MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) takes a look at the best mid-season bets from the Championship.
It’s been a strange first five months in the second tier. A division so aligned with high-scoring shootouts has yet to really ignite with a goals-per-game average at an unusual low of 2.41 whilst the gap between the top and bottom is already standing at 32 points.
Pre-season favourites Derby and Middlesbrough occupy the top two positions for Christmas having wrestled Brighton, Hull and Burnley for the most part.
Going on the evidence of 22 games, these five clubs look a cut above the competition and I’d be surprised if they weren’t in the promotion mix come May.
That’s good news if you followed my ante-post advice. Boro were suggested as 6/1 title winners with the Seagulls recommended at 8/1 for promotion. Both are riding high and capable of sustaining their challenge over the next five months.
Since taking charge, Aitor Karanka has guided Middlesbrough to W52-D23-L24 in the second tier with an astonishing 49 clean sheets (49%) recorded. At the Riverside that return reads W31-D11-L7 – 31 shutouts (63%) – and that solid foundation makes them difficult to shift.
Derby are the obvious dangers and Paul Clement boasts the league’s strongest squad. The Rams have hit their stride after a slow start adjusting to the former Real Madrid coach’s ways but they must still visit Boro, Brighton and Burnley whereas the Teesiders have already travelled to eight of the top-half.
Injuries have threatened to derail Brighton but I’ve more than enough faith in supreme organiser Chris Hughton keeping the Seasiders on the right path. With a 10-point advantage to seventh-placed Sheffield Wednesday, it would take a real downturn in results to sink the Seagulls from top-six contention.
Meanwhile, Ipswich – a 20/1 each-way recommendation for the league – seem likely to pay the price for a run of one win in 10 from late August to early November.
Mick McCarthy’s men had set the early pace and have bounced back into form (W5-D1-L2) but a pointless return from four fixtures with the top-four suggests they’re playing for play-off positions – which I’m reasonably confident they’ll secure. Why didn’t I just punt them for promotion? The power of hindsight…
Middlesbrough to win the league (6/1 each-way)
Ipswich to win the league (20/1 each-way)
Brighton to win promotion (8/1)
Blackburn to be relegated (15/2)
Bolton to be relegated (5/1)
MK Dons to be relegated (4/1)
I’ve talked up my own QPR side enough to bore your socks off in recent weeks and 20/1 (BetVictor) quotes we pocket promotion look about right. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Neil Warnock have steadied the troubled defence but progression sits solely on the shoulders of Charlie Austin.
Should Rangers keep the wanted man after the transfer window – as seems most likely according to sources close to the club and player – there’s a chance to sneak into the top-six. But Austin’s campaign has been hampered by a mystery ‘injury’ and R’s fans are beginning to suspect there’s more to it than meets the eye.
Nevertheless, Austin appears decent 8/1 (SkyBet) each-way value in the Top Goalscorer market with the Football League sponsors paying ¼ odds on the first three places. As WLB contributor Mark Stinchombe (@MarkStinchcombe) pointed out on Twitter, Austin boast the best minutes-per-goal ratio in the Championship, scoring in every 1.50 games for QPR in the second tier.
Elsewhere, Reading are interesting 5/1 (Betfair) pokes to slip into the top-six. The Royals have endured a topsy-turvy season with the Steve Clarke affair clouding their impressive performance data. But old favourite Brian McDermott is back in the dugout and can bring the good times back to the Madjeski.
No side has fired in more on-target efforts than the Berkshire boys with only Derby, Hull and Preston facing fewer. However, it should be noted that a league-high 58% of their shots are coming from outside the box with a league-low 38% arriving from inside the 18-yard box. Perhaps explaining why nine clubs have notched more goals this term.
Now, no laughing please. The side that really interests me at a silly price are Leeds. Yorkshire’s finest are 25/1 (Betfair) to pierce the top-six and that’s just far too big, in my eyes. The Whites can be backed at 2/1 (Betfair) to finish just to finish in the top-half – again, too big!
I’m well aware I’ve probably lost a bunch of you already but hear me out. You might despise the man but the reason behind this play is quite simply, sweaty Steve Evans is the man in charge at Elland Road and he’s no ordinary manager.
Evans has a history of promotion, a track record of galvanising underperforming players, creating a siege mentality with a win-at-all-costs approach. He’s your perfect pantomime villain but once he’s in charge of your team, you know you’ve a man ready to fight every corner, player and opposition boss to bring you success.
