MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) has landed 7/9 winners from his Football League fancies over the past week. Can he continue his hot streak on Tuesday?
Middlesbrough v Reading | Tuesday 19.45
With six league games to negotiate, Middlesbrough topped the Championship table 12 months ago. But two losses in their next five fixtures cost the club automatic promotion before a depressing play-off final defeat left the Teesiders facing another year in the second tier.
Head coach Aitor Karanka is determined not to allow the same mistakes impact up on his side this time around with Boro set to go two points clear of the pack should they see off Reading at the Riverside on Tuesday night. A victory would give the hosts a four-point cushion over third-placed Brighton.
The Spaniard has admitted some of his players are a touch tired and has hinted he may need to rotate. But Middlesbrough’s strength in depth should come to the fore with the likes of Adam Clayton, Stewart Downing and Jordan Rhodes all waiting for a recall to the starting XI.
The Teesiders have proven almost impenetrable at the Riverside under Karanka and I’d expect newfound confidence, picked up following four successive wins, should stand the side in good stead here. Punters appear to agree with Boro being backed in to 8/13 from 4/6 quotes in the past 24 hours alone.
The home side have W14-D3-L2 when welcoming Championship opposition and that 45-point haul as hosts is the best return in the second tier. Karanka’s charges have played all the top-10 bar Brighton and Ipswich and remarkably have shipped just six goals at HQ.
Last year’s haul of 21 Championship clean sheets saw Boro’s watertight defence rightly hailed as the best since Jack Charlton’s promotion side in 1973-74. But the Teesiders have recorded 21 shutouts already this term and there are still six games to play – it’s bloody impressive.
The club have silenced three of their past four opponents and Dani Ayala’s potential return to the back four should make Middlesbrough even sturdier in defence; in 74 starts for the Reds, Boro have kept 39 clean sheets with Ayala in central defence. Strong.
But arguably even more jaw-dropping is the stat that displays Boro’s return when Ayala has partnered Ben Gibson at the back – the hosts have suffered just one regular season defeat with the duo at centre-back, a chaotic 4-3 at Fulham at the fag end of last season.
The stunning stats don’t end there, though. Karanka has won 62/117 (53%) of his Championship matches in charge of Middlesbrough with the hosts keeping 57 (49%) clean sheets. At the Riverside, that record reads 38/58 (66%) victories and 36/58 (62%) shutouts.
This season alone, Boro have shipped just 25 league goals – they’ve not leaked fewer than 30 in a whole season since 1902 – whilst their last 41 home games have seen the side keep their sheets clean on 26 occasions as they’ve leaked one goal or less in all 41!
Visitors Reading pitch up in the north-east on the back of a woeful 2-0 reverse at home to Birmingham on Saturday. Brian McDermott’s men enjoyed 71% of the ball but did very little with it and only managed to land two shots on target, one of which was in the 90th minute.
The Royals were previously unbeaten at the Madjeski Stadium and, not for the first time this season, loud boos rang out at the final whistle from the few home fans that stayed to the bitter end.
It was a meek surrender from the Berkshire boys with an obvious lack of leadership and a worrying lack of fight and responsibility taken on the pitch. It stunk of a side that were going nowhere fast and with little to play for as not one player performed to their true potential.
Normally so reliable in the engine roles in midfield, Stephen Quinn and Oliver Norwood were hassled and harried off the ball too easily and the diamond option failed to spark Reading into action; a return to 4-2-3-1 is expected here with Garath McCleary returning to the fold after a decent weekend cameo.
The Royals have bagged two wins in their past four away days but go back further and its 10 losses in 13 road trips. Since the start of last season Reading have lost 23/42 (55%) of outings on their travels but seldom are the Berkshire boys kept quiet.
Reading have scored in all bar four of their away days this term and whilst I expect Middlesbrough to win, I don’t want to rule out the visitors grabbing a goal.
So I’ll take the 11/8 option from SkyBet that Boro win by 1-0, 2-0 or 2-1 on Tuesday night – it’s proven profitable in 23/38 (61%) Boro home wins under Karanka and 12/23 (52%) of Reading’s road defeats since the start of 2014/15.
Barnsley v Oldham | Tuesday 19.45
Barnsley caretaker boss Paul Heckingbottom claimed before the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final that the Tykes’ last seven League One matches were more important than their date at Wembley, whatever the result.
The Yorkshire outfit saw off Oxford 3-2 in a pulsating final a week last Sunday and were given Monday off to recover before turning their attentions to Saturday’s league encounter with Chesterfield.
Heckingbottom had said it was easy for him to switch focus back to promotion aspirations but it seems a few of the Barnsley squad were unable to shake off the backslapping and bonhomie that followed the trophy success.
A Thursday night civic reception at Barnsley Town Hall was an unwelcome distraction and so a 2-1 defeat to the Spireites on Saturday wasn’t too surprising.
The Tykes were brought back down to earth with a bump although Barnsley did come agonisingly close to a leveller in the closing stages – Adam Hammill’s shot was cleared off the line and from the next passage of play Marc Roberts’ header came off the post and Josh Brownhill couldn’t get enough contact on the rebound.
It was only the Reds’ third reverse in 21 matches but having picked up 41 points from a possible 51, with 13 wins from 17, are Barnsley’s squad suffering from mental and physical fatigue? Quite possibly and Heckingbottom admitted as much post-match at the weekend.
The Tykes are likely to freshen up the starting XI on Tuesday with Harry Chapman, Marley Watkins and Ivan Toney set to be in the starting equation but after a W0-D1-L2 return at Oakwell, and seven points from a possible 15 overall, I think Barnsley can be opposed again here.
The hosts are now six points adrift of the play-off places and that gap could easily provoke panic when a hugely improved Oldham outfit arrive.
The Latics haven’t beaten the Tykes at Oakwell in the league since September 1990 but at 11/12 (BetVictor) with a +0.50 Asian Handicap start look well worth supporting to avoid defeat here.
Since John Sheridan arrived at the club in January, Oldham have W7-5-L4 with two of the defeats coming in his opening two games in charge. It’s now three successive triumphs and four clean sheets kept on the spin – not since 2006 have the Latics recorded five shutouts on the trot.
Athletic still only hold a two-point advantage over 21st-placed Blackpool so they’ll be keen to stride further clear of the drop zone – their weekend win over Walsall lifting the club outside the bottom-four for the first time November.
Amazingly for a side struggling to avoid relegation, Oldham have lost just three away games this season and their tally of 13 losses is less than any other club outside of the top six in League One.
Right now, only league leaders Wigan and promotion-chasing Bradford are better off in the form table. The Latics were eight points from survival when Sheridan arrived and his back-to-basics approach has worked wonders at Boundary Park.
The Lancastrian has brought Anthony Gerrard back into the frame and built a hard-nosed squad that’s ready for a 90-minute battle, no matter who they’re playing.
Sheridan was fuming with his team’s poor first-half showing against Walsall on Saturday but his rollicking at the interval paid out and these days Oldham are made of stern stuff.
I reckon they look a decent bet to derail Barnsley’s top-six hopes here by picking up at least a point.
Middlesbrough v Reading – Middlesbrough to win 1-0, 2-0 or 2-1 (11/8 Skybet)
Barnsley v Oldham – Oldham +0.50 Asian Handicap (11/12 BetVictor)
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