CHAMPIONSHIP REVIEW: FIVE OF THE BEST MIDWEEK GAMES YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT
After a somewhat slow start to the Championship season, the hectic Winter fixture schedule seems to have stoked some chaos amongst second-tier defences, with 26 goals scored across the midweek fixtures.
League leaders Norwich nearly collapsed in the Potteries, bottom of the table Derby lost once again and Coventry ramped up the pressure on misfiring Cardiff.
Here is the best of the action:
Stoke City 2-3 Norwich City
Norwich very nearly surrendered a three-goal lead at the Bet365 Stadium, as a second-half red card for Emi Buendia saw them lose control against Stoke.
The diminutive Argentine was shown a second yellow for a high boot after earlier scoring and providing a wonderful assist for Teemu Pukki.
Buendia gave the Canaries the lead in the first-half when he slotted a shot into the bottom corner from the edge of the box, before setting up Pukki for a well-taken half-volley with an exquisite through ball.
Norwich looked certain to stretch their unbeaten run to nine games early in the second-half when Pukki rounded home goalkeeper Josef Bursik to get his second goal of the night.
However, Buendia’s sending off was followed by a headed goal from Stoke’s Tyrese Campbell moments later. The forward, who is in excellent form, arrived unmarked at the back post to give the Potters a lifeline.
Norwich’s growing injury list was added to in the first half when goalkeeper Tim Krul pulled up with a suspected hamstring problem, and his replacement Michael McGovern was beaten for a second time on the evening when Nathan Collins headed a corner past the Northern Ireland international to set up a nervy finale for the ten men.
McGovern almost cost his side the victory when he knocked a looping ball into his own net under pressure from Lee Gregory, but referee Geoff Eltringham spared his blushes by awarding a soft free-kick in Norwich’s favour.
Despite the nervy ending to the game, Norwich showed why they are so heavily fancied to make a return to the Premier League up until the red card as Buendia and Pukki showed the kind of form that helped Daniel Farke’s side to promotion in 2019.
The win sees them retain top spot in the Championship.
Michael O’Neill will take heart from the fight his players showed in the closing stages but the first hour of the game showed his team may have some way to go before they can have realistic ambitions of competing with the best sides in the division.
Defeat means they drop to 8th.
QPR 3-2 Rotherham United
A wonderful first-half display from Bright Osayi-Samuel inspired QPR to victory over a battling Rotherham outfit.
The winger scored and set up Ilias Chair in the opening 45 minutes to help the R’s make it three home league games without defeat.
Neat footwork from Osayi-Samuel allowed him to pull the ball back for Chair to give Rangers the lead with a deflected shot after 20 minutes.
Rotherham are now without an away win since the opening day of the season, but they did draw level in West London when striker Michael Smith beat QPR ‘keeper Seny Dieng to a Wes Harding cross to head home.
The Millers looked set to hold onto parity until half-time before Osayi-Samuel took centre stage.
The former Blackpool man, who had already hit the post from a Chair cut-back, picked the ball up 30 yards from goal, drove towards the penalty area beating two Rotherham defenders in the process, and fired a shot past Jamal Blackman in goal.
Things got worse for the away side before the interval as QPR’s Scottish international Lyndon Dykes stroked home a penalty after Dan Barlaser was penalised for handling the ball in his own box.
Paul Warne’s charges were never going to give up without a fight, but they rarely threatened a comeback in this one until substitute Freddie Ladapo nodded in his second goal of the season after a Michael Ihiekwe header had come back off a post.
They were unable to muster an equaliser though and Mark Warburton’s Rangers held on for a deserved victory that once again highlighted the importance of Osayi-Samuel.
The win for QPR sees them move up to 13th, Rotherham remain 19th.
Middlesbrough 3-0 Derby County
Wayne Rooney and Liam Rosenior remain without a win in their stint as joint caretaker managers of Derby after a second-half humbling at the Riverside.
A tactical switch that saw the Rams move to a back three late in the second-half immediately preceded Matt Clarke turning the ball into his own net to effectively end the game as a contest, before Marvin Johnson curled a lovely finish into the top corner of David Marshall’s net to highlight the gulf between the sides.
