Championship Analysis – Opportunities missed for top two as Southampton and West Ham crash

On a weekend still drenched in sadness following the passing of Gary Speed, an event that has moved football fans all over the nation whether they had a direct affiliation with the Wales manager or not, the Championship fixture list nevertheless managed to provide action-packed matches worthy of the one-time box-to-box midfielder.

With the lower leagues on FA Cup duty – a competition always guaranteed to throw up unpredictable results – there was a similar potential banana skin in the league as leaders Southampton travelled to rock-bottom Doncaster. Whether it’s the psychological combination of the favourites expecting to coast to victory and the underdogs playing with enough freedom to combat low expectations, one can never know for sure, but it was David who triumphed 1-0 over Goliath on Saturday.

Admittedly it would be unfair to dwell on the result for too long as Doncaster are a side that have defied the odds for several seasons and are always a tough cookie at the Keepmoat. The decisive strike came from Donny’s Billy Sharp, who has given Dean Saunders’s side more of a cutting edge in front of goal in recent weeks after returning from an injury sustained on the opening day that kept him out for two months. However, Saints manager Nigel Adkins will be tearing his hair out as this defeat and last week’s loss at Bristol City can surely be construed as glaring opportunities to open up a big lead at the top missed.

Despite maintaining their 100 per cent home record match against Hull during midweek, Southampton only have three wins from ten away from home, a fact Adkins is becoming increasingly aware of. He told the club’s Official Website after Saturday’s defeat: “We are coming away to win. We know we’ve got to address our away form because if we’re going to have the aspirations that we want to get promoted from this division this season we’ve got to win more games away from home. I’ll reflect upon on it, but perhaps in our desire to go and win the game the counter attack has cost us.”

The result gave West Ham the ideal opportunity to knock Southampton off the top of the table for the first time since 10 September – but they failed to take it. Burnley came from behind to win for the second away game running, and their third consecutive win overall has seen the Clarets rise from perilously close to the relegation zone up to tenth spot.

Defeats for the top two was naturally good news for those trying to keep pace below, and Cardiff’s 1-0 win over Birmingham in Sunday’s fixture saw the Bluebirds move within striking distance of West Ham in third. Middlesbrough and Leeds also enjoyed victories, and Brighton moved back in to the play-off places after a last-gasp win over struggling Nottingham Forest, their third win in a row and Forest’s third consecutive loss.

Perhaps the weekend’s most intriguing fixture took place at the KC Stadium, where Nigel Pearson returned to the club he left just three weeks beforehand. The new Leicester boss received a predictably rowdy welcome from the Hull faithful and, as so often is the case in this scenario, the ‘villain’ came a cropper as the hosts tasted victory and gained bragging rights with the two clubs swapping places just beneath the play-off zone.

Doncaster’s win left Coventry, who lost to a troubled Portsmouth side, firmly rooted to the bottom. The Sky Blues are without a win since mid-October, ten matches ago.

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