As promised, Soccity’s Championship round-up returns to analyse the entirety of the festive period, in all of its hectic glory.
We have a number of fixtures to cover, across a multitudinous array of gameweeks, and, to fully do justice to such an ocean of football mania, we’ll consider ten key things that we have learned throughout the season thus far at the end of this vast deposit of information.
All that remains to be said before the nitty gritty is a very happy new year—let’s get back to business.
The winners and losers (22nd/23rd December)
Norwich City and Brentford propelled the weekend directly before Christmas into life as the Bees silenced the home side to win 2-1. A first-half brace from in-form frontman Lasse Vibe was more than enough to send the Carrow Road faithful home with a grimace on its collective face.
On Saturday, Cardiff City continued their poor run of form, losing 2-0 away at relegation scrappers Bolton Wanderers. Neil Warnock’s Bluebirds were now beginning to snowball down the increasingly steep hill that is the Championship table.
Fellow strugglers Burton Albion matched Bolton’s victory with a 2-1 success of their own away at Reading. Meanwhile, Sunderland and Birmingham City played out a 1-1 draw in a relegation six-pointer at the Stadium of Light.
Elsewhere, there were wins for Gary Rowett’s impressive Derby County side against Millwall, underperforming Fulham against Barnsley, Leeds United against Hull City, Middlesbrough at Sheffield Wednesday, and table-toppers Wolves against Ipswich Town.
Finally, mopping up the remaining weekend fixtures, the matches between Aston Villa and Sheffield United, Preston North End and Nottingham Forest, and Queens Park Rangers and Bristol City, all ended as draws.
The winners and losers on Boxing Day
The day after Christmas is always a sacred one for football fans, as every team up and down the country is involved in a day of sporting festivity that more than matches the previous 24 hours for merriment and spirit.
The highlight of the day came at the Cardiff City Stadium, as Fulham ran out 4-2 winners on their travels against the beleaguered men from the Welsh capital.
There were also momentous wins for both teams from the city of steel—Wednesday smashed Nottingham Forest 3-0 at the City Ground, but urban neighbours United boldly claimed ‘anything you can do’ as they decimated Chris Coleman’s demoralised Sunderland side 3-0.
Elsewhere there were wins for Norwich City at Birmingham, Leeds United at Burton Albion, Bristol City against Reading, Middlesbrough against Bolton, and Brentford at home to Aston Villa.
Millwall earned an impressive 2-2 home draw against title favourites Wolves, while the fixtures between Barnsley and Preston North End, Hull City and Derby County, and Ipswich Town and QPR, all ended in bore 0-0 draws.
The winners and losers (29th/30th December)
Two games were presented to Championship fans to usher in the weekend directly before the new year celebrations, with Cardiff City hosting Preston North End, and QPR making the short trip to Millwall.
Both fixtures ended 1-0, with Preston and Millwall taking the spoils. Cardiff City, it seemed, couldn’t buy a win in the festive period.
On Saturday, there were some vital results at the foot of the table. With Reading holding Barnsley to a 1-1 draw at Oakwell, Birmingham City made some pivotal strides towards safety with a 1-0 against Leeds United at St. Andrew’s. Burton Albion, meanwhile, held a dangerous Norwich City side to a 0-0 draw at the Pirelli Stadium, while Sunderland and Bolton secured crucial 1-0 away wins against Nottingham Forest and Sheffield United respectively.
Brentford continued to climb the table with a 2-0 home win against Sheffield Wednesday, while Derby County and Aston Villa both ensured that they would be in the play-off running in the new year, beating Ipswich Town and Middlesbrough respectively.
Further down the table, Hull City managed to hold goal-thirsty Fulham to a 2-2 draw.
The game of the day, however, undoubtedly occurred at Ashton Gate, as Wolves travelled to Bristol City for a match that was of unerring importance to the title chases of both teams. Ryan Bennett netted a last-gasp header in the dying minutes to secure a 2-1 victory for Wolves, in a match that saw both sides reduced to ten men.
The winners and losers in the new year (1st/2nd January)
New Year’s Day brought with it more drama at the foot of the table.
Bolton Wanderers rounded off their excellent festive campaign with a 1-0 win against Hull City. Bolton’s win was answered by Burton Albion’s stunning 3-0 away victory at Sheffield Wednesday, while Barnsley secured their first win in 10 matches with a 1-0 success away at Sunderland.
