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Championship Focus: Week 21

Sunderland hit for four, Fulham mount a playoff challenge and the Steel City derby disappoints.

Cardiff City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

“A manager from Waitrose, players from Aldi…”

Cardiff City 4-0 Sunderland

Former-player Micky Gray pulled no punches when describing Sunderland’s mire at the foot of the Championship table in an interview with Football on 5. His comments followed a 4-0 demolition at the hands of Cardiff on Saturday, in which the Black Cats were reduced to ten-men.

After a goalless opening forty-five, the home side came alive after the break and scored soon after. Cardiff defender Callum Paterson rose highest in the penalty area, beating Sunderland’s flailing goalkeeper in the air and heading beyond the defender on the line. Coleman’s miserable return to his homeland was compounded three minutes later. Didier Ndong’s lunge merited a straight red card and, simultaneously, quashed his side’s chances of a comeback.

Cardiff put their opposition to the sword. Joe Ralls scored his seventh goal of the season, finishing off a lightning breakaway, before Paterson doubled his tally for the afternoon, turning in a deflected free-kick for 3-0. The rout was completed in stoppage-time. Yanic Wildschut recently signed for the Bluebirds on loan from Norwich and his square-pass teed up Anthony Pilkington for an easy finish.

Coleman’s decision to take the Sunderland job certainly raised a few eyebrows, but his struggle to inspire improved performances and results must be concerning for the fans and make back-to-back relegations alarmingly likely. The Black Cats have now conceded more goals than any other team in the Championship and, having allowed both Lewis Grabban and James Vaughan to leave the club last week, their lack of goal-threat is also a pressing concern. They face two relegation six-pointers over the next two weeks, against Hull and Birmingham – matches that could make or break their season.

The Cottagers spice up the race for the top-six

Middlesbrough 0 Fulham 1

Middlesbrough v Sunderland - FA Cup - Third Round - Riverside Stadium Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

Fulham may be peaking at the right time. Last year’s playoff hopefuls have now won four of their last five league games and sit just one point outside the playoffs, with a succession of winnable games to follow.

On Saturday, ex-Royal Oliver Norwood scored a ninety-fifth minute penalty to earn a crucial win at the Riverside, denying Tony Pulis a first home-win as Boro’ manager. Despite Fulham’s superior possession, Middlesbrough had created the better chances in the first-half, Rudy Gestede and Jonny Howson coming closest for the hosts. Gestede’s opportunity was particularly golden - the striker raced through on goal and, one-on-one with the keeper, skewed a weak effort wide of the post.

The match was ultimately decided by two penalty decisions – one given and another waved away. Boro’ can consider themselves hard-done-by that Martin Braithwaite wasn’t awarded a penalty when Tomas Kalas appeared to drag the Dane to the ground as he tried to work space in the area. Norwood, however, was more fortunate. The ref pointed to the spot deep into injury time, after a trip from Grant Leadbitter, and the Northern Irish midfielder slotted home for a dramatic late winner.

Many fancied Fulham for promotion this season, expecting the West Londoners to build upon a strong finish to the 2016/17 season, but they’ve struggled to maintain consistent form. Fulham have conceded too many goals for a promotion hopeful, only one fewer than Reading in fact, and, although they haven’t struggled going forwards, a consistent goal-scorer has been lacking. In fact, the Cottagers’ top scorer is seventeen-year-old winger or wing-back Ryan Sessegnon, whilst new frontmen Aboubakar Kamara and Rui Fonte, who cost £13.6 million (transfermarkt) in the summer, have scored just seven between them.

A recent resurgence, however, has restored hope and few would bet against them making a late promotion challenge. With rumours circulating that another striking option could arrive this month, Fulham may well be a team to watch out for.

Elsewhere in the Championship…

Sheffield United v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet Championship - Bramall Lane Photo by Danny Lawson/PA Images via Getty Images

Two newly-appointed managers graced Championship dugouts this weekend, but neither were victorious. Jos Luhukay oversaw his Sheffield Wednesday side earn a point in a feisty Steel City derby. Glen Loovens was sent off for the Owls, but Sheffield United couldn’t make their man-advantage count. Meanwhile, Aitor Karanka’s first game as Nottingham Forest manager ended in defeat, Scott Hogan scoring the only goal for Aston Villa.

Barnsley became the eighth team to prevent Wolves from taking all three points this season. The Tykes held on for a 0-0 draw against Nuno Espirito Santo’s side. That afforded Derby County the opportunity to reduce the gap to the runaway leaders and they duly did. Jonny Russell, Matej Vydra and Andreas Weimann scored for the Rams, as Gary Rowett secured an emphatic win against his former employer, Birmingham City.

Bristol City’s performance at the Etihad on Tuesday night attracted rave reviews, but perhaps their efforts hampered their chances against Norwich on Saturday. The Canaries won 1-0 at Ashton Gate, sought-after youngster James Maddison scoring the winning goal. Leeds missed the chance to steal a playoff-spot. They lost 1-0 at Ipswich, thanks to a wonder-goal from tricky midfielder Bersant Celina.

Brentford’s mid-season revival continued on Saturday, when Neal Maupay’s clever back-heel finish wrapped up a victory against Bolton. Playoff-challengers Preston were held by Millwall in a 1-1 draw at the New Den. Finally, Burton remained in the drop-zone, losing 3-1 at home to QPR. The second away-win of the season for Rangers eased lingering pressure on manager Ian Holloway.

Coming up next week:

The Royals face Stevenage in their FA Cup replay on Tuesday night, battling for an away tie against Sheffield Wednesday or Carlisle United in the 4th Round. Jaap Stam will need to build on a point at the KCOM Stadium, when Brentford visit Berkshire next Saturday. Elsewhere, Derby County vs Bristol City could be a cracker on Friday night and Reading fans must keep an eye on Hull vs Sunderland, should the game at the Mad Stad not go to plan!