Championship Round-Up: What about the unexpected?
The Championship really is the gift that just keeps on giving… Unless you’re a Bolton fan. I mean come on, even Stoke won this weekend; for only the second time since we all had a few too many on Christmas Day. I’m talking about mince pies of course.
I’ve been talking a lot recently about the ‘expected’, but this weekend reminded us that there are still plenty of surprises in store. Stoke winning was one of those, but as was Rotherham’s full-blooded triumph against Blackburn and Aston Villa’s 4-0 thumping of Fat Frank’s Derby County.
And quite frankly, it are those surprises that make the Championship the most enthralling league in the world. Before the season kicked off, Norwich were tipped for yet more mid-table mediocrity, but they are currently soaring to promotion. Many predicted a straight return to the top flight for Stoke, well, need I say more?
Anyway, you know the drill by now. Here are the five most significant results from another brain melting weekend of football.
Let’s start with a result that had me doing a double-take at my phone screen, as a topsy-turvy Leeds United side claimed an emphatic 4-0 romp over fellow promotion hopefuls West Bromwich Albion.
Marcelo Bielsa’s men were in desperate need of a pick-me-up after a disappointing week and they got it in scintillating style. There was no sign of the infamous “Bielsa Burnout”, Leeds handing the Baggies a chastening defeat.
Now don’t get me wrong, statistics can often be rather misleading, but there are a few that really do reveal a great deal when it comes to this Leeds side.
Leeds are averaging 1.91 points per game and they’ve also picked up more points than eight of their eleven second-tier seasons since dropping from the top flight in 2004.
When it comes to their extraordinary levels of aggression and intensity, there are a couple more jaw dropping stats that I’d like to emphasise; straight from the nerd cave.
Leeds have averaged 59.5% possession so far this season, which is the highest amount in the Championship. Moreover, they average 19.5 tackles per game, again, topping the charts.
A player who really does characterise the Leeds squad is diminutive Macedonian Ezgjan Alioski. On Friday night he made nine tackles (the most of any player), six ball recoveries, and had 72 touches of the ball – the second-most on the pitch.
For all his flaws, Bielsa has a huge belief in youth: averaging an U22 debutant every three matches. Tyler Roberts is a superb example of this belief. The 21-year-old grabbed two assists against West Brom and was given the MOTM accolade by FOTMOB with a 9.1 rating.
Yet youth is just part of the picture. The ageing combatants too, are providing the nous which has proven vital not just this season, but will continue to do so if they are to find themselves in the Premier League come next season.
Despite being in his twilight years, Spaniard Pablo Hernandez has created the most chances in the Division. He’s also contributed his fair share of goals, eight to be precise. Five with his right foot, one with his left and two with his head. Impressive stuff.
Leeds would have been hoping for a slip-up from below, but Norwich are simply relentless at the moment. The Canaries swooped out of the Lion’s Den with a hard-fought three points, leaving Millwall perched perilously above the drop zone.
Norwich boss Daniel Farke said he fully expects opponents to up their game against his title chasers and this was evident in the full-throttle start on Saturday.
Norwich came under a relentless aerial bombardment after Millwall’s leveller, but they still found a way.
We know all about Norwich’s attacking arsenal, but once again their defensive resolve provided the heroics. Zimmermann, the last bastion of defence, also contributed a Shearer-esque finish, powering home a header that put the Canaries back in the lead.
Norwich have scored more away goals than any other team this season and they added another to that tally when ‘Finnisher’ Pukki notched his 24th of the campaign.
Alarmingly for Millwall, this was the first time they have lost consecutive home matches since October 2016. And with both Reading and Rotherham recording victories, they are very much in a relegation dogfight.
At Villa Park we saw the ‘Return of the Jack’. Mr. Aston Villa himself Jack Grealish returned from injury to cap off a 4-0 romp over rivals Derby County with a thunderous volley: Goal of the Season?
Pundit Gary Lineker was left stunned, captioning a video of the goal with ‘Wowzer!’. It certainly put the exclamation mark on a wonderful performance. Villa netting four times in the first half against a woeful Derby side. A result that took them to within six points of the playoffs.
Dean Smith’s troops finally found their shooting boots after scoring just once in their previous three matches. But although the plaudits will go to Grealish, the work of experienced enforcer Glenn Whelan cannot go unnoticed.
Despite coming under stick in recent weeks, Whelan broke up play and allowed Grealish to advance with attacking freedom and drive.
Meanwhile Rams boss Lampard was left seething post-match, saying that it was “as bad as we’ve been” all season. Derby registered just three shots all game, none of which were on target.
They just seem to be doing their usual falling apart at the final stretch. They may have a new manager, but many of the past recruits remain. Those same recruits who love bottling promotion.
Without Lawrence and Mount, Derby lack creativity and they just don’t look instinctive enough in the final third. They were laborious in possession and have lots of young players with no fight and no desire.
For Villa, it seems like Grealish has returned at the perfect time to help ignite a late promotion push.
Villan Dean Beagan tweeted: ‘What a win and what a difference Grealish makes. Hopefully we can put a run together now. Wonder if we can still make playoffs’. You never know, Dean.
Exactly 12 months ago Gary Monk was appointed manager of Birmingham City. Then, they were second-from-bottom, now, they are in eighth, within touching distance of the playoffs.
Monk has not only achieved marked improvements on the field, but has also restored the sacred bond between club and fans off the field. The pride is back in Birmingham.
On Saturday, Blues travelled to Hull City but Hull are a side who just continue to defy the odds and they continued their quiet march forwards with a 2-0 win over Monk’s men.
Birmingham have now lost each of their last five away league games against Hull, shipping 17 goals across those meetings. Another disappointing trip to the KCOM Stadium, as their focus will be swiftly switching to the visit of fierce rivals Aston Villa on Saturday.
Hull haven’t lost at home since the 24th November and if the Championship was determined by home form alone, Hull would currently be sat in 5th. It was a Jarrod Bowen double that sank Blues, a double that took his tally to 19 for the season. Again, a player who has gone under the radar, but silence can sometimes be the best policy.
FINALLY, Rotherham WIN a game! Yes, you read that correctly, they held on to beat faltering Blackburn 3-2 at the New York Stadium. Reminds of when Alicia Keys sang ‘Big lights will inspire you, when you’re [at the] New York.’ Or something like that.
After five consecutive draws, Rotherham recorded that elusive win geed on by their fans under the inspirational lights of New York. “We are staying” chanted the Rotherham faithful, whilst the Rovers supporters headed for the exits.
That’s the big question now. Can they stay? The Millers are still in the drop zone, but they are level on points with Reading, one point away from Millwall and three points away from WIgan. For me, it will be one of those four teams who join Bolton and Ipswich in League One next season.
The odds for Championship relegation really are quite interesting. Paddy Power have Wigan to go down at 25/1, despite their difficult run in. Sports Nation have Millwall at 6/1 to drop, whilst Sky Bet have Rotherham at 10/11. Bizarre.
I’m going to put my tin hat on and say that Rotherham will survive. Their triumph over Blackburn really does reflect their fighting spirit and perhaps Paul Warne’s tireless effort to keep them competitive won’t be in vain afterall.
Post-match on Saturday, 19-year-old Millers midfielder Ben Wiles was adamant that his side are determined to prove the doubters wrong: “When we hear people telling us we are going down it just drives us. We have a good team ethic here, that’s what’s going to keep us up,”
Rotherham may not be a team full of tricks but they can do the basics well and when that’s combined with a good team ethic, survival is possible.