The Championship: Strictly No Tram Factor

This week the weather isn’t the biggest challenge to Championship football. With just over two weeks left until Christmas, the dual threat of shopping and television schedules almost ensures that the two televised games will probably only be watched by hardcore fans wanting to escape from the manufactured drama of talent shows and soap opera character culls.

Last weekend’s postponements didn’t have a huge impact on the overall situation in the nPower Championship, although Andy Keogh’s late equaliser for Cardiff against Preston at the City Of Cardiff stadium was as vital for the Bluebirds as it was disappointing for the visitors. If Cardiff had lost, QPR would have had a five point lead with a game in hand; if the Lillywhites had held on for three points. Middlesbrough – beaten 1-0 at Coventry – would have been bottom of the table.

At one point on Saturday afternoon Crystal Palace looked as if they were going to win at Leeds for the first time since March 2006, but after taking the lead just before half time, a two minute brace from Luciano Becchio earned Leeds all three points. Dropping points from winning positions in away games is not a recommended strategy for teams in the bottom six.

Unusually, this weekend’s games start with two matches on Friday: Swansea can take second spot by beating Millwall but although that sounds straightforward on paper, the reality is somewhat different. Swansea’s recent defeats at the Liberty Stadium have come against sides below them in the table and the Lions have only lost four of their last trips to West Wales; a low scoring game looks likely.

Championship football makes a rare Friday appearance on BBC2 when Watford travel to QPR (7:30pm) but this looks like another three points for Rangers and another tiny audience for the BBC, as the game is scheduled against two soap operas and a talent show. Although it’s a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ QPR will be beaten, it’s worth noting that six of their next ten league games are against sides currently in the top ten and it’s possible that the trip to Leeds next weekend might see the end of QPR’s impressive start.

There’s some evidence that the playoff candidates may be about to separate themselves from the rest of the pack, although Burnley, Nottingham Forest and Doncaster players were doing the Christmas shopping rather than playing last weekend. Norwich’s 2-1 win at Pride Park could have a lot of long term significance and if Paul Lambert’s side can beat Portsmouth on Saturday afternoon they can put pressure on both Swansea and Cardiff. Coventry left it late before overcoming Middlesbrough at the Ricoh Arena, but have lost their last three games at Reading – the Royals are unbeaten in four games at the Madjewski but haven’t won their since the exciting come from behind win against Doncaster at the end of October.

There are a couple of games of the day: only three points difference between Burnley and Leeds, but the visitors have  a good record at Turf Moor (only three defeats in the last ten trips) and with Becchio and Chris Iwelumo involved, this looks as if it could be an open game that could feature a lot of goals. There have been an average of 3.2 goals per game this season in Burnley’s home games and Leeds have scored in eight of their ten away games this season.

Despite being having to compete with the pre-Christmas Saturday night ratings war between ITV1 and BBC1, the game between Crystal Palace and Hull (5:20pm Sky Sports 2) is an intriguing contest between two sides who may be about to break out of the bottom six. After a very poor start, Palace have won their last three home games at Selhurst Park and haven’t conceded a goal at home since the beginning of November. Hull weren’t exactly quick out of the traps either but are unbeaten in their last five away games and have earned valuable points at both Middlesbrough and Preston recently. Although the Tigers haven’t won at Crystal Palace since October 1985, they’re hard to beat at the moment and a draw wouldn’t be the worst result for either side, especially if Nottingham Forest win at Scunthorpe earlier in the afternoon.

The FA Cup draw is now more or less complete: Watford are still waiting for the replay between Hartlepool and Yeovil to take place, but Burnley will be playing Port Vale, Norwich entertain Leyton Orient, Derby travel to Crawley (who beat Swindon Town of League One this week) and Portsmouth travel to Brighton.

Author: Mike Roberts

A football fan since the 1970s, I take my inspiration from the standard of writing that made Shoot! magazine streets ahead of anything else back in the day. I'm also a complete and utter stathead, which I blame on being exposed to American sports at the end of my teens.