This weekend is a really good example of the competitive nature of the Championship: with two games left, the title is still up for grabs, there’s one automatic promotion left, two relegation places to be decided and three clubs competing for the final playoff spot.
However by the time ‘El Clasico’ kicks off in Barcelona some of those issues could be resolved due to the outcome of just one game but I’ll come to that in a minute. Looking back at Tuesday’s games it looks like Southampton have sown up the other automatic place while West Ham have avoided the Curse Of Fourth Place (they can’t finish lower than third) but should be mindful that only seven teams that finished in third place have been promoted via the playoffs in the last 20 seasons.
The biggest issue at the top of the Championship this weekend is a combination of policing and TV scheduling. The game between Cardiff and Leeds is a 12:30pm kick off, which means that Middlesbrough will know exactly what sort of result they need against Southampton (tomorrow Sky Sports 2, 5:20pm) in order to keep their playoff hopes alive. However, if the Saints win at the Riverside, it doesn’t matter how West Ham do at Leicester (Monday, Sky Sports 1, 7:45pm) as automatic promotion will have been settled.
At the bottom, things couldn’t be any simpler. If Bristol City beat Barnsley, then both Coventry and Portsmouth will be down regardless of how they do. The game between the Robins and the Tykes is automatically the most important game this weekend.
The similarities between the teams are worth mentioning. Apart from beginning with ‘B’ and wearing red shirts and white shorts, both clubs lost their best strikers to West Ham in the last transfer window and although they’ve been consistently poor away from home over the last couple of seasons, in 2011/12 their home form has collapsed to the same level you’d expect from teams struggling against relegation. If Bristol City survive this season, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise if they’re joined by Barnsley amongst the favourites to go down a year from now.
Bristol City’s recent performances have turned what looked like a hopeless situation a few weeks ago into one where they control their own fate: the problem is that it’s unclear whether this is the start of a medium term improvement or the end of desperate yet possibly successful attempt to avoid relegation. Five of City’s last nine defeats at Ashton Gate have been by one goal and despite having scored the same amount of goals as Coventry this season they’ve only failed to score twice in the last ten home games.
On the other hand, Barnsley’s away from has been atrocious for some time. Since drawing with Millwall in August they’ve only won three times on the road and have lost eight of their last ten aways: the game at the New Den at the beginning of the season was also the last time they kept a clean sheet away from Oakwell. Although the Tykes are safe, you have to wonder if that’s going to work in their favour tomorrow or not. They aren’t under any pressure but facing a side desperate for Championship survival backed by a partisan crowd isn’t exactly a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon – especially when you consider that Barnsley haven’t won at Bristol City since 1993.
Considering both clubs have had trouble scoring this season there could be a few goals tomorrow – there have been 36 goals in the last ten league meetings between these two at Ashton Gate with 14 of them coming in the last two.
I’ll be back tomorrow with an update, but it might not be until after the Middlesbrough/Southampton game.