The coldness of winter descended into West Yorkshire this evening and it wasn’t just the 19,000 Leeds United fans that will need some warming up before taking on their next 90 minutes, with only one win in five matches and two defeats in a row at Elland Road maybe the last team Simon Grayson would have wanted to face on a cold Monday night would have been Dave Jones red hot Cardiff City, six games unbeaten four wins in a row, a win would take them level on points with pace setters Queens Park Rangers a top the Championship table.

Leeds made three changes from the side that won 2-1 at Middlesbrough, Bradley Johnson replacing Sanchez Watt on the left of midfield and Richard Naylor losing his place to Alex Bruce, Naylor’s form has been questionable as of late but manager Simon Grayson was quick to point out the club captain was injured. Leeds fans also welcomed the return of Danish goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel. Cardiff team remained the same after the 2-1 win at Coventry.

Grayson set up his side in a 4-4-2 formation. George McCartney on loan from Sunderland at Left Back, Paul Connolly on the right with the Centre Back pairing of Alex Bruce and Neill Collins. Johnny Howson and Amdy Faye in the midfield flanked by Johnson on the left and Robert Snodgrass on the right. Luciano Becchio partnered the inform Davide Somma upfront, Somma has six goals already this season.

Cardiff also lined up in 4-4-2. Tom Heaton in goal, Kevin McNaughton, Mark Hudson, Gabor Gyepes and Lee Naylor made up the back line. Seyi Olofinjana and Peter Whittingham played centrally, Chris Burke on the right and Craig Bellamy on the left. Michael Chopra partnered 7 goal striker Jay Bothroyd upfront.

It was a very scrappy opening ten minutes, both teams struggling to get their foot on the ball and as a result there was no rhythm to the match. Cardiff began to take the upper hand the good play of Chris Burke down the right causing Leeds problems his appetite for taking on defenders was evident to see.

Against the run of play Leeds had the first clear chance when Alex Bruce headed just wide from a corner, this seemed to spur Leeds on and they began to control more of the game, feeding the ball wide Johnson and Snodgrass fed balls into the box however Hudson and Gyepes had the measure of the Leeds attack and won most aerial battles comfortably. Captain Jonny Howson should have tested Heaton when the ball broke kindly on the edge of the box; the skipper struck the ball well but also wide.

Much comment was made about centre back Bruce playing in front of Schmeichel in net, a reference to the old Manchester United team of the past, this was a different United however. A long punt up field from Heaton, Bruce let the ball bounce, Schmeichel lost sight of the ball and Bothroyd nipped in to sneak the ball past both and into the net. The image of Steve Bruce in the stands said plenty about the quality of defending.

Cardiff turned the screw and with an obvious pace advantage the Leeds back four struggled at times to keep up, Bellamy causing problems down the left, Burke impressive on the right, Chopra at time went missing but Bothroyd’s work rate more than made up for it.

One talking point in the first half was Jay Bothroyds tackle on Becchio his studs were high and he made contact with the Leeds strikers ankle, nine times out of ten the striker would have saw red, at game speed the tackle looked reckless. In slow motion you could clearly see the contact made, the referee can be forgiven for not seeing the incident as at the moment of contact Robert Snodgrass clearly impeded his view of the incident, Bothroyd lucky to stay on the pitch.

When not in possession the Cardiff midfield worked very hard to win the ball back, harrying every Leeds player who touched the ball, the home sides midfield lacked the pace and ability on the ball to make a difference, Cardiff were worthy leaders going into the half time break. A chance for Grayson to regain his team’s composure and figure a way to combat the Cardiff attack.

Unfortunately whatever teamtalk Grayson gave his side it was the away team that emerged all guns blazing, within six minutes Cardiff increased their lead. Hudson caught Somma in possession his pass found Chopra in what looked like an offside position; the striker didn’t hesitate though firing across Schmeichel and into the corner. Leeds defence were slow to react once the pass was made, Chopra was sharply onto the ball and for a striker with no goals so far this season the finish was deadly.

