Thursday, February 22, 2007

Championship Managers

Now that all of the hullabaloo surrounding this week's Champions League matches has died down (and aren't the months of January, with just the league and FA Cup to distract us, bliss, might I add?), it's time to take one of my periodic looks down the football food chain at one of the other divisions. Tonight, as you may have guessed from the title of this post, I'm turning my attention to the Championship.

Now, to many of our foreign readers (and I do still have a couple, in spite of my somewhat insular outlook on things), the Championship season might as well be one match - the season-closing play-off final in Cardiff, during which the commentator usually comes across as more of an economist than a sports journalist, due to mentioning repeatedly how much the match will be worth to the winners. Will it be £10m, £30m or £50m this season? The figure seems to double every year. However this season there is an intriguing battle for promotion going on, and with a dozen or so matches left to play, there are still eight clubs in with a realistic chance of making it into the Premiership, with just seven points separating the leaders Derby County and Wolverhampton Wanderers, down in eight place. Things are equally tight at the bottom of the table, where just eight points separate Burnley, in sixteenth place, from bottom club Leeds United. It has been an extraordinary, bizarre season, and it looks likely that it will go all the way to the last day of the season.

You know those horse racing games that you get in amusement arcades, in which one horse streaks away into a seemingly unassailable lead, only to slow down for the chasing pack to catch them up? Well, that has been what the Championship table for most of this season. First Cardiff City, then Birmingham City, and now Derby County have streaked clear at the top before inexplicably collapsing and allowing the chasing pack to catch them right up again. Derby had gone ten matches unbeaten before last weekend, when they were beaten by Plymouth Argyle in the FA Cup. One might have expected them to bounce straight back with a home match against mid-table non-entities Stoke City, but no: Stoke won 2-0 and are now themselves within three points of the play-off places. Birmingham City and Sunderland could have made it all a little more cut and dried at St Andrews on Tuesday night, but they could only draw 1-1, a result that did neither team any great favours.

Of the top four, West Bromwich Albion benefited the most from this week's fixtures. They moved into second place with a 1-0 win again against Cardiff City, and they're now eight games unbeaten in the league although, curiously, they haven't won a league match by more than the odd goal since January 6th. They have taken advantage of Preston North End's recent blip in the league and Birmingham City's collapse in goal-scoring form. Such is the nature of this division that Birmingham have continued to pick up enough points to stay in touch at the top, but they've not scored more than a single goal per match yet in 2007, and are desperately missing Matthew Upson, their big transfer window sale.

Two other clubs coming into decent form are Sunderland and Wolverhampton Wanderers. After their atrocious start to the season, Roy Keane has steadied the ship at The Stadium Of Light, and Sunderland have come from nowhere into a play-off position. They're unbeaten in their last eight league matches, but I would ask questions over whether they have sufficient quality to sustain this run to the end of the season. Tucked in just below them are Wolves. who are managed, of course, by the former Republic Of Ireland coach and Easter Island statue Mick McCarthy. It's been something of a torpid season at Molineux. They've scored a paltry thirty-seven goals in their thirty-four league matches so far, and eleven of their sixteen league wins have been by a 1-0 scoreline. This sort of fire-power (or lack thereof) shouldn't be enough to see them into the Premiership (and they're effectively a point worse off, given that their goal difference is so much worse than everybody else's) but they've won four out of their last five, and this league is anything but predictable.

The last two in the top eight are struggling to find any consistency at the moment. Southampton managed to keep hold of the much-coveted Gareth Bale during the transfer window, but their recent 5-2 win against Barnsley was sandwiched between defeats against Burnley & Preston, and a draw against West Bromwich Albion. George Burley is clearly an excellent coach of young players, but I would question whether they have the experience, when push comes to shove. Cardiff City were the surprise early pace-setters, but their stock fell with rumours of disquiet behind the scenes at Ninian Park. They've failed to string together two successive, well, anythings since drawing four straight matches over Christmas and the New Year.

At the bottom of the table, Leeds United are still staring into the abyss, even though they're only three points from safety. It seems to be a case of "one step forward, two steps back" for them at the moment, and they've won just one of their last seven matches. Just above them, Southend United have gone from being near-certainties for the drop to being back in contention to stay up, though they've lost their last couple of matches, whilst Hull City pulled themselves out of the brown stuff in December, only to have slipped back into it over the last few weeks or so. QPR, Barnsley, Luton Town, Norwich City, Ipswich and Burnley are currently looking nervously over their shoulders as well, though.

So, who's going up and who's going down? As you may have noted already, it's exceptionally difficult to predict. To go up, though, it helps to have decent strikers and, on that basis, I'll go for Preston North End and West Bromwich Albion. David Nugent has been tremendous for Preston this season, whilst West Brom have, in Kevin Philips and John Hartson, a Premiership-quality pairing up front. I suspect that Cardiff City will continue their agonisingly slow slide down the table, and that Southampton won't have the legs for it, come the end of the season. All this leaves Birmingham City, Sunderland, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Derby County to do battle in the play-offs, and I'm not even going to hazard a guess at what could happen there. At the bottom, Leeds United and Hull City still have the smell of doom about them. Southend United are, by and large, a poor team, but they do at least have Freddy Eastwood. They could yet clamber out of trouble, leaving Barnsley as my tips to drop. Of course, such has been the nature of the Championship this season that it's highly likely that all of the above predictions will be utterly, utterly wrong.


Ed said...

I think West Brom will be champions, unless they get distracted by the FA Cup. I have a feeling that the other team will be Preston, too. Stoke City are maybe an outside bet for a play-off promotion, given their absurdly stingey defensive record. I think Leeds will go down amid a gale of mocking laughter, and Southend amid a respectful applause. I hope QPR aren't the third team to go, they are great.

It's also worth noting how brilliantly Geraint Williams has done at Colchester. He was thrown in the deep end after Phil Parkinson left to go to Hull (who are, thanks to his enlightened 6 month spell at the club, 22nd). What he's achieved with that squad, in THAT ground, is remarkable.

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