Championship Round-Up: Bolton slip, Sheffield slide and Norwich climb
This week I thought I’d alter the traditional format of offering a commentary on every game, by instead opting for a quick-fire five match round-up of those games that I have decided, in all my wisdom, hold the most significance.
The sceptics out there may label me work-shy or something with a few more expletives, but l would rather call it pragmaticism. I mean, do you really want to read my rambling nonsense on how Reading continue to meander aimlessly and how Stoke are just completely hopeless? Probably not.
Now rather than starting with those at the top, I thought I’d switch up the boring chronologies of old by beginning this footballing narrative slap bang in the middle, with two clubs that fought it out in a thrilling battle at Loftus Road on Saturday.
Birmingham City blitzed QPR in the first half and went into the interval with a three goal cushion. The burly Che Adams broke the deadlock for Blues, when he latched onto a defence-splitting pass before diligently tricking his way past the onrushing defenders and slamming home the opener.
Five minutes later and that lead was doubled. Man of the moment Adams latched onto yet another clinical through-ball before rounding the keeper and cooly placing the ball into the inviting net. Blues were well and truly in cruise control, Adams the fulcrum of their success.
A third was soon added to their burgeoning tally when centre-half Harley Dean got in on the act, rising highest in the box to head home Jota’s pinpoint corner.
Things would only get better for the visitors, with a fourth goal that pundit Liam Rosenior likened to the sort you’d see a prime Barcelona produce at Camp Nou. Birmingham exchanged a series of instinctive passes before Jota saw his curling effort canon back of the woodwork. But he needn’t worry because teammate Adams was on hand to feed off the scraps, tucking home the loose ball.
But Matt Smith gave Rangers a glimmer of hope, when he grabbed one back just before the interval. He then made things just that bit more interesting when he buried a Nahki Wells cross just after the restart; QPR were in the ascendency. And their persistence paid dividends when substitute Jordan Cousins set-up a grandstand finish, thumping home a third to make it 4-3. Game on.
QPR desperately pressed for a leveller but their attacking intent was thwarted by a keeper who has gone from buffoon to Buffon in recent weeks. Lee Camp had been unjustly maligned when he moved to the Midlands, but his heroics saved Birmingham on Saturday.
QPR thought they’d done enough to salvage a point when they earned themselves an injury-time spot kick, but Lee Camp kept out the penalty to keep Birmingham in the hunt for a playoff place.
Now back to the top, where Norwich City emerged victors in a heated derby fixture at home to famed rivals Ipswich Town. It was a fractious game at Carrow Road with scenes of belligerence littering a ferocious encounter. Even Ipswich boss Paul Lambert found himself restrained by the Police and sent to the stands as tempers flared on the sidelines. In truth, the gulf in quality between the two sides was evident throughout.
German attacking midfielder Onel Hernandez got Norwich off to a flying start, when he latched onto a loose ball in the box to slot home the opener. A clinical finish from Hernandez which would set the tone for the rest of the match.
But Norwich would have to wait for the second half before they put daylight into the game, when talisman Teemu Pukki proved his worth as he finished low across Bartosz Bialkowski from the edge of the area.
And once he got one, it wasn’t long before he grabbed a second to seal the three points and take the Canaries to the summit. In the 81st minute, Pukki poked home in true poacher fashion, making it 20 for the campaign. Meanwhile, Ipswich haven’t beaten their rivals in 10 years and it looks like the Tractor Boys will be waiting for quite some time until they get one over their arch enemies.
Norwich fans had even more reason to enjoy their post-match pint (other beverages are available) considering the two teams chasing them both dropped points.
A gruelling clash of titans took place at the Riverside, as last-gasp Leeds struck in the 11th minute of injury time to steal a point from the grasp of Middlesbrough. But in reality, two wins in seven is a poor return for a club desperate for a return to the big time.
Post-match, Boro’s classy midfield anchor John Obi Mikel called the Championship “much tougher than the Premier League” and this game was testament to this. Mikel is fairly entitled to this view having played for Chelsea for over a decade, making 249 appearances in the top flight.
Leeds commenced the game in their usual frenetic way, but Bielsa’s troops were unable to truly test Boro stopper Darren Randolph. But Tony Pulis’ side matched the pace set by their visitors and they had a point to prove after their pitiful performance in the FA Cup against League Two Newport County.
Less than two minutes into the second half, Boro got their just rewards. The cumbersome George Friend pushed forward down the flank, before picking out Lewis Wing who was lurking on the edge of the box. Wing controlled the ball before sending a tidy finish past Casilla and into the bottom corner.
Leeds responded positively to falling behind, but spurned an abundance of glorious chances before finally toppling the Boro resistance. Deep into injury time, the 101st minute to be precise, Kalvin Phillips nodded home the equaliser, sparking delirium in a crowded box; Leeds do love a late goal. A deserved point on the balance of play, that kept Leeds to within two points of table toppers Norwich.
Promotion chasing Sheffield United frustratingly slipped further adrift of the top two, despite a Billy Sharp hattrick in a captivating game at Villa Park.
The Blades arrived in Birmingham with a purpose and immediately looked to put Aston Villa to the sword. On the 11th minute, the menacing Billy Sharp fired goalwards and although Abraham seemed to clear the ball off the line, goal line technology ruled otherwise, awarding Chris Wilder’s side the opening goal.
Villa fought back with pressure of their own, but found themselves further behind when super Sharp stabbed the ball out of the grasp of Kalinic and into the back of the net; his 100th goal for the club. A goal shrouded in controversy, but he won’t care how they go in. A goal is a goal.
Sharp then completed his hat-trick nine minutes later, when he headed home at the back post but I don’t think anyone in Villa Park would have predicted what could have happened next…
Loanee Tyrone Mings headed in to give the Villans a glimmer of hope, but when hitman Abraham tapped home to make it 3-2, the Blades looked shaken to the very core.
An equaliser looked inevitable and in stoppage time, Andre Green rose highest to head home a dramatic leveller that sent the Holte End into raptures. I really do feel for any Villa fans who left this one early.
Last but by no means least, come two sides with very different ambitions. Bolton Wanderers find themselves marooned in a perilous position four points adrift of safety. Whilst Preston North End have an opportunity, albeit a slim one, of making a late surge for the playoffs.
Preston were hoping to make it three consecutive away victories, a feat they haven’t repeated since 2005 in the second tier. And things got off to the perfect start when the brilliant Alan Browne placed home his 11th of the season, just before the interval. Surely Browne has got to be the best no.10 in the Championship?
Preston continued to dismantle their opponents and should’ve added to their slender advantage. But when they eventually did grab a second, it came at a crucial time, as Bolton were beginning to enjoy a bit more time on the ball in an increasingly stretched game.
PNE hit Wanderers on the counter though, nimble Irishman Seani Maguire burst forward from midfield, before executing an exquisite through ball that Tom Barkhuizen collected and subsequently finished with ease.
Bolton pulled one back in the 90 through Clayton Donaldson, but it was merely a consolation, in a game that finished much closer than it should have done. Preston marching on up the table, leaving Bolton licking their wounds.
QUICK TIP: Preston to finish in the top six at 25/1. Stick a fiver on that.