nPower Championship Preview 31st January – 2nd February

As I mentioned at the beginning of the month, the interest for the rest of the season in the nPower Championship is in the battles for the second automatic promotion spot, qualification for the playoffs and avoiding relegation.

The top six are five points clear of Brighton and Burnley and I’ll be very surprised if at least one of the other clubs in the top six doesn’t get promoted. But here’s the interesting part – in four of the last five seasons, a club from outside the top six at the end of January has made a late run and has ended up in the Premier League, with three of those teams winning the playoff final. None of the current top eleven can be ruled out but if Brighton can start winning a few more games they could do very well over the next four months.

At the bottom, surprise wins for Bristol City and Barnsley this week have made things slightly more uncomfortable for the six clubs immediately in front of them – although there’s a four point gap between the bottom three and safety, the managerial changes at Ashton Gate and Oakwell seem to have had an immediate impact.

Looking back over the last five seasons, at least one club that was in the bottom three at the end of January has escaped relegation. Unfortunately for Peterborough, it’s never been the club that was rock bottom, so the law of averages indicates that either the Robins or the Tykes should escape relegation.

So who’s most at risk? Probably Huddersfield, Ipswich and Sheffield Wednesday although any of the teams from 16th place onwards could be in trouble with a string of bad results – and that includes Wolves, who play at Leicester this evening (Sky Sports 1, 7:45pm) in one of this weekend’s games that involves sides at both ends of the table. Incidentally, I’ve no idea why this game is tonight – my guess is it’s something to do with the Six Nations.

Leicester have been superb at home recently – three defeats in their last 20 games – and as Huddersfield, Derby and Ipswich fans can tell you, the Foxes are capable of overwhelming sub-par defences. Anthony Knockaert, Chris Wood and David Nugent have all been on the scoresheet at least once at the King Power Stadium since the start of December.

Wolves have only won one of their last ten league games at Leicester and the last time they won away from home this season was at Blackpool before Christmas. Four defeats in six games since then have set the alarm bells ringing and although Dean Saunders has experience of managing a struggling Championship team, I can’t imagine that he’d want to call on that experience so quickly into his tenure at Molineux.

The only other game that features a top v bottom match up is Middlesbrough’s trip to Ipswich. Both teams need points for different reasons: the Tractor boys have been better at home recently but haven’t won at Portman Road since the start of last month and are only a couple of poor results away from being dragged into a scrap at the bottom of the table. Boro are currently comfortable in sixth place but have lost five of their last six road trips and haven’t won at Ipswich for almost two decades.

As usual, I won’t be paying a huge amount of attention to transfer deadline day: the big deal is Wilfred Zaha’s move to Manchester United, but as Zaha will be playing for Crystal Palace until the end of the season, that’s neither here nor there. At time of writing, the only other confirmed move that features an impact player from the Championship is Luciano Becchio moving from Leeds to Norwich in return for Steve Morison: if anyone else makes a permanent move I’ll mention that next week.

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Simon Grayson Sacked By Huddersfield

I’m actually beginning to wonder if a ‘sacking window’ should be introduced alongside a transfer window. Quite frankly this is ridiculous.

The Huddersfield board must have felt left out and even though they’re denying it, the sudden availability of Nigel Adkins makes the timing of this decision interesting to say the least.

If anyone else loses their job this season, it’ll mean that half the managers in the Championship have lost their jobs. As I said last week, you’ve got to wonder if the expectations at boardroom level are unrealistic in some cases.

I won’t be commenting any further on Grayson’s departure because I’ve got better things to do with my time.

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Is Christmas More Important Than Easter In The nPower Championship?

One of my pet peeves is the insistence by the pundits on the Football League Show that Easter is more important than Christmas in the Championship Calendar, although I also heard Michael Appleton of Blackpool say the same thing on Sky Sports News this morning while he was eating his poached eggs on toast. By the time the rest of us have finished stuffing our faces with chocolate eggs instead of turkey, it’ll be obvious who’s within touching distance of the Premier League and which teams will be hoping for a decent run in the Johnston’s Paint Trophy: from Boxing Day onwards it’s more about confirming the impressions that have been made over the past four months.

So there’s every chance that you’ll be hearing the following facts over the next Christmas period unless – like me – you prefer to fast forward the waffle on the Football League Show on Sunday mornings:

* From 2007 onwards, every club that was on top of the table at the end of Boxing Day was promoted.

* Of the fifteen clubs that have been promoted since the end of the 2006/2007 season, only two were outside the top six at the end of Boxing Day (Hull in 2007/08 and Blackpool in 2009/10)

* However…clubs outside the top four on December 26th have a significantly lower chance of promotion. Apart from Hull and Blackpool, only Norwich and Reading have been promoted from outside the clubs that occupied the top four at close of play on Boxing Day.

* In four of the last five seasons, Cardiff have been in the top six at the end of Boxing Day and haven’t been promoted once.

All of the above mean that Cardiff v Crystal Palace on Boxing Day isn’t just the game of the day, but potentially the game of the season.

Of course, any number of scenarios could happen before then. Cardiff have a very difficult game at Leicester tomorrow, Middlesbrough might find that Leeds are suffering following their thrashing by Chelsea on Wednesday and Palace have won only once in their last five games. Conceivably any of the current top four could find themselves in pole position by the time Toy Story 2 appears on our screens and there are only toffee pennies left in the Quality Street tin.

At the bottom, the long term picture is just as clear. 13 of the 15 clubs relegated since 2007/08 had been in the bottom six at the end of Boxing Day, with eight of the teams that went on to be relegated already occupying the bottom two positions. In three of the last five seasons, the team that was bottom was relegated, but in the last four seasons the side that was 23rd was relegated.

The exceptions were Leicester in 2008 and Portsmouth last season – but to be fair to Pompey their problems were exacerbated by the points deduction. So once again it’s fair to say that half of the bottom six will almost inevitably provide League 1 teams with some different grounds to visit next season.

One surprising thing about the bottom six is that over the past five seasons some interesting names keep cropping up. Norwich are currently in the Premier League, but were in the bottom six in the Championship at Boxing Day 2008 and 2009. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Bristol City and Ipswich are struggling this season as they’ve both been in the bottom six in two of the last three seasons, but with two points separating the current sides in the bottom four it already looks incredibly close.

Anyway, here are the games over Christmas that could have a huge impact on the rest of the season:

Saturday 22nd December:

Leicester v Cardiff, Ipswich v Bristol City. The televised game on Saturday is Huddersfield at Crystal Palace (5:20pm, Sky Sports 2) – if Cardiff can only manage a point at Leicester, the Eagles can go top if they beat Huddersfield. The Football League Show is on BBC1 at 11:55pm; Sky Sports’ ‘Goals On Sunday’ will feature the goals from the Championship and a guest appearance from Malky Mackay and starts at 11:00am on Sunday morning.

Boxing Day

Cardiff v Crystal Palace. Sky Sports 1 is showing the game between Nottingham Forest and Leeds (12:00pm) if anyone’s up that early.

Saturday 29th December:

Cardiff v Millwall, Bristol City v Peterborough. Brighton v Watford is on Sky Sports 1 at 5:20pm, The Football League Show is on at midnight.

I’m not going to be able to post in any depth over the Christmas holidays, but I intend to have something up next Thursday even if it’s only a couple of paragraphs. In the meantime, I’d like to wish you a Happy Christmas and I hope that whoever you support wins on Boxing Day.

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