Championship Round-Up: Jockeying for Position
By Bob Melling
Something special is happening at Preston and when dour Scotsman Alex Neil cracks a post-match smile, you know life must be good.
A 94th minute Seani Maguire header caused pandemonium at Deepdale in a dull game that looked set to end goalless. A pinpoint Daniel Johnson corner found its way through to a sea of Preston bodies, Maguire’s head getting the telling touch.
Sure Preston were a bit fortuitous and Birmingham boss Gary Monk is probably right to feel slightly aggrieved, but what does it matter?
The Championship table does not account for performance quality, it accounts for hard earned points.
Preston certainly were not pretty, but they did the dirty work and they did what they do best: “shithousery”.
In other words, stealing precious points from teams who believe they have a divine right to beat little old Preston.
Preston are where they are on merit alone and now sit in 7th place through a synthesis of intricate possession based play and gritty “point snatching”.
On Saturday they had to revert to the latter against an ugly, aggressive Birmingham side who boast one of the best attacking partnerships in the division: Adams and Jutkiewicz.
Fair enough, it’s no Sturridge and Suarez or Shearer and Sutton, but the Birmingham duo have a combined goal tally of 31. That’s more goals than the entire Ipswich team.
Take away the goals of Adams in 2019, and Birmingham are already down by 6 points. Take away those goals for the entire season and they’d probably be flirting with the bottom three.
Meanwhile, Preston’s 12 game unbeaten run has seen them win 8, draw 4, score 20 through 11 goal scorers and keep 5 clean sheets.
Before those 12 games, they were 14 points off the playoffs, but they now sit level on points with Aston Villa in 6th.
An incredible turn around and as they continue to lurk under the radar, boss Alex Neil has no doubt that his players can maintain their remarkable run of form after the international break.
Elsewhere in the playoff race, Tony Pulis slammed his sluggish Middlesbrough side for a “shocking” 3-0 humbling at the hands of in-form Aston Villa.
Pulis admitted his side were still feeling the effects of the back-to-back defeats against Brentford and Preston: “Everyone was flat in the respect of the way the result went in midweek.” But what does that say about the character of the team?
This was the first time Pulis had lost three consecutive matches as Boro boss and they have now registered just one point in twelve, a spate of form that threatens to derail their playoff hopes.
When I used to play FIFA and I would be coming into the final 10 minutes of the game with a one goal lead, without fail I would always go into the ‘Settings’ and flick on the ‘Park the Bus’ tactic. I’d also throw on a couple more defenders and just lump the ball forward.
Arch-pragmatist Tony Pulis sets up his Boro side in this sort of ‘ultra-defensive’ system from the onset. Middlesbrough kicked off with a five man backline protected by a defensive midfield general, but on Saturday, Villa’s youthful exuberance found a way to wreak havoc against a comparatively archaic opposition.
The average age of Aston Villa’s attacking midfield department stands at 22.5 and they picked holes in their opposition with ease.
Middlesbrough have looked rather vulnerable recently with Brentford, Preston and Aston Villa the latest to take advantage of Pulis’ bewildering lack of attacking ambition.
Boro are topping the charts for fewest goals conceded this season, at an average of just 0.8 per game. But you have to match such an impressive number by scoring goals, and Pulis’ troops average a meagre 1.1 goals per game.
They also create relatively little and when it comes to big chances created, Boro are 16th. Comparatively, Villa are 6th.
Villa are now in the playoffs for the first time under the tenure of Dean Smith and look to be in red hot form at the perfect time. Jack Grealish continues to be the protagonist in this Villa revival, with his return from a lengthy lay-off coinciding with four comprehensive triumphs.
15 days ago, Aston Villa were 13th and 8 points outside the playoffs. Four games and four wins later and they are up to sixth. I know it’s a drum I keep on banging, but that is why I love the Championship.
Now from playoff contention to the basement club, with two teams desperate for a result at the wrong end of the table.
