There's a tricky set of opening day fixtures in the Championship, and Jack Critchley believes that Millwall and Stoke could share the spoils in Bermondsey...
"The Lions are typically tough to break down, and suffered just three home defeats in 2020. Since the chance of management, they've conceded just 35 times, and have been beaten on just nine occasions"
Rowett to take a point against his former club
Millwall [2.66] v Stoke City [2.92]; The Draw [3.1]
Stoke and Millwall have been amongst the best performing teams so far in 2020, and fans of both clubs are feeling cautiously optimistic going into the 2020-21 campaign.
After the failed experiment with Nathan Jones, the Potters appear to have finally made the right appointment with Michael O'Neill helping to steady the ship since his arrival in November. The former Northern Ireland boss has brought an air of calm, as well as defensive discipline to the club. Last season, Stoke managed to keep nine home clean sheets, eight of them arriving under O'Neill's jurisdiction, and they conceded just twice in Staffordshire following the restart.
Away from home, the Potters often struggled to exert the same level of control, and although some fans accused the 51-year old of setting up a little too negatively on the road, they have suffered just four defeats on their travels since the turn of the year. Four of their last seven away days have ended all-square, and their season opener could easily go the same way.
One of the problems which has dogged previous managers has been the club's bloated squad, and although Stoke still have plenty of players on their books who are surplus to requirements, O'Neill now appears to know his best XI. Peter Etebo, Stephen Ward and Ryan Woods may have left Staffordshire, however, they've been replaced by the likes of John Obi-Mikel, Jacob Brown, Morgan Fox and Stephen Fletcher.
After comfortably avoiding relegation last season, the Potters are likely to kick on this year, and they will be targeting a top six finish. However, they begin the campaign with a tough trip to the Den.
Former Stoke boss Gary Rowett has now been in charge of Millwall for 36 matches and has averaged an impressive 1.64 points per game. He has successfully built on the foundations that were laid by his predecessor Neil Harris with The Lions remaining typically tough to break down. Since the chance of management, they've conceded just 35 times, and have been beaten on just nine occasions. They've drawn four of their last eight games at the Den, and ended the 2019-2020 campaign with back-to-back victories at this ground.
The hosts will be relying on the creativity of Jed Wallace once again, and with 10 goals and 13 assists last season, fans will be desperately hoping that the former Wolves man can stay injury free. The club's summer transfer business has been modest, however, the additions of Scott Malone, Mason Bennett, Troy Parrott and the aforementioned Ryan Woods look extremely savvy.
Millwall's squad has been fairly solid for a number of seasons, although the new arrivals will now give Rowett plenty of options in key areas. With the defensive structure remaining in place, it's hard to envisage the Londoner's losing too many games this year, and they are likely to take something from this encounter.
With both managers keen to avoid an opening day defeat, and both sides built on solid back-lines, this game may be a slow-burner, and at [3.1] on the Exchange, the draw is extremely tempting. This pair drew 25 matches between them last season, and they may have to share the points once again on Saturday afternoon.
Both teams to register at Deepdale
Preston [2.34] v Swansea [3.3]; The Draw [3.2]
Although their play-off hopes faded after the restart, the 2019-2020 campaign was generally an enjoyable one for PNE fans. The Lilywhites relied heavily on their home form last year, and were the sixth highest home goal-scorers in the division. Alex Neil's side were very productive in the final third, however, they struggled to keep things tight at the other end of the field.
The Lancastrians managed just three clean sheets in 23 outings here last season, with only Birmingham, Wigan and Brentford failing to find the net at Deepdale. With BTTS landing in just over 65% of Preston's home games last year, entertainment was rarely in short supply at this venue.
PNE have been extremely quiet in the transfer market this summer, and have yet to make a signing. Neil will be working with the same group of players once again, with the exception of experienced defender Tom Clarke, who has joined League Two Salford City. Although better is expected of Jayden Stockley this time around, and an injury-free season for Sean Maguire could potentially improve their creative output, the lack of defensive recruitment over the last couple of months is slightly concerning.
They made a fast start to the campaign twelve months ago, winning five of their opening six matches at Deepdale, and they will be hoping for a similar run this time around.
Neil's men often struggled to break down defensively-minded teams last year, but they are unlikely to encounter too many problems against Steve Cooper's Swansea. The Welshmen made terrific progress last season, and defied expectations to reach the play-offs at the expense of Nottingham Forest. Although several loan stars have since departed, the arrival of Jamal Lowe and Morgan Gibbs-White helps to partially fill the void. Freddie Woodman's return is a plus, with defensive midfielder Korey Smith hoping to add some steel in the centre of the park.
The Swans were poor against Newport in the EFL Cup, however, they are likely to be far sharper here, and will have a number of first teamers returning from international duty.
Last year, the Swans kept six clean sheets on the road, but only one of those shutouts arrived after January 12th. Following their goalless draw with arch rivals Cardiff, Cooper's men kept just a single clean sheet, and failed to register on just two occasions. They were a reliable source of BTTS last season, and although their attack has been weakened by the loss of Rhian Brewster, they should be able to find a way past Preston's flimsy back-line.
It ended 1-1 at Deepdale last season, and the pair played out an entertaining five-goal thriller at the Liberty last August. Another end-to-end 90 minutes is expected and at [1.94] on the Exchange, it's worth backing both teams to score once again.
Norwich and Huddersfield to provide plenty of entertainment
Huddersfield [3.55] v Norwich [2.24]; The Draw [3.5]
Norwich return to the second tier after just a single season in the Premier League. The Canaries have retained the bulk of their squad, and Daniel Farke remains in the dugout. The Canaries were hugely entertaining during their Championship title-winning campaign, and we can expect plenty more swashbuckling performances over the next ten months.
Although the East Anglians are tempting at [2.24], their confidence may be an issue, and although they were missing several key players, they did slump to a 3-1 defeat in the EFL Cup last weekend.
Two seasons ago, Farke's men managed to find the net in 22 of their 23 away games, and with plenty of reinforcements in the final third, they are likely to be amongst the highest scoring teams once again. The Norwich recruitment team has been busy with the likes of Jacob Sorensen, Xavi Quintilla and Danel Sinani all arriving at Carrow Road this summer. Jordan Hugill and Kieran Dowell are more familiar names to Championship fans, whilst Bali Mumba and Matthew Dennis could easily become future stars.
Ben Gibson's arrival does help to fill a void at the back, however, the squad still looks a little top heavy.
Huddersfield are a bit of an unknown this season under new boss Carlos Corberan. The Spaniard has Championship experience as a number two, however, he's got a tough task to keep the Terriers afloat this year. The West Yorkshire side lack quality in key areas, and with Karlan Grant continually linked with a move away, survival is the ultimate aim for the new boss.
Their home form will be absolutely key, and although this is a tough opening fixture, they will be keen to kick off their campaign with at least a point. Corberan has been implementing a more attack-minded, free-flowing style of play during pre-season, and although results have been mixed, the hosts should at least be able to find the net here.
Neither side are likely to prioritise defending this season, and this could be an entertaining opener at the John Smith's Stadium. BTTS is available at 4/5 on the Sportsbook, and looks the best option in this fascinating opening day encounter.
You can follow Jack Critchley on Twitter @jcritch7
Millwall vs Stoke - Draw @ [3.1] (Exchange)
Preston vs Swansea - BTTS @ [1.94] (Exchange)
Huddersfield vs Norwich - BTTS @ 4/5 (Sportsbook)