CHAMPIONSHIP REVIEW: TOP 5 MIDWEEK GAMES
Forget about the Champions League, the first mid-week round of games of the 2020/21 Championship season had enough drama, excitement and surprises to make it clear that England’s second tier is truly Europe’s premier club competition.
There has been a lack of goals across the Championship so far in this campaign, but the endless strands of narrative that are embellished with every passing match day have been more than enough to satisfy followers of the division.
Here’s what happened in midweek:
Watford 3-1 Blackburn
Watford put together their best performance so far under new manager Vladimir Ivic to beat promotion rivals Blackburn.
They opened the scoring after a lovely team move that ended with Brazilian teenager Joao Pedro tapping home a Kiko Feminia cross for a third goal of the season.
Watford hadn’t managed more than a single goal in any game this season before this one, but that run was over after only 17 minutes on Wednesday night as Tom Cleverley headed in the rebound from an Ismaila Sarr shot.
A wonderful 25-yard volley from Ben Brereton gave Rovers a way back into the game with less than half an hour on the clock, but for all of the firepower upfront in Tony Mowbray’s side, they looked vulnerable in defence with Sarr and Pedro running them ragged.
An own goal from Darragh Lenihan early in the second half summed up the chaos in the Blackburn backline. A whipped cross from Ken Sema was bundled into his own net by Lenihan as Sarr and Pedro lurked behind him waiting to pounce.
Adam Armstrong was the league’s top scorer heading in to this round of games, and he had a chance to add to his tally, and to get Blackburn back in the game, from the penalty spot after Craig Cathcart bundled over Lewis Holtby in the box. He had endured something of a personal duel with Ben Foster up to this point, as the former Manchester United stopper had denied him twice with good saves earlier in the game. Foster made it a hat-trick of fantastic saves by diving to his left to push Armstrong’s penalty away.
Liverpool loanee Harvey Elliot made his first start for Rovers, and played well, but was overshadowed by James Garner, on loan at Watford from Manchester United. Garner was imperious in midfield, finishing with a 94% pass completion rate and he played a key role in the Hornet’s first two goals.
This was a real statement result for Watford and Ivic as the talented squad at Vicarage Road had struggled to produce free-flowing football. They are now up to third and will remain there if they keep putting on performances like this. Blackburn are now winless in three and have slipped into the bottom half of the table.
Stoke 2-2 Barnsley
Barnsley twice threw away a lead to leave the Bet365 Stadium with only a point, as their wait for a first league win of the season stretched to six games.
Some brilliant work down the right from Cauley Woodrow set up Elliot Simoes to open the scoring for the Tykes. It was the Angolan winger’s first goal of the season and also Barnsley’s first from open play.
Two of Stoke’s promising young players combined to draw the Potters level. Harry Souttar went on a marauding run from centre-back before sliding an inch-perfect pass to Tyrese Campbell and the striker calmly slotted home.
Barely a minute later, Barnsley were back in front. Dominik Frieser stuck out a toe to divert a delicious cross from Alex Mowatt past Adam Davies in the Stoke goal.
The half-time interval failed to stem the flow of goals as Tommy Smith drew Stoke level once more only three minutes into the second half. Stoke’s first goal was all about a quality piece of play between two exciting youngsters, their second was a stroke of luck for a seasoned pro. Veteran Smith was in the right place at the right time to tap home when Barnsley keeper Jack Walton spilled a cross.
The game’s most bizarre moment came when Stoke centre-back Nathan Collins was sent off for an off-the-ball challenge on Frieser. Television replays are inconclusive as to what referee Michael Salisbury saw to feel the need to dismiss Collins, and Potters’ manager Michael O’Neill has said they will appeal the decision.
Both of these sides still seem unsure of themselves, particularly at the back, but Stoke are now unbeaten in six in all competitions and up to 10th in the Championship, Barnsley are outside the relegation zone on goal difference.
Sheffield Wednesday 1-2 Brentford
Ivan Toney scored a brace for the third game in a row to help Brentford move to just a point outside the play-off spots.
He opened the scoring at Hillsborough when he was the fastest to react as Wednesday keeper Cameron Dawson could only parry a Henrik Dalsgaard shot.
Garry Monk’s side did draw level through Callum Patterson’s first goal for the Owls, a nice header after poor defending from Pontus Jansson, but Toney was on hand to head home a Brentford corner to give the Bees a half-time lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Wednesday battled valiantly to try and claim a point that would further eat away at their points deduction, but in truth they were always second best in this one and struggled to fashion chances to score.
Brentford manager Thomas Frank will be delighted with Toney’s current form. He was brought in to replace Ollie Watkins after finishing as the top scorer in League One last season and now has seven goals in his last four appearances, after failing to find the net in his four appearances for the Bees.
Frank’s side now look in a more natural position in the upper echelon of the Championship and if Toney keeps scoring at his current rate, they look set to only keep moving upwards.
Bristol City 0-1 Middlesbrough
Bristol City’s unbeaten run is over thanks to a second-half George Saville goal for Middlesbrough.
The only goal came when young Robins defender Taylor Moore was caught in possession on the edge of his own penalty area by Saville, before the former Chelsea academy player slotted past Daniel Bentley to earn Neil Warnock’s side a deserved three points.
Boro made all of the running in the first half with Chuba Akpom being denied a tap-in by a heroic block from Zak Vyner in the early stages.
Minutes later, Akpom almost caught out Bentley with a deflected cross as Neil Warnock’s side took control of the game at Ashton Gate.
The Robins’ best chance came in the second half as Nakhi Wells fired over the bar after a well worked move from a throw-in.
Saville’s goal was a well-earned reward for the Teesiders and they are now unbeaten since the opening game of the season, helping them to 11th in the table.
The defeat was something of a reality check for Bristol City and Dean Holden. His perfect start to life in the managerial hot-seat in terms of results was at odds with a number of their performances. It has still been a better than expected start to the campaign, but early hopes of a promotion push may well have been dampened.
Reading 1-0 Wycombe
Reading remain the only unbeaten team in the division after an uninspiring victory over a Wycombe side that are still without a point this season.
A brilliant individual goal from Lucas Joao midway through the second half saw the Royals take top spot in the Championship. The Portuguese striker managed to control the ball and turn in the same movement before firing beyond Ryan Allsop for the game’s only true moment of quality.
It was the home side’s only shot on target across the ninety minutes as they continue to pick up points despite less than convincing performances.
Wycombe appear to be getting closer to securing a positive result at some point, as their undoubted effort is beginning to translate into competent performances, and they nearly snatched a point at the Madjeski Stadium as a snap-shot from Fred Onyedinma forced Rafael into a good save in the dying minutes.
Concerns about performances aside, it has been a remarkable start in English football for Reading manager Veljko Paunovic. His side are defying all expectations so far and appear to have the firepower to make the most of the limited chances they are creating.
Gareth Ainsworth’s Chairboys continue to battle hard but a lack of Championship experience, and quality, throughout the squad is making hard for them to pick up points. They are only being kept off the bottom of the league by Sheffield Wednesday’s points deduction.