Championship Round-Up: Christmas Cracker at Villa Park, as Leeds steal top spot

Championship Round-Up: Christmas Cracker at Villa Park, as Leeds steal top spot

By Bob Melling

Not only is it Christmas, but more importantly (if I can say that…), it’s the halfway point of the Championship season and things are really starting to shape up. The festive period is always action-packed with League football, making it well and truly the most wonderful time of the year- if you’re a football fanatic. Eleven Championship games took place on Saturday, six of them ending 1-0. On Sunday we had the game that was always destined to receive TV coverage; Aston Villa vs Leeds United. Two of the most well-supported clubs in the second tier, both of which are vying for promotion to the Premier League.

It was a game which did not disappoint, with Leeds making a remarkable comeback to give their fans an early Christmas present at Villa Park. Marcelo Bielsa’s side had their work cut out though, when Conor Hourihane added to Tammy Abraham’s early opener to give the hosts a two goal cushion.

But Leeds showed real grit when half-time substitute Jack Clarke drove the ball home to the delight of the visiting fans. It was a game played out at a frenetic pace and Leeds had a new lease of life in the second half. Pontus Jansson restoring parity on the hour mark as he rose highest in the box to meet a pinpoint Pablo Hernandez corner. All square and if anyone was to claim a late winner it would be a Leeds side who were in the ascendency.

Villa looked winded whilst Leeds looked potent on the counter-attack. Marcelo Bielsa’s troops play a high-tempo pressing game and this paid dividends against a jaded Villa side in the dying embers. With just 90 seconds to go, Leeds stole the ball in the middle of the park before sweeping down the right-hand side of the pitch. A tantalizing diagonal ball came drifting into the box which Villa fullback Elmohamedy could clear only as far as a lurking Kemar Roofe, who rattled the ball across goal and into the bottom-right corner. Dramatic scenes in an enthralling game; Leeds made it six consecutive wins, Villa succumbed to their first home loss in the Dean Smith era.

Roofe’s goal proved enough to dethrone Norwich City, despite Teemu Pukki’s 86th minute winner for the Canaries at Ewood Park. It looked as though Norwich were set to endure an afternoon of frustration against Blackburn Rovers, but Daniel Farke’s team just love scoring late goals. The troublesome Teemu Pukki popped up as a game of fine margins became stretched, both sides hot in the pursuit of three points. In the end, Norwich’s extra quality broke the Blackburn resistance, Pukki burying his 14th of the season from close range.

West Brom were not in the mood for festive frivolity as they maintained pace with Leeds and Norwich, but they cannot afford to drop a single point if they are to mount a serious assault on the automatic spots. They completed a 4-0 rout of lowly Rotherham United inside the hour, thanks to Dwight Gayle’s first Albion hat-trick and a Harvey Barnes strike. Four away wins on the spin for the Baggies, whilst the Millers saw their nine-game unbeaten streak come to an end in miserable fashion.

In the other emphatic victory of Saturday afternoon, Birmingham City stopped Wigan Athletic dead in their tracks, despatching their hosts with ease. It was a vital win for Blues, as both Sheffield United and Derby County dropped points in the race for a place in the top six.

Prior to the game, the Latics boasted one of the best home records in the division, but despite starting the stronger of the two sides, Wigan soon found themselves chasing shadows on home turf. Wigan looked set to break the deadlock, before Birmingham gave themselves some breathing space with a goal of stunning simplicity.

Paul Cook’s side then gave themselves a mountain to climb when a Birmingham corner was flicked into the path of an unmarked James Morrison who slotted home from close range. Any hopes of a spirited Christmas comeback were dashed, when Jutkiewicz’s goal bound header was steered home by Maghoma. Birmingham are looking up, whilst Wigan glance nervously over their shoulder.

At the other end of the table, in fact the complete rock bottom, Ipswich Town extended their unbeaten run to an incredible two games. Scintillating stuff. I mean they could only register a point on Saturday, but it was a point that took them to within four points from safety against promotion chasing opposition in Sheffield United.

Ipswich stormed into the lead completely against the run of play, when Freddie Sears took advantage of a mix-up in the Sheffield United defence to find counterpart Harrison, who unleashed a rasping right-footed effort which took a handy deflection before sailing past stopper Dean Henderson.

This dream lead, however, was slashed when United clawed themselves level just after the interval; Billy Sharp firmly heading past the other Dean between the sticks, Dean Gerken. As expected, the Yorkshire outfit dominated the last 15, but failed to produce a significant opening. A decent result for Paul Lambert’s side.

