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.

nPower Championship preview – Week three

Last weekend saw the second managerial casualty of the season: Kevin Blackwell parted company with Sheffield United after the Blades were soundly beaten at Bramall Lane by QPR. Blackwell had been United’s manager since February 2008 and led them to the 2009 play off final.

The club reacted quickly by giving Gary Speed the job, but his nPower Championship managerial debut will be against Middlesbrough at the Riverside on Sunday lunchtime (Sky Sports 1) and Gordon Strachan’s side will be looking for a win to kick start their season.

QPR are one of a pair of unbeaten teams with identical records – perhaps surprisingly the other is Millwall, who celebrated their first home game in the Championship since April 2006 by beating Hull City 4-0. It’ll be interesting to see if the both can maintain their promising starts this weekend: on paper, QPR shouldn’t have any problems with Scunthorpe – although the Iron won at Loftus Road last season – and Millwall’s recent record at Leeds isn’t too bad.

The first game of the week is a Saturday lunchtime start for Coventry City and Derby County (Sky Sports 2) which – along with QPR v Scunthorpe – is one of the four games between teams that won either their first home or away game. The other games in that category are Crystal Palace v. Ipswich and Watford’s trip up north to visit Hull City.

Three teams – Bristol City, Preston and Reading – are looking to pick up their first home points of the season. Preston are the only team in the Championship yet to score a goal but neither The Lillywhites nor this weekend’s opponents (Portsmouth) have enviable defensive records.

Barnsley haven’t won at Ashton Gate since October 1993 and Reading have failed to beat Nottingham Forest in their last two league games at the Madjewski Stadium. There isn’t an outstanding candidate for game of the week, but even though it’s late August Burnley v Leicester City sounds as if it could be a playoff game in May.

The transfer deadline in the Championship doesn’t close until September 1st but amongst the inevitable rumours that are currently doing the rounds (Edgar Davids to Crystal Palace?), one thing is certain: Robbie Savage now has a rival for the role of the player that opposing fans love to hate – Craig Bellamy joined Cardiff City on loan this week and will probably make his home debut against Doncaster Rovers.

Carling Cup, Steve Coppell & Championship League round up

The rather indifferent form of nPower Championship league teams in the first round of the Carling Cup this week – eight teams knocked out and four teams needing extra time to conquer opposition from lower divisions – was overshadowed on Thursday with the news of the first managerial casualty of the season. Steve Coppell resigned from Bristol City in particular and from football management in general, with the club website quoting Coppell as saying that he ‘could not become passionate about the role and give the commitment the position it demands’.

If an opening day defeat and being beaten by lower league opposition in the Carling Cup represents some sort of benchmark then Mark Robbins (Barnsley) and Billy Davies (Nottingham Forest) should take note.

Bristol City immediately appointed Steve Coppell’s assistant Keith Millen as their new manager: the former Brentford and Watford defender finished his career at Bristol City and was caretaker manager at the club after Gary Johnson left with nine games to go last season.

The first weekend of the new season resulted in five away wins – including a 3-1 Ipswich Town win at Middlesbrough – and only one draw. QPR thumped Barnsley 4-0 and Crystal Palace were 3-0 up at half time at home to Leicester but had to hold on for the last six minutes after the visitors twice in the second half. Hull and Burnley both won – as did three of the four clubs I picked to struggle!

Nottingham Forest, QPR and Sheffield United were the biggest casualties in the first round of the Carling Cup and the draw for the second round features three all Championship games – which means that only nine sides from the division will feature in the third round. It’s been nine seasons since a team from outside the Premiership reached the final of the competition and at this stage it looks unlikely that any of the Championship sides will end that streak.

Looking forward to this weekend, there are three games between teams that started their seasons with wins. Watford take on Coventry City at Vicarage Road, Hull City travel to Millwall and arguably the game of the day on Saturday is Ipswich v Burnley – although eight of the last ten meetings between these two at Portman Road have finished in draws and Burnley haven’t won at Ipswich since January 1970. Sunday’s televised game is between Leeds and Nottingham Forest (ko 1:15pm on Sky Sports 1) could also be a cracker.

There could also be some very early clues about which teams could face an uphill struggle. Having lost at home to Watford, Norwich City travel to Glanford Park to play Scunthorpe United, who won at Reading last weekend and defeated Oldham in the Carling Cup during the week. To add to their woes, Bristol City will be without striker Nicky Maynard until November at the earliest and will not relish the journey to Doncaster Rovers – South Yorkshire has not been a happy hunting ground for the Robins in the past.