Leeds looked bereft of ideas the formation with two upfront did not work, Somma and Becchio are good players, however they are two similar in styles and instead of striking up a partnership they looked lost, a more effective strategy would be to play 4-2-3-1 and have a more mobile forward or midfielder play behind Somma or Becchio. The Beckford/Becchio partnership worked because of the contrasting styles of both players.

Grayson must have had similar thoughts as Somma was replaced not long after the goal and Honduran International Ramon Nunez made his debut, small but stocky he looked comfortable in possession seems to have a yard of pace, the kind of player that could link up well with a target man in front of him.

Soccer - npower Football League Championship - Leeds United v Cardiff City - Elland RoadBothroyd put the game beyond Leeds before the substitute had chance to make an impact, terrific work from Bothroyd saw him advance down the right, his pass to Burke led the Scotsman to the by-line, the striker had continued his run into the box, Burke found him with the cut back and in this form he wasn’t going to miss, 3-0 to Cardiff and the game was all but over.

Four minutes later and it was ex-Celtic fullback Lee Naylor who rubbed salt into the wounds, after strong forward play by Bothroyd the ball was worked through Bellamy to Naylor at the edge of the box, known for his ability with his left foot, he decided to surprise everyone and unleashed an unstoppable shot with his right, Schmeichel was rooted to the spot as the ball whistled past his right ear, the contest was over.

The introduction of Max Gradel on the left for Leeds gave them two players with Nunez able to hold onto the ball and take some of the pressure off their defence, Cardiff defended well, limiting Leeds to shots from range, they did have the ball in the net late on, Snodgrass weaving his way into some space on the right the left foot cross found Becchio unmarked, the header found the net, the linesman correctly raised his flag.

The only other shining light for the home fans was the play of midfielder Jonny Howson, unfortunately the only mention he ever gets on TV is his love of the club “Leeds born and bred” “No one feels the defeat more.” Behind this lies a talented player, good on the ball, quick feet that allow his to beat players, a cultured left foot that can spray passes and also find the target with a few goals. Four goals last season, there is ability in there to add more.

The night belonged to Cardiff; their system was much more fluid than Leeds. Bothroyd, Chopra and Bellamy all have the ability to go wide or come inside, Whittingham can wander all over the pitch and cause problems, and since his move down south Chris Burke looks like a player reborn. Some questions why Bellamy was out on the wing and not partnering Bothroyd, it seems he is far more dangerous from this wide starting position, able to drift inside and finish with accuracy or stay wide to use his still electric pace and cause full backs no end of troubles.

Dave Jones has built an impressive side, they will be hard to beat this season as most teams have already discovered, usually on the cusp of promotion via the playoffs, this year when it comes to May, Cardiff will more than likely by the hunted not the hunter at the top of the Championship table.

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A very tough season lays ahead for all 24 Championship teams, looking through the lineups I am struggling to pick upright favourtites, plenty of Play-off contenders, most teams stuck in limbo and a few tipped for the bottom, let’s meet the contenders

PROMOTION CANDIDATES

Leicester City

The only team that I think has the greatest chance of promotion this year, although they have lost Manager Nigel Pearson they have kept star striker Matty Fryatt a goal machine in the past 2 seasons, to gain promotion from this league you need a goal scorer, and Fryatt guarentee’s 15-20 goals a season, add to that the like of Richie Wellens, lloyd Dyer, Robbie Neilson and Dany N’Guessan and you have the makings of a strong team. Manager Paulo Sousa did a good job at Swansea, it is a tough ask to follow in Nigel Pearson’s footsteps however Paulo has the ability to not only follow him, but take Leicester one step further.

Other candidates – Middlesbrough, Swansea, Ipswich

PLAYOFF CONTENDERS

Bristol City

Another new manager at a potentially massive club boosted by the signing of England International David James in goals, also keeping the likes of Nicky Maynard, Damion Stewart and Gavin Williams they have a strong squad with lots of potential. I expect them to have a very strong season and with time still left to add that little bit more quality, they will be a team to beat.

