Stoke were out of the promotion race weren't they? A difficult start to the season after relegation last year, Gary Rowett struggling to shore up a ponderous defence and the pre-season title favourites seemed destined for a troublesome campaign. They've crept up the table and now sit only five points off the play-offs after a run of 13 games where they have only been beaten once. You can't win anything before Christmas, but you need to be in contention at Christmas. Stoke are back in the hunt.
Stoke's opponents this weekend are Millwall and they are there for the taking. The Lions haven't notched a win in seven (D3, L4) and have conceded 2.14 goals per match in that run. They haven't won away since April (D4, L9) and it's their defence that is the issue. In their last three away games they have scored six goals, but taken just one point. That's got to be a worry.
In addition, Neil Harris's side have only won one of their last nine league trips to Stoke. That win came 16 years ago and they are in no position to buck the trend.
Stoke are the flipside of the equation, not beaten in the league since October. A goalscorer bet could involve Joe Allen who has scored in the last two Championship matches. He's 13/5 anytime on Saturday, although Tom Ince, who has also bagged in consecutive home games is another option.
Stoke to win at 1.82 is as safe a bet as you'll ever get in the Championship.
Blades to give Tractor Boys flat tyre
Ipswich 5.40 v Sheff Utd 1.83; The Draw 3.50
Despite Ipswich's 1-0 win against Wigan last weekend they remain cast adrift at the bottom of the Championship table by four points. Prior to those three points, Ipswich had been on a woeful run of form, taking only two points from the available 27. A change of boss doesn't seem to have provided the hoped for bounce. Paul Hurst (0.64 points per game) has left to be replaced by Paul Lambert (0.62). He hasn't given up hope.
"We have a hell of a lot of games to go and it's one win," said the Tractor Boys boss after the Wigan win.
"They are playing well, that's the thing, and the atmosphere in the stadium - I have never experienced an atmosphere when you are at the bottom of the table."
Sheffield United will have other ideas, particularly as Ipswich haven't found the back of the Blades' net in their last three meetings.
United have scored in four of their last five matches and still occupy a play-off place despite a minor recent wobble. They have won their last two away games and scored seven goals across their last three away trips. They should be too strong this weekend and are a decent attraction at 1.83, but the betting value is in taking them to win and over 2.5 match goalsat 9/5.
Rudderless Reading not set for Boro bashing
Reading 4.90 v Middlesbrough 1.94; The Draw 3.35
Managerless Reading are teetering on the edge of the relegation zone. They were leading 1-0 until the 90th minute against fellow strugglers Rotherham but had to settle for a point. That setback came after taking only one draw from the preceeding three games, albeit against promotion chasers Leeds, Sheffield United and Stoke.
In fact, Reading have failed to win their last six league matches and have conceded at least two goals in their last four home matches.
Middlesbrough, who were top of the pile only a few rounds ago, have taken a recent nosedive. Boro too have gained only two points from their last four matches and have slipped to sixth.
Boro boss Tony Pulis reacted to their 2-1 defeat at QPR last weekend with a tirade of moaning about refereeing decisions. It's what managers do when their season is spontaneously combusting before their eyes.
Pulis won't relish his next chance to bounce back. He has never won away at Reading in nine attempts (D3, L6), but Boro, without him at the helm, did win this fixture 2-0 last season. They have however, never won consecutive away league games against Reading.
It's creating chances that Boro have struggled with. It's a good job their defence has been a success as they have only had 77 shots on target this season. Only (71), Bolton (58) and Ipswich (51) have registered fewer and look where they are!
This fixture is a struggling attack taking on a Reading side that have recorded just a solitary clean sheet in 13 home matches. That was against a Hull side in September who were stuck in reverse gear.
This match, which is tough to call in terms of the outright markets, screams Unders on the goals. Under 1.5 Match Goals is 15/8.
Back Stoke to beat Millwall at 1.82 (best bet)
Back Sheff Utd to beat Ipswich and over 2.5 goals @ 9/5