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Championship Focus: Week 18

Birmingham’s woes continue, a first home-win of 2017 for Sunderland and Weimann haunts his old-club.

Birmingham City v Nottingham Forest - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

City suffering from the winter blues

Birmingham City 1 Queens Park Rangers 2

The form book doesn’t make good reading for Birmingham City fans. The once-fancied Midlands club have lost their last three, only registering one win in their last ten, and have scored just four times since the end of September, making them the league’s lowest scorers by some margin. Steve Cotterill, the club’s second manager of the season, has made little progress during his time in charge and relegation to the third tier remains an alarming possibility.

On Saturday, visiting Queens Park Rangers took the lead at St. Andrews through an unlikely source. Seventeen minutes into the first-half, ex-Liverpool full-back Jack Robinson headed home his first league goal for the West-London club after a beautifully flighted set-piece from Luke Freeman. Birmingham were fortunate not to fall two behind, when Robinson looped a free-header over the crossbar, but they levelled soon after. Maikel Kieftenbeld, who nearly joined Derby in the summer but for an issue with the transfer’s paperwork, rifled a low shot towards goal, and when the usually reliable Alex Smithies spilled the ball, Sam Gallagher pounced to equalise.

It wasn’t to be Birmingham’s day. With goals for Burton and Sunderland agitating the home crowd, the Blues conceded once more and it was Robinson again who delivered the fatal blow. His left-foot strike from range nestled in the bottom corner and resigned Cotterill’s sorry Birmingham to the foot of the Championship table.

So, who’s to blame? Well, some City fans will point to the players who have underachieved despite the off-season hype. Having narrowly avoided the drop last season, more would have been expected from Birmingham’s stalwarts this time around, whilst few would have predicted that the seemingly smart acquisitions of the likes of Stockdale, Jota, Dean, Boga and Colin would have had such little influence on the team’s results. Others, however, will hark back to a decision made on the 14th December 2016 – the outrageous and unjustified sacking of Gary Rowett. Since Rowett’s departure, Cotterill is the third manager to try and fail to emulate his success and, to date, Birmingham’s loss has been Derby’s gain.

Cotterill surely deserves more time, but there’s no doubt that Saturday’s poor result against QPR leaves the Birmingham board with imminent decisions to make. Do they ride out this poor run in the hope of a revival in the New Year, or do they need to be hatching a ‘plan c’?

Dream league debut for Sunderland’s hero

Sunderland 1 Fulham 0

Sunderland v Everton: Premier League 2 Photo by Ian Horrocks/Getty Images

The Black Cats ended an embarrassing winless run this weekend, securing their first home victory in 2017 after a 364-day wait. A late goal from 18-year-old striker Josh Maja earned a 1-0 win over Fulham at the Stadium of Light and, in turn, hauled Chris Coleman’s side out of the Championship relegation zone.

Maja, whose only previous appearance came in a League Cup win over QPR in 2016, took his opportunity just five minutes after coming on as a substitute, swivelling and finishing cooly past Marcus Bettinelli. The goal was cruel on the Fulham keeper, who had produced a string of outstanding saves to deny Lewis Grabban and James Vaughan earlier in the match, but may prove crucial in Sunderland’s battle against back-to-back relegations.

Coleman’s appointment was considered to be a coup by many and it hasn’t taken long for his influence to show. His team have won two out of five under his leadership, almost doubling their points tally from the previous seventeen games. They have looked more assured defensively, keeping three clean sheets in their last four games, including an impressive shut-out against league leaders Wolves, and his trust in youngsters Josh Maja and Joel Asoro has eased some of the pressure on Lewis Grabban and James Vaughan up front.

Next up for Sunderland it’s a relegation six-pointer with bottom-side Birmingham and, with the Black Cats buoyed by Saturday’s result, few would bet against a second home-win of the year.

Elsewhere in the Championship…

Sheffield Wednesday v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Wolves maintained their four-point lead at the top of the Championship, winning 1-0 at Hillsborough against 10-man Sheffield Wednesday. As we approach the halfway mark, it appears that Nuno Espirito Santo’s side could even threaten Reading’s 106-point record if they continue their sensational form.

Cardiff followed up their late comeback at the Madejski with a hard-fought 1-0 win over Nigel Adkins’ Hull. Bluebirds captain Sol Bamba headed home the only goal. Bristol City also maintained pressure on the top-two with a 2-1 victory over Forest.

Gary Rowett’s Derby County are mounting a promotion challenge. Andreas Weimann’s goal against his former employers set them on their way to a 2-0 victory over fellow playoff candidates Aston Villa. Sheffield United, however, are barely clinging onto their place in the top-six. The Blades succumbed to defeat at Preston and finished the weekend just one point above rivals Leeds United. Thomas Christiansen’s team appear to have recovered from a recent blip, winning 1-0 against Norwich on Saturday.

Millwall secured an impressive three-points against an underwhelming Middlesborough. Jed Wallace and George Saville inflicted the damage for the home side in the first-half, before a Stewart Downing consolation goal set-up a nervy finish. Meanwhile, Lloyd Dyer’s goal helped Burton to a crucial win at fellow-strugglers Bolton and Barnsley ended a five-game losing streak when they earned a point in a bore-draw at Griffin Park.

Coming up next week:

Cardiff’s late equaliser and a deflating defeat at Portman Road has given the Royals a reality check. Burton visit Berkshire next weekend and an expectant crowd will demand no less than three points. It will be the 500th Reading game at the Madejski Stadium. Elsewhere, Birmingham’s trip to Sunderland will be worth monitoring and it will be interesting to see if Millwall can spring another surprise when they travel to Pride Park.