Here are this week’s five conclusions from Gameweek 32 in the English Championship, a weekend that saw the frontrunners hold onto their positions at the summit.
1. Boro Lacking Goals
I spoke recently of Middlebrough’s steady progress under Aitor Karanka, but things at the Riverside have stalled somewhat over the last number of matches. Having moved to within ten points of the Playoff spots in recent months, Boro have had something of a barren spell, with no win in their last six matches.
More worrying though is Boro’s lack of goals over their winless period; they have failed to net a single time over the past six games in a dismal run spanning over 600 minutes of football. The home game against Leeds United saw Boro dominate in attack, with eleven shots, but were thwarted on several occasions by the excellent Jack Butland in goal. Boro’s top scorers this season all come from midfield, with Albert Adomah and Mustapha Carayol doing the work of the strikers so far in 2013/14.
Boro have been solid defensively this year, with four clean sheets in their last five games, but what they are clearly lacking is a striker. Their only current first-team forwards are Curtis Main and Kei Kamara, both of whom have failed to net regularly enough, while new number nine Danny Graham, signed on loan from Sunderland, has just one goal in his last 40 club appearances. Karanka’s stoic nature has been a positive force at the Riverside, but excellent defensive displays are currently being neutralised by a weak forward line, something the Spaniard will have to change if his side are to make any sort of Premier League push in the future.
2. Bad weekend for Playoff chasers
While frontrunners Leicester City and Burnley both registered victories on Saturday, results were not so positive for other teams in and around the promotion places, with QPR, Nottingham Forest, Reading, Brighton and Ipswich all falling foul to defeats this weekend.
Perhaps most unforgivable is QPR’s 1-0 loss away to struggling Charlton. While Harry Redknapp’s side have been inhibited by injuries to players like Matt Phillips and Charlie Austin in recent weeks, anything other than victory against a Charlton side who had lost their previous four matches and lay 22nd in the league table would surely have been a disappointment going into the game. Spurned chances from Ravel Morrison and Modibo Maiga saw the R’s slide to their third consecutive defeat, and fans must now surely be worrying for their team’s automatic promotion chances.
Nigel Adkins’ Reading side were also left ruing their missed opportunities, with the Royals slumping to a 1-0 defeat against in-form Blackburn. The result comes as a surprise given Reading’s good performances lately, and they will be hoping to bounce back quickly against Yeovil next week.
More understandable were the other mentioned teams, who lost to sides near or above them, but the number of sides near the top dropping points this weekend shows how tight things could be in May, and simply serves to highlight the unpredictability of the Championship.
3. Barnsley still fighting
One team down towards the bottom of the league who will be delighted with their weekend’s work are Danny Wilson’s Barnsley, who secured a vital 1-0 win over fellow strugglers Millwall on Saturday. The victory came after a five-match winless run for the Tykes, who are now just two points from safety.
The performance was marked by good performances from Emmanuel Frimpong and Jacob Mellis, as well as a solid defensive effort which gave Barnsley their first clean sheet in six matches. Jim O’Brien’s early goal made all the difference, but it wasn’t all positive for Wilson’s team. Perhaps typical of a side who have struggled so much this season, Barnsley often played too tentatively, and were put under unnecessary pressure on occasions due to poor distribution from ‘keeper Luke Steele. Additionally, the other two bottom sides won at the weekend, which neutralises Barnsley’s result somewhat.
This week’s performance may not have been Barnsley’s best, but wins in crucial six-pointers like this are what Wilson’s team need at this stage of the season as they try and secure their Championship status. Personally, I feel too many draws will cost them dearly, but if they put a run of games together then anything could happen.
4. Wigan Right in the mix
Last time I praised Wigan at Christmas time, the Latics were six points off the Playoffs. A couple of months later and Uwe Rosler’s side have four wins in their last five matches and sit just one point off the top six.
Saturday’s game was a massive result for Wigan, beating a wasteful Brighton & Hove Albion side who are also desperate to be at Wembley at the end of the season. Rosler’s side were economical with their few chances, converting both their shots on target to take all three points against a Brighton team who had sixteen more efforts than their opponents. Rosler admitted after the game that his side were lucky to come out victorious, but the win continues his team’s good form and increases hope that they can push for a Premier League return. The result will be even more welcome considering the fact so many other sides around the top dropped points (see above).
Wigan seem to have goals coming from everywhere recently, with midfielders James McArthur and Chris McCann providing the finishing touches on Saturday. They are undoubtedly now in with a good chance of a Playoff spot, but with Ben Watson suffering a broken leg and tough games against Forest and QPR coming up, it will be interesting to see how Wigan cope.
5. Bolton staying afloat
Finally, Bolton were another success story down the wrong side of the table this week as they maintained a six-point gap on the bottom three with a 2-0 win over Watford at the Reebok Stadium.
Dougie Freedman’s side have struggled a lot this season, with defensive frailties being exposed and rumblings of instability behind the scene, but the Trotters’ first win in nine games fairly reflected one of Freedman’s side’s more impressive displays this season. The performance was notable for the tireless work rate of Lukas Jutkiewicz and Joe Mason up front, as well as strong defensive shifts from Matt Mills and David Wheater.
More pleasing still was that the win came against a side who, by all accounts, would have been comfortable favourites to win the game. Watford had been unbeaten in five games under Beppe Sannino, so Wanderers’ resounding victory on Saturday will give fans hope that they will continue to stay clear of the drop this season. Freedman has spoken positively this week regarding the youth development at Wanderers, with promising U-21 players like Georg Iliev and Tom Youngs coming through the ranks, so things could be on the up for the team once they secure their Championship status.
Pundit Arena, Jamie O’ Neill.