We look ahead to the upcoming fixtures in the Sky Bet Championship.PROMOTION CONTENDERS
As the Sky Bet Championship nears its half way point for the season, Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth sit top of the pile in just their second year in the division.
The Cherries have been rampant in front of goal, scoring 50 times so far this term - 10 more than any other side in the league. Eleven of those have come in their last two fixtures, courtesy of 5-3 and 6-1 wins over Cardiff and Blackpool respectively, and they’ll be confident heading into the busiest period of the season, as they take on bottom-half sides Fulham and Millwall.
Promotion for the Cherries may have been unthinkable back in August but should they fail to reach the top flight in May, they’ll be just the fifth team in Championship history to do so having led the pack on Christmas day.
The scrap for the other automatic promotion place continues to excite and only three points separate Ipswich Town, Brentford, Middlesbrough, Derby County and Watford.
Second-placed Ipswich will take on Brentford at Griffin Park on Boxing Day, with the latter having the opportunity to leapfrog their opponents in the standings. Mick McCarthy’s Ipswich then host Charlton Athletic at Portman Road on Tuesday, while Brentford face a tough trip to Molineux to play Wolverhampton Wanderers.
TWO TO WIN? The last three meetings between Ipswich and Brentford have seen the score end 2-0 in the Tractor Boys’ favour, and they’ve never failed to hit the back of the net against the Bees.
Derby travel to St Andrews on Friday to meet in-form Birmingham City before looking to get revenge against Leeds United on Tuesday, in a clash that will be live on Sky Sports. The Rams were defeated 2-0 by Leeds at Elland Road in November, and that was the first blow on a run that has seen them take just one win in their last four.
Watford will also appear in front of the Sky Sports cameras, on Friday, when they entertain Wolves. The Hornets are on a run of three consecutive wins, having previously lost four on the bounce during November.
Four points worse off than Watford are Norwich City, who have dropped off the pace in the last few months having topped the standings in the first few weeks of the season. They’re tied in seventh with Blackburn Rovers, who’ve won only one of their last four, and their next fixtures include a trip to Bolton and a visit from the struggling Rotherham.
TIS THE SEASON TO BE JOLLY: The last time Norwich were in the Championship, back in 2010/11, they had a stellar Christmas period, recording three straight wins to boost their eventually-successful promotion bid.
This busy period of matches has the potential to make or break the season of mid-table sides, with the teams between ninth and 17th separated by just six points.
Nottingham Forest are still struggling in pursuit of the form that saw them among the favourites for promotion this year, when they made an 11-game unbeaten start to the campaign. Stuart Pearce’s men face two tricky fixtures as 2014 draws to a close, travelling to Middlesbrough before hosting Birmingham at the City Ground on Sunday, in another match you can see live on Sky Sports.
Wolves are a far cry from the kind of performances that saw them mixing it with the big guns in the early part of the campaign, and they’ve won just once in their last eight outings, five of which have been losses. That form has seen them slip seven points adrift of Watford in the final Play-Off space, and they meet two sides who occupy the top six over the coming week, in Watford and Brentford.
Just behind them are Cardiff City, who suffered their first home defeat under Russell Slade last weekend. They face Charlton on Friday, and another loss would see them plummet below the Addicks in the table. The Bluebirds have only one away win so far, at Watford in November, and the Hornets will visit South Wales on Sunday. Charlton, meanwhile, are on a run of five games without a victory, and boast an unwanted high in the division for draws this season, sharing the spoils on 12 occasions.
Fulham have perhaps completed the turnaround of the season so far to sit 13th, after they started 2014/15 without a win in eight league games to leave them rooted to the bottom of the table. Kit Symons has steered them nine points clear of the drop zone, and they have contrasting fixture prospects this week, taking on league leaders Bournemouth and lowly Brighton & Hove Albion.
Sheffield Wednesday, who were on the receiving end of a 4-0 thumping from the Cottagers last week, have struggled for consistency throughout their campaign, but take on basement-dwellers Blackpool and Wigan Athletic.
SHARING IS CARING: Sheffield Wednesday and Blackpool have met on Boxing Day twice before, and have still been in the Christmas spirit on both occasions, sharing the spoils each time.
Birmingham City arguably rival Fulham for their major change in fortunes, as new boss Gary Rowett has overseen a huge rise up the table. Having been on the end of an 8-0 thrashing by Bournemouth back in October, it’s been all-change ever since, with Blues recording five wins in their last eight.
Bolton, who sit two points behind the Blues in 16th, have also been revived under Neil Lennon and have pulled away from a relegation scrap after going undefeated since October.
One man looking to steady the ship over the busy period will be new Reading boss Steve Clarke, who has joined the club following inconsistent results under Nigel Adkins. They face Brighton and Norwich in their next two, and they will be keen improve on a poor run of one win in six outings.
The teams towards the bottom of the table will look at Bolton and Birmingham as examples, as they look for an upturn in fortunes going into the New Year.
Leeds United are one of three sides locked on 24 points from 22 games, along with Rotherham United and Huddersfield Town. The Whites are set for two colossal fixtures against lowly Wigan, and Derby, while the Millers and Terriers face each other on Boxing Day in a six-pointer.
DECEMBER BLUES: The last three times Leeds have met Derby in December, the latter have proved the stronger by winning on every occasion.
Just below those sides are Millwall, who have a little breathing space above the bottom three thanks to the 1-0 win over Brighton a fortnight ago. The Lions will be severely tested in the coming days, as they go up against Norwich and Bournemouth.
Occupying the first of the relegation places in 21st is the managerless Seagulls, who are four points from safety following just one win in 10 games. Sami Hyypia resigned as head coach on Monday and assistant boss Nathan Jones will be in charge for their games against Reading and Fulham.
Wigan Athletic are two points below Brighton and they’ve triumphed just once in 17 matches. They haven’t posted three points since October, and Malky Mackay is still awaiting his first victory at the helm. They face a trip to Leeds on Boxing Day, before hosting Sheffield Wednesday at the DW Stadium.
CHRISTMAS HANGOVER: Wigan have failed to win in four of their last five Boxing Day fixtures, netting just four goals over those outings.
Blackpool continue to prop up the division having recorded a league-low two wins so far. Lee Clark’s men are 10 points from safety as they prepare to face Sheffield Wednesday and Rotherham in the next week, and even a maximum haul of points in those will see them off the pace heading into the New Year.
Upcoming Sky Bet Championship fixtures:
Friday 26th December
Brentford v Ipswich Town
Charlton Athletic v Cardiff City
Birmingham City v Derby County
Bolton Wanderers v Blackburn Rovers
Bournemouth v Fulham
Brighton & Hove Albion v Reading
Leeds United v Wigan Athletic
Middlesbrough v Nottingham Forest
Norwich City v Millwall
Rotherham United v Huddersfield Town
Sheffield Wednesday v Blackpool
Watford v Wolverhampton Wanderers (live on Sky Sports)
Sunday 28th December
Nottingham Forest v Birmingham City (live on Sky Sports)
Blackburn Rovers v Middlesbrough
Blackpool v Rotherham United
Cardiff City v Watford
Huddersfield Town v Bolton Wanderers
Millwall v Bournemouth
Reading v Norwich City
Wolverhampton Wanderers v Brentford
Monday 29th December
Fulham v Brighton & Hove Albion
Tuesday 30th December
Derby County v Leeds United (live on Sky Sports)
Ipswich Town v Charlton Athletic
Wigan Athletic v Sheffield Wednesday