International break over – Normal service resumes – Championship preview

Another international ‘break’ is over: the somewhat double edged reward for a Saturday off for Championship teams is three games in a week. This weekend the action starts at noon on Saturday with two derbies and won’t finish until around 7pm when it’s full time in the televised game between Middlesbrough and Leeds (5.20pm Sky Sports 2); there’s a full programme on Tuesday as well.

There are four games between top six and bottom six sides with the most intriguing match being a derby with an international angle that always has a highly charged atmosphere: despite being in different countries, Bristol is pretty much the same distance from Cardiff as Swansea is. On paper the ‘Severnside Derby’ between the second placed Bluebirds and bottom of the table Robins looks as if it should be an easy win for Cardiff but as the pundits are so fond of telling us, derby games often feature the defenestration of the mythical form book.

It’s worth mentioning that although Bristol City have not won at Cardiff City since December 2002, the visitors have only lost twice in ten regular season trips to South Wales. The Robins are one of only three teams in the Championship that have not trailed at half time in away games and there’s a possibility that this game could be a lot closer than people think although Bristol City’s porous defence may have a torrid time with Jay Bothroyd.

It’s a shorter journey from South Yorkshire to Lincolnshire and Doncaster Rovers make the 26 mile trip to Scunthorpe in the other early kick off in the knowledge that they have an excellent record when visiting their neighbours – they’ve only lost once in their last ten league visits – and if this game follows form then it could be a score draw, possibly with Rovers’ striker Billy Sharp scoring against one of his former clubs.

If you’re not making the journey along the eastbound M181 or the westbound M4, the traditional three o’clock kick offs have plenty to offer. Watford’s away form has been sensational this season – Danny Graham has scored four of his six league goals away from Vicarage Road – and earlier in the season the Hornets would have probably been favourites to beat Portsmouth: however Steve Cotterill’s side have put together a nice run of form at Fratton Park recently and seem to have made the vital transition from pushovers to difficult to beat. Watford’s unbeaten run could be in danger: there’s only been one draw between these two on the South Coast in the last ten league meetings.

There are a couple of games with interesting subplots. Sheffield United host Burnley in a repeat of the 2008/09 playoff final: losing that game seems to have seriously undermined United’s morale since, but one of the reasons that Burnley only spent a season amongst English football’s elite was their poor away form. This trend seems to have continued on their return to the Championship: their last league victory away from Turf Moor was a 4-1 win at Hull last April. Erratic is probably the best way of describing Sheffield United’s home form this season: they’ve beaten other sides in the bottom six but have had trouble with better sides, in which case Burnley might be able to pick up their first win at Bramall Lane since August 1973.

Despite a 2-0 win at Norwich at the end of September, Hull’s away form is just as bad as Burnley’s and it’ll be interesting to see what kind of reception Tigers manager Nigel Pearson gets when he returns to the Walkers Stadium for the first time since he left Leicester City in the summer. Sven-Göran Eriksson will no doubt be keen to get off to a winning start in his first match in charge at the Walkers Stadium.

There’s absolutely no doubt whatsoever about the game of the week though: QPR v Norwich – it’s a slightly sobering thought for those of us of a certain age that this was a fairly regular Premiership game but their last meeting at that level at Loftus Road in March 1995! This looks like the type of game where we could find out a lot about both sides: considering it’s mid October it’s remarkable that Rangers haven’t conceded a goal at home in the league yet, but that stat is definitely under threat as Norwich have scored in all their away games this season and have kept consecutive clean sheets in their last two road trips.

It may be a little too early to look forward to next week’s games but Watford v Ipswich (Tuesday) looks as if it could be a good one, QPR visit Bristol City on Friday night (Sky Sports 1, 7:30pm) and Crystal Palace’s trip to Preston on Saturday could be between two sides moving in opposite directions.

Managerial Stability The Key To Championship Success

After last weekend’s games, QPR have a six point lead over Cardiff, but significantly the gap between the leaders and the last play off spot is now ten points. Queens Park Rangers have only conceded three goals in ten games – two of them against Derby – and Crystal Palace thought they’d pinched a point at Selhurst Park but once again a late goal gave the visitors three points. Although late goals certainly seem to be playing a part in Rangers’ impressive start, it may be just a matter of time before their luck runs out – but more of that later.

