With only 10 games remaining the Championship’s promotion race has become more unpredictable and compelling than ever after dropped points aplenty meant four teams essentially led the division at the end of the weekend, with Bournemouth demonstrating just how critical goal difference is by reclaiming top spot – and staying there – after thumping Fulham 5-1 on Friday.
Just a week ago the Cherries were within a point of slipping outside of the play-off picture following a five-match winless run, but after recovering against Wolves on Tuesday, Eddie Howe’s side were back on track and the subsequent win over Fulham looked like being a welcome but temporary climb to the top of the tree ahead of Saturday’s games.
Instead, Watford’s failure to beat Wolves and Middlesbrough’s defeat to Nottingham Forest took out two of the rivals, and Howe must have been truly rubbing his eyes when Birmingham scored not once but twice in stoppage time to rob Derby of two points.
Watford boss Slavisa Jokanovic described the division as “crazy” after the results came through. “The most important part of the Championship is in front of us. Now it is about who makes less mistakes and who has the Championship mentality,” he said of his side’s remaining fixtures.
Funnily enough Watford are probably the ideal template for the lukewarm behaviour at the top of the division as they have continually been labelled, and written off, by pundits for being the most inconsistent side in the division: unstoppable one week, indifferent the next. Yet after weeks of bouncing either side of the play-off zone, the Hornets are now third, behind Derby by a margin of one goal on goal difference and ahead of Middlesbrough by virtue of level goal difference but a superior goal tally. Forest’s Dougie Freedman believes Boro are the best team in the division. So take your pick.
But that’s only the top four taken care of; then there’s Norwich, just a point behind in fifth. Derby’s collapse was undoubtedly the ‘if only’ of the weekend but at least it left them in second spot; Alex Neil must be wishing his side could have played with the same fluency they did against Millwall on Saturday when they were beaten at home by relegation-threatened Wigan on Tuesday, ending the Canaries’ six-match winning run. Even a draw in that game would now see Norwich above Derby on goal difference.
The normally cool Steve McClaren described “a lot of anger going around” after the Birmingham game and it will be fascinating to see how his Derby side reacts next Saturday as the Rams travel to face none other than Norwich. They then host Middlesbrough the following Tuesday in what could be truly pivotal fixtures.
At the bottom end of the table, events are far more clear-cut, with Blackpool so far from safety that even Lee Clark has admitted he is already preparing for life and a style of play in League 1 next season.
Wigan and Millwall are also desperately struggling to keep their Championship lives afloat with eight points each to make up. The Latics’ win at Norwich showed they can dig out results, but with games running out it’s difficult to look beyond the current bottom three all sinking in May.
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