Championship Analysis – Saints go marching in

Things are finally looking up for Southampton again. It’s been a turbulent decade for the club and its fans, and it’s easy to forget that only six years ago the Saints were an established Premier League club with 27 consecutive top-flight seasons under their belt.

However, since relegation at the end of the 2004-2005 campaign, turmoil on and off the pitch – a revolving door of managers, boardroom struggles, administration and a further relegation to the third tier – has dominated the headlines. Nevertheless, after just missing out on the League 1 play-offs in 2009/2010 due to a points deduction, Southampton eased to promotion last season and made their plush St Mary’s stadium a fortress.

Impressively, Southampton have already shown they can complement their free-flowing, open style of play with grit and determination if necessary. After hammering Leeds on the opening day, Nigel Adkins’s side dug out a fine away win at Barnsley, and as clinical as they were against Ipswich during midweek, the Saints still had to withstand a storm of pressure when the hosts came back from 3-0 down to 3-2 in the second half.

Predictably, Saturday’s game against Millwall was another toughie, but despite riding their luck at times, it was another three points for the Saints. Norwich proved last season that two consecutive promotions at this level is possible, and Southampton deserve to be seen as genuine challengers.

Derby are no strangers to the Premier League either, and despite a poor Championship campaign last season, the Rams look in much better shape already. Other than Southampton, they are the only club in the Football League to maintain a 100 per cent record.

Nigel Clough freshened his squad during the summer with a mixture of youngsters and veterans, one of whom, the much-travelled Kevin Kilbane, scored the first goal in a stylish win over Doncaster. That followed an equally fine win at Blackpool in midweek, and it’s Derby’s best start to a season for 106 years.

It remains only August but, with respect to the teams involved, the top six as a whole has a somewhat unfamiliar look – not a bad thing, of course. Like Derby, Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace also had seasons to forget last time around, but both have started brightly. Boro’s 3-1 win over Birmingham on Sunday took them to third, while defeat saw Birmingham slump to 18th, though they have played a game less due to being in the unusual position of starting a Europa Cup qualification campaign.

Perhaps the most dramatic incident of the weekend came at the City Ground, where Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel was sent off for two bookings in 60 seconds either side of a Nottingham Forest penalty. Schmeichel’s second yellow came after throwing the ball into the crowd after Forest’s Luis McGuigan successfully hit the target – unaware he had just received a booking for trying to delay the kick.

As stupid as Schmeichel’s actions were, his subsequent claims that he didn’t see the first yellow shown appear valid as television replays confirm he was walking back to his goal with his back turned to the referee. Occasionally refs need to remember that flashing cards like Hollywood actors can backfire. Nevertheless, the Dane arguably cost his team a win, and fair play to Sven Goran Eriksson for saying there were no excuses.

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