Reading dropped out of the playoff places after a draw at Preston; despite failing to win at Millwall, Burnley took their place. The rest of the top five won; Bristol City’s home defeat to Norwich dropped the Robins to the bottom of the table. The end of the Paolo Sousa ‘era’ at the Walkers Stadium seemed to work wonders for Leicester who beat Scunthorpe 3-1 to record their first league win since mid September.

Portsmouth’s recent run of good form continued although they had to come from behind at Middlesbrough: Liam Lawrence’s penalty two minutes from full time earned Pompey a valuable point but also increased the pressure on Middlesbrough‘s Gordon Strachan.

With no games this weekend due to the international break, it’s time to sit back and take a broader look at this season’s competition. The first thing that stands out is that QPR’s current form may be unsustainable in the long run:  not only are they on course to outperform Newcastle last season, but if they continue in the same vein in which they’ve begun the season, they will also have a better season than Reading did in 2005/06 when the Royals finished with a record 106 points.

Interestingly, although 58% of teams in the Championship this season have played in the Premiership within the last decade, both QPR and Cardiff are among the teams that have spent the longest outside the top tier. The approaches that the boards of these clubs have taken to change that situation have been similar, but have had different results.

In a manner reminiscent of another club from West London, for several seasons QPR’s board has been throwing money at the club – although the number of celebrities at Loftus Road went up, the results on the pitch have been mediocre. The decision to appoint Neil Warnock as manager may result in a big payday for QPR in May: despite – or maybe because – of his abrasive nature, he has maintained his inimitable managerial style and his recruitment policy seems to have turned QPR into something of a Championship All Star team.

Presumably the plan for Cardiff City was something similar. Although the Bluebirds are still suffering from the aftermath of catastrophic financial management over the last decade, the Welsh club seem to have become a model for success in the Championship.

Dave Jones is currently the longest serving manager in the division and – like Warnock – has experience at a higher level, the new stadium would not look out of place in the Premiership and although Cardiff have lost twice this season, their form has actually improved since last season. If QPR self destruct (which will inevitably be around the time Neil Warnock’s conspiracy theories reappear), Cardiff are in the ideal position to benefit.

Since the season began, the fortunes of other clubs have also emphasised importance of managerial stability in the Championship. Doncaster Rovers – along with Scunthorpe United – are the only sides in the Championship who have never played at the highest level in English football, yet Rovers’ rise from the Conference to an established Championship side has taken less than a decade and in many ways is similar to the situation at Cardiff.

After years of financial mismanagement, the club moved to a small but nonetheless impressive new ground; Sean O’Driscoll has been in charge since September 2006 and is currently the manager of arguably the best Doncaster Rovers side ever. It’s probably safe to say that ten years ago none of their fans thought that they would be supporting one of the best teams in Yorkshire; O’Driscoll will not be at the Keepmoat Stadium forever, but if he does leave this season he’ll be leaving the club in a better state than he found it.

Managerial stability – or the lack of it – can also explain what’s happening at the bottom of the table. In the last calendar year, both Bristol City and Leicester City have had three managers: although we’ll never know what Steve Coppell would have achieved at Ashton Gate, in view of the Robins current league position it’s entirely possible that he may have made a swift and accurate assessment of the playing staff before deciding to leave in a hurry.

Leicester’s problems seem to begin and end with Milan Mandaric – Paolo Sousa may talk a good game but was hardly impressive at either QPR or Swansea (both sides have improved without him) and it will be interesting to see if Sven-Goran Eriksson’s managerial talents are capable of surviving both a good old fashioned English relegation dogfight and continual interference from the Chairman.

To finish, here are a couple of facts to impress your mates in the pub:

There have been 2.69 goals per game in the Championship, the highest rate in the Football League and higher the Premiership.

If you want to watch a game with plenty of goals, it won’t come as a big surprise to learn that watching Leeds at home or Preston on their travels would be the best choices, although Norwich (at home) and Leicester (away) are good alternatives. Avoid Hull at the KC Stadium and any Sheffield United away game though.

QPR and Hull are the only teams not to have conceded a goal at home. Crystal Palace are the only team yet to score an away goal.

Of the nine players who have scored five goals or more this season, only two come from outside the British Isles – Davide Somma of Leeds (South Africa) and Heidar Helguson of QPR (Iceland).

Can anyone stop QPR?

