Friday, 1 March 2019

Championship: February Review

It was another terrific month of Championship action with plenty of excellent football, quality goals and surprise results. Norwich lead the way but Sheffield United and Leeds are hunting them down at the top. While Ipswich look doomed at the bottom but Bolton, Rotherham and Reading are scrapping to avoid the other two spots in League 1 next season.

Norwich are flying at the top of the table having 4 of their 5 games in February including victories over Bristol City and Leeds. Daniel Farke's team hold a two point lead at the top of the table and are looking imperous right now despite suffering a disappointing defeat to Preston in their recent run of matches. Teemu Pukki continues to deliver goals while Norwich's bright, vibrant young players continue to impress and lead Norwich towards a Premier League return. Max Aarons, Ben Godfrey, Eni Buendia, Onel Hernandez, Kenny McLean to new a few have been magnificent this season and Norwich know they must maintain their levels to secure promotion with the final 3 months of the season upon us. Sheffield United continue to get better under Chris Wilder and automatic promotion is firmly in their grasp. The Blades had an unbeaten February which saw them win 4 of their 5 games with their only dropped points coming against Aston Villa as United threw away a 3-0 lead at Villa Park. Despite that, Sheffield United are flourishing and Billy Sharp is just getting better and reached 100 goals for Sheffield United in that classic game at Villa Park. Sheffield United head into March full of confidence and kick off March with the Steel City Derby as they head into improving Sheffield Wednesday. Leeds are still in the mix themselves and Marcelo Bielsa knows he must deliver promotion with chairman Andrea Radrizzani admitting cutbacks would be made if promotion is not delivered in May. Bielsa's team are level on points with Sheffield United and two points behind Norwich but head into March with an indifferent run of form having won 4 of their last 10 league games and even missed a chance to go top in their most recent game losing at struggling QPR. Bielsa will demand improvement but the loss of top scorer Kemar Roofe once again is another blow for Bielsa with goals needing to be sourced from other areas. West Brom, Middlesbrough and Bristol City make up the play-off places with all three finding some decent form in February to cement their places in the top 6. Bristol City had won 7 in a row prior to back to back defeats to Norwich and Birmingham while Middlesbrough collected 10 points from their 5 games including a win against West Brom and a draw with Leeds. West Brom are the closest challenges to Leeds and Sheffield United and the Baggies had a good month collecting 10 points from their 6 games but their home form isn't great in recent weeks with the Baggies losing key games against Middlesbrough and Sheffield United and drawing with Nottingham Forest. West Brom's charge for automatic promotion really does need to increase with the Baggies' inconsistencies costing them and they kick off March with a must win game against Leeds at Elland Road. The Baggies have won 7 in a row away from home and that could be a key factor in the match but Elland Road is Bielsa's fortress so expect a brilliant game.

February was a very good month for Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest and Preston. It has been an excellent start for Steve Bruce in charge of the blue half of Sheffield. Wednesday have made an exceptional start under the serial promotion winner going unbeaten in his first 6 games collecting 12 points. Wednesday have climbed into the top half of the table and are 6 points off the play-offs. While next season looks more realistic for Sheffield Wednesday, you cannot rule them out of finishing in the play-offs just yet but this run of form has to keep going. Bruce has certainly steadied the ship and didn't concede in his first 3 games in charge but he has also found goals in the team with Steven Fletcher finding form at a very good time. Bruce will face his most difficult test yet at the start of March as he welcomes city rivals Sheffield United to Hillsborough in a tasty game. It is a must win for both sides and Bruce will fancy his chances to nicking a win against his former club. Another side enjoying a positive new manager bounce is Nottingham Forest. Martin O'Neill has made a good start to life in one of the toughest and usually short lived jobs but since losing his first game in charge, Forest have gone unbeaten in the 6 games since including picking a victory against bitter rivals Derby County. Forest are on the cusp of the play-off places but will be aware current occupants Bristol City and Middlesbrough have games in hand on the Reds so Forest need to continue this excellent run for the rest of the season to stand any chance of securing an extended season in May.  Meanwhile, Preston have quietly charged up the Championship table in 2019 having lost just once and that was back on New Year's Day. Preston find themselves 6 points adrift of the play-off places after an 8 game unbeaten run having struggled in the bottom half for much of the season. Alex Neil is doing a terrific job and certainly midfielder Alan Browne emphasises the real improvement at Preston. The Irishman is having a sensational season scoring an impressive 11 goals from central midfield and he is vital in the heart of the Preston team. Preston look like the dark horses in the race for a play-off spot but Alex Neil knows his side have to keep their heads up and carry on their terrific run.

Meanwhile, frustrating Februarys have seen Aston Villa, Swansea and Stoke's hopes of finishing in the play-offs fade badly. A winless month for Aston Villa has seen Dean Smith's side sink down to 13th in the table having drawn 3 of their last 5 games but overall its just 2 wins in 14 league games but majority of those have been draws with Villa drawing 15 of their 36 league games this season. Dean Smith has endured a tough month with a lorry load of injuries with James Chester, Axel Tuanzebe, Henri Lansbury and Jack Grealish all miss February as well as much of 2019. Dean Smith will be delighted to welcome back Grealish in March as he is ready while the rest are close to a return. Villa need a perfect run of results to stand any chance of finishing in the top 6 in May and to Villa's advantage they play many of the sides above them including Norwich and Leeds as well as Middlesbrough, Bristol City, Derby, Birmingham and Sheffield Wednesday so its very much in Villa's hands. Like Villa, Swansea have also sunk into the bottom half of the table having lost 3 of their last 4 league games. Graham Potter is enduring a tough season with the Swans but has certainly got his playing style across to the players but off field issues are not helping him as long serving chairman Huw Jenkins has resigned over Swansea's transfer activity in January while the fans are demanding answers from their unseen American Owners. A difficult time for Potter with the Championship seemingly likely once again for Swansea next season with the Welsh side 9 points adrift of the top 6. Meanwhile, the new manager bounce has not taken affect at Stoke with the club set to miss out on the play-offs and even finish in the bottom half of the table. Nathan Jones certainly needs time and his players to implement his style of play going forward into next season. Stoke have suffered this season having spent big money in the summer. Its just 1 win in 8 league games under Jones and they've even suffered a shock FA Cup defeat to League 1 strugglers Shrewsbury. A tough start of the highly rated manager and no doubt he will be thinking about next season as will Aston Villa and Swansea with re-builds likely for all three sides to make sustainable promotion charges. Dean Smith and Nathan Jones certainly will be looking at the summer with both having a specific style and type of player they like so expect busy times in the Second City and Staffordshire.

A busy March is upon as the business part of the season arrives. There is just 12 league games left and plenty of sides are expecting big finishes to the season. March kicks off with a tasty weekend of matches including Leeds against West Brom, a tasty West London Derby between Brentford and QPR, A west vs east Midlands derby as Aston Villa face Derby County and the small matter of the Steel City derby between Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United. The rest of March has plenty of mouth watering ties including Blackburn vs Preston, Norwich vs Swansea, Bristol City vs Leeds, the Second City derby between Birmingham and Aston Villa, Derby vs Stoke, Nottingham Forest vs Aston Villa, Norwich vs Hull, Leeds vs Sheffield United, Brentford vs West Brom, West Brom vs Birmingham, Sheffield United vs Bristol City and Middlesbrough vs Norwich. The Championship is heading for a brilliant finish at both ends of the table and this is certainly the time to go on a terrific run of results but question is which sides will succeed and fail in a vital month of the season?

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