With the Christmas rush of games now long behind us, Chris Francis takes a look at how the promotion chasers are settling into 2014…
Leicester have built up an enormous lead with many pundits now declaring them as certainties to go up. They are 10 points clear of second and—more importantly—13 clear of third. Their 1-0 win over Bournemouth saw them break three club records: longest number of games won in a row (nine), most away wins achieved in a row (five), and oldest goalscorer (Kevin Phillips). The margin of victory should have perhaps been larger yet despite registering 22 shots (seven of which were on target), the Foxes found themselves denied by an inspired Lee Camp in nets for the Cherries.
Watford are up next for Leicester, a side they have beaten already this year away from home, but who still hold something of a hoodoo over the men in Royal Blue following the end-of-season scenes at Vicarage Road last year. After that they play local rivals, Nottingham Forest.
Can they keep the run going?
Below Nigel Pearson’s team sit QPR and Burnley, separated by just three points but who shared six goals evenly between them at Saturday lunch-time. As suggested by the scoreline, it was a good game but neither side will have been particularly happy with their performances or the result. Both sides conceded avoidable goals, with Beniot Assou-Ekotto in particularly letting his side down with some lax defending for the R’s.
The most interesting battles lay in the middle of the pitch however even though neither side were able to really dominate. Joey Barton and Niko Krancjar showed glimpses of their Premier League pedigree going forward, while Dean Marney and David Jones ensured space was forever at a premium for their more illustrious opponents.
And even though they failed to close the gap on second, Burnley were still able to find reasons to be cheerful, becoming the first side to score more than one goal all season at Loftus Road. Danny Ings and Sam Vokes grabbed the goals in a clinical display from the best strike partnership in the Football League. Despite goals from Kevin Doyle and Modibo Maiga (both late transfer window signings) questions remain over how QPR will do without former Clarets hit man Charlie Austin, who appears to be out for the season.
It is not just the goals that Harry Redknapp’s team will miss either. While nearly 50% of the team’s total output has come through Austin this season, the R’s may also have to change their established formation as it looks as though as none of the strikers available will be capable of playing the lone forward role as effectively.
Meanwhile, any of the teams stretching down to Middlesbrough in 12th will still fancy their chances of snatching a play-off spot.
Derby are currently in fourth and only four points off QPR in the automatic spots, and look certain to at least make the top six. It cannot be underestimated what a good job Steve McClaren and his team are doing at Pride Park. Chris Martin, Craig Bryson and Will Hughes have garnered most of the praise this season individually, but it has been a real collective effort from the Rams that has seen them move above sides with supposedly stronger squads.
Andre Wisdom was a smart loan signing from Liverpool, but the arrival of Patrick Bamford from Chelsea may prove to be the move of the transfer window. The young centre forward has hit the back of the net in all but one of his appearances for Derby, adding to the 17 he scored on loan for MK Dons before Christmas. Their last 6 games read as two wins, two draws and two losses, so a bit of consistency is needed to cement their place in the top six.
Hot on their heels are the third East Mids side in the promotion mix: Nottingham Forest. Billy Davies’ contenders got off to a strong start this season before their form tailed off in the run-up to the New Year. Yet they have regained their mojo with an unbeaten run of 11 league matches, and as usual Davies has them playing good stuff as the tension begins to build. He also has plenty of attacking options available to him both in the starting eleven and subs bench, and shouldn’t struggle to find goals in the closing months of the season.
Their tally of 46 goals scored is a good starting point (fourth highest in the Championship) and with the signing of Jack Hobbs on a permanent deal from Hull, they also have strength in depth at the back too. His arrival will supplement Kelvin Wilson who continues to perform well, and Jamaal Lascelles whose progress has been rapid of late. A goalscoring midfield—Andy Reid and Henri Lansbury already have eight and seven strikes to their names respectively—is more than a bonus with their goal supply spread across the squad. Contributions have been welcome to with Simon Cox being been the most effective front man, also with eight.
That’s a little short compared to the form of Reading’s strikers, with the Royals coming into form at just the right time, as they have done in previous promotion challenges. Nigel Adkins must be delighted with the return from his front players with Adam Le Fondre having grabbed 13 goals so far while Pavel Pogrebnyak has nine. The big Russian has finally started to bring his ‘A game’ to the party, and is starting to show again what a good player he can be with the right attitude. Reading’s recent record of four wins in five is excellent although there are plenty of sides below them with realistic ambitions of catching them and checking their hopes.
Mick McCarthy’s Ipswich were one of the sides I tipped for others to keep an eye out for at the start of the season and their manager’s steadying act has now begun to progress into something more. They don’t have a big squad by any means, but the stability McCarthy has put in place has enabled a number of players to make personal improvements as he works hard with them on the training ground. This is being seen most obviously in the outstanding form of David McGoldrick who is playing as well as he has ever done in his career with 13 goals so far this season.
Positions from eight to 12 in the Championship currently look like this: Blackburn, Brighton, Wigan, Leeds, Middlesbrough. All five sides will have had loftier ambitions than their current standings, yet could all still get in to the top six. Blackburn have been inconsistent especially away from home with only three wins all season. It’s been their main problem when it comes to turning their ambitions into substance. Yet they have the core of a good squad, and in Grant Hanley one of the best on-field leaders around. Mark Bowyer has done well to rally him and make him the heartbeat of his side. Any team with Jordan Rhodes up front will score goals (he has 16 so far), although more is required in this regard from the others.
Moving south in more ways than one, Brighton still have a good number of the players that pushed so hard for promotion last season. Having weathered the storm of losing Gus Poyet they have now had to also say goodbye to the excellent Liam Bridbutt, who has left for Sunderland too. This will be a huge loss as his organisational skills, reading of the game and simple yet solid passing were so important to the Seagulls’ ball playing philosophy last year. Oscar Garcia has a big job to do to move them on from ninth.
FA Cup holders Wigan have lost only twice in 10 games, and there are signs that Uwe Rosler has started to get the best out of his experienced and high quality group of players. They were one of the pre-season favourites for promotion due to their cup-winning roster and experienced, Premier League buys but playing in the most physically gruelling league in the land—as well as travelling across Europe to compete in the Europa League—has taken its toll. Rosler is proving that his 18 months at Brentford were no fluke however and is above all very credible, with a superb understanding of the English leagues. Never mind their troubled start under Owen Coyle, Wigan will be genuine contenders if they can maintain form and focus.
Who knows what’s going to happen at Leeds. Scenario A involves them falling to pieces as the prospect of a new host of interfering owners cause more distractions off the pitch. Alternatively, scenario B would likely see them group together and continue to implement the good work started by beleaguered manager, Brian McDermott. Their reaction at the weekend (a 5-1 win against Huddersfield) and defiant words from the league’s top scorer, Ross McCormack, suggest the latter is actually more likely.
Much depends on whether they can rally and maintain this spirit however, as on their day they have a side to challenge most in the division. Yet a meltdown in the boardroom could be all it takes to pour cold water over these glowing embers and extinguish United’s Premier League hopes for yet another year.
Middlesbrough were, up until recently, one of the form sides in the division with five wins in six. Aitor Karanka has hit the ground running as their new manager but since losing to Leicester, they have only been able to draw their following two games. They remain a team containing plenty of potential match winners, and on paper look very strong as a squad, but inconsistency is what lost Tony Mowbray his job, and better form is needed to make up the nine point gap up to Reading in sixth. Albert Adoma has nine goals for the season and Mustapha Carayol seven—they need more all round if they are to make that late push, and they need them now.