Karanka’s Honeymoon Period to Continue at St.Andrews

Millers could find it tough to break down the Blues

Birmingham [2.26] v Rotherham [3.4]; The Draw [3.3]
Saturday, 15:00

Following the chaos of last season, the appointment of Aitor Karanka appears to have delivered some much needed stability in the blue half of the West Midlands. Under Pep Clotet, the Blues kept just seven clean sheets last year and conceded 75 goals, with only QPR and rock-bottom Hull possessing a leakier back-line. However, it’s been a completely different story this time around, with Birmingham having managed back-to-back shutouts against Brentford and Swansea. Steve Cooper’s side were left frustrated at the Liberty, as Karanka’s men remained compact throughout the 90 minutes and denied the attack-minded Swans too many clear-cut opportunities.

The Spaniard is renowned for his ability to organise with his sides often taking a safety first approach. During his successful spell at Middlesbrough, the 47-year old helped to guide the Teessiders back to the Premier League, using an incredibly effective 4-2-3-1 formation. In 46 Championship fixtures, Boro conceded just 31 times, keeping 22 clean sheets in the process. Although his 46-game tenure at the City Ground was infinitely less successful, he still managed to improve their defensive record, with just 53 goals conceded

Karanka appears to be following a similar blueprint once again, and his side have looked defensively robust so far this season. He’s turned to some familiar faces once again with former Boro favourites George Friend and Adam Clayton having arrived in B9. Mikel San Jose is the latest acquisition and the versatile Spaniard could prove to be an incredibly useful asset given his vast experience in the Spanish top flight. Although he may have to work on the physical side of his game, he is likely to offer intelligence and vision, and is also able to operate in a number of different positions.

Although his sides often fail to fire in the final third, the return of prolific Championship marksman Scott Hogan looks to be an extremely savvy move for both parties. He will reunite with strike partner Lukas Jutkiewicz, with the pair having been responsible for 22 of the club’s 54 goals last season.

With nine new faces added to the squad this summer, the new boss has plenty of options available to him, and he showed that he wasn’t afraid to mix things up last weekend, switching to a 4-3-3 in the second half in order to help protect the struggling Kristian Pedersen.

Having shocked promotion favourites Brentford on the opening weekend, Birmingham will fancy their chances of collecting three points against newly promoted Rotherham on Saturday afternoon. Karanka is unbeaten in his three previous home meetings with the Millers, and has seen his side keep clean sheets in each of those encounters.

Paul Warne‘s side began the season with a last-gasp 1-0 success against fellow newcomers Wycombe before suffering a narrow defeat to Millwall seven days later. The South Yorkshire side dominated the game, but their lack of firepower may hold them back this season. On loan midfielder George Hirst was excellent during the second half, whilst right back Chiedozie Ogbene was a constant threat from wide positions. However, Freddie Ladapo looked short on confidence, and the obstinate Birmingham back-line may find it relatively straightforward to keep tabs on the former Plymouth man.

Despite having 14 shots from inside the box, the visitors have managed just a single goal so far, and they will need to improve their accuracy if they are to avoid an instant return to League One. During their previous Championship campaign, the Millers lost 14 of their 23 away matches, and another narrow defeat appears to be on the cards here.

Birmingham are [2.26] on the Exchange and although the goalless draw is a potential scupperer, they look worth backing to maintain their unbeaten start to the campaign this weekend.

Derby and Blackburn to entertain at Pride Park

Derby [2.88] v Blackburn [2.76]; The Draw [3.35]
Saturday, 15:00

Blackburn will arrive at Pride Park full of confidence this weekend after netting seven times in their opening two fixtures. Adam Armstrong has continued where he left off last season, whilst Tyrhys Dolan, who became the club’s 12th youngest goalscorer last weekend, will be looking to build on his hugely encouraging performance seven days ago. Alongside team-mate Joe Rankin-Costello, the in-form pair were named in the Championship Team of the Week, and although a trip to the East Midlands is likely to be much tougher, they will still approach this contest with very little fear.

Tony Mowbray‘s side are far better on their own patch, however, they netted twice against Bournemouth on the opening weekend, and scored in 17 of their 23 away games last season. They were beaten 3-0 during their last visit to this ground, and they’ll be determined to avenge that defeat on Saturday afternoon.

Although Wycombe were exceptionally poor throughout the contest, Rovers still managed 23 shots, with 16 of them landing on target. They also clocked up an XG of 3.7, and having more than matched the Cherries just seven days earlier, they are extremely tempting at [2.76] on the Exchange.

Derby have made a disappointing start to the campaign, and have chalked up back-to-back defeats. Phillip Cocu‘s side struggled to contain Luton last weekend, with Craig Forsyth looking horribly exposed down the left. With Jason Knight and Graeme Shinnie struggling to get into the game, and Andre Wisdom looking a little suspect in the centre of defence, it was an extremely forgettable afternoon at Kenilworth Road for the Rams.

At the other end of the pitch, Kamil Jozwiak made a bright start to his Derby County career, whilst Jack Marriott looked sharp throughout. Derby failed to find the net against Reading on the opening weekend, but they’ll be expected to find a way through this time around.

Over 2.5 Goals is available at [1.80] on the Exchange, and that looks like the best option in this fixture. The away side have failed to net in each of the last five meetings between these sides, however, with neither defence appearing to be rock solid, this looks set to be an end-to-end affair at Pride Park.

Millwall to frustrate the Bees

Millwall [3.65] v Brentford [2.6]; The Draw [3.34]
Saturday, 15:00

Pre-season favourites Brentford got off to a shaky start, suffering a 1-0 loss against Birmingham for the second year running. Thomas Frank‘s men appeared to be back to their rampant best seven days ago as they swept aside struggling Huddersfield, however, they aren’t expected to get things all their own way this time around. Despite reaching the play-off final last year, the Bees struggled to break down well-organised sides, and failed to score in eight of their ten away defeats. One of those slip-ups arrived at the Den, with a solitary Aiden O’Brien strike helping Millwall to collect all three points.

Brentford can be unstoppable on their day, however, they can become easily frustrated when the likes of Bryan Mbuemo and Josh Da Silva are marked out of the game. The West Londoners have added Saman Ghoddos to their squad this week, although he may not be deployed from the start in this tough-looking fixture. Ivan Toney is still searching for his first goal in red and white, and he is likely to get very little change out of Jake Cooper and Alex Pearce.

Gary Rowett has been commended for his excellent start to life in Bermondsey, and although the Lions have been more effective on the road, they are also far from a soft touch on their own patch. They have kept 16 shutouts since the managerial switch, more than any other side in the Championship. They have also kept back-to-back clean sheets this season, and although their midweek EFL Cup exploits may prove to be a hindrance, they stand a decent chance of taking something from this tie.

The hosts have lost just one of their last 12 home matches against Brentford, and they could prove to be a nuisance once again. The Bees don’t tend to fare well at this stadium, and although Millwall won’t be backed by their vociferous home support, they should have enough to frustrate the visitors throughout.

Millwall Draw No Bet is 7/5 on the Sportsbook and they should be able to maintain their unbeaten start to the campaign on Saturday.

You can follow Jack Critchley on Twitter @jcritch7