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Championship Focus: Week 14

Sunderland have a lifeline, Cardiff keep pace and former-Royals are scoring for fun.

Republic of Ireland v Wales - FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images

Is this the man to salvage Sunderland’s season?

Sunderland 2 Millwall 2

The demise of Sunderland Football Club has been swift, boundless and agonising. The Wearside club are rock-bottom of the Championship and have failed to win at the Stadium of Light for twenty successive games, a record stretching back to the visit of Watford in December 2016. Sunderland are without a manager for the eleventh time since Ellis Short bought the club with the latest manager, Simon Grayson, surviving just eighteen games - most of which ended in defeat.

Despite another turbulent week, the Black Cats may have secured a lifeline. Few would have thought that Chris Coleman, the ex-Fulham and Wales manager, would have had any interest in this seemingly poisoned chalice, in fact, many pundits were linking him with Premier League vacancies not so long ago. However, reports broke on Friday that the Welshman had left his position as national team coach and, on Sunday, he was confirmed as Sunderland’s new man-in-charge.

Coleman’s managerial CV is hardly glittering, his two spells in charge of English clubs garnering a 32.4% win-percentage, but his miraculous rejuvenation of an underperforming Welsh national team has vastly enhanced his reputation. Reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2016 was an achievement that turned heads across the world, so there’s every reason for Sunderland fans to feel that their club has pulled off a coup.

Coleman was not in attendance at Sunderland’s 2-2 draw with Millwall on Saturday and, given some of the quality on show, it was probably for the best! The topsy-turvy match was punctuated by goalkeeping disasters, starting twelve minutes in. Jordan Archer handed Sunderland the opener, fumbling Bryan Oviedo’s corner to Lewis Grabban, who pounced for his ninth of the season. Four minutes later, the lead was sacrificed. George Saville represented Northern Ireland at international level this week and his free-kick squirmed embarrassingly through the legs of Robbin Ruitter in the Sunderland goal. Four minutes later, Millwall were awarded a free-kick in a similar position and once more Ruitter failed hopelessly to deal with Saville’s floated set-piece, this time weakly palming the ball onto the inside of the post and in. Sunderland did salvage a point with arguably the blunder of the day. Adam Matthews’ harmless cross somehow bamboozled Jordan Archer, the goalkeeper’s legs seeming to crumble underneath him as he punched into his own net.

It doesn’t take too much scrutiny to see that Coleman has inherited a shambles. The players are void of confidence, the fans are bored of bemoaning disjointed performances and there are worrying trends emerging behind the scenes. Few would envy the Welshman this job, but if he did save the club from relegation and mount a promotion challenge next campaign, this could be his most impressive achievement to date.

The ‘Birds defeat the Bees

Cardiff City 2 Brentford 0

Fulham v Cardiff City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Harry Hubbard/Getty Images

Cardiff City’s impressive home form continued at the weekend, as they maintained pressure on the Championship’s top two and ended Brentford’s nine match unbeaten streak in the process. The Bluebirds remain just two points off second placed Sheffield United, ahead of a busy Christmas fixture list.

Both of Cardiff’s goals were scored in the first half on Saturday; 24-year-old midfielder Joe Ralls is flourishing this season and he opened the scoring after only eight minutes. Former Royal Sean Morrison hurled a notoriously long throw into the box and, when Brentford failed to clear, Ralls was lurking at the edge of the box to strike home. Danny Ward was offered a rare start for Cardiff, profiting from both an injury to Kenneth Zohore and a suspension for Omar Bogle, and he made the most of his opportunity. A marauding run from makeshift right-back Bruno Manga flummoxed the Bees backline and his square pass was neatly tucked home by Ward for 2-0.

The away side certainly created chances to get back into the game, registering 25 shots from 70.2% possession. However, no player will be more disappointed than Neal Maupay. The young Frenchman’s incredible miss denied his side a leveller with the game finely poised at 1-0. The clip has since circled on social media and, frankly, must be seen to be believed…

Even Cardiff’s winning manager Neil Warnock criticised the culprit after the game:

“I can’t blame anybody but the lad himself for that miss. I have no sympathy at all. He’s tried to be clever and give someone the eye rather than put it in.”

Cardiff travel to Oakwell on Tuesday night, hoping to climb into the automatic places, whilst Brentford have a chance to atone for their defeat at home to strugglers Burton Albion. Let’s hope, for their sake, that they are more clinical.

Elsewhere in the Championship…

Burton Albion v Sheffield United - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images

Sheffield United remain in hot pursuit of the leaders Wolves, thanks to a 3-1 away win at Burton Albion. Ex-Reading striker Billy Sharp scored a brace in a game marred by a broken leg for the Blades’ centre midfielder Paul Coutts, who could be out for the rest of the season. A further two ex-Royals scored the goals in a 1-1 draw between Fulham and Derby at Craven Cottage, Oliver Norwood’s goal cancelled out by the in-form Matej Vydra. Jamie Mackie also found the net for QPR on Saturday, but an Albert Adomah double sealed a precious win on-the-road for Aston Villa.

Birmingham climbed out of the relegation zone at the expense of Burton. Che Adams scored the only goal at St. Andrews in a 1-0 win over Nottingham Forest. Barnsley are continuing to draw clear of the drop zone too. Harvey Barnes looks a real prospect for the Tykes and his goal sealed a point at Norwich on Saturday.

Jordan Spence rescued a point for Ipswich at Hull’s KCOM Stadium, in an entertaining 2-2 draw. Incredibly, that was the Tractor Boys’ first draw of the season after sixteen league games. Meanwhile, Garry Monk suffered an unhappy return to Elland Road. His Boro side lost 2-1 to Leeds United in Sunday’s televised game.

There were two stalemates this weekend. Sheffield Wednesday failed to break down Bristol City’s defence, whilst Reading’s next opponents Bolton Wanderers secured an away point in a 0-0 draw against Preston.

Coming up next week:

We have a Championship double-header to look forward to. The Royals travel to Phil Parkinson’s Bolton in the hope of returning to winning ways, before the visit of an underperforming Sheffield Wednesday side next Saturday. On Tuesday night, Sheffield United versus Fulham also catches the eye and, on Saturday, it’s worth watching the Yorkshire derby between Barnsley and Leeds in the early kick-off, as well as keeping track of a relegation dogfight between Burton Albion and Sunderland.