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Championship Focus: Week 24

Villa eye-up automatic promotion, Birmingham surge to safety and Leeds suffer a rout.

Aston Villa v Burton Albion - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

Six out of six for rampant Villa

Aston Villa 3 Burton Albion 2

Could this be the year that Villa rise again like a phoenix from the ashes? Steve Bruce’s side are on enviable form, having won their last six league games, and now sit third, just one point from an automatic promotion spot.

Bruce’s tenure hasn’t all been plain sailing. The experienced manager was subject a barrage of criticism earlier this season, after a succession of ‘negative’ and ‘defensive’ team performances and a feeling that he was too quick to make excuses both ‘pre’ and ‘post’-match. The Villains only won one of their opening seven league games and, at that time, the manager’s job was under severe scrutiny. Months on, pressure on the dugout has eased, with fans and management once more united in their promotion push.

On Saturday, Villa despatched lowly Burton. Scott Hogan has ended a baron spell in some style, netting five times in as many games, and he opened the scoring with the simplest of finishes. A gutsy display from the visitors kept Villa at bay but, in the sixty-fifth minute, prolific winger Albert Adomah headed home a second.

Ahmed Elmohamady handed the Brewers a lifeline with a comical own goal - the Egyptian’s attempted clearance skewed into the top corner of his own net. But, two minutes from time, the talented Jack Grealish volleyed home inside the penalty area to secure all three points. Liam Boyce’s late goal was merely a consolation and the match finished 3-2.

Aston Villa are naturally considered one of the ‘bigger’ teams in the Championship and, with momentum building, plenty will fancy Steve Bruce’s side to join Wolves in the automatic promotion places come-May. However, comfortable wins for Cardiff and Derby this weekend serve as a reminder that this is no foregone conclusion. Villa host Birmingham in the ‘Second City Derby’ next Sunday, hoping to make it seven wins out of seven.

Resurgent Brum dart clear of danger

Sheffield Wednesday 1 Birmingham City 3

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

What a week it’s been for Birmingham City... The Blues followed up a 3-1 win over relegation-rivals Sunderland with a crucial victory, by the same score-line, at Hillsborough on Saturday. Birmingham are now four points clear of the drop-zone, aiming to survive a relegation scare for the second time in successive seasons.

Jos Luhukay’s Wednesday offered their fair share of help to Birmingham on Saturday, in a clumsy performance littered with mistakes and punctuated by two red cards. Federico Venancio, once linked with the Royals, made a mess of dealing with a harmless cross from the right-hand side and David Davis nipped in to break the deadlock after just eight minutes.

The second goal was even more embarrassing for the home-side. The Owls sacrificed possession in the midfield, allowing Jota to strike from distance. The ball dipped in front of Joe Wildsmith, squirmed through the keeper’s legs and nestled in the bottom corner. 0-2. Unbelievably, things would get even worse. Marco Matias was dismissed after a scuffle with Cohen Brammall and, to cap off a miserable first-half, Jota bagged his second for 3-0.

Lucas Joao has been a bright spark for Wednesday under their new Dutch manager and the Portuguese striker offered some hope at the start of the second-half, firing past David Stockdale. Any hopes were dashed though when Daniel Pudil received his second booking, reducing the home-side to nine men. The Sheffield Wednesday revival petered out.

Despite their good fortune on Saturday, Birmingham deserve great credit for taking positive steps towards safety this week. The side will be growing in confidence and able to enjoy their Cup replay against Premier League Huddersfield on Tuesday night. Steve Cotterill, who has weathered a stuttering start to his tenure, could yet be a long-term answer for the recovering Blues.

Elsewhere in the Championship…

Wolverhampton Wanderers v Sheffield United - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Malcolm Couzens - AMA/Getty Images

Wolves continue to look uncatchable at the top of the Championship table after a 3-0 victory over Sheffield United at Molineux. Goals from Neves, Jota and Cavaleiro wrapped up Nuno Espirito Santo’s side’s twenty-first win of the season.

Derby and Cardiff also won comfortably on Saturday. Derby remain second, thanks to a 3-0 win against 10-man Brentford – Matej Vydra scoring for the Rams. Neil Warnock’s Cardiff secured an impressive away victory, 4-1 over 10-man Leeds United. That result piles pressure on Leeds manager Thomas Christiansen, a fan-favourite earlier in the season who has fallen from grace over recent months.

Fulham maintained their electric-form winning 2-0 against Nottingham Forest, Lucas Piazon scoring for the Cottagers, but Bristol City slipped up. Bristol fell to sixth after a 1-0 defeat at the Macron Stadium against Parky’s Bolton.

Tom Trybull scored the winner for Norwich against Middlesbrough, who were also reduced to ten-men when Rudy Gestede was sent off for a reckless lunge. Meanwhile, QPR beat Barnsley at Loftus Road, a terrific strike from Josh Scowen proving the difference.

Nigel Adkins is struggling to revive Hull’s season and, despite taking the lead at Deepdale, the Tigers lost again. Greg Cunningham and Alan Browne resigned the visitors to the relegation zone. It’s also looking bleak for Sunderland who lost at home to Ipswich, courtesy of two first-half goals.

Coming up next week:

A disjointed Reading face a tough run of games, starting with Middlesbrough away next weekend. Tony Pulis’ side desperately need a win to keep their playoff challenge alive. Elsewhere, Sheffield United vs Leeds United will be worth a watch and the Second City Derby on Sunday will have implications at both ends of the table.