Cardiff City

Dave Jones announced today that the transfer embargo had been lifted, this should be the catalysty Cardiff need to bring in some good players, added to an already talented squad the potential to have a good season is there, Jason Koumas has already signed more should follow. Joe Ledley has gone to Celtic, Chopra is constantly linked with a move away, they still have Peter Whittingham, Ross McCormack and Jay Bothroyd to fire them into play-off contention. It will take all of Dave Jones managerial nouse to pick the team up from last years play-off defeat to get them a good start to the season, if he does Cardiff’s new groud could be a hard place to visit.

Coventry City

My last team picked for the play-offs is a little bit of a long shot, however all the ingredients are there, talented manager who’s done it before, exciting players and a good home crowd, Gary McSheffrey returns to where he once cause so many problems, young Irish players Stephen O’Halloran and Roy O’Donovan, the experience of Lee Carsley and a really exciting player in Lukas Jutkiewicz who showed his class on loan at Motherwell last year a remarkable goal in the memorable match against Hibs. Aidy Boothroyd will need to gel the players quickly, helped by the likes of Freddy Eastwood, Michael Doyle and Martin Craine good times could return to Coventry and the Ricoh Arena.

Other Candidates – Sheffield United, Leeds United

RELEGATION CANDIDATES

Scunthorpe United

It must be hard being a Scunthorpe fan constantly punching above your weight, plucking strikers either from the scrap heap or obscurity, watch them score tons of goals, to then watch them be sold again to the highest bidder, Billy Sharp saved his career at Glanford Park only then to move onto Doncaster, and this year it was Gary Hooper’s turn 50 goals for The Irons and then the big move to Celtic, so again Scunny fans have to look for their next savoir, Chris Dagnall has been brought in from Rochdale on a free and given the number 9 jersey, hopes will be pinned on him, too many players have left, I think it will be a long old season, and it could have a horrible ending.

Portsmouth

It’s easy to pick on Portsmouth, the club is in a real mess, minutes away from non-existence 14 players in the squad, 2 of them due to leave at some point, there needs to be heavy rebuilding in the squad to give them any chance, the players they have can only be described as journeymen, Tommy Smith, Michael Brown, Danny Webber all players that will not strike fear into any team, Kevin-Prince Boateng and John Utaka will surely leave, maybe even Aaron Moekena would leave, a grim job for Steve Cotterill lies ahead.

Other Candidates – Millwall, Derby County

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The English Championship can boast one of the wealthiest games in all of football, the Playoff Final played at Wembley could be worth 50 to 60 million pounds to the winner, and heartbreak and a tough season ahead for the losers.

4 teams tonight and tomorrow fight for their place in the Playoff Final; both games still in the balance, the winners will then be 1 win away from a place at England’s top table the Barclay’s Premier League.

The teams in question are Blackpool, Nottingham Forest, Cardiff City and Leicester City. Nottingham Forest were once the top team in Europe winning 2 European Cups, and then in the 90’s the fell all the way down to the 3rd tier of English football, Promoted from League One last season they have had a remarkable season under Billy Davies it is no easy feat to have the chance of 2 promotions in a row.

Leicester City of course had some wonderful seasons in the Premier League under Martin O’Neill making stars out of Neil Lennon, Emile Heskey, Steve Guppy, Muzzy Izzet etc once O’Neill left Peter Taylor continued the good job but was sacked in his second season, Micky Adams took over and things got from bad to worse for Leicester, relegation then administration followed and Leicester like Nottingham Forest found themselves in the 3rd Tier of English football, a rebuilding process began, Once in League One talented manager Nigel Pearson took over and in his first season they were promoted as Champions, and now with a chance for consecutive promotions and a chance to have a crack at the big time again.