Norwich City, meanwhile, ensured that Millwall would continue to look over their shoulders with a 2-1 win against the belligerent Londoners. Elsewhere, there were victories for Middlesbrough at Preston North End, QPR at home against Warnock’s now toothless Cardiff City side, and Aston Villa, who upset Bristol City 5-0 at Villa Park.
Sheffield United managed a 1-1 draw away at Derby County, as did Nottingham Forest away at Leeds United.
On Tuesday, Fulham ran riot against Mick McCarthy’s Ipswich Town side, winning 4-1. Wolves similarly kept up their sparkling form with a 3-0 win against Brentford, while Birmingham City scored twice for the first time in over twenty games to beat Reading 2-0 and climb up off the bottom of the table.
Ten things we’ve learned so far this season
Wolves are a team of unparalleled quality
Nuno Espirito Santo’s Wolverhampton Wanderers have now won four of their last five league matches, and are twelve points clear at the top of the table.
Before Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace met them in December, Wolves were the only side to prevent Manchester City scoring all season, and they’re now mirroring their big (symbolic) brothers in the top league with a huge gap at the top of their own.
The 2-1 win against Bristol City at the end of December was a particular highlight, and showed that Wolves are a side willing to fight to the bitter end to gain a valuable three points, rather than one content to sit back and protect what they have away from home.
With stars Leo Bonatini and Diogo Jota scoring 23 goals and racking up 9 assists between the two of them, and with Ivan Cavaleiro contributing 7 goals and 6 assists on his own, Wolves are a side that have genuine quality upfront, and have the ability to demolish any side in the league.
They’ve been a joy to watch so far this season, and have more than enough strength to march almost uninterrupted to the Championship title.
Cardiff City are showing signs of running out of steam
Cardiff have now lost four games on the bounce, and have endured a woeful festive period, slipping to an almost insurmountable deficit of 14 points to leaders Wolves.
Warnock has been swift to claim that his side have been the victim of bad luck and some poor refereeing decisions, but nevertheless Cardiff have come to epitomise that old cliché regarding over performing teams in the Championship—they can’t keep it going.
All is not lost, however, for the Bluebirds, as they still sit only two points south of Derby County in second place. Warnock will be hoping that his team can turn their poor form around speedily if they are to remain in the hunt for an automatic promotion place.
And so are Sheffield United
With only one win in their last five, Sheffield United have slipped outside of the play-off places.
Like Cardiff, Sheffield United had been overachieving this season, but recent results have expounded a team that now look a bit lack-lustre.
Chris Wilder will look back on defeats such as their 1-0 home loss against Bolton, and their issues away at Millwall and Preston North End in December as games that would have been comfortably won by the same side earlier in the season.
As Cardiff have shown, and as many sides in recent memory have fallen victim to in the Championship, picking oneself up from such a poor string of results is easier said than done.
Fulham might be back to their scintillating goalscoring best
The Cottagers have won three of their last five games, scoring 12 goals in the process.
With their season’s tally now at 39 goals, Fulham are again mixing it with the league’s top-scoring teams, though they are still some way behind Wolves’ 50 goal record.
Last year, Jokanovic’s team made something of a habit of outscoring sides, an identity that this year has been noticeably absent. However, with Fulham back to their goalscoring best, and with them now residing only four points outside of the playoff places, the early season inconsistencies can now be shed in favour of a back-to-the-real-thing promotion push.
Bristol City are this season’s surprise package
Bristol City, as this season has progressed, have occupied that same trope as Cardiff and Sheffield United in the minds of many Championship commentators—yes, they’re achieving great things now, but can they really keep it going for the rest of the campaign? Surely their squad is too light, too thin on the ground.
With Cardiff and United failing around them, City have managed to keep their heads, and inhabit fourth position. Two defeats in a row against similarly placed opposition may sow some seeds of doubt in the minds of fans partial to a Saturday trip to Ashton Gate, but let this take nothing away from the masterful job that Lee Johnson has performed at Bristol City to date.
Undoubtedly, their stand-out player has been Bobby Reid, whose ability is matched only by his goalscoring gif for social media (if you have not already seen Bristol City’s versions of these, I urge you to go and check them out), scoring 12 goals domestically and achieving a staggering shot on target average of 61%.
Keeping it up will undeniably be the issue, but Lee Johnson has his side well drilled and well managed, and, if they continue to perform in this outstanding manner, they can hope for big things as the season advances into its second half.
Millwall should be given more credit than they already are
Last season’s League One play-off final winners Millwall have been enjoying a very respectable season under manager Neil Harris.
