This week has provided EFL Championship fans with a myriad of fixtures to sink their collective teeth into.
With such a monumental task at hand, let’s get right to it.
The winners and losers last week
On Tuesday, Chris Coleman took charge of his first match in the football league since he departed Coventry City in 2010, when Sunderland met Aston Villa at Villa Park. The Welshman’s return to domestic football, unfortunately, was not a happy one, with his side losing out 2-1.
His high-flying Welsh compatriots, Cardiff City, however, ran out 1-0 winners away at Barnsley to continue their stellar run of form at the top of the table.
Elsewhere, there was a shock win for Preston North End at Bristol City, while Derby County and Nottingham Forest both managed home wins, against QPR and Norwich City respectively.
Tuesday’s highlight, however, came at Bramall Lane, as under-performing Fulham traveled to face Sheffield United, who were continuing to impress at the league’s summit. Fulham ran out 5-4 winners, in a match that will surely be remembered as one of the most enticing results of the season. Hat-tricks for the mercurial Leon Clarke, and the youthful Ryan Sessegnon, were punctuated by Sheyi Ojo’s brace for the West Londoners, and Samir Carruthers’ consolation for United in the 86th minute.
With the fixture in the city of steel providing all of the excitement needed for any game week, draws for Burton Albion at Brentford, Hull City at Millwall, and Reading at Bolton Wanderers, flew haplessly under the radar.
Wednesday saw yet more important games occur at the top of the table. Ipswich Town held Sheffield Wednesday, who had found their feet of late, 2-2 at Portman Road.
Meanwhile, Middlesbrough ran out comfortable 2-0 winners against a feckless Birmingham City, while Wolves yet again proved their immense capabilities, beating the dangerous Leeds United 4-1 at Molineux.
The winners and losers at the weekend
With no Friday game this time around, Championship fans were presented with the treat of a multitude of 3 p.m. kick-offs.
Leeds United immediately bounced back from their grueling defeat at Wolves by beating Barnsley at Oakwell in one of the many Championship Yorkshire derbies set to take place this season.
Wolves, meanwhile, continued on the warpath with yet another rout, this time beating lowly Bolton Wanderers 5-1 at home.
Aston Villa, too, continued their tremendous form with a 2-0 home win against Ipswich Town.
Another team to prove their mettle was Bristol City, who came from 2-0 down with thirty minutes remaining to beat Hull City 3-2 at the KCOM Stadium.
There was also a first win for Coleman as Sunderland beat Burton Albion 2-0 at the Pirelli in a relegation six-pointer.
Elsewhere, there were wins for Fulham in their London derby against Millwall, and Derby County, who impressively scalped Middlesbrough 3-0 at the Riverside.
Reading drew yet again, this time against Sheffield Wednesday, while there was also a draw for Norwich City against Preston North End.
Saturday’s conventional evening fixture saw Sheffield United play Birmingham City at home in a match that seemed all too easy to predict.
Everything was going exactly as expected in the first half, with Sheffield United battering at Birmingham’s gates time and time again, until Jérémie Boga unleashed a thundering right foot strike from 20 yards that nestled firmly in the top corner of United’s net.
The hosts were stunned at the break, but managed to rally in the second half—Leon Clarke eventually equalised with his ninth goal in his last four games. The match finished 1-1, with Birmingham making the trip back to the Midlands as the happier of the two sides.
On Sunday, Cardiff fans were once again left smiling, as their side beat Nottingham Forest 2-0 at the City Ground. Junior Hoilett’s 24th minute goal was added to by Danny Ward’s 38th minute wonder strike, garnering all three points for the Bluebirds and allowing them to close the gap to league-leaders Wolves to just four points.
The winners and losers this week
Monday Night Football, this week, had the unusual pleasure of dropping down a league. With no Chelsea or Manchester United in sight, QPR hosted Brentford in a match that both teams desperately wanted to win to kickstart a significant run of form that would determine the course of their seasons.
Lasse Vibe, who had scored only once in his last nineteen games, looked to have put the game beyond doubt when he scored the second goal of his brace in the 81st minute, but two stoppage time scores, first from Matt Smith in the 93rd minute, then from Luke Freeman in the 94th minute, left the away fans stunned and the home fans in ecstasy.
Brentford manager Dean Smith was quick to blame poor refereeing for his side’s unlikely collapse: “We’ve dropped two points because of the officials.”