The most recent games in the nPower Championship seem to have shed some light on how the rest of the season could pan out – QPR now have a four point lead and they’re the only undefeated team in the Championship. Their latest win was a 2-0 win over Leicester, although they left it late to ensure victory as John Mackie’s eighth goal of season came only four minutes from full time.

Queens Park Rangers were handed an advantage when Ipswich beat Cardiff 2-0 to move into second place; this was a case of history repeating itself as the last time the Bluebirds suffered consecutive defeats in the league was last March – when they lost to Ipswich and Leicester!

QPR’s main competitors will have to take advantage of any opportunities they get this weekend. Neil Warnock’s side are at home this weekend to Doncaster Rovers – who haven’t won at Loftus Road since February 1952 – and even if Rovers win QPR will still have a two point lead. If Millwall continue their impressive record at Cardiff City (the Lions haven’t lost in the Welsh capital in the last four league games) and Ipswich come away with nothing from their trip to Scunthorpe. Queens Park Rangers may go into next week’s games with an impressive lead.

It’s far too early to be talking about the playoffs, but it will be interesting to see if Norwich and Watford can maintain their early season form; the Canaries won at Preston courtesy of a Grant Holt goal but the biggest surprise last weekend came at the New Den when Watford thrashed Millwall 6-1.

At the foot of the table, Portsmouth are the only club without a win but could easily make up ground at the moment if they were to beat Leicester on Friday night (7:45pm Sky Sports 3): however a meagre total of two goals from seven games and a goal difference of -9 doesn’t look too promising. Neither does the fact that Leicester have won three of the last four league meetings at Fratton Park; the Foxes also beat Pompey in the Carling Cup on Tuesday night. Bristol City’s horrible start to the season continued with a 2-1 home defeat to Coventry City although the Robins can take heart from the fact that their away record is better than their home performances have been.

One of the intriguing games on Sunday afternoon is Crystal Palace’s trip to Derby which could be vital for the long term prospects of both clubs. Although the Rams picked up a point at Barnsley last weekend they haven’t won since their opening day victory at Leeds United; Palace haven’t won away from home since a 3-1 win at Watford at the end of March.

If you’re a betting man there are a few games that look as if they may the proverbial home bankers. Coventry haven’t lost at home this season and their opponents Preston have lost all three of their away games and are on a four game losing streak; Hull City haven’t picked up any points away from home this season and haven’t won at Norwich for 40 years.

Despite the high attrition rate in the first couple of rounds, four teams from the nPower Championship have reached the last sixteen of this season’s Carling Cup. Leicester, Ipswich, Burnley and Swansea will all be hoping for a favourable draw – the fourth round is due to take place at the end of October.

Unpredictable results in the nPower Championship leave QPR on top

Tuesday night’s games showed how unpredictable the nPower Championship can be. Ipswich hadn’t lost to QPR at Portman Road since February 2005 but two first half goals from John Mackie and a Heidar Helguson penalty 20 minutes from time mean that Queens Park Rangers take a three point lead into Saturday’s game…which just happens to be at Leicester City, who ended Cardiff City’s unbeaten record with a 2-1 win at the Walkers Stadium. The Bluebirds had led at half time, but an Andy King brace ensured both a much needed home win and a measure of revenge for last season’s play off defeat; the win also ended Cardiff’s record of four consecutive wins and three consecutive clean sheets.

In the battle of the rookie managers, last week’s prediction that beating Preston North End might be the sign of better things for Sheffield United was exposed for what it was as Gary Speed’s outfit were hammered 4-0 at home by Scunthorpe; former Notts County, QPR and Scunthorpe defender Ian Baraclough made his managerial debut following Nigel Adkins’ departure to Southampton. Not that far away, almost 7000 travelling Leeds fans must have been delighted that their team scored after three minutes at Oakwell – Leeds also scored the last goal of the game but in between five different Barnsley players to give the hosts their biggest win over their Yorkshire rivals for almost a quarter of a century.

Many of those Leeds United fans will be making the slightly longer journey to Doncaster Rovers on Friday night for the first game of the weekend which is live on Sky Sports 3 at 7:45pm. Not many of them will remember the last time their team lost to Doncaster in a league game (August 1951!) but they’ll be aware that Doncaster are one of the ten teams who haven’t lost at home yet.