I’ll take a fleeing look at a couple of those 1-0 score lines now that I mentioned earlier. Our resident upwardly-moving club, Stoke City, retained their place in the chasing pack. Saido Berahino’s second-half header was enough to move them to within four points of the top six and keep their opponents, Millwall, submerged in the bottom three.

In that part of the League table that nobody really cares about, managerless Sheffield Wednesday toppled 10-man Preston North End in a game scant of premium opportunities. Just 26 minutes into the game and Preston laid down the foundations for the Owls to soar to victory. PNE pitbull Ben Pearson was dismissed with little hesitation following a lunging tackle on Marco Matias. Midfield enforcer Pearson won the ball cleanly, but the referee deemed his follow-through as excessive; his trailing leg the culprit.

For much of the game, Wednesday struggled to breach a stubborn Preston defence, but the Owls eventually made the advantage in personnel count. Man-of-the-match Adam Reach whipped a delightful ball into the box, which centre-half Michael Hector glanced beyond Rudd and into the net. It was met by rapturous applause, the Owls not having an awful lot to hoot about in recent weeks. Preston mounted a late siege but their injury-struck squad could not find an equaliser. The full time whistle was greeted by intense relief from the Wednesday faithful, former Villa boss Steve Bruce set to take charge and steer the club to stability, following the sacking of Jos Luhukay on Friday evening.

It would be erroneous to hasten over QPR’s narrow 1-0 victory away at Nottingham Forest. Whilst it may appear unimpressive, this was a landmark result for Steve McClaren’s side who had never won in a previous 34 visits to the City Ground; the longest run without winning at an opposition’s ground in all English competitions.

History has an annoying habit of repeating itself and therefore any QPR fans who didn’t make the trip North can be forgiven for their pessimism. But Rangers made history with a victory that takes them to within four points off the playoffs.

Sitting just five points above QPR are “Frank Lampard’s Derby”. Now for me, the hype surrounding Derby has been surreal at times and quite ‘frankly’ their achievements have been massively overrated, especially considering some of the acquisitions they made over the summer. On Saturday, they had to come from behind at home to Bristol City to earn a point, as both sides struggled to convert their chances.

It must be said that this was a game with an abundance of chances, especially in a breathless second half in which both sides had opportunities to steal all three points. Despite some early Derby pressure, it was City who broke the deadlock, when a mis-placed Keogh header landed at the feet of Jamie Paterson, who deftly lifted the ball over Carson and into the empty net. City almost doubled their advantage not long after, when Diedhiou’s cheeky chip evaded the grasp of Carson, only to bounce back off the bar; Derby fans breathing a uniform sigh of relief.

But they did draw themselves level, when man-of-the-match Mason Mount drilled a dangerous cross towards the edge of the six-yard box, which was met by Waghorn, who turned home his second of the season. Both sides huffed and puffed in a thrilling second half, but neither had the quality to net a winner.

In a cagey battle at the bottom, Brentford sealed their first win in seven, against fellow strugglers Bolton. When you’re in a relegation dogfight, a prolific goalscorer can be the difference between relegation and survival. Brentford talisman Neal Maupay is testament to this, as his unstoppable strike on 63 minutes ripped into the roof of the net to earn his side an invaluable three points. But the Bees were made to work hard for their honey, Bolton squandering a series of chances at the death in an end-to-end tussle between two brittle sides.

In what was possibly one of the games of the weekend, a determined Hull City fought back from behind to clinch a nail-biting win in front of a meagre home crowd. Ivorian Wilfried Bony lashed home an early strike to give Swansea the lead, however, despite missing a penalty, Hull remained persistent and struck back with three in the space of ten second half minutes to win the game. Swansea have now lost four Championship games in which they have taken the lead this season, a stat Graham Potter’s side will be looking to improve upon in the second half of the season.

Brute force and aerial power prevailed for Tony Pulis’ Boro side, as they gained vital ground at the top. This came at the expense of an experimental Reading outfit who fielded four academy graduates in a starting lineup that opted for youth over experience. Boro offer little threat from open play, but their aerial prowess can be lethal and this was certainly something that Reading struggled to adapt to.

Reading were more than happy to hold a high defensive line and squeeze Boro up the pitch, but these forays from the back could not make up for their lack of firepower in the final third. When they did manage to muster up a chance within range, the final ball simply went missing. They showed naivety at times and this is something you cannot do against a side with the experience of Middlesbrough. Boro fullback George Friend was allowed to ghost forward unmarked and unattacked, as he met Paddy McNair’s driven cross to stab the ball home. Reading slammed shots over the crossbar in a panicky finale and the game fizzled out in favour of the visitors.

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