A poor Wigan side struck down a very, very poor Bolton side in a seven goal grudge match at the DW Stadium.
Wigan found themselves perched perilously above the drop zone whilst Bolton, well, Bolton needed three points if they were to stand even just a remote chance of survival.
But it was a derby demolition project from Wigan, who had beaten their rivals just twice in twelve meetings. For Bolton it was a result that closed the curtains on yet another chaotic week. 5-2 it finished.
I’d even go as far to say that it put a full stop on their Championship survival hopes altogether.
Although many Bolton fans would argue that their blind faith dissipated a good few weeks ago.
Bolton just never really got going and when Joe Garner netted for Wigan in the space of just four minutes, Bolton fans got that all too familiar sinking feeling.
This was just the seventh time all season that Bolton had scored more than one goal in a Championship game, but like the water pipes in my student house, Bolton couldn’t stop leaking.
The Trotter’s capitulation was summed up in the 55th minute, when stopper Remi Matthews submitted his entry for “Howler of the Season”.
In this bizarre moment of madness, Matthews rolled the ball out, presumably for himself to subsequently kick, but unbeknownst to him, the jackal Joe Garner was lurking behind him.
Garner nicked the ball before feeding Nick Powell who had the simplest of tasks, slotting the ball into an empty net.
Bolton are now officially bottom of the table for total goals conceded and have registered the lowest amount of shots on target per match in the Championship at 2.8. These atrocious stats coupled with news of a collapse in ownership negotiations make for grim reading if you’re a Wanderers fan.
Sheffield United delt a decisive blow in the automatic promotion race, as they toppled Leeds United by just the one goal in a fiery clash at Elland Road.
As expected, this game kicked off at a frenetic pace between two sides who are jockeying (no Cheltenham pun intended) for that elusive automatic spot behind Daniel Farke’s Norwich City.
Sheffield United certainly weren’t their usual selves and had to absorb an enormous amount of Leeds pressure, but they punished Leeds for their profligacy with their only shot on target in the 71st minute.
Blades poacher Billy Sharp snatched the ball in the final third with Leeds pressed high up the pitch, and he coolly picked out Chris Basham who slotted home to cause delirium in the away end.
Leeds huffed and puffed, throwing the kitchen sink at their visitors, but in the end, this did them more harm than good.
Solid centre-half Pontus Jansson sustained an immobilising knee injury but was forced to march on, with Bielsa having no substitutions left at his disposal.
And then when former Real Madrid stopper Francisco Casilla clumsily hauled Billy Sharp to the deck, one-knee Jansson was handed the keeper’s shirt and gloves as he completed the final few minutes between the sticks.
Sheffield United stood firm and managed the game like a true promotion outfit recording their seventh consecutive clean sheet.
When looking at their final run of games, I’d put my money on the Blades to go the distance and Sky Bet have now edged them ahead in the automatic promotion odds at 4/7 compared to Leeds at 1/1.
Momentum is truly gathering at S6, as the other Sheffield side, Sheffield Wednesday, are gradually moving out of the shadows and into the rear-view mirrors of the playoff pack.
On Saturday, Steve Bruce’s Owls swept aside Mowbray’s Rovers in a six goal thriller at Hillsborough, recording back-to-back wins as they continue their late charge into contention.
This was the first time Wednesday had scored four in a match since May 2018, leaving Steve Bruce with nothing but praise for his team after he had bemoaned their lack of a ruthless edge.
They are now eleven unbeaten, have lost just once in 16 and have amassed 20 points from a possible 30 under Bruce.
Sitting just two points off the playoffs, the Owls have eight cup finals remaining and at odds of 16/1 to achieve a top six finish, that’s got to be worth a punt.
The ‘SWFC Supporters Club’ win the award for Tweet of the Week with their political satire: “If Steve Bruce was in charge of Brexit the EU would be paying us £39bn to leave…#SWFC #Brexit”. You can’t really argue with that!