Millwall also haven’t lost at home this season and they have an intriguing game at home to Watford on Saturday afternoon. The Lions earned a useful point in a goalless draw at Reading and currently occupy third place on goal difference; the Hornets are one of a number of clubs who are performing better on their travels than at home and a 2-0 win at Bristol City during the week showed that the Hertfordshire club should not be underestimated.

There are a number of contenders for game of the week – Swansea v Scunthorpe, Derby’s trip to Barnsley and the contest between former Premiership sides Middlesbrough and Reading at the Riverside should all be worth keeping an eye on, but Ipswich v Cardiff looks like the pick of the crop this week, although it could be a close game without many goals. Having both lost on Tuesday night it will be interesting to see how these clubs react to defeats: Ipswich have only lost once at home to Cardiff in the last ten meetings but they haven’t won consecutive home games in the Championship since last March.

The weekend programme finishes with another televised game when Hull City travel to Nottingham Forest (Sky Sports 2, ko 5:15) for the first time since the 1976/77 season, which is remarkable considering both clubs have experienced so many ups and downs over the past decade.

Looking forward to the resumption of next round of the Carling Cup next week, Championship sides are guaranteed two places in the last sixteen. Leicester City have to make the trip to Fratton Park twice in a week – next Tuesday in the cup and next Saturday in the league – to face a Portsmouth team that has yet to win a game over 90 minutes; Ipswich visit Millwall and Swansea have a tricky looking tie at Peterborough United. Finally Burnley entertain Bolton Wanderers in another Lancashire derby – if it’s half as entertaining as their dramatic come from behind win over Preston that featured a Chris Iwelumo hat-trick, then fans of the Clarets will be very happy indeed!

nPower Championship…and then there was one!

That’s not a reference to how many Championship clubs that are left in the Carling Cup, but to QPR who maintained their 100% record with a straightforward 2-0 win over Scunthorpe. If you’re wondering when this run might end, it’s worth remembering that their opponents this weekend – Derby County – haven’t beaten the West London side at home since a 2-0 win at the Baseball Ground in February 1990!

Hard on Rangers’ heels are four of the five unbeaten teams – Craig Bellamy scored the last goal in Cardiff City’s 4-0 win over Doncaster Rovers, Burnley made short work of Leicester City, Coventry City beat Derby County and Ipswich Town won at Crystal Palace.

Some of those unbeaten records might be in danger this weekend as only two of the top six clubs are at home this weekend: Millwall lost their first game of the season despite taking the lead against Leeds through a Richard Naylor own goal, but will be looking to get back to winning ways when Coventry travel to South London in the game of the week.

Possibly surprisingly given that they were widely tipped to struggle, the other unbeaten team is Watford, who picked up a useful point at Hull City last week and will be looking to put their midweek Carling Cup defeat to Notts County behind them when Leeds visit this weekend.

The bottom of the table has an early season look to it: before the season started a case could have been made for five of the bottom six to have playoff aspirations at the very least and Sky Sports probably weren’t expecting Leicester and Reading to be at the wrong end of the table when they chose their game to televise (Sky Sports 2, Saturday 5:15pm).

Gary Speed will have to wait another week for his first win as Sheffield United manager after the Blades lost 1-0 at Middlesbrough and dropped to the bottom of the table, but the new manager may not have to wait much longer – Preston haven’t won at Bramall Lane since November 1978 and have only drawn four and lost nine of the last 13 games between the two clubs in South Yorkshire.

Of the other clubs that haven’t had the best of starts, Portsmouth have even struggled to put out the regulation number of substitutes – there were just four players on the bench at Preston last weekend – and could be facing a long season; a visit from Cardiff City featuring an in form Jay Bothroyd really isn’t what Steve Cotterill’s side need right now.

Bristol City, Preston and Reading all picked up their first home points of the season, but only Preston won and Bristol City earned their point the hard way, having had to come behind twice to earn a point against Barnsley – two Andy Gray goals in twelve minutes had given the Tykes a great start that they ultimately failed to capitalise on.

There are only seven Championship clubs left in the Carling Cup, although at least Leeds, Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace were knocked out by Leicester, Millwall and Portsmouth respectively; Reading’s Matt Mills managed to score three goals against Northampton Town of League 2 but the crucial one was the own goal right at the end of extra time that took the game to a penalty shoot out…that Reading lost.