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Championship Focus: Week 28

In snowy conditions, Fulham ‘sleigh’ the Rams, Preston leave Bolton on ‘thin ice’ and there’s a ‘flurry’ of goals elsewhere.

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

They came, they ‘thawed’, they conquered again...

Derby County 1-2 Fulham

There is simply no stopping Fulham at the moment. The Cottagers remain unbeaten in thirteen league games, winning ten of those and scoring thirty-two goals in the process – more than Birmingham, Burton and Bolton have mustered in the entire season.

In the aftermath of Storm Emma, Fulham defeated promotion rivals Derby County to leapfrog Gary Rowett’s side in the league table. The visitors’ very-own ‘Beast from the East’ opened the scoring after ten minutes. Imposing Serbian Aleksandar Mitrovic has proven a big-hit since his January loan-move from Newcastle and, when Stefan Johansen hooked a half-volley towards goal, the striker pounced on the loose ball to force a deflected shot past Scott Carson.

17-year old Ryan Sessegnon is rightly earning plaudits from influencers within the game, following a string of impressive displays and a rich vein of scoring form. The winger bagged his fourteenth of the season to compound Derby’s misery. This time, Johansen’s assist was intentional - a cute back-heel releasing Sessegnon who struck low and hard into the bottom corner. 2-0 at half-time.

Derby, who had threatened throughout, earned a lifeline midway through the second period. Tom Huddlestone, the ex-Tottenham and Hull midfielder, saw his long-range shot nestle in the bottom corner past Marcus Bettinelli. The Fulham goalkeeper was determined to prevent a late comeback though and a smart save late-on denied the Rams a point.

This Fulham run does trigger memories of Reading’s legendary unbeaten streak in 2012, which eventually led to an unlikely league title. Wolves appear to be out of reach for Slavisa Jokanovic’s side on this occasion, but five points adrift of second-placed Cardiff, who admittedly have a game in hand, they may fancy their chances of a late challenge for automatic promotion. Derby, meanwhile, are without a win in five and suddenly find themselves looking down the table, rather than up.

Bolton ‘slip-up’ against dark-horses Preston

Bolton Wanderers 1-3 Preston North End

Preston North End v Bolton Wanderers - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Preston’s achievements this season have gone largely under the radar. With a limited budget, Alex Neil has built a competitive side at Deepdale and with eleven games remaining, North End sit just three points shy of the playoffs.

The Lilywhites had to battle back from behind on Saturday. Bolton are in the thick of a relegation scrap, but their fans were given reason to cheer within a quarter of an hour, when Mark Beevers converted from a corner on his second attempt. Phil Parkinson’s men were dreaming of a crucial win, ahead of a six-pointer at the Madejski on Tuesday night.

But, the tables turned in the second half. In the bitter cold, Tom Barkhuizen rushed clear of the Wanderers defence, before finishing cooly to equalise. Having lost star-striker Jordan Hugill on deadline day, Preston’s remaining forwards are under more pressure to supply goals and Sean Maguire answered the brief this time. Returning from a long-term hamstring injury, the Irish forward turned home Callum Robinson’s cross for 1-2, before poaching from close-range in stoppage time to seal the points.

Though it can frustrate fans, avoiding the limelight is not always such a bad thing in a promotion challenge. In fact, this is something that Reading have profited from on more than one occasion. However, with two crucial ties against Bristol City and Fulham up next, it might not be long before the media take note of Preston’s outside chance of playoff contention.

Elsewhere in the Championship (in the snow)…

Middlesbrough v Southampton - Premier League Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

The fixture list was decimated by frozen pitches this weekend, but the games that went ahead provided their fair share of entertainment. Patrick Bamford was the hero of Friday night’s televised game. He scored his first career hat-trick to secure a 3-0 win for ‘Boro against Leeds.

Bristol City put four past Sheffield Wednesday, including a hat-trick from Bobby Reid. The Owls are proving that a change in management doesn’t always trigger a positive change in results, with Jos Luhukay achieving just one league win in nine attempts.

Millwall drew 1-1 with Sunderland to deny the Black Cats what would have been a vital win. Shaun Hutchinson cancelled out Bryan Oviedo’s stunning first-half strike.

Finally, Steve Cotterill was under pressure at struggling Birmingham and, after a 2-1 defeat at Forest, he was relieved of his duties at St. Andrews. Garry Monk looks set to take over for the remainder of the season.

Coming up next week:

Snowfall may well have prevented a confidence-sapping drubbing this Saturday, but the Royals don’t have long to prepare for their next Championship fixture. Reading host Phil Parkinson’s Bolton in a relegation six-pointer on Tuesday night, before a third successive home game against Leeds on Saturday.

Elsewhere, Birmingham vs Middlesbrough could be an interesting clash, if indeed Garry Monk is appointed in time to face his ex-employer, whilst two derbies catch the eye at the weekend – Aston Villa vs Wolves and Forest vs Derby.