Bournemouth looked comfortable promotion favourites but Scott Parker is starting to struggle just as Blackburn Rovers are thriving.
Festive slumps have been something of a regular occurrence for Blackpool in recent years. The Seasiders have often struggled with the busy December schedule even in successful campaigns, and it appeared that Christmas had come early for the Tangerines this year with a seven-game winless streak and a worrying slide down the Championship table in recent weeks.
A home clash with relegation-threatened Peterborough could have proved make or break in Neil Critchley’s side’s season. For much of this Bloomfield Road clash between two of last season’s promoted sides, it looked as if it would be the latter.
Trailing to Siriki Dembele’s early opener, it would have been easy to roll over and accept another defeat to add to the pile since the start of November. Even the draw which looked destined late into this contest would do little to bring long-term cheer to Blackpool, but the inspired substitutions of Sonny Carey and Jerry Yates saw each score to gift the Seasiders a first win in eight and a move back up to 12th, all having failed to score in their last four outings.
It is testament to the work of Critchley, his backroom staff, the much-needed stability at boardroom level and a squad stronger than the sum of its parts that Blackpool continue to excel to the point where such a poor run of form still leaves them in the top half. Their ghosts of Christmas past were laid to rest on Saturday afternoon.
Really enjoyed visiting Blackpool today. Great tactical ploys from Neil Critchley. 2 narrow central strikers and 2 wingers, brilliant to see. His tactical substitutions and adaption won him the points and a fully deserved first win in eight. pic.twitter.com/xPgM54mspZ
— Peter Frank Smith (@PSmithSkySports) December 18, 2021
A 4-0 win takes Blackburn just one point away from the automatic promotion spots and three points off the second-tier summit, yet they fail to top the EFL winners. That is testament to just how good Rovers have been in recent weeks. They are perennial headline acts and Ben Brereton Diaz is the frontman of this quite incredible band of players. We can’t keep putting them top of Winners and Losers, but on current form, they could quite easily be topping the Championship. We think we know which one they’d prefer.
Another team that just keeps finding themselves in the right half of this column after littering the wrong one with their awfulness in the opening weeks of the season. Nobody wants the campaign to come to a Covid-inspired halt, not least Nottingham Forest. A comeback win over resurgent Hull City was testament to the fighting spirit Steve Cooper has instilled in a squad who looked resigned to perennial defeat under Chris Hughton.
That is now one loss in 16 league outings under Cooper and Forest go into Christmas day just one point off the play-off places. The goalscorers, Lewis Grabban and Brennan Johnson, are at opposite ends of their careers. On Saturday, they were both exactly where they needed to be to continue this remarkable trajectory. The pandemic is all that can stop Forest going full steam ahead now.
Plymouth’s League One match with Charlton was a clash between two of the third tier’s newest bosses, with Argyle’s Schumacher stepping up from number two following Ryan Lowe’s glow-up to Preston, while Jonnie Jackson was finally taking charge as permanent Addicks boss after the best part of two months as caretaker.
Plymouth had lost their last three games prior to Lowe’s departure, and Schumacher had failed to turn those fortunes around for a side who were previously unbeaten since the opening day of the season. But with Charlton missing key man Conor Washington up front, Plymouth nullified any threat superbly and struck through a former hotshot of their own in Kieran Agard. It is a result which keeps Plymouth in some control of the top six and with the potential of kickstarting their season once more post-Lowe.
Twenty-one games unbeaten. The highest scorers in League One. The tightest defence in the third tier of English football. Top of the table going into Christmas day.
Paul Warne’s side are enjoying their biennial bonanza in more fabulous style than ever before.
But with a game in hand, Wigan Athletic can lay claim to being the best side in League One this season, even if they did not look like it in surrendering a two-goal lead to promotion rivals Oxford United. They are two points worse off but with a game in hand on the Millers.
The U’s looked to have fought back for a point, but this Wigan side are made of sterner stuff and striker Stephen Humphrys ensured they drove home for Christmas with their 14th win of the season.
