Deep into injury time at the Cardiff City Stadium, Dave Jones’ job must have been hanging in the balance. Cardiff’s traditional November slump has turned into a winter of discontent, and the pre-season promotion favourites have fallen from top of the pile into the playoff dogfight. Fortunately for both club and manager, Craig Bellamy popped up 7 (yes, seven) minutes into added time to deny Reading a victory which had seemed certain when they themselves had scored very late on.
A draw at home is unlikely to placate an increasingly angry fanbase, but Bellamy’s equaliser at least maintained a 5 point gap between Cardiff and 7th place Watford. The reason for their disgust is mainly based on the fact their side is arguably the best in the division on paper, yet results have deserted them since the end of October (In the 14 games since beating Norwich on the 30th, they have won just 4). They almost certainly they have more firepower up front than anyone else can match, but the problems are at the other end – one clean sheet in 3 months is very disappointing return, and one which is going to undo all the good work they do going forward. By way of comparison, league leaders QPR have kept the opposition out six times over the same period. The key difference between the two best teams in the league is that when playing badly QPR are able to grind out draws or scrappy wins, an ability the Welshmen seem to lack.
The reason Bellamy’s goal was so important is that virtually all of Cardiff’s rivals for promotion won on Tuesday night. QPR and Swansea comfortably put away Bristol City and Portsmouth respectively, while Nottingham Forest just about scraped past Coventry. Norwich too scored with virtually the last kick of the game to beat Millwall and move up into second place. The other member of the top 6, Leeds, came back from 2-0 down to hold upwardly mobile Hull City at the KC Stadium.
As far as playoff contenders outside the top 6 go, Leicester City look the best bet to make a charge up the league. With Thai investors behind them, and Sven Goran Erikkson as manager, the Foxes have been able to bring in some top quality players and turn a season which was in disarray 3 months ago into one where promotion is not out of the question. At home they are unbeaten since the Swede took charge in October, but it has been their away form which has held them back thus far. Since the turn of the year, however, the signs are that they’ve begun to sort that out, and they are unbeaten in the league in 2011.
Turning our attention down the table for a moment, Preston and Scunthorpe are in danger of becoming marooned at the bottom having both lost comfortably away from home in midweek. After the sacking of Darren Ferguson, followed by his dad’s much publicised recall of all the Manchester United loanees at the club (given that those players had guided Preston to bottom spot, I’m not sure the fans will have been particularly devastated), results haven’t really improved. I fear for the three currently occupying the relegation spots – completed by Sheffield United – as none seem to have the firepower to escape from their current plight. The Blades absolutely hammered Leicester for 86 minutes on Tuesday, but couldn’t break them down, and that demonstrates the problems the sides at the bottom are facing at the moment.
The pick of the games this weekend is at the City Ground, where Nottingham Forest (unbeaten at home all season) host 7th place Watford, who have scored more goals away from Vicarage Road than anyone else in the league. The top two face a couple of difficult away games at Reading and Burnley, while the biggest tie at the bottom end of the table sees Preston take on Bristol City.
Barnsley 2-0 Preston
Bristol City 0-2 Swansea
Cardiff 2-2 Reading
Coventry 1-2 Nottingham Forest
Derby 1-2 Ipswich
Doncaster 1-0 Burnley
Hull 2-2 Leeds
Middlesbrough 2-0 Scunthorpe
Norwich 2-1 Millwall
QPR 2-0 Portsmouth
Sheffield Utd 0-1 Leicester
Watford 1-1 Crystal Palace