Championship Round-Up: Norwich stay top and Preston are on the march
Another weekend of the expected in terms of results. Four of the top six put three points on the board and at the other end, none of the bottom eight clubs could register that much needed win.
It is the business end of the season and bar the odd game in hand here and there, most clubs are coming towards their final twelve fixtures.
It’s a pretty cliché thing for me to say, but there really is still a lot to play for. That sixth spot in the playoffs is looking rather inviting and then in those lower regions, well, your guess is as good as mine as to who will plummet to the third tier.
So, like a broken record, here are the five most significant results in the Championship on a weekend which saw 11 games played and 35 goals scored.
Bolton boss Phil Parkinson sensed anxiety before his side’s clash with Leeds United at Elland Road and it turned out he was spot on. This was a tense battle as the two sides with disparate ambitions locked horns.
It’s fair to say that Leeds have had a fair few hiccups in 2019, with many predicting their crumble. Marcelo Bielsa has led his troops to just four wins in eight league games so far this calendar year, yet their persistence has ensured that they sit a meagre two points off the summit with a crucial game in hand.
Bolton Wanderers are fighting a completely different battle, having registered just four points in 2019; a return that sees them second from bottom and four points adrift of safety.
Yet the seeming gulf in class between the two sides was really not that evident on Saturday. Leeds walking away with the narrowest of victories in a nervy encounter.
When Patrick Bamford converted a 16th minute spot kick to make it 1-0 Leeds, it looked like it was going to be a long old afternoon for those travelling Bolton fans. But Leeds just didn’t get going and when they failed to clear the danger from a Bolton set-piece, Mark Beevers emerged to smash home the leveller.
Bolton fans in delirium as chants of ‘Leeds are falling apart again’ emerged to the tune of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. Perhaps a tad premature, but when you have the second lowest goal tally in England’s top four Leagues, you are entitled to get a bit excited.
As expected, Leeds dominated proceedings in the desperate search of that elusive equaliser, but they were wasteful in possession and it took a freak Alioski goal which wrong-footed Bolton stopper Remi Matthews to give them the three points.
Frustrations boiled over on the sidelines, culminating in Phil Parkinson being shown a red card for his involvement in a fracas that pretty much summed up Bolton’s season so far.
Post-match, Bolton brute David Wheater was left frustrated labelling both of the Leeds goals as ‘rubbish’. However, as far as I’m concerned, whether it’s a 30-yard screamer or a 1-yard tap in, a goal is a goal.
For me, Bolton’s biggest problem is their lack of youth and creativity. The average age of their starting lineup on Saturday was 28.5 years-old and at the moment, they are relying on hopeful punts forward rather than purposeful build-up play.
All that being said, the Trotters only have to face one side currently in the playoffs in the final stretch, so if they are up for the fight, the great escape may be possible.
It was a good job that Leeds grabbed that slender victory considering results elsewhere.
Norwich City produced another thriller at Carrow Road, coming from behind twice, to beat a resurgent Bristol City side 3-2. A result which kept the Canaries perched on the top.
Bristol manager Lee Johnson succinctly summed this one up when he admitted that his side ‘were undone by our own inadequacies in a 25-minute spell in the second half.’
Prior to the game his side had won seven league games on the bounce and despite pushing the Canaries all the way, they found themselves pulled apart in the second half.
Kenny McLean looks to have earned himself a front row seat on the Norwich promotion train after a headline grabbing brace from midfield. But what about those lesser mentioned players in the Norwich narrative?
Big German centre-half Christoph Zimmermann came from the fourth tier of German football, but it was his heroics on Saturday that define what Daniel Farke’s team are all about.
Zimmermann, a former Borussia Dortmund reserve player, was willing to throw his body on the line for the cause and whilst Pukki is the poster boy, Zimmermann is the workhorse at the back.
A quick glance at Twitter really does show that Norwich City fans are loving ‘Farke Life’ right now. Mike Ward tweeting ‘What an incredible side this is!! The relentless will to win, driven on by big game players, is staggering and actually moving to watch! So bloody proud!’
