THE BIRDS & THE BEES: PIVOTAL WEEK IN THE CHAMPIONSHIP SEES MOMENTUM SWING TO SWANSEA AND BRENTFORD
Although Norwich City continue to cling on to top spot in the Championship, it is the two teams directly below them that now appear best placed in the push for promotion. Both Brentford and Swansea have a game in hand on the Canaries, and after the Swans comfortably beat Daniel Farke’s side on Friday night both are within a win of overtaking them.
Norwich have had just three shots on target in their last three games, scored not a single goal, and picked up just two points. They have lacked conviction all season and are nowhere near the free-flowing side that lit up this division when they won it in 2019.
Recent 0-0 draws against Middlesbrough and Millwall were the type of game they were unconvincingly winning earlier in the campaign, and although Emi Buendia has been a massive miss through suspension, relying solely on him appears a recipe for disaster when compared to the collective approaches of their two main rivals.
In their statement victory against Norwich, Swansea showed all of the positives that have helped them to a successful season so far. Steve Cooper’s side defended resolutely as a unit and, even though they have picked up more points than their underlying data suggests they should have in recent weeks, they once again benefited from the wonderful left foot of January signing Conor Hourihane.
Since arriving on loan from Aston Villa, Hourihane has scored three goals in three league games and all three have been using a different left-footed technique. His late equaliser in the crucial draw with Brentford was a beautifully floated free kick that evaded everyone including goalkeeper David Raya before finding the net, the opener he got at Rotherham was caressed into the far corner with the outside of his boot, and his goal against the league leaders was an accurate drive from 25 yards that had power and placement in equal measure.
That equaliser against the Bees denied Thomas Franke’s side a deserved victory that would now have them top of the Championship. This past week has seen Brentford pick up three wins that could all be described as ‘typical of champions’ in their own way. A 7-2 beating of Wycombe was polished by a second half landslide but nonetheless showed what a magnificent attacking force this team can be, the midweek win over Bristol City could be filed away as a victory whilst not at their best, and Saturday’s win at Middlesbrough saw them come from behind to win a testing encounter that was far more competitive than the 4-1 score line suggested.
They are currently playing at a level that none of the other promotion contenders have yet reached, even without one of the league’s finest holding midfielders in Christian Norgaard. Championship top-scorer Ivan Toney, who has been sensational all season long, is now being matched by the performance levels of the likes of Tarique Fosu, Mathias Jensen and Vitaly Janelt, and it’s hard not to think that the forward-thinking backroom team at the West London club have learnt from last season’s near miss.
Of the other runners and riders, it is surprisingly Reading who look most likely to challenge the top three. Their fabulous front four failed to sparkle in the weekend’s 0-0 draw at Stoke to the extent they did the weekend before in the victory over Bournemouth, but unlike both the Cherries and Watford, Veljko Paunovic’s side are well coached, defensively sound and vaguely interesting to watch.
The Royals host Brentford on Wednesday in what would look to be a real indicator of whether they can truly disrupt the current front-runners.
Bournemouth followed Watford’s lead in dismissing their manager following their first real poor spell of form, culminating in the 3-1 beating they took at the Madejski Stadium. Jason Tindall’s sacking is a clear indication that both sides are probably banking on an immediate return to the topflight, although Bournemouth will need to find a better replacement for Tindall than Watford have in Xisco Munoz, as little has improved at Vicarage Road since Vladimir Ivic’s departure.
Despite the managerial uncertainty, Bournemouth did have a strong January transfer window. They added proven Championship quality in Preston’s Ben Pearson, and Jack Wilshere has looked above this level since arriving early in the New Year – typified by the goal and assist he picked up in the weekend win over Birmingham.
The congested fixture list and the inherent unpredictability of the Championship means this entire analysis will probably be redundant in a matter of weeks if not days, but with so many of the promotion favourites either flourishing or floundering it does feel as though this past week may be looked back on as a significant seven days come season’s end.