Friday, 11 January 2019

Championship: December Review

The Championship was entertaining once again in December with more excellent football, brilliant goals, surprise results and more managerial changes as two more managers were chopped during December. Leeds continue to lead the way with Norwich close behind. Meanwhile, Ipswich continue to prop up the table with Reading and Bolton joining them in the relegation zone.

Leeds are flying at the top after another excellent month for the Whites. Leeds continue to boss the Championship and won 5 of their 6 league games during December and at one stage were on a 7-match winning streak stretching back to mid-November. However, Leeds ended 2018 with a shock home defeat to Yorkshire rivals Hull and Bielsa will demand a response from his players as January dawns on Bielsa’s team. Leeds have had an excellent first half of the season and Bielsa will hope their positive form and momentum continues into the 2nd half of the season. The likes of Kemar Roofe, Luke Ayling and Ezjgan Alioski have found a new level while youngsters Jack Clark and Baily Peacock-Farrell have been terrific for Bielsa so far this campaign. But the key figure is the impressive Polish midfielder Mateusz Klich who is almost like a new signing at the club after a difficult start to life in England. But his terrific engine in midfield as well as creativity and the odd goal here and there is making him increasingly popular with the Leeds fans and Marcelo Bielsa. Leeds are desperate for promotion and the fans will hope 2019 is finally their year to return to England’s top flight. But the Canaries of Norwich remain hot on the heels of Leeds with Daniel Farke’s team certainly defying the odds and head into the new year full of confidence and optimism that they too could be celebrating promotion in May. They also had a decent December collecting 11 points from their 6 games and goals at the both ends of the pitch are seemingly guaranteed in Norwich games this season with epic 4-3 score lines in more than two Norwich games at Carrow Road so far this season. Daniel Farke’s young fletch lings are delivering the goods so far with Max Aarons and Todd Cantwell the glistening stars of the Norwich academy. But it is Finnish striker Teemu Pukki really making the difference with the striker proving a shrewd acquisition. The Finnish striker already has 14 league goals for Norwich and its his late goals in matches proving crucial in their success so far this season. Norwich are flying, and promotion is a real possibility for them should their terrific form continue but they must eradicate the amount of goals they concede because that could be their Achilles heel during the second half of the campaign. The play-off places are made up by Sheffield United, West Brom, Middlesbrough and Derby. Both Sheff Utd and West Brom had relatively strong Decembers with the Blades collecting 10 points from their 6 games while the Baggies notched 12 points from their 6 games and stayed unbeaten through the month. Chris Wilder continues to do a terrific job at Sheff Utd and look a stronger outfit than the side that missed out on the top 6 last season and they continue to go from strength to strength and they remain determined to catch the top 2. As do West Brom who are finally showing some consistency under Darren Moore and are unbeaten in their last 9 matches winning 6 of them. The Baggies are closing in on the top 2 but Moore will be fully aware his side must keep the positive results coming heading into the new year. The January transfer window also arrives and there are plenty of West Brom players interesting Premier League clubs and Moore will be desperate to keep his squad together as they charge towards promotion. It was a good month for Frank Lampard and Derby with the Rams notching 11 points from their 6 games and beginning to really click under Lampard and certainly looking a real threat and their promotion hopes are very much alive. Lampard will be pleased with his first season in management so far and it seems his ideas are firmly getting across to his players. Meanwhile, it was an indifferent month for Middlesbrough with Tony Pulis’ side winning just 2 of their 6 league games and losing 3 of those games. Their good start to the season is slowly fading away with Pulis bemoaning a lack of goals, pace and creativity and eventually that has begun to hit them hard with their defence enduring a difficult time with goals going against Boro becoming more frequent. Pulis is feeling the heat from the Boro fans with the fans demanding more attractive football and more importantly goals at the Riverside. While his job isn’t necessarily under threat, the fans want more, and the pressure could mount if things don’t improve.

December was a good month for Hull, Bristol City and Birmingham. Nigel Adkins has firmly got the Tigers of Hull roaring up the table after a string of terrific results and performances during December. Hull notched 16 points from their 6 games which is the best return of any Championship side in December. A season that started so disappointingly for Hull has completely changed and there is real momentum and confidence around the players and fans. Terrific wins against the likes of Leeds, Millwall, Preston and Swansea have really pushed Hull into the right direction and the play-offs aren’t out of reach for them. Their chances of winning games certainly rely on the form of Jarrod Bowen and he is firmly back in the groove after a slow start to the season. The Hull man through and through is getting better each week and started during their comeback win against Swansea during the festive period but also notched important goals against Millwall and Leeds. Overall, he has 11 league goals and does have Premier League admirers, but Nigel Adkins will be determined to keep him at the KCOM Stadium for a long as possible. Bristol City also had an unbeaten December and while they didn’t collect as many points as Hull, they are slowly finding their groove after an inconsistent opening few months but 10 points from their 6 games is a solid return. Bristol City overall are unbeaten in their last 7 games and slowly creeping towards the play-off places but Lee Johnson will be fully aware his teams have flatter to deceive during the 2nd half of seasons but will be confident that won’t happen. Meanwhile, Birmingham are quietly hovering just underneath the play-off places after an excellent first half of the campaign under Garry Monk. Blues had a good December collecting 11 points from their 6 games which has left them 7th in the table. Garry Monk has played down their chances this season, but he must believe his side can gate crash the play-off places having not really been given a hope during pre-season. While they still have off field financial issues, they are thriving in diversity and the Blues fans will be delighted with their team and the goal return of Lukas Jutkiewicz and Che Adams with the pair notching 22 goals between them. Blues are playing some good stuff and Monk will be determined to see that positivity head into the new year and who knows maybe see a surprise promotion.