But it was Norwich fanatic Dave Clarke who emphasised the most pertinent point with regards to squad assembly costs. Clarke said: ‘Just a reminder that Bristol City paid us one MILLION pounds to sign Marley Watkins. Which is roughly the same total fee that we’ve paid for Krul, Aarons, Zimmermann, Godfrey, Lewis, Trybull, Vrancic, McLean, Cantwell and Pukki combined.’
For a bit of context here, Bristol City signed Watkins from Norwich over the summer transfer window and the 28-year-old has made just 5 starts this season. Doesn’t quite sound like the most shrewd investment.
Farke is well-equipped for the end of season push, with players returning from injury and these options could prove decisive. Norwich to go unbeaten until the end of the season is highly likely considering their run of games. If only there were odds for that.
In the tea time kickoff, automatic promotion hopefuls Sheffield United kept their place just behind Norwich thanks to a steady 1-0 win over former Premier League outfit West Brom.
That collapse against Aston Villa seems like a mere blip in the memory of Chris Wilder’s side, who have now won three consecutive fixtures.
Sheffield United’s expansive wing-back system and three-man defence was what gave them the lead and ultimately the three points.
The veteran right-sided defender Martin Cranie overlapped Kieron Freeman before scooping the ball back into the box, where loanee Dowell looped a header over Sam Johnstone and into the far corner.
West Brom looked edgy and just couldn’t pick their way through the staunch United resistance. Albion boss Darren Moore conceding that he may have to opt for a more fruitful tactical system at home. The Baggies haven’t won at the Hawthorns since Boxing Day and have kept just two clean sheets at home all season.
They may sit top of the table when it comes to away form, but if it was all about home form, West Brom would be 8th. Behind both Wigan and Brentford, which I find quite bizarre!
Meanwhile, Moore’s experienced counterpart Chris Wilder seems to have a real knack of knowing when to switch things up, and this was evident with the inclusion of Dowell over Duffy in the starting lineup and the start given to Gary Madine a week prior.
Should Sheffield United go up, I have heard pundits cast doubts over Wilder’s ageing ability as a tactician. For me, those doubts are completely unjustified. I mean come on, if Colin Wanker (Neil Warnock) can manage in the Premier League, then so can Chris Wilder.
Off to the Capital now, where a 23 minute Preston North End goal blitz saw them take down Millwall in style. 3-1 it finished, Preston doing the double over their hosts for the first time since the 2005-6 campaign.
This was Millwall’s biggest home defeat of the season, Preston in no mood for frivolities as they extended their unbeaten run to eight games. Do not write Alex Neil’s side off just yet… Four away wins on the spin and just six points off the playoffs, that is why this result was significant.
Fullback Andrew Hughes struck as early as the fourth minute with a fine volley on the turn that left the Millwall stopper rooted to the spot. And it would be Preston’s other fullback who doubled their advantage, skipper Tom Clarke heading home before nimble Irishman Seani Maguire deftly lifted the ball over the keeper and into the net to seal the deal.
It was the first time Millwall had conceded for more than five hours in all competitions, ending a run of three consecutive clean sheets. Before the visit of PNE, the Lions had conceded just six league goals in 2019, but North End mauled their opposition ruthlessly, leaving many proclaiming that the Lilywhites were one of the best sides in this division to visit the Den. Impressive stuff.
In what was the dictionary definition of a basement battle, Reading held host to fellow strugglers Rotherham United in a rather drab and predictable 1-1 draw.
Reading had the glorious opportunity to take a giant step towards survival, but fashionably fluffed their lines to remain level on points with a Rotherham side who are in the bottom three on goal difference alone.
It was yet another “what might have been” game for Reading, who failed to successfully manage their slender one goal advantage. Instead of killing off their opposition, they resorted to the services of auxiliary midfielder John O’Shea and instead of aggressively fighting for the ball, they willingly allowed their visitors to enjoy spells of possession.
And it was this submissiveness that cost them, Rotherham bundling the ball home to take away a crucial point, their fifth draw in as many games.
Reading manager Jose Gomes said he was disappointed to see the ball in the air so much, a comment that left Rotherham boss Paul Warne furious: ‘If we choose to get into their box in four passes or 24 passes, what’s the difference? We still want the same outcome?’
Whether it be four passes or 24 passes, the equation is pretty simple for Rotherham. They need to stop drawing games.