Championship Round-Up: Stoke shock and Norwich pounce
Saturday sealed the lid on a week to forget for Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United after they were dismantled by a Stoke team who had failed to win in their previous five League matches.
In the build-up to this one, the EFL revealed that 11 Championship clubs had made official complaints regarding ‘Spygate’. This was a concerning revelation for Leeds United and their earnest Argentine who had frankly confessed to spying on all of his opponents thus far this season.
Uncouth and unsportsmanlike behaviour or sheer obsessive brilliance… Hmmm, I’ll let you decide. Bielsa invited the media round to the Leeds training ground for not only a brew, but also a PowerPoint presentation and a look at his excessive spreadsheets.
Bielsa divulged to the nation how he dissected Derby County with hours upon hours of footage analysis leaving many proclaiming on social media that he pulled Frank Lampard’s trousers down. Sorry Christine! But I’d like to question as to exactly how exceptional Bielsa’s meticulous analysis really is. Surely a few spreadsheets filled with data are common practice for most clubs these days? I mean we’re not exactly in the 1980s anymore.
Jesus, that was some tangent! Back on track and returning to the on-pitch action where our resident outfit Stoke City registered that much needed win under new boss Nathan Jones. It’s been a pretty dire season for the Stokies after Gary Rowett was sacked for his insipid brand of football and questionable selection decisions.
But they finally had something to cheer about when Sam Clucas rifled home the opener and Joe Allen doubled their advantage two minutes from time.10-man Leeds United pulled one back through Alioski in the 90, but it was merely a consolation, leaving Leeds just one point clear of fellow title chasers Norwich City who featured on Sky Sports on the Friday night slot.
It was a first-half goal blitz that settled that tie, with all four goals coming inside 12 minutes. Norwich talisman Teemu Pukki notched his 16th of the season but the lead was short lived when the burly Che Adams latched onto a sublime defence-splitting pass just 78 seconds later. Adams finished the move, but again the elation was temporary.
Mario Vrancic and Tom Trybull both struck in quick succession, taking advantage of a mix up in the Blues defence. Birmingham found chances hard to come by in the second-half, a tame, long-range Adams effort was the best they could muster up. Norwich gaining vital ground in second place.
Luckily for Norwich, Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United were downed by in-form Swansea at the Liberty Stadium. It was the prime opportunity for the Blades to slash the distance between themselves and neighbours Leeds, but their strikers had decided to take a night off, spurning an abundance of chances.
Sticking with the playoffs, “Frank Lampard’s Derby County” took advantage of some chaotic Reading defending to storm into a two-goal lead. It was an ugly first half for Reading who had foolishly insisted on playing the ball out from the back against an aggressively high-pressing Derby team.
However, in the second half Reading were reinvigorated, substitute Sone Aluko at the focal point of their attacking drive. Aluko pulled one back to make it 2-1, but Derby held on for a hard-fought win. Signs of incremental improvement for Jose Gomes’ Reading who sit two points from safety.
Now to the cluster of teams vying for Derby’s spot in the playoffs. Following a dismal run of form, Lee Johnson’s Bristol City made it five wins on the trot, dispatching newly-wed Nottingham Forest 1-nil. It was a losing debut for Martin O’Neil, who was hoping for a romantic homecoming at a sold-out City Ground. O’Neil was apart of that famed Forest side managed by Brian Clough. The side that lifted back-to-back European cups.
All things considered then, it was a flat afternoon for Forest against a Bristol side intent on ruining O’Neil’s hotly awaited return. Lee Johnson’s men were slicker and better equipped than their hosts and maintained their impressive momentum thanks to Famara Diedhiou’s pinpoint finish.
Elsewhere in that upper-mid region of the table, Aston Villa had to climb from behind to earn a point after Hull had taken a commanding first half lead. Hull continue to defy the odds this season and whether you love him or loathe him, Nigel Adkins should be a contender for Manager of the Year with the exceptional work he has completed on a shoestring budget at a toxic club.
At the bottom and I’m talking rock-bottom, the Championship’s basement boys Ipswich Town and their endeared boss Paul Lambert could not build upon victory a week earlier as they succumbed to defeat on the road at Blackburn Rovers. It took the East Lancashire side over an hour to break the deadlock, but when they did they soon added a second to earn the lead their performance merited.
Although it was Paul Lambert who made the headlines in the aftermath, when news materialised that he had stumped up near enough £1,800 of his own cash to pay for around 50 fans to make the trip up North. A sincere gesture from a manager who has pledged his support to the club come relegation or survival.
Wigan slipped closer to the drop zone as they were narrowly beaten by a restructured Sheffield Wednesday side. To be honest Wigan would have been better off staying on the coach after a rather lacklustre performance that left fans questioning Paul Cook’s managerial abilities at this level.
Experienced Scotsman Steven Fletcher made all the headlines for the Owls after his tireless shift that was capped off with a wonderful solo goal that won the game. Fletcher led the line with diligence and strength, beating his opposing defenders in the air and bullying them with his physicality. Wigan had no reply to their hosts, falling to their 11th away loss of the season.
Unlike Wigan, Rotherham United are rich in both spirit and energy, but such desirable characteristics can only carry you so far in the unforgiving second division. On Saturday, the Millers came up against an in-form Brentford side who have gone 7 games unbeaten in all competitions. Rotherham huffed and puffed with plenty of endeavour, but the gulf in class between the two sides was vast.
When Brentford attacked, they attacked swiftly and with poise on the ball. The Millers were increasingly besieged by their marauding opponents, the Bees playing some sumptuous football at times. They often ghosted through their opponents with simplicity and flair, moving the ball within intricate triangles. Lovely stuff and well deserving of the three points.
Millwall almost executed a 10/10 performance on the road at Middlesbrough and they led for over an hour after Jed Wallace rounded off a slick counter attacking move. Neil Harris’ tenacious Lions switched it up with a 4-3-3 formation and it really stumped Boro. Millwall snatched the lead and kept running with it up until the dying embers when Boro were awarded a late, late penalty. Teessider Hugill stepped up and converted from the spot, leaving the battling Lions with a meagre point.
Last but certainly not least, we have the performance of the weekend that came from Preston North End away at QPR. PNE rampantly tore their opposition apart with their purposeful play and QPR struggled to contain their buoyant visitors. North End boasted a youthful, inexperienced central defensive partnership that coped remarkably well with the pace of play.
The Lilywhites broke the deadlock when new signing Jayden Stockley slammed home the opener after a defensive mix up in the QPR backline. This slim advantage was carried into the interval and when play resumed, so did Preston’s dogged persistence.
Jordan Storey volleyed home the second from close range following a teasing Paul Gallagher inswinger and then Alan Browne joined in on the act with a back post header after… you guessed it, another tormenting Gallagher delivery.
QPR grabbed one back, but Preston replied with another thumping finish. Lukas Nmecha wormed his way forward before rifling an effort straight down the throat of the keeper, who could only parry the ball into the path of Brad Potts, who duly obliged when he sent the ball across the keeper and into the back of the net. Preston coming back with a bang.