Many apologies for the brevity of this week’s match report, but the writer is coming down with something nasty. Hopefully, things will be back to normal as soon as possible.
After a start which suggested that this season might turn out to be uncharacteristically one-sided, the Championship is now starting to take on its more familiar face of unpredictability. During the early weeks of the season, it looked as if the battle for promotion might just be between last season’s three relegated teams, but things have opened up recently with Middlesbrough sliding down towards the middle of the table and West Bromwich Albion having lost three home matches already. The suspicion may be that Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion may be too good for the rest, but second placed Albion at least remain catchable.
This afternoon sees two of the chasing pack meet, and they are two clubs on the rise. Swansea finished six points off the play-offs last season, but the loss of manager Roberto Martinez to Wigan Athletic led many to believe that this would be a difficult second season back in the Championship. Meanwhile, Nottingham Forest managed to scramble clear of the relegation zone last season and have hit their stride as the nights have drawn in. They’re unbeaten in the league since the middle of September and recently scored nine goals in two league matches against Leicester City and Doncaster Rovers, two clubs that harbour play-off ambitions of their own.
What is immediately apparent about both of these teams is that they both believe that they can play their way out of the division. Passing is strictly kept on the ground and patience is the order of the day. Swansea begin the stronger of the two sides, with Cedric Van Der Gun curling the ball just wide from a narrow angle and then seeing a deflected cross hit the crossbar, only for Ashley Williams to put the rebound over. Swansea are dominating possession and Forest are giving every impression of chasing shadows. What happens next is almost predictable. Forest score what turns out to be the only goal of the match. More surprising still, it comes from the ball being in the air rather than being on the ground. Chris Cohen’s header finds David McGoldrick, and his shot clips off the ankle of Ashley Williams, wide of the Swansea goalkeeper De Vries and into the corner of the net. Forest hold their lead with comfort until half-time.
The two managers, Paulo Sousa and Billy Davies, come from opposite ends of the spectrum. Sousa is the sophisticate, with the career that took him to Benfica, Juventus, Inter and Borussia Dortmund. He dresses immaculately – all cashmere – and wouldn’t look out of place in the background of a Pedro Almodovar movie. Davies, meanwhile, spent the majority of his playing career at Dunfermline, St Mirren and Motherwell. Their teams, however, both come from the same progressive mould. In the second half, Swansea try to push on and through the Forest defence but find that their crosses are comfortably dealt with and that the door has largely slammed shut. Forest haven’t lost away from The City Ground yet this season, and you can see why.
At full-time, then, Forest are up to third place – for a day at least. Cardiff win at free-falling Middlesbrough the next day at jump back into third place on goal difference. Swansea, meanwhile, drop to sixth place. If the season finsished this way, a tempestuous South Wales derby would be on the cards in the semi-finals of the play-offs. These are two clubs that have the potential to continue to challenge at the top of the table, but with Newcastle sailing off into the distance at the top of the table in one direction and Barnsley, in sixteenth place, just six points of Swansea in sixth place, it remains likely that the play-off places will be determined by form rather than in-built team strength. Yet again, the Championship seems likely to be English football’s most interesting division.