the FAI to bring a fresh voice into the dressing room.

Northern Ireland

Another O’Neill isn't exactly in love with this competition either with Northern Ireland also not having the best of times so far.

They will rue a host of missed opportunities in their latest defeat against Bosnia but it was always going to be tough ask to get the better of both Bosnia and Austria in a tough opening group.

Having lost all three games played, anything other than a victory at home to Austria in their final game will see them relegated to League C, a far cry from the achievements of Michael O’Neill and Northern Ireland in recent years.

Michael Oneill Nations League

Michael O'Neill is having a hard time of it with Northern Ireland, just like Martin with the Republic

Germany

Germany could always be relied upon to be there or thereabouts come the end of a tournament and the handing out of the medals. Well, not this Germany team.

Having crashed out of the World Cup after finishing bottom of their World Cup group, Joachim Löw is facing up to the very real prospect of adding another black mark to his CV in the shape of relegation from Europe’s elite tier of nations.

A goalless draw at home to the World Champions wasn’t the worst start. But a distinctly average performance and heavy 3-0 loss against the Netherlands, was followed up with surrendering a goal advantage to eventually go down to France in the reverse fixture, their fourth loss in seven.

Die Mannschaft find themselves in one rather large hole and like many others, could’ve done without this competition so soon after a summer to forget in Russia. No one will be thinking this more than Joachim Löw whose job will certainly be on the line should Germany be left propping up the rest once again come the final round of games.

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