If any team could do with the riches of the Premier League Cardiff City would be pretty high up that list, there’s has been doubt cast over Cardiff’s financial state in recent times, Peter Risdale trying to find a rich buyer for the club and coming up short, then promising all season ticket sales would be spent on players, and once again not delivering, Cardiff have been in the Championship since 2003 and would see this as their greatest chance to make it to the top flight, talented players like Peter Whittingham, Michael Chopra and Joe Ledley will be hoping they can fire their team to Wembley, and the Cardiff fans will be hoping the same, if they don’t win promotion the chances of these players remaining at Cardiff next season are very slim, even their status as a club could be under threat.

Now most people reading this blog I would hope have at some point taken a holiday in Blackpool, cold sea winds, Blackpool Tower, the Piers, the Pleasure Beach and Premier League Football, sounds good doesn’t it, well maybe not good but would be wonderful for the people of Blackpool, with the backing of Latavian Businessman Valeri Belokon they have made their way out of League One and up the Championship table and secured their Playoff spot on the last day of the season, having eccentric manager Ian Holloway in charge has spurred The ‘Pool on to new heights, and who would bet against them reaching the dizzy heights of the Premier League.

BLACKPOOL V NOTTINGHAM FOREST

Blackpool welcomed Nottingham Forest to Bloomfield Road last Saturday and the game did not disappoint, Forest started the better side and made it pay when Chris Cohen curled a beautiful shot with the outside of his left foot past Blackpool’s keeper, this only woke Blackpool up and they went on the hunt for a equaliser, a great move sweeping from right to left then back in the middle to find Keith Southern unmarked in the box his left foot shot trundled into the net, the first half ended with Dexter Blackstock’s header coming off the crossbar and Stephen Crainey clearing efforts off Blackpool’s goal line.

The Second half was all Blackpool and when James Perch brought down DJ Campbell in the box, Charlie Adam who has been Blackpool’s talisman all season calmly tucked it away for the 2-1 lead and that’s how the game finished Blackpool might rue the chance to score a third with the amount of possession they had in the Second Half.

LEICESTER CITY V CARDIFF CITY

This game was a much tighter affair, both teams still attacking but not as open as at Blackpool, Cardiff at times looking like the home side as they peppered the Leicester goal, the first half was all Cardiff, nervous Leicester fans could only watch on.

The second half started the same, Jay Bothroyd had a great header tipped over the bar in an early attack, it was Richie Wellens that got Leicester going firing a drive just past the post, then they had a penalty claim when Martyn Waghorn was bundled over when trying to get on the end of a cross, the pleas were waved away by referee Wiley.

On 78 minutes Peter Whittingham made the break through, a free kick on the right hand side, looked like he was going to play it into the box, He had different ideas, smashing the ball with his left foot past Chris Weale, there was nothing the keeper could do, a fantastic goal. For the remaining 10 minutes Leicester bombarded the Cardiff goal but David Marshall was not to be beaten and Cardiff will take a 1-0 lead into the 2nd leg.

2nd LEGS 

Tonight Blackpool travel to the City Ground with a slender lead, and Billy Davies will be hoping his team can use the home advantage and peg back the result and go on to Wembley. Blackpool will be confident they can score a goal away from home, it should be a great game, I cannot see anyone running away with it, and should go till the end, I would not be surprised if it ended on penalties, an exciting but cruel end for either team, my heart says Blackpool, think it would be great to see them in the Premier League, however my heart says Nottingham Forest I think they will have too much at home for Blackpool.

Prediction Blackpool 1 Notts Forest 3 (3-4 on agg)

Tomorrow Leicester go to Cardiff knowing they have to score 2 goals, and I think it will be too much for them, Cardiff looked great on Sunday and I think they will score more at home and I can’t see Leicester having an answer for them.

Cardiff will win by two and book their place at Wembley.

Prediction Cardiff 2 Leicester 0 (3-0 on agg)

 

That would make it a Nottingham Forest v Cardiff City Final – who will go on to emulate Burnley from last year when they beat Sheffield United in the final, and although they have come back down, I doubt they regret their year in the Premier League.

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