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Championship Focus: Week 25

Heckingbottom suffers opening defeat, a stunning comeback buoys Sunderland and Alfie scores a screamer.

2018 EFL Championship Football Sheff Utd v Leeds Utd Feb 10th Photo by Conor Molloy/Action Plus via Getty Images

Sharp shooting punishes Leeds

Sheffield United 2 Leeds United 1

It’s been a turbulent few weeks at Elland Road. Leeds have endured a torrid run of form, failing to win in eight successive games, they have suffered a string of injuries and suspensions, sacked their once heralded manager Thomas Christiansen and, controversially, employed bitter rivals Barnsley’s Paul Heckingbottom as the successor. Patience of the vocal supporters is being tested once more and pressure is growing on the Leeds hierarchy, including Director of Football Victor Orta, blamed for a series of underwhelming signings. Not to mention the reveal of a new club crest, met with such disgust and protest, that it has since been rescinded!

On Saturday lunchtime, Paul Heckingbottom managed Leeds for the first time in a Yorkshire derby at Brammal Lane. Within two minutes, disaster struck. Ex-Royal Billy Sharp lashed home a sumptuous volley to put the Blades in front, connecting sweetly with Mark Duffy’s cross. That was the 32-year old striker’s seventh goal of the season, with another still to come.

Leeds only rallied after the interval, seemingly rejuvenated by Heckingbottom’s half-time team talk, and they equalised soon after. Substitute Pablo Hernandez capitalised on some sloppy defending by Jack O’Connell and supplied Pierre Michel Lasogga with a lofted cross. The German made no mistake and headed home for 1-1. In spite of some brave defending by Pontus Janssen and Matthew Pennington for the away-side, they couldn’t hold on to a point. Eunan O’Kane tripped John Fleck in the box and the game’s star man, Billy Sharp, converted calmly.

It’s hardly turmoil at Leeds. Thanks to a positive start to the season, they sit comfortably in a mid-table spot, but for a club with such significant backing and a history of success, the ambitious fans will have expected more. With Derby, Bristol City and Wolves to play over their next five games, it looks like the Championship’s glamour club may have to wait another year to mount an overdue promotion challenge.

Robins stunned by Sunderland comeback

Bristol City 3 Sunderland 3

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

Nobody could have expected this. Championship strugglers Sunderland staged the most unlikely comeback of the season on Saturday, to steal a point at Ashton Gate. The visiting underdogs were 3-0 down with twenty minutes remaining, but two City own goals helped the Black Cats to a result on the road.

Chris Coleman’s side, who have won just twice away from home this season, went behind early on. Notably prolific centre-back Aden Flint gathered the ball unmarked in the six-yard box and prodded past Lee Camp in goal. Famara Diedhiou doubled City’s tally. The record summer signing latched onto Bobby Reid’s through-pass, evaded the onrushing keeper and finished emphatically. Soon after, he bagged his second of the game from close-range to, seemingly, put the game to bed. Disgruntled Sunderland fans, making a 600-mile round trip, berated their players’ lacklustre display. 3-0 at half-time.

The unthinkable comeback was triggered by a moment of good fortune. Lee Cattermole’s header struck the bar in front of the travelling support, but the ball rebounded off City midfielder Josh Brownhill and cannoned into the net. Sunderland had a lifeline. Next, a cleverly worked free-kick assisted Aiden McGeady, who scored to reduce the deficit again. Ten minutes remained to salvage something. Bristol looked tired and, with seconds remaining, Sunderland equalised. To the dismay of Marlon Pack, a low cross flicked inelegantly off his heel and looped over Frank Fielding to make it 3-3.

There is no doubt that this result does little more than paper over the cracks at Sunderland. The Wearside club are 23rd and three points from safety but, if any had written off their survival chances, this showing of resilience and determination may plant a seed of doubt. Coleman’s side face Brentford and Bolton up next.

Elsewhere in the Championship…

Hull City v Nottingham Forest - The Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Photo by Ashley Allen/Getty Images

Nigel Adkins’s Hull secured a crucial three points at the City Ground, ending a run of nine league games without a win. Jon Toral and Harry Wilson scored the goals in a 2-0 victory.

Fellow relegation candidates Burton Albion, Barnsley and Bolton also picked up points this weekend. Burton stopped their rot in a stalemate at Portman Road, whilst manager-less Barnsley earned a point in an all-Yorkshire contest with Sheffield Wednesday. Meanwhile, Bolton secured an unexpected point against high-flying Fulham, thanks to a sublime strike from familiar super-sub Adam Le Fondre.

At the top of the table, Wolves continue to look destined for the Premier League, as they registered another hard-fought victory over QPR. Derby failed to win however, drawing 1-1 with Norwich, despite taking the lead through former-Royal and the league’s top scorer Matej Vydra.

That result allowed Aston Villa to move into second. Two second-half goals, including a superb volley from Connor Hourihane, inflicted defeat on Second City rivals Birmingham in front of a packed house at Villa Park.

Cardiff drew 1-1 at the New Den but, controversially, had a late goal disallowed, the referee blowing up for an earlier foul and denying the visitors what would have been a telling advantage. Tim Cahill made his second Millwall debut from the bench. Playoff-chasing Preston were forced to share the spoils too, reduced to ten-men but taking a point at Brentford.

Coming up next week:

Disgruntled Reading fans will have to wait over a week for their next game, but nine Championship fixtures remain unharmed by the FA Cup fifth round schedule. Fulham vs Aston Villa could be a humdinger, with both sides still harbouring hopes of automatic promotion, whilst Norwich host Ipswich in the East Anglian derby on Sunday.