By Paula Marcus
If there is one thing you can say about the Championship, it’s that it’s never boring. Exciting, unpredictable, thrilling, topsy-turvy and crazy, but that’s why so many fans love it. With the rarity of almost a full set of fixtures on Valentines, the Championship was on fine form, showing why it truly is one of the most entertaining divisions around.
Over the past few weeks, Newcastle United and Brighton and Hove Albion have been showcasing how to truly dominate a division, putting together great runs and winning streaks. Through most of January it seemed they were going to run away with the division and it was just a matter of which of them would claim the top prize. But a few draws (and in the case of Brighton, a rare loss) and things are heating up.
Last night it was the turn of East Anglican rivals, Norwich City and Ipswich Town, to give some hope to those chasing the automatic promotion places. A penalty was needed for Brighton to gain a draw at home to Ipswich after going behind to an goal in the ninth minute. This result was made all the more impressive when you consider the home team were aiming for their eighth win in a row at Amex.
Newcastle managed to score in just 23 seconds to begin a thrilling game that ended with a Norwich equalizer in the 81st minute. Whilst the result may see Norwich slip a little further off sixth place, it has given life into the promotion race, helped on by the fact that all of the current teams in the playoff positions won.
Both Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield Town piled more pressure on two of the bottom placed teams, Blackburn Rovers and Rotherham United. Leeds United were able to beat Bristol City at home, a result which pushed them closer to the relegation zone than they would like, and saw United’s Chris Wood hit his 22nd goal of the season. Reading meanwhile came from behind to beat Brentford 3-2 and avenge their 4-1 defeat in the reverse fixture.
What all this means is that Huddersfield Town (third place) and Reading (fourth place) are just two wins behind the top two now. Reading may have played one game more than the three above them, but points on the board is always better than a game in hand. More importantly for Town fans, they are far and away the form team of the division with an enviable eight wins and one loss in their last ten games, five points better than the top two teams.
It isn’t just at the top that things are getting interesting. The relegation battles in the Football League usually surpass any fights at the top of the table, and this year is no different. Assuming Rotherham’s 14 point deficit is too much to make up (and it is), then there are probably seven teams vying for those last two relegation spots (sorry Birmingham fans, I don’t think Villa are in that battle, yet).
As already mentioned Blackburn Rovers were unable to keep up their improved form, and a loss to Sheffield Wednesday has kept them firmly in the bottom two and puts their current form near the bottom of the table. Likewise, Bristol City’s loss to playoff hopefuls Leeds United has ended any hope of a revival in form and sees them just three points from the bottom three.
While most of the teams fighting off spending next season in League One lost, one team did keep up with the random and crazy theme, and that was Wigan Athletic. Wigan are fast becoming one of the most unpredictable teams in division, with the occasional win popping up to keep everyone guessing. What made this win so strange was that it came away a Wolverhampton Wanderers side that has been much improved the last few weeks.
After the last few seasons, Wolves fans were probably expecting to be a little higher up the table. Instead they find themselves four points off the drop zone, albeit with a superior goal difference to most of the teams around them. That loss to Wigan now sees them just six points from the Latics and well and truly in a battle to stay up.
Nottingham Forest are currently in 17th place, with a loss to Fulham on Tuesday taking them to six losses in the last ten games with a game more played. The two final teams in the relegation picture, Burton Albion and QPR, enjoyed a rare day off. The two teams decided to move the game forward after both had a free Saturday after being knocked out of the FA cup. It ended up being a smart move for both teams, with neither moving position after the full time whistle, and they should enter this weekend’s games fresh.
Finally, there was one game that really summed up everything that is great about the Championship, and that involved a battle between two teams looking more and more likely to be finishing the season somewhere in the middle of the table; Derby County and Cardiff City. Derby County, straight off the back of earning a draw after being 3-0 down on Saturday, took an early two goal lead as they attempted to keep their playoff aspirations alive. But Cardiff City gave them a bit of their own medicine, scoring three to take the lead in the second half.
Any other division and I would expect that to be the end of the game, but this is the Championship, and crazy is normal. Up comes another goal from Derby to retake the lead, before a penalty in the 90th minute sees Cardiff take all three points, and leave County eight points off sixth place Sheffield Wednesday. Just another week in the Championship.
Listen to Paula’s latest Championship podcast at Premier Punditry.