Championship Round-Up: The dust is starting to settle
By Bob Melling
“Leeds, Leeds are falling apart, again” were the chants of the boisterous Sheffield United faithful as they revelled in the knowledge that they had leapfrogged their rivals and stormed back into second place.
At promotion odds of 1/100 it pretty much seems like Norwich being crowned Champions is a mere formality, meaning it’s now down to the two Uniteds, Leeds and Sheffield, to scrap for second place in a race that could easily go down to the wire.
On Saturday, Chris Wilder’s razor sharp Blades travelled over the Pennines to a Preston side that were in desperate need of a pick-me-up if they were to keep their promotion hopes alive.
But it was the Blades who emerged on top in an expectedly tight contest which saw the ball hit the back of the net just once.
That means that in the last 17 meetings between the two clubs, seven have finished with a 1-0 scoreline.
When Irish international David McGoldrick hooked the ball home after a messy goalmouth scramble, Preston fans got that familiar sinking feeling.
Arguably that McGoldrick strike came against the run of play, Preston spurning a series of golden opportunities in the build-up, but that’s the difference at this level.
If you miss your chances against a side with the guile of Sheffield United, you will be punished.
The Blades rarely ever relinquish their hold on the game once they take the lead. In their last nine fixtures, they have won seven after scoring first.
Chris Wilder is a pragmatic tactician who knows how to control the narrative of 90 minutes.
With an ageing group of combatants at his disposal, Wilder can trust his troops to carry out his commands with their nous and know-how.
Even though they took the lead against Preston fairly early on, United still managed to control the flow of the game, keeping Preston at arms length throughout.
The Blades frustrated their hosts with their relentless running and earnt their 11th clean sheet of 2019.
For Preston, this was a second successive defeat after what was a remarkable 12 game unbeaten run.
But If they are to reach the playoffs they will have to win five of their final six matches. Doable but a tough ask, meaning it’ll probably be just another ‘if only’ season for PNE.
Back to Leeds United now, as they slipped up on the Birmingham City banana peel to drop back down to third.
The Blues are now the only team to have done the double over Marcelo Bielsa’s side this season.
Pretty impressive stuff from Birmingham considering their prior run of five straight defeats.
Blues’ hitman Che Adams was the Leeds’ tormentor as his 22nd goal of the season which came in the 29th minute settled this one.
A wretched run of form and a nine point deduction saw the Blues go from playoff hopefuls to relegation candidates. But this triumph over Leeds proved they have enough to survive.
Leeds are a possession-based side, boasting the highest average possession rate in the division.
It comes as no surprise then that they had 73% possession against Birmingham, yet they could muster just one shot on target. Something which speaks volumes of Gary Monk’s organisational ability.
Quite simply the Leeds predicament is goals.
Norwich have Pukki, Sheffield United have Sharp, Aston Villa have Abraham and Leeds… Well, Leeds have Bamford, who has scored, on average, one goal every 157 minutes.
Thankfully for Leeds, Kemar Roofe looks to be edging his way back into the fray after a spell on the sidelines, but he cannot be rushed back and he cannot be expected to have an immediate impact.
For me, Sheffield United are just that bit more consistent in terms of results and performances and this is why I feel they may just about edge the race to second place.
Now to the red hot favourites for a playoff finish. The side who have gone from inconsistent to simply unstoppable.
Aston Villa made it six wins on the trot, as they turned over former boss Steve Bruce and his rejuvenated Sheffield Wednesday side at Hillsborough.
3-1 was the scoreline, but this one certainly wasn’t a routine Villa victory.
For one, the Owls netted first and perhaps created the better chances too.
But Villa showed their grit. Explosive Andre Green at the fore of much of their attacking exploits and he found McGinn who moved Villa level.
The Owls reacted well, but not as well as Villa, who are the masters of both attack and defence.
There have been plenty of goalkeeping woes for Aston Villa this season, but Jed Steer was not one of those woes on Saturday.
He parried away a Sheffield Wednesday penalty kick to keep the scores level. This, according to Bruce, was the turning point.
Steer’s herioics would create a platform for a grandstand finish.
Albert Adomah was a man Steve Bruce tried to offload during his reign at Villa Park, but Adomah said a big “up yours” to his former boss when he netted in the 92nd. A cheeky dance went with it too, leaving Brucey motionless on the touchline.
That made it 2-1, but Villa didn’t fancy stopping there, as goal-getter Abraham forced home a third to give the result that extra shine.
Wednesday boss Bruce couldn’t quite believe it, but as he said himself: “In football you don’t always get what you deserve.”
Now to two sides with very different ambitions, as promotion hopefuls West Brom suffered from the “Hegazi horror show” against relegation threatened Millwall.
Just one league win in six saw Millwall hovering dangerously above the drop zone and although this win doesn’t change that, it will undoubtedly give the strugglers momentum.
For West Brom this wasn’t just a defeat, it was a disaster. An own-goal, a missed penalty, a red card, no manger and the playoffs on the horizon.
The last time Albion won at The Den was in April 1987.
Madonna was top of the charts with La Isla Bonita and Thatcher was re-elected in June, making her the longest continuously-serving PM since the early 19th century. A year to remember then, clearly.
The Baggies are now 10/3 to win promotion and those are odds that could widen as uncertainty shrouds the Hawthorns.
Caretaker boss Jimmy Shan underlined his role working on a game-by-game basis, but with the playoffs looming, the club need stability. Stick or twist, a decision must be made.
Unfortunately for Millwall, the team occupying the relegation place nextdoor also won.
They may have been handed a hefty humbling a week prior, but Rotherham United are a side that will fight until the very death.
Boss Paul Warne did not respond to the 6-1 defeat at the hands of Derby by causing what he called “major drama”. But instead opted to respond with pragmatism:
“I know the lads want success and to end the season like we all do and we are in it all together. I am not throwing the lads under the bus.”
On Saturday they held host to a hit-and-miss Nottingham Forest side who just can’t find their groove under Martin O’Neill.
Now I told you earlier that West Brom hadn’t won at The Den since Thatcher was re-elected in ’87. Well, West Brom, hold your drink.
Rotherham had failed to beat Forest in their previous 23 attempts. A run stretching all the way back to 1956.
The year rock n’ roll swept the world as Elvis hit the charts for the first time with “Heartbreak Hotel”. It was also the year of the first Eurovision Song Contest. Now that’s what I call a year to remember.
Rotherham boss Paul Warne had a feeling it would be his team’s day and he was right.
This was by no means a vintage victory. It was edgy and even a bit uncomfortable at times, but all Rotherham needed was three points.
They may well be going down, but even if they do, it will be with their heads held high.