This weekend sees the last round of Sky Bet Championship fixtures before Christmas, and as things stand, it looks like either Eddie Howe’s AFC Bournemouth or Aitor Karanka’s Middlesbrough will have the happiest of holidays, as both currently share the top spot having amassed thirty-nine points. Things are looking a little less merry for Blackpool and Wigan Athletic, both of whom are guaranteed to be in the bottom three until Boxing Day at least. This weekend also marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the World War I Christmas truce, which makes for a very poignant tone to all twelve matches. Here is a preview of the twenty-second round of fixtures.
TOP V BOTTOM, AND SECOND V FOURTH
After scoring five goals against Cardiff City last weekend, AFC Bournemouth have a potential banana skin on their hands this week as they travel to Blackpool, who still foot the division. The Cherries saw a Capital One Cup run that also included a win over the Bluebirds come to an end in midweek as Liverpool were 3-1 winners at the Goldsands Stadium, and that was their first defeat since Derby overcame them at the iPro Stadium way back in September; a tremendous achievement for Eddie Howe and his players. Blackpool manager Lee Clark this week added former Newcastle, Millwall and Brentford player Paul Stephenson to his coaching staff as first-team coach, the pair having worked together at Norwich City and Huddersfield Town. A shock win over the table-toppers would be the perfect way for the pair to renew their working relationship.
Second-placed Middlesbrough meet one of their nearest contenders as they visit fourth-placed Ipswich Town, who are just one point behind them. Neither side has tasted defeat in their last eight matches, so this one could go either way. Boro were this week boosted by the return to action of Australian midfielder Rhys Williams, who played an hour for the Riverside Stadium’s Under-21 side on Monday. “Rhys has been very good,” manager Aitor Karanka said of his player. “I think it’s very important for him to get a feel for playing games again, but he has to keep calm because he’s been out for 11 months. It’s difficult to get fit again, but he’s intelligent and an experienced player and he’s been doing really well in training.”
Just like last week, Millwall have another Friday evening game this weekend, and the Lions host a Bolton Wanderers side rocked by the news that they will have to do without striker Max Clayton for six months after he underwent surgery on the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Wanderers manager Neil Lennon may have a replacement attacking option waiting in the wings, however, as he said this week that a decision will soon be made on whether Emile Heskey will be added to his squad, with the former England international training with the Macron Stadium club. A win for Millwall would guarantee their place outside of the bottom three for Christmas, just as it would the visitors, with both sides level on points.
There’s a big game at the bottom as Wigan Athletic (23rd) host Rotherham United (21st), with a win for the Latics bringing them to within a point of their guests. It’s been over a decade since these two sides last met, when Jason Roberts and Alan Mahon secured a 2-0 win for Wigan, and the DW Stadium crowd will be eager for a repeat of that final score. Rotherham have only won on three of their last eleven visits to Wigan.
The two televised games this weekend see Derby County host Norwich City on Saturday lunchtime, before Leeds United go to Nottingham Forest in the evening. The Rams are looking to bounce back from their League Cup quarter-final exit to Chelsea in midweek, and they find seventh-placed Norwich as their roadblock to getting back to winning ways. Canaries striker Gary Hooper set the target of promotion on Monday, and his side look like candidates after last week’s 5-0 win over Huddersfield. Leeds head coach Neil Redfearn named Steve Thompson as his assistant this week. Forest and Leeds were two of the three Championship sides to be placed under a transfer embargo, giving both even more incentive to pick up points as we head towards the New Year.
BEST OF THE REST
Steve Clarke makes his return to management on Saturday, having this week replaced Nigel Adkins as boss of Reading. Clarke, whose final match as West Bromwich Albion was a 1-0 defeat to Cardiff, finds Watford his first opponents at Championship level, and looks to improve a Royals side who have lost six in their last ten. The Hornets this week named a stand at Vicarage Road after former chairman and owner Sir Elton John and step into Christmas in sixth, presenting one of the most difficult challenges in the division that Clarke could have in order to start that ascent. “Reading is a club with good potential - the ambition is to be back in the Premier League,” Clarke told BBC Sport on his appointment. “I've got nothing to prove. My time at West Brom was successful. Since I've left things have not improved.”
Full Championship Fixture List
15:00 Unless Stated
Friday 19 December
Millwall v Bolton (19.45)
Saturday 20 December
Derby County v Norwich City (12.15)
Blackburn Rovers v Charlton Athletic
Blackpool v AFC Bournemouth
Cardiff City v Brentford
Fulham v Sheffield Wednesday
Huddersfield Town v Birmingham City
Ipswich Town v Middlesbrough
Reading v Watford
Wigan Athletic v Rotherham United
Wolverhampton Wanderers v Brighton & Hove Albion
Nottingham Forest v Leeds United (5.15)