The fiery Glaswegian is an outstanding man-manager and despite going a little under the radar since the initial appointment, Leeds have started to take baby steps towards the next level. In matches since Evans was appointed, the Whites sit sixth (W5-D3-L3) and should they maintain that 1.64 points-per-game average across the final 24 fixtures, Leeds will conclude the campaign on 68 points.
The past five seasons have seen the sixth-placed side finish on anything between 68 and 78 points so even their current progress could be enough to reward us at 25/1 quotes. As for the 2/1 top-half play? They’re just a point off the top-12 already and are likely to be active in January as a rotund Evans looks to shape his squad for battle in 2016.
It should also be pointed out, Evans has arrested Leeds’ woeful Elland Road record with three wins in four and should they continue to hit par on the road (W4-D5-L2), there’s no reason why they can’t compete. Sure, eight of the current top-12 are still to host the Whites but at bulbous prices, I’m investing in super sweaty Steve delivering the goods.
With Bolton already in the relegation book, the threat of administration (and a points penalty) hanging over the Macron plus reports of Neil Lennon’s private life reaching national newspapers, there’s no need to touch or go in any deeper on the Trotters here.
Bolton are five points adrift but haven’t been anywhere near as bad as the sorry results suggest. Firepower is clearly there biggest problem – failing to score on 11 occasions already – and a treacherous road record of three points from a possible 33 hampers any possible survival prospects.
I’m also more than happy with my MK Dons selection. Karl Robinson’s side have enjoyed more possession than any Championship club but the league’s third worst attack makes winning matches difficult. No second tier club has fired in fewer shots on-target.
It makes picking a relegation candidate a tricky task, especially with Charlton and Rotherham joining the party at miniscule prices. The advice is, steer clear of any of the bottom-four if you’re not already involved in them – as we’ve seen in previous campaigns (take Birmingham last year, for example) – a change in manager can turn any freefalling side around and so skinny odds make little appeal. In fact, I’d be far happier putting faith in Rotherham or Charlton staying up at odds-against quotes.
The anomaly at the bottom though is Bristol City. Sportingbet have chalked up the Robins at 6/1 for relegation and that has to be worth an interest, if only on value reasons with the club priced up on reputation.
Steve Cotterill’s side have been a huge disappointment since claiming top honours in League One. The past seven third tier champions have recorded finishes in 8th-5th-2nd-10th-9th-22nd-7th and many – including me – considered City as possible promotion outsiders.
However, four victories in 22 really hasn’t hit the spot and has left the side sitting just two points above the drop zone. Odds of 6/1 suggest just a 14% chance of relegation but there’s a host of reasons to believe the price is way out.
For starters, the Robins are struggling for goals – their tally of 21 has been bettered by 19 clubs – and they’ve managed more than one goal in a game in just six fixtures. There’s a huge reliance on chief goal-getter Jonathan Kodija to produce the goods but the supply line has been far from fluent.
Key players from their successful 2014/15 campaign such as Luke Freeman and Joe Byran are a shadow of themselves and a clutch of naïve and defensively inept performances hasn’t helped. The Cider Army have kept just five clean sheets with only three sides posting a worst goals against record; marry the two together and it’s no surprise to see Bristol City delivering the second worst goal difference in the league, -17.
Finally, Cardiff look overrated and at 7/4 (Ladbrokes) are a solid selection to finish in the bottom-half. The Bluebirds are defying pre-season predictions and flying reasonably high in 8th, four points above the bottom-half. But Russell Slade’s men could be squeezed out when sides such as QPR, Leeds, Blackburn, Reading and Brentford begin to flex their muscles.
Star striker Kenwyne Jones is out of contract in the summer and could leave in January with many supporters questioning his commitment to the cause whilst Peter Whittingham finds himself out of the XI. Goalkeeper David Marshall remains a Premier League target whilst Craig Noone’s been linked with Norwich.
An injury to ever-present Sean Morrison has left the centre-back position looking light and although madcap owner Vincent Tan is still very much committed, I’m doubtful Slade has the tools at his disposal to sustain a top-12 finish considering the circumstances.
The Bluebirds shot-ratio is standing at around 45%, suggesting the side are punching above their weight and since their unbeaten six-match start (W3-D3-L0), the capital club have failed to land back-to-back victories, averaging 1.31 points-per-game. I don’t expect any major improvements so I’ll get involved in a Cardiff drop-off next year.
Championship – Leeds to finish in the top-six (25/1 Betfair)
Championship – Leeds to finish in the top-half (2/1 Betfair)
Championship – Bristol City to be relegated (6/1 Sportingbet)
Championship – Cardiff to finish in the bottom-half (7/4 Ladbrokes)
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