After appointing new manager Dean Saunders from Doncaster last month, there was renewed hope that Wolverhampton Wanderers would turn their alarming situation around. Finding themselves in free fall and hurtling further down towards the relegation zone, the club who were touted as promotion shoe-ins last summer but now find the possibility of relegation a stark reality. After dispensing with Norwegian Stale Solbakken, Saunders – having addressed the slide at relegated Doncaster by getting them into the League One play-offs – was seen as a sensible, grittier appointment with knowledge of lower league division football. And yet, Wolves find themselves still very much in a rut – winless in Saunders’ five games and with 33 points – just two points above the relegation spots. However, it was not all doom and gloom. Despite facing the unenviable task of an away fixture at high flying Leicester City last Thursday, Wolves gave a spirited display, but were undone by goals from Anthony Knockaert and top scorer David Nugent in a 2-1 loss. While fans may take heart from a performance which saw Frenchman Bakary Sako nearly grab his side a hard-earned point, it is results not performances that truly matter coming into the business end of the season. And as the table points out at the beginning of a new week, Wolves fans have every right to be very concerned.
It’s often been said that the key to cracking the ultra-competitive Championship is maintaining a level of consistency over the gruelling 46-game season. While this may be stating the obvious, it’s easier said than done for the many that fall short. League leaders Cardiff City, racking up an impressive 60 points at the 29-game stage, seemed to have cracked this age old problem. Debutant Fraizer Campbell, signed last week from Sunderland, ensured a potentially tricky away trip to a Leeds United side with seven straight wins at Elland Road was averted. Scoring just two minutes after coming off the bench, Campbell instantly showed his new manager Malky Mackay’s shrewd judgement as the Bluebirds went ten points clear at the top of the table and picked up their fifth successive away victory. Having taken into account previous near-misses while casting envious eyes at Welsh rivals Swansea City’s Premier League success story, Cardiff will never have a better chance to go up than this year. But given their steely, effective nature, you’d be hard pressed not to get behind them to complete the job.
In recent months, this Championship wrap has remarked about how impressive a job Tony Mowbray has done at Middlesbrough. Taking into account the tight budget he is working under, Mowbray’s building of a young and attractive side that has hardly been out of the play-offs all season made him one of the managerial success stories of the season. Yet despite the somewhat clichéd ‘anyone can beat anyone’ mentality prevalent in the league, even the staunchest of realists would have been alarmed to see Boro go down 4-0 at Ipswich Town at the weekend. Even the briefest of glances at the top six will tell you Mowbray’s side have arguably the weakest squad and have spent a fraction of their rivals. The signing of the perennially injured 34-year-old Kieron Dyer in January was testament to their adherence to shopping in the bargain section of the market. A Tommy Smith double and goals from new boys David McGoldrick and Aaron McLean completed a rout for Mick McCarthy’s men, now four points clear of the relegation zone. With the former Wolves manager having done a remarkable job since taking over what was the basement club last November, it wouldn’t be outlandish to suggest McCarthy himself as one of the managers of the season also. Mowbray has called for unity as his side seek to address their slump, and they’re going to need it sharpish if they are to qualify for the playoffs.
One of the big transfers of the January window was Stoke City’s £4m purchase of England keeper Jack Butland from cash-strapped Birmingham City. Bought perhaps with one eye on the future of in-demand Asmir Begović, the Premier League side have allowed the 20-year-old to remain at Birmingham for the rest of the season, giving them much-needed cash to continue, as well as keep a key player for a relegation dog fight. The Blues’ decision to reject bids for key players was vindicated as they got one over returning ex-boss Alex Mcleish’s Nottingham Forest 2-1 at St Andrew’s on Saturday. Scotland international winger Chris Burke – ironically heavily linked to Forest on deadline day – scored twice to see off a Forest side still yet to win under their new manager. More encouragingly for the home side, Birmingham were the best team throughout, with Forest only managing to score a consolation in injury time through a Billy Sharp penalty. Birmingham are now six points clear after back-to-back wins, the first time this season they’ve put any significant distance between themselves and the relegation spots. And with Butland remaining alongside Burke, Curtis Davis, Marlon King and Nathan Redmond, the sheer quality of the squad will surely drive them across the line and avoid the drop.
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