While some teams enjoyed December, others may not have, and two managers saw their tenures come to end. The first to go was Paul Clement at Reading with the Royal’s hierarchy sacking him after just 9 months in charge. He left Reading lying in the relegation zone. Just 4 wins in 20 league games provided the writing on the wall for Clement and Reading find themselves in deep relegation trouble. Scott Marshall was briefly in caretaker charge, but he couldn’t see a change collecting just a point in his 3 games and the Royals fans must be gravely conceded at where their club is heading. They have found Clement’s successor in Jose Gomes who has left his role as Rio Ave boss to take the reigns at the struggling side. Gomes brings an expansive, attacking style and he also talks a big game with his ambition to take Reading to the Premier League being apparent from the outset of his appointment. However, based on his start as Royals manager, he might be thinking about getting them out of League 1. No wins in his opening 2 games losing to Millwall and drawing to QPR. Reading really lack a cutting edge in attack and while their style of play might improve, they must source goals from somewhere otherwise relegation will be inevitable. Gomes will certainly be looking to the transfer window in January to add some fresh faces and impetuous into the Reading squad. The other man to face the sack was Jos Luhaky at Sheff Wed after 11 months in charge. The Dutchman was sacked after a defeat to Swansea and on the eve of a home game against Preston. Sheff Wed had started the season well and sat in the top 6 at the start of October but a run of just 2 wins in 13 league games ended Luhaky’s short spell in the English game. He was heavily criticised for his defensive style of play and a lack of ambition to win football matches. Lee Bullen was in caretaker charge over Christmas and during his 3 games in caretaker spell collected 7 points from 3 games to bring plenty of Christmas cheer to Wednesday fans. Narrow wins over Preston and Middlesbrough and a draw away to West Brom has really got the blue half of Sheffield smiling again. In times where things are difficult off the pitch following a mini transfer embargo in the summer and owner Chansiri deciding to put the club up for sale. Luhaky’s replacement is the former Aston Villa boss Steve Bruce who makes a return to football two months after his Villa sacking. However, he won’t take over the team until the 1st February due to personal commitments, so his trusted allies Steve Agnew and Stephen Clemence will be in caretaker charge throughout January and will be assisted by goalkeeper coach Lee Bullen. The Wednesday fans will be happy with the appointment of serial promotion winner Bruce, but their style of football won’t necessarily improve so it’s certainly a working progress for Bruce during this second half of the season as he will certainly assess the squad.

Things just haven’t improved for Ipswich with the Tractor Boys firmly routed to the bottom of the table having won just twice in their 24 league games this season. They are slowly sinking towards League 1 and the new manager bounce just hasn’t happened with Paul Lambert winning just once in his 10 games in charge and Ipswich endured another tough month collecting just 4 points in December and they will begin 2019 seven points adrift of Rotherham in 21st. Paul Lambert will be extremely disappointed with his start in charge of Ipswich and will hope the January transfer window allows him to add extra bodies to a squad that has failed to gel following Paul Hurst’s failed experiment of bringing in over 12 new faces during the summer transfer window. While Lambert is paying for those mistakes, he must take some responsibility for the lack of improvement under him so far. However, one player who has improved is Freddie Sears with the striker finding some confidence and form having scored 5 league goals since Lambert took over. What also will be a comfort to Ipswich fans is the influx of youngsters from their academy getting their chance in the team. The likes of Jack Lankaster and Flynn Downes are performing to the best they can in extremely tough circumstances. Lambert has stated several times he wants new faces at Portman Road in January stating he wants up to six new signings. It is a case of whether owner Marcus Evans will back Lambert having said on several occasions he is open to selling the East Anglian club. It is a really difficult time to be an Ipswich fan, but Lambert will be determined to change their fortunes and a huge month dawns for the club and they must find a winning solution and fast otherwise they will be playing in League 1 next season.

December was brilliant and no doubt the new year will bring the same excitement and unpredictability that comes with it. The transfer window arrives and it’s a chance for teams to improve their squads whether they are fighting for promotion or to avoid relegation. There are plenty of mouth-watering games to come including Nottingham Forest vs Leeds, Leeds vs Derby, Birmingham vs Middlesbrough, West Brom vs Norwich, Ipswich vs Rotherham, Norwich vs Birmingham, Stoke vs Leeds, Swansea vs Sheff Utd, Norwich vs Sheff Utd and Rotherham vs Leeds. The Championship is bubbling up nicely as the second half of the season firmly gets underway and teams will be looking to start 2019 with plenty of positivity and optimism and some sides will be hoping the new year brings a change of fortune.

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