The following night, there were two fixtures to make up for any games-in-hand left over from errant cup rounds. Gary Rowett’s Derby County, fresh from their 3-0 battering of Middlesbrough at the weekend, faced Mick McCarthy’s Ipswich Town, who had lost two games in less than a week. But, as is the habit of football, it was McCarthy’s team who ran out surprise 1-0 winners at Pride Park.
Barnsley too had lost two games on the bounce last week, but they had no such luck against a resilient Reading side—the Royals were comfortable 3-0 victors at the Madejski.
Five things we’ve learned
Fulham are rampant scorers again
Last year, Fulham finished the Championship season as joint-top scorers with the eventual champions Newcastle United, with a total tally of 85 league goals.
This year, Fulham have only managed 25, seven less than Hull City in 20th position.
However, their win against Sheffield United smacked far more of the Fulham of last season, the Fulham that many fans were expecting to progress and fight for promotion this year.
That dream seems very far away now, but this week was certainly an indication of what Fulham are capable of. Last campaign, they were unafraid to outscore teams, with caution in defence thrown to the wind.
Ryan Sessegnon’s hat-trick is exemplary of the manifest talent that Fulham have available, but the men from Craven Cottage have found it increasingly hard to make their individual talent click together as a team so far this season.
Perhaps more satisfying for Fulham fans was the 1-0 win against Millwall at the weekend, showing that, after a hectic victory in midweek, their team still remains able of doing the dirty work.
Though promotion is certainly not off the cards for Slavisa Jokanovic’s men—they’re only six points behind Derby County in 6th—a gain in momentum and an upward trajectory towards the end of the season can always be of benefit in the next campaign.
Are Villa best placed to occupy the second automatic promotion spot?
Aston Villa are looking more and more like a Premier League team playing the Championship.
Second only to the nigh-on unplayable Wolves in the form table, with four wins in their last five games, Villa are sitting pretty in 4th, and it should be expected that they’ll continue to climb as the season progresses.
Top-scorer Albert Adomah has more goals (11) than fierce rivals Birmingham City do as a team (10), and with his impressive stats—68% of his shots have been on target in the league, and it has only taken him 120 minutes on average per goal—Villa should be hoping for a very successful second half of their season.
A mixed start for Coleman
Chris Coleman’s first game as Sunderland manager was never going to be easy away at Aston Villa, and a dignified, if uninspiring, 2-1 defeat was about the best he could have hoped for.
It’s a long road ahead for Coleman and his Black Cats, and he’ll need to turn a team that’s become used to losing into one that makes a habit of winning.
Their 2-0 away win at Burton Albion was certainly encouraging. Late goals from James Vaughan and George Honeyman saw off the Midlands team, who have won only two games at home all season.
Sunderland, meanwhile, achieved their first victory since the 13th of August.
December holds for Sunderland some difficult away games, but these are interspersed by eminently winnable home fixtures against fellow strugglers Reading and Birmingham City.
If Coleman can win these, and if he can get so much as a point in those testing away games, Sunderland will be in a much better position come the New Year.
Brentford are still struggling to see out games
Dean Smith must be wondering what he can do to turn his team’s draws into wins.
His side have shared the points a total of nine times this season, more than anyone else in the Championship thus far.
Though Brentford have only lost once in their last 12 games, they’ve dropped a total of 18 points from winning positions, again more than anyone else in the division.
With this unbeaten record, had they turned those draws into victories they would be right up at the pinnacle of the table, challenging for promotion.
Like Fulham, Brentford aren’t out of any promotion race just yet, but the eight-point gap between them and Derby is one that will only be bridged by turning those draws into wins.
Barnsley may find themselves in the relegation fight
Paul Heckingbottom’s Barnsley have now slumped to three defeats in their last three games.
Despite this dire run, inconsistency has actually been Barnsley’s main cause for concern this season, though there have certainly been high-points to punctuate their contemporary lows.
Heckingbottom was quick to land these inconsistencies on the youthful nature of his side after their 3-0 defeat to Reading on Tuesday: “It’s difficult to accept, but with young players in particular, I know I have to give them a little bit of leeway and understand that they’re going to be inconsistent.”
Barnsley’s December looks set to be yet another month of ups-and-downs for the Yorkshire side, with important fixtures in the relegation fight against teams such as Bolton Wanderers distributed amongst harder match-ups against sides such as Fulham and Derby County.
If Heckingbottom’s men continue down the same path that they currently find themselves on, the second half of their season may be a scrap at the foot of the table, rather than a battle fought in relative safety as many at Oakwell may have hoped.
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