Hannibal Mejbri lit up Friday night’s derby for Birmingham City, Neil Critchley still can’t get QPR to move and Oli Norwood was terrific, again, for Sheffield United. All this and more from the last day of the Championship…
TEAM OF THE ROUND
Bristol City have had a touch of the unpredictable for some years now. We’re not quite in the ‘streaky’ Lee Johnson era of batches of promotion form followed by relegation form, but this season I’ve seen Bristol City have me on the back as they try to keep up with their current trend.
The ups and downs of this season have been as follows. After failing to win any of the top three, a long, hard fight seemed on the cards. Then a brilliant five-game run got us all thinking the Robins would be a vibrant, young, attacking team that would challenge the top six. Then, from mid-September to Boxing Day, Bristol City were second only to Wigan as the worst team in the Championship. You can see why this gets confusing.
I suspect we can all guess what lies ahead, Bristol City are back on form with the current run producing six unbeaten games with three wins in the last four. Saturday’s victory came on the back of a goalkeeping error, but it defeated Norwich City, a particularly powerful club at Championship level. What happens next then? I’m not going to bother making any predictions, other than to say that it won’t be subtle or boring.
PLAYER OF THE ROUND
Oli Norwood (Sheffield United)
When it comes to Sheffield United’s promotion tilt this season, I suspect even manager Paul Heckingbottom would admit that the strategy has been to force on stability and make the best of what was already at the club. Being stable has worked wonders, with almost every other big hitter in the Championship changing managers at some point this season. Sheffield United have pushed on and find themselves ten points out of third place with one game down and just 16 matches left to play.
The Blades recorded an unbeaten tenth game at the weekend, winning 3-0 over Swansea. The starting line-up only included two players who were not at the club last season, center back Anel Ahmedhozic and loan midfielder James McAtee. You can still find the legendary Billy Sharp up front, defensive lynchpin John Egan at back, and making United’s midfield work is Oli Norwood. Norwood excelled against Swansea, his five chances created being the most of any player on the pitch and Sheffield United’s second goal came when his free-kick struck the bar and was followed by Jack Robinson. Defensively, his ten recoveries and four interceptions suggest that more often than not he is in the right place at the right time.
Norwood has passed the 200 cap mark for Sheffield United and is something of a Championship promotion guru, having come up with Brighton, Fulham and the Blades in his career. It seems pretty incomprehensible that he won’t add a fourth Championship promotion this season in what is becoming one of the most illustrious second-tier careers of any player in recent memory.
ROUND TALKING POINT
Critchley’s QPR can’t get going!
Although very little in the Championship surprises me, if you had told me how Neil Critchley ended up in QPR and how bad his start would be, I would have had a hard time believing you on both counts. Critchley was one of the best management players in the division last season, stabilizing his newly promoted Blackpool side and making them immediately competitive at Championship level.
What followed was a barely credible revolution of the managerial carousel. Firstly, Mick Beale left the Aston Villa assistant managers job to take over QPR, and Critchley left Blackpool to replace Beale at Aston Villa. Within a few months Beale left QPR to take over the Rangers job, Stevie Gerrard was sacked at Villa leaving Critchley unemployed so Critchley replaced Beale at QPR. If you followed all of that, more power to you!
Critchley, of course, had made a big mistake by taking the job of Villa’s assistant, but surely back in the Championship he was going to be a force once more. Well, apparently not that far. Perhaps it was the mythical ‘new manager’s rebound’ but after winning their first QPR match at Preston, the Rs are nine games winless in all competitions. If you add in the end of Beale’s career, it’s actually a win in 16 games for QPR, with a fairly quiet and frugal January transfer window on the side.
Can Critchley get QPR going? He needs to do it soon!
BORROWED FROM THE ROUND
Hannibal Mejbri (Birmingham City on loan from Manchester United)
In my research for this part of the column, I thought I’d quickly check out the YouTube highlights of Birmingham’s win over West Brom on Friday night, the title of the video was “Hannibal STEALS the show!” Ok, so there’s probably a bit of salacious Sky Sports hyperbole in the title, but you’d have to conclude that they’re telling the truth.
Hannibal pulled off what regular Championship watchers refer to as ‘a Joe Bryan’, referring to the former Fulham full-back’s audacious goal in the 2020 play-off final behind closed doors. It was the same energy here on Friday night. night, with the man on loan from Manchester United signaling to cross his free kick to the back post before firing it ferociously over the other side of the wall to catch goalkeeper David Button on the front post. Fans are quick to attack goalkeepers in situations like this, but Button was much more to blame for Birmingham’s second goal. Hannibal did it again with a lovely right-footed corner and with Button in no man’s land, Krystian Bielik was able to get up and head into the empty, unprotected net.
I am always interested in not playing into the simplistic soccer binary and will try to recognize that two things can be true and that the truth often lies in the gray area between the black and white positions. Yes, of course I accept that it wasn’t Button’s best night in goal, but we’re here to praise Hannibal’s technical prowess and name him our loanee of the week.
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