Championship Round-Up: Norwich leapfrog Leeds and sit atop
It was yet another weekend of thrills and spills in England’s second tier, with the teams at the top jockeying for position and those at the bottom struggling for air.
Norwich City and Leeds United finally fought each other head on in a ferocious challenge for the top spot. It was the performance of the highest order from Daniel Farke’s troops, who turned over their hosts with remarkable ease.
Super Mario Vrancic set the tone when he curled a stunning free-kick into the top-right-corner after a mere five minutes; a momentous strike for the Canaries that gave them the perfect platform to soar to victory.
Leeds replied with chances and incessant pressure, a leveller looking immanent. Although it was Norwich who struck second, when Teemu Pukki slotted home his 18th of the campaign.
Surreal scenes at Elland Road and it would only get better, when Super Mario added a glossy third in a game which saw Leeds United continue their crumble… Delia would be proud. Sadly, however, it was not the apple variant of crumble, just the football kind.
Norwich forced themselves top on goal difference, leaving Leeds glancing nervously over their shoulder at fellow Yorkshire outfit Sheffield United.
After a lethargic opening half at Bramall Lane, Chris Wilder demanded an increase in tempo, urging his men not to take their opposition for granted. The Blades answered WIlder’s need for speed in the second half and it wasn’t long before they began to dismantle a dogged Bolton side.
David McGoldrick connected well with Billy Sharp’s instinctive through-ball, guiding it into an empty net, before Sharp then turned scorer notching his 19th of the season. Now I better make a sincere apology here for questioning Sharp’s ageing quality during my pre-season predictions. Perhaps age really is just a number after all.
Now to one of the more impressive results of the day, in a clash that saw Brentford make it nine wins in ten, striking an inform Blackburn team down in style.
When Blackburn fired themselves into the lead inside a meagre 7 minutes with two goals, it looked like it would be an afternoon to forget for the Bees. But rather than losing their sting, they began to attack Blackburn like a swarm of wasps, playing some scintillating football in the process.
Said Benrahma started the fightback that was completed by Sergi Canos at the stroke of full time, the Bees winning 5-2 in the end. A stunning performance characterised by sweeping passing moves and sumptuous finishing. Bravo Brentford.
In the dogfight at the foot of the table, Millwall failed to build on their FA Cup dramatics against Everton, in a disappointingly predictable game against fellow fighters Rotherham.
Despite their plight, Rotherham are desperately trying to rid themselves of their status as the yo-yo side, but they offered little in this goalless affair, making it 40 consecutive games without an away win.
Luckily for both Rotherham and Millwall, none of those below them could gain three points either. Reading recorded their third 0-0 of the season as they hosted Aston Villa and Ipswich were downed late on by a newly-managed Sheffield Wednesday side.
It was an end to end clash between the Royals and Villa, both sides creating and spurning decent openings. Reading should certainly see this as a point gained though, as they do undoubtedly continue to make gradual improvements under Jose Gomes.
Although this one has been largely overshadowed by the debate surrounding Villa defender Tyrone Mings and his brutal stamp on the face of Norwich loanee Nelson Oliveira. Shocking pictures of Oliveira’s face emerged in the aftermath and they certainly aren’t for the faint hearted. It looked like he’d been mauled by a grizzly bear. Was it purposeful and should retributive action be taken, only Mings will truly know.
In the race for the playoffs, Bristol City stormed into 6th place after “Frank Lampard’s Derby” were held by an unfortunate Preston North End at Deepdale.
Second half goals from Andreas Weimann and Callum O’Dowda secured a seventh consecutive win for the Robins as they ran out 2-0 victors at home to Swansea. Hmmm, I’m pretty sure the fickle Brizzle fans were calling for Johnson’s head a few weeks ago? Now they are dreaming of the playoffs. Oh how the tables have turned.
Back to Preston, who were desperately unlucky in an enthralling 0-0 encounter with Fat Frank’s Derby. Derby shaded the first 45, striking the post twice through tricky attacker Harry Wilson. Preston kept their resolve and dominated the second half, bombarding the Derby defence with perpetual pressure.
Luckily for Derby, Richard Keogh and Kelle Roos were in no mood for defeat and despite Preston boasting 23 shots on goal, they just could not convert. Alex Neil insists that the playoffs are still within reach, but with eleven teams and ten points separating PNE from 6th spot, have they left it a little bit too late for a promotion charge?
Two of those sides sitting between Preston and the elusive playoff spots are Birmingham City and Nottingham Forest. The Blues bolstered their playoff hopes recording only their second win in eight games at home to Forest on Saturday and were good value for the three points.
Martin O’Neill’s team kicked off the game on the front foot, Joe Lolley smashing an effort against the post, but in truth, Forest’s attacking intentions benefitted their hosts. Jota, relishing his new creative license behind the two strikers, was instrumental in several smart moves, before he got on the scoresheet himself with an angled left footed strike.
Birmingham continued to out-fox their visitors with this new look system and narrow approach that frustrated O’Neill. Forest gained the momentum though, but were rather toothless in offence. Blues talisman Che Adams punished them for this, when he converted a spot kick after he had been brought down in the box by Yohan Benalouane, who was subsequently given his marching orders.
Wigan Athletic marginally eased their relegation fears with a narrow victory at home to QPR. Deadline Day arrival Leon Clarke marked a dream second debut for the Latics with the winning goal in a game that was much closer than it should have been.
Stoke made it back-to-back 2-0 defeats as they were brushed aside by a well drilled Hull City. Stoke had their chances, but in the cut-throat second division, you cannot afford to be wasteful.
On Deadline Day, Stoke had part exchanged cult hero Peter Crouch for Burnley striker Sam Vokes. Vokes is well-versed when it comes to Championship success and when he earned his side a penalty just moments after Hull had taken the lead, you would’ve expected him to bury it. Instead, he placed his spot kick tamely down the middle, allowing Ben Marshall to clear the ball from danger with his feet.
Stoke continued to probe in numbers as the second half unfolded but they just couldn’t find an opening. In the end, their over-commitment played straight into the hands of a counter attacking Hull City team. Hull impressively doubled their lead just past the hour mark, when an onrushing Grosicki splendidly finished off a swift attacking sequence. I think Nathan Jones needs to start giving his lads a bit of extra shooting practice!
Tony Pulis had the last laugh over former employers West Brom, as his Middlesbrough side came from behind to down the Baggies 3-2 at the Hawthorns. It was a thrilling affair with the flashpoint being Pulis’ decision to send Assombalonga onto the pitch just over an hour into the game.
The Congolese hitman was instrumental, showing predatory instincts with his clinical finishing, especially considering he hasn’t started a League game since Boxing Day. Pulis will be expecting Britt to become more than just an impact substitute now and perhaps a striking partnership between Hugill and Assombalonga could be the answer to Boro’s goalscoring woes.
Incredibly, only six teams in the entire Championship have scored fewer goals than Boro, who sit in 5th place. Even my lot, Preston North End, have notched 11 more goals than Pulis’ promotion hopefuls this campaign and we sit in 18th!