“United host two of the worst teams in the division in a week as the promotion race heats up towards the latter part ofthe season. This week is crucial for getting points on the board as we head to fixtures facing all of the top 3 away from home, consecutively. I don’t think Rafa bothers too much with excuses but this isn’t a week for bad referees, missed chances, bad luck, defensive mistakes or anything else. We simply have to beat the sides placed 16th and then 20th at home.”
That’s what I wrote before our game with Aston Villa. It’s still true now. No excuse for the next two games. I want six points. The sides we play now are placed 21st and 23rd in this division for a reason. We only picked up four points back in February from Vile and Bristol, but then emphatically made up for that with six points from Brighton and Huddersfield. I want to go to Sheffield a week Saturday knowing that a win takes us three points from 90, and promotion. This week all three of ‘us’ have two home fixtures each. Huddersfield face Burton Albion and Norwich and Brighton and Blackburn and Birmingham.
We’re all looking for 6 points here. Anything less for any of the three sides is a big blow, probably a disaster for Huddersfield. That’s the type of pressure Huddersfield now face. They’ll presume that us and Brighton will pick up maximum points and therefore failing to match us when they’re effectively eight points behind us with eight games to go would effectively secure promotion for us and Brighton. They didn’t handle the pressure at all last time out when thrashed four nil at Bristol. There’s also pressure on Brighton to bounce back after a humbling defeat at Leeds. Blackburn are in reasonable form and have already won at St James’ and were only denied a win at Huddersfield in the 94th minute this season. I expect Brighton to win the game as they’re a good side and Blackburn aren’t but it’s not the guaranteed three points it’s been for many home sides this season. Burton looks an easier proposition for Huddersfield although Burton have sorted their away form out to an extent with three away draws in a row, conceding just one goal.
As ever it is Newcastle United’s results that interests me more than any other. Wigan are a shocking team who’ve been through two managers already this season. Bizarrely they’ve picked up 19 points on the road this season compared to just 15 at home. Only 23 goals have been conceded away from home, which is only bettered by Wolves (by one goal) in the bottom half. They obviously don’t score many either, but their 19 away goals is about average for the division. When we played them in December we became just the second team to beat them by more than one goal. The only team that you could describe as ‘hammering’ them all season is Reading who beat them 3 0 last month. That’s bizarre for a team second bottom and on just 34 points from 38 games. With the two teams immediately above them at Brighton and Huddersfield, they surely need to take the hand brake off and go for the win. Then again they go to out of sorts Ipswich and then have Rotherham and Barnsley to play after us. A point followed by seven from those games may give them a fighting chance, but an eight point gap to the sides above them is already looking impossible to overcome. Warren Joyce was let go two weeks ago after winning just six of his 24 games in charge in his four month spell. Graham Barrow is now in charge for his third caretaker stint until the end of the season.
So Wigan don’t lose games heavily (home or away) and United need a win after three without after 0 0 draws at Reading and Birmingham (where we deserved to win) and defeat at home to Fulham (where we definitely didn’t deserve to win). Maybe United will race out of the blocks and be three nil up inside half an hour and Paul Dummet will be allowed to misplace a pass without grownups standing up to scream swear words at him, but maybe it’ll be a tight game where one or two moments of quality will win it for the home side. I went to Wigan away from home and was impressed by the home side’s ability to keep us at arm’s length for a lot of the game (whilst providing absolutely no goal threat themselves) and it was two excellent goals from Mo Diame and Christian Atsu that won it. In the international break I’ve heard people suggesting formation changes and the like. United a re top of the league. To make widespread changes at this stage as you want to see more attacking football would be beyond mental. I want United’s home form to improve but it ranks nowhere near my desire to get promoted. We need the crowd on side but you’ve heard this all before. If we go one nil down you all know what will happen in the stands.
Team selection wise I’d expect Shelvey and Gayle to return to the first team, particularly since Daryl Murphy is out injured. The rest of the side should be the ‘first team’ with Hanley coming in for the injured Clark. Mo Diame and Christian Atsu weren’t away for the international break so could feature and most promisingly of all there’s the chance Isaac Hayden could feature alongside Shelvey. He’s been a huge miss. The pressure is now well and truly on all of the team at the top. United have two home games to well and truly settle the nerves and get us to 84 points with 6 points to play. No team has ever not been promoted automatically in that position. This is the Championship though. Rarely do team steamroll all before them. There always unexpected defeats and draws for pretty much all teams bar the crucial one or two long winning runs the top two tend to put together. All three of us taking six points this week is 12/1 at the bookies, so they’re backing someone to drop points somewhere. United a 1/50 to be promoted with Betfair. That’s what you call a safe bet.
By Tuesday I expect six points from United. I don’t care how we do it. No mistakes, no gifts, no red cards, no penalties, no bad refs, no missed sitters – just professional performances and the points please.
Prediction: A win.
ALEX HURST – Follow Alex on @tfalex1892
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