Boro look incredibly settled under Neil Warnock, and despite losing their 10-game unbeaten run to Norwich last weekend, they started on the front foot against Derby with Britt Assombalonga looking lively.
It was Assombalonga, the former Forest striker, who gave the home side the lead midway through the first-half when he poked home at the back post.
Derby appear a side devoid of confidence, this defeat was their fourth in a row without scoring, but the introduction of Louie Sibley at half-time did spark them into life.
The young midfielder twice forced Marcus Bettinelli into saves as the away side searched for an equaliser, but Clarke’s own goal spoiled hopes of an unlikely point.
Clarke was also at fault for Johnson’s goal as he allowed the Boro substitute far too much time and space to cut onto his favoured left foot and leave Marshall with no chance.
Whilst the past couple of games were seen as a great opportunity for both Rooney and Rosenior to audition for the managerial post full-time, the results and performances have indicated that Derby’s prospective new owners should be looking for an external candidate to take over.
Defeat on Teeside means Derby stay bottom of the Championship and they are now six points from safety.
Middlesbrough continue to look like a dark horse for promotion this season with Warnock at the helm and with Assombalonga looking as fit and sharp as he ever has, they have a genuine goal scorer in the side.
Their convincing win moves them up to seventh.
Preston North End 0-3 Blackburn Rovers
A red card for Preston defender Joe Rafferty allowed Blackburn to run away with this Lancashire derby.
The full-back was shown a straight red for bringing down Blackburn forward Sam Gallagher in his own box whilst making no attempt to play the ball.
The opportunity was too good to turn down for the Championship’s top scorer Adam Armstrong as he stroked home the penalty.
Rovers completely overwhelmed the ten men in the second period, and their lead was extended when Joe Rothwell burst clear of the home defence before setting up Ben Brereton to slot home.
Tony Mowbray rubbed salt into the wound for Alex Neil when he brought on former Preston academy player Tyrhys Dolan for Armstrong, and it was Dolan who completed the scoring by tapping home a Brereton cross.
The young winger had no qualms celebrating a goal against his former employers, as an extravagant backflip capped off an enjoyable evening for Mowbray’s side.
Their victory at Deepdale seems them move above North End into 12th.
Preston’s win over Sheffield Wednesday at the weekend looked like it could have been a catalyst for improvement in terms of their home form, but they were second best even before Rafferty’s sending off in this one.
Another disappointing result at home means they are now 15th in the Championship.
Coventry City 1-0 Cardiff City
A goal from Tyler Walker handed Coventry only their third win of the season, ramping up the pressure on Cardiff boss Neil Harris in the process.
The game’s vital moment came early in the second-half as a mix-up in the Bluebirds’ defence saw Joe Ralls present the ball to Walker before he beat Sean Morrison and dinked a lovely finish over Alex Smithies.
Despite their lowly position in the table, Coventry have been competitive against some of the best sides in the Championship this season, and they were on top throughout this meeting with Cardiff.
Gustavo Hamer and Jordan Shipley both tested Smithies in the first-half as the Sky Blues looked to build on a well-earned point against Birmingham last time out.
The re-introduction of captain Liam Kelly in midfield has made Mark Robin’s side noticeably more difficult to break down, and they limited their visitors to very few goal-scoring opportunities at St Andrew's.
There was one moment of worry as half-time approached when Cardiff bundled the ball into the net from a set-piece, only for it to be disallowed for a foul on Coventry’s Ben Sheaf.
Walker took his chance when it came in the second half, and Coventry saw out the win relatively comfortably as the Welsh side looked devoid of creativity.
Robin’s Coventry have conceded more goals than any other side in the second tier so far this season, so back-to-back clean sheets will be warmly welcomed.
They remain in 21st despite the win, but are now three points clear of the drop.
Much was expected of Cardiff after they reached the play-offs at the end of last season, and the additions of Harry Wilson and Kieffer Moore in the summer looked to guarantee goals for Harris’s side, but with only one win in their last eight, it’s starting to look like supporters are losing patience with the former Millwall manager.
Cardiff find themselves in 18th following the defeat, only two points above Coventry.