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Championship Focus: Week 20

A last-gasp winner at Ashton Gate, Winnall sends Derby second and Pulis falls short at the first attempt.

Bristol City v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images

Unstoppable Wolves break City hearts

Bristol City 1-2 Wolverhampton Wanderers

The Championship’s runaway leaders went ten points clear with a dramatic comeback-victory over Bristol City at Ashton Gate. In a match fraught with controversy, both sides were reduced to ten-men and Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo was sent to the stands, before centre-back Ryan Bennett’s stoppage time header decided the tie.

In truth, the win wasn’t convincing, Bristol threatening from the off – and the case for a home victory was strengthened within fifteen minutes. Wolves captain Danny Batth was sent off for a dangerous lunge on Hordur Magnussen, followed soon by his manager, whose protests were deemed worthy of dismissal. Barry Douglas’ free-kick rattled the woodwork for 10-man Wolves, but neither side could prevent a stalemate at the break.

Bobby Reid is a transformed player this season and his twelfth of the campaign broke the deadlock. The midfielder-turned-striker prodded goal-bound and the ball squirmed under John Ruddy’s outstretched arm into the net. With the Robins one-up and in the driver’ seat, another dismissal swung the pendulum. Matt Doherty was brought down by goalkeeper Frank Fielding outside the penalty box, Fielding was shown a straight red card for denying a goal-scoring opportunity and, to make matters worse, Douglas’ deflected free-kick beat substitute keeper Luke Steele to level the scores.

In the fourth minute of additional time, a staggering comeback was completed. Douglas turned provider, whipping a set-piece to the far-post to be met by an unlikely match-winner, Bennett, who nodded home. Cue pandemonium, both in the away end and in the director’s box.

Can anyone catch the Championship’s eye-catching pace-setters? Well, even at this relatively early stage, it looks highly unlikely. Wanderers are in scintillating form – in fact, they haven’t lost a match since October – and having demonstrated that their gifted crop of imported superstars have the tenacity to perform at their best twice-a-week through the harsh winter, they have little more to prove. The last five teams to top the table at Christmas have gone on to be promoted and none of those have been ten points clear at the end of December.

Some may resent their fortuity of being able to secure top-talent for astronomical figures, beyond the capacity of many of their league rivals, but contrarily, I take my hat off to them. Plenty before have ‘spent big’ and still failed to dominate this ever-unpredictable league. Espirito Santo has gelled this team in an instant and is reaping richly-deserved rewards.

Winnall stars for Rowett’s rampant Rams

Ipswich Town 1-2 Derby County

Derby County v Burton Albion - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

It’s been a December to remember for Derby County fans. A string of fine performances, a succession of clean sheets and some clinical finishing from their wealth of attacking talent has propelled the Rams up the Championship table and, at the turn of the year, they now reside in the second automatic promotion place. Gary Rowett’s managerial stock continues to rise, justifiably.

Sam Winnall was Derby’s hero on Saturday afternoon – the striker on loan from Sheffield Wednesday scored a brace to secure the Rams’ seventh win in nine games. He first found the net after just thirteen minutes. Tom Lawrence, returning to a ground he once called home, delivered a corner from the right, Winnall leapt highest and squeezed a header in off the post. Soon after half-time, the striker doubled his side’s advantage in style. He swivelled twenty-five yards from goal, steadied himself, before rifling a long-range effort into the top corner. As the cliché dictates, this was a goal worthy of winning any match.

Despite Joe Garner’s consolation for Ipswich, Mick McCarthy was quick to praise the victorious visitors in his post-match interview with the BBC:

"We were beaten by a better team, a considerably better team on the day. They have been very expensively assembled prior to Gary getting there and he is now getting the best out of them."

So, in a season where second place has been somewhat of a ‘hot potato’, secured one minute and sacrificed the next, are Derby capable of maintaining their stronghold into the new year? They certainly have the necessary credentials on paper – the threat of Vydra, Nugent and Lawrence, the added experience of Huddlestone and Davies, and the influence of a highly respected manager. As for Winnall, who has been used primarily as a substitute this campaign, his fourth and fifth goals of the season have given Rowett plenty to ponder ahead of the visit of Sheffield United on New Year’s Day.

Elsewhere in the Championship…

Aston Villa v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images,

Steve Bruce obviously hadn’t read the script for Tony Pulis’ first game in charge of Middlesbrough. Robert Snodgrass scored the only goal at the Riverside, but Villa remain outside of the playoffs on goals scored.

It hasn’t been an especially merry Christmas for Sheffield United, whose stuttering run of form continued at the weekend. They succumbed to defeat against Bolton – their fifth defeat in eight games. Their manager-less rivals Sheffield Wednesday also endured a torrid time on Saturday, losing 2-0 to Brentford at Griffin Park.

Cardiff tripped up again, this time at home to Preston on Friday night, who are now just one point from the top-six. Tom Clarke headed home a stoppage-time winner in a drab 1-0. That evening, Millwall won a London-derby with QPR by the same scoreline, increasing scrutiny on Ian Holloway.

Sunderland and Birmingham both registered crucial wins in their bid for survival. Birmingham won impressively against Leeds, whilst Aiden McGeady’s goal separated the Black Cats and their hosts Nottingham Forest. The Forest board responded by sacking their manager Marc Warburton after nine months in charge.

Finally, substitute Aboubakar Kamara saved Fulham from defeat in a ‘game of two halves’ at the KCOM Stadium. Jarrod Bowen and Nouha Dicko had deservedly given the Tigers a two-goal lead, but Kamara’s second-half brace salvaged a point for the Cottagers. Meanwhile, Burton fell into the drop-zone despite a 0-0 draw with Norwich.

Coming up next week:

Despite a gulf of eight points between the teams, Reading’s clash with Birmingham on Tuesday night has the feel of a relegation six-pointer. Needless to say, Jaap Stam is in desperate need of a positive result, prior to a cup-visit to Stevenage at the weekend. Of 2018’s opening fixtures, Derby County vs Sheffield United and Preston vs Middlesbrough are arguably the picks of the bunch.