It’s the calm before the storm for the 72 clubs in the Football League as managers and players prepare for a flurry of fixtures over the festive period. Before then though, here are your five standout matches across the three divisions this weekend.
Friday - Sheffield United vs West Brom (19:45)
The Goal Poacher’s Derby: Third plays fifth in the latest meet of sides vying for promotion with just one point separating the Blades and the Baggies.
Few would have had Sheffield United down as promotion contenders prior to the campaign yet they’ve remained in the mix and merit their position with almost half the season played.
Success has come largely from a settled side led by mainstays Basham and Norwood. But it’s the goals of Billy Sharp that has United where they are. The 32-year old already looks likely to surpass last season’s tally of 13.
With 11 goals in 19, Sharp has been fully living up to his name in front of goal and is the go-to man for manager Wilder, a point proved at the Madjeksi last weekend when Sharp, afforded a rest, came off the bench to break the deadlock in the 83rd minute.
Fellow Championship goal poacher, Dwight Gayle, has also been demonstrating his goal scoring prowess. He’s on ten for the season, as is his partner in crime Jay Rodriguez, the two combing to good effect so far to see Darren Moore’s team as the most potent attackers in the division with 44 goals from their 21 games.
Former Baggies defender Moore will be seeking an improvement in his side’s defending though. They could be a lot closer to the top two as it stands but a fallible backline, without a clean sheet in 13 and breached more times than second bottom Bolton, continues to be their downfall.
Saturday - Aston Villa vs. Stoke (15:00)
Looking to kick-on: Two clubs expected to fight it out for the automatic places are only now mounting recoveries after shaky starts.
Changing a manager mid-season can sometimes prove a gamble. For Villa, though it seemed the inevitable option with things becoming stale under Steve Bruce.
His replacement, self-confessed Villa fan Dean Smith, has, so far, proven himself to be the up and coming manager which persuaded his new employers to prise him away from Brentford in the first place. He has Villa playing with an attacking verve absent from Villa Park for some time.
They’re not just scoring a hatful of goals though (17 in the last 5), they’re winning at a better rate and seeing off fellow promotion rivals with ease. Three wins in their last five, including comprehensive victories at Derby and Middlesbrough (no mean feat) and a derby thrashing of Birmingham sees Villa on the up and well placed in eighth.
Another managerial casualty looked likely at the Britannia too based on Stoke’s early season form. Pottering along with a series of draws and a handful of wins, Gary Rowett has demonstrated his knowledge of the league to see Stoke rise to tenth.
There are still too many draws than he’d like - three in the last five is far from ideal when trying to make up ground. However, they’re unbeaten in eight and have suffered just one defeat in twelve.
Pivotal figures in their revival have been Joe Allen and Tom Ince, both of whom have chipped in with crucial goals of late. They’ll need to be on their game against free-scoring Villa too, a defeat will be damaging and undo the hard work of the last few weeks, especially ahead of a favourable block of games to come.
Stoke are waking up to the challenge of the Championship
Saturday - Barnsley vs. Portsmouth (15:00)
Two unbeaten records on the line: Top of the table Portsmouth head to Oakwell having just suffered a first defeat in ten. The hosts are looking to get back on track too.
Daniel Stendel is making positive strides with Barnsley. The former Hannover boss has a been a breath of fresh air since arriving in South Yorkshire during the summer, turning The Tykes into one of the most attractive to watch teams in the league, while helping to lift the gloom that automatically comes with