Currently sitting pretty in 15th place, six points above the drop zone, Harris should be very pleased with the work that he and his squad have done going into 2018.
Recent Championship campaigns have not been especially lucrative for Millwall, and many tipped them for relegation, but thus far, the team that call the New Den their home have proved all of theirs critics wrong.
Millwall have marked themselves as a no-holds-barred, aggressive and antagonistic side that isn’t afraid to get down and dirty, and Harris acknowledges this as their greatest asset. After Millwall’s 2-1 victory over Middlesbrough in December, Harris had this to say: “Top teams don’t particularly like coming here this season. We are what we are as a football club. We have to make it hostile, intimidating. We have to play aggressive football with and without the ball”.
While you may not see the prettiest football played when Millwall turn up, there can be no doubt that the way they play their game is remarkably effective.
It’s looking more and more like the dreaded double relegation for Sunderland
Sunderland fans must be wondering if they’ve all walked under ladders recently.
Since Chris Coleman’s appointment, the Black Cats have certainly improved—the Welshman has led his team to two wins in their last five—yet, despite this, they still find themselves propping up the Championship table. It would seem that, even when they win, other sides around them do so as well.
While Sunderland have scored a decent amount of goals (29 so far this season, in no small part down to Lewis Grabban, who has been prolific this season, netting 12 times), they’ve conceded 43 times, a tally far too high.
If Sunderland could improve at the back, they’d certainly not be in the position in which they currently find themselves. Nevertheless, as the games go by, it would seem that they are destined for the dreaded double-relegation.
Though Hull City certainly aren’t safe from it either
Hull City left the Premier League alongside Sunderland last season and have similarly struggled this time out.
With no wins in their last five matches, Hull are similarly beleaguered, and their goalscoring record too is not far removed from Sunderland’s—the Tigers have scored a healthy 39 goals, more than Cardiff City in 3rd, but have let in an unparalleled 44, marking their defence as the worst in the league.
New boss Nigel Adkins had been brought in to steady the ship but, with the winless run that they are on, Hull will require more than just the momentum that a change of manager is perceived to bring if they are to steer clear of a second successive relegation.
Leon Clarke is the unexpected top marksman and don’t you dare write him off
Sheffield United’s lofty position in the table owes much to the exploits of their excellent attacking duo of Billy Sharp and Leon Clarke. Sharp has eight goals to his name at this stage, and a quite astonishing shots on target average of 73%, the highest in the division.
However, it is Clarke who finds himself atop the Championship scoring charts as the new year enters in. With 15 goals already bagged, with 130 minutes per goal his average, Clarke has been a revelation so far this season.
The veteran striker is now 32-years old, an age which many might think would indicate that he doesn’t have the stamina to succeed at this level—yet Clarke has played 1,947 minutes in the league for United this season, 476 more than second top scorer Matej Vydra.
Clarke is proving so far that he doesn’t only have his shooting boots on, but he’s still got the legs to perform in England’s second tier. He’s ruling the roost when it comes to netting goals, and who would bet against him taking the golden boot at this stage?
There’s just no league quite like the Championship
At this point, only 11 points separate Cardiff City in 3rd, and Ipswich Town in 12th.
Similarly, six points separate Sunderland at the bottom and Reading in 18th.
With Wolves proving that they have superior quality this season, currently running away with the title and ensuring that Manchester City are not the only side anyone can talk about when it comes to England’s domestic football, fans of the Championship have been treated with sumptuous and elegant attacking football, and have been allowed to watch a team of excellent players grace their screens week in, week out.
The chasing pack, meanwhile, have it all to play for. With Cardiff waning, the second automatic promotion spot is anyone’s prize, while teams in mid-table still have plenty of time to start a run of blistering form and nip others at the post.
The foot of the table, too, is anyone’s guess—those sides that seemed previously down and out have started winning again. Burton and Bolton have succeeded in three of their last five games, while Birmingham have won two on the bounce.
The competition is fierce, but this isn’t anomalous, it isn’t a particularly special year—the wonderful thing about the Championship is that it is this close every season.
There are plenty of thrills to come, and we can’t wait to see who the victors will be, and who will be doomed to League One.
In the meantime, all of us can sit back, relax, and watch an enticing season unfold before our eyes.
With the FA Cup break now over, normal service will resume, and so will Soccity’s round-ups.
This weekend sees some exhilarating ties happening up and down the country, with Friday’s Sheffield derby a particular highlight.
See you all next week.