This season is Sutton United’s first ever in the Football League. Their time in League Two could be fleeting. With two-thirds of the fourth division’s games called off over the weekend, Sutton’s clash with fellow EFL (nearly) newbies Harrogate provided the perfect springboard to continue their storming starts to the season.
A victory for the Yorkshire side would have lifted them into the top seven, but the hosts taking all three points carried Sutton into the top three and a spot in the automatic promotion places. Harrogate largely dominated proceedings but The Only Stat That Matters was the only present Sutton fans care about unwrapping. Their future is looking increasingly brighter, too.
How quickly we can all be made to look foolish. Back in October, we thought the Championship’s top two was already decided. Bournemouth and Fulham were both excellent, but the deciding factor in that assuredness was that no challenger was up to the task of replacing Scott Parker’s current and former employers if and when their form went haywire. West Brom were very much the third-best team in the division, while half of the league seemed a much of a muchness swapping places between fourth and 14th on what felt like a weekly basis.
But just as Blackburn have come out of the woodwork to surprise everyone with how stupendously good they have become, Bournemouth have hit their worst run of form since returning to the Championship.
A lunchtime defeat to Middlesbrough leaves the Cherries just one point above Tony Mowbray’s side and two ahead of the Baggies. They will have the same small gap to QPR should Mark Warburton’s team win both of their games in hand.
The Bournemouth gig looked to be a chance at redemption for Parker, a young, promising manager who had succeeded and failed in equal measure at Fulham. A second bite at the Championship cherry in Dorset seemed certain to let Parker pen another chapter in his Premier League career, but automatic promotion is looking less likely with every passing defeat. One win in eight games is form that can only be sustained for so long while Blackburn are on a run of five successive victories.
At Fulham, Parker failed to show he had what it takes when the going gets tough. For his and Bournemouth’s sake, he needs to learn those lessons and implement them in the New Year.
Andi Weimann bookended Bristol City’s home defeat to Huddersfield with cheer, scoring in both the second and 97th minutes. Huddersfield’s three goals in between, however, were the perfect metaphor for the malaise which has filled much of Nigel Pearson’s time at Ashton Gate.
There have been caveats to Pearson’s struggles with the Robins. After the long but stagnant tenure of Lee Johnson and failed experiment of Dean Holden, Pearson’s experience afforded him time to work with a transitional first half a season in charge. The nine-month wait for a first home win in charge was worth it if it was the catalyst for consistency. But breaking that duck has come with the cost of away form dipping, and losing to a Huddersfield side without a victory on the road since September does not instil confidence that Pearson and Bristol City are going to work together in the long term.
There is still a gap between themselves and the bottom six, but Bristol City are the worst of the rest. The Robins, and Pearson, are looking down rather than up.
“Out of our depth” was how Birmingham boss Lee Bowyer described his glum Brum side’s performance against Blackburn. At the start of the season, Birmingham appeared to have more about them for the forthcoming campaign than Rovers. At best, both sides looked destined to spend the season entwined near one another in mid-table.
Since November, Birmingham have lost to Reading, Hull and Millwall, as well as failing to beat Cardiff. These are all teams with whom Birmingham should be able to go toe to toe. Against Blackburn, their feet weren’t even playing the same sport. Blackburn have nailed this season; Birmingham are heading for the same territory as Reading, Hull and Cardiff.
Outside of Cole Stockton (16) and Adam Philips (6), no Morecambe player has scored more than twice for the League One newcomers. After that blistering start to the season, the Shrimps are now in the relegation zone. Saturday’s match with fellow strugglers Fleetwood went some way to showing why. Stockton and Philips both missed good chances to break the deadlock and without the influential pair finding the back of the net, Morecambe have no-one else they can rely on to do the job.
With January around the corner, it is far more likely they will lose at least one of their two best players than add another one. It could be a desperate struggle in the second half of the season on this evidence.
League Two’s away sides
Four League Two fixtures. Zero points and zero goals between the away teams. Merry Christmas, one and all.
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