The Real Season Starts Now

Although there’s a week or so to go before the clocks go back, a change is in the air. Anyone who went to a game on Tuesday night couldn’t have failed to notice how the evenings are getting darker and the weather is getting colder: there are also some signs that the climate in the nPower Championship could be changing over the next few weeks. There are now only eight points between QPR and the last play off spot; the same margin separates Leeds (currently tenth) and last place. Or to put it another way, Bristol City are only eleven points from a play off spot.

Following a pair of dramatic wins, Cardiff have closed to within two points of QPR. After eight minutes of the Severnside Derby the Bluebirds found themselves two goals down to Bristol City, but after Jay Bothroyd reduced the margin almost immediately, two second half goals from Peter Whittingham won the game. Bothroyd also scored on Tuesday: his goal three minutes from time gave the Welsh club a win at Coventry.

Even though they still have a 12 game undefeated streak, goals appear to have dried up for QPR – they’ve failed to score in three of their last four games. Neither Norwich or Swansea have impressive defensive records this season but still kept clean sheets against Neil Warnock’s side this week. It looks as if QPR might be riding their luck a little: Wes Hoolahan of Norwich missed a penalty at Loftus Road last Saturday.

Burnley and Swansea are keeping pace with the leaders: both the Clarets and the Swans picked up four points from a possible six this week. Burnley must have thought they’d beaten Sheffield United last weekend but a last gasp equaliser from Mark Yeates snatched two points away from the Lancashire side. Swansea seem to have reverted to the goal shy but effective form that almost earned a play off spot last season: a 1-0 win at Reading was followed by a goalless draw with QPR.

If the situation at the top isn’t interesting enough, then an even bigger shake up at the bottom of the table could be on the cards.

It’s fair to say that Sven Goran Eriksson’s appointment has had the desired affect at Leicester. Seven points from a possible nine since his appointment indicates that his new club won’t be hanging around the bottom of the table for much longer.

Two other clubs that made poor starts to the season recorded important victories on Tuesday. Despite going a goal down just before half time at Norwich, Crystal Palace managed to win an away game for the first time since March. The narrow defeat at Cardiff seems to have galvanised Bristol City: on Tuesday night a first half goal from former Ipswich striker Danny Haynes gave the Robins a 1-0 victory over a poor looking Reading side for their first win at Ashton Gate since April.

However if the Eagles and the Robins look as if they’re on the up, then Middlesbrough, Hull and Preston are going in the wrong direction. Gordon Strachan’s departure from the Riverside had looked increasingly likely over the last couple of weeks: whoever gets the Boro job will have to deal with a team that has gone five games without a win and currently possesses the worst away record in the Championship. Darren Ferguson of Preston may be the next manager on the hot seat:

Preston’s defence is the worst in the Championship and on Tuesday the Lillywhites lost to at home to Scunthorpe. Hull’s drop into the bottom six is largely due to their poor goalscoring record: eight goals in 12 games isn’t great and it’s likely that not many teams will lose at home to Sheffield United this season.

If you’re a couch potato and a fan of Championship football, you’re in for a treat this weekend. The ‘top v bottom’ clash between Bristol City and QPR starts the weekend on Friday night (Sky Sports 1, 7:30); on Saturday teatime Sheffield United travel to Doncaster for one of occasional live games on BBC2 (5:15) and in a tasty looking clash, Leeds play Cardiff on Monday evening (Sky Sports 1,7:30). The Saturday afternoon games worth keeping an eye on this week are Norwich v Middlesbrough, Leicester’s trip to Swansea and a potential relegation six pointer when Preston host Crystal Palace.

The four Championship sides left in the Carling Cup are in action next week: Ipswich shouldn’t have any problems with giantkillers Northampton Town, but it would not be a big surprise if Swansea beat Wigan. Leicester and Burnley have stiffer tasks – both West Brom and Aston Villa will see this competition as their best chance of winning some silverware this season. Although it’s unlikely that a Championship team will win the competition, four clubs in the quarter finals would show that there is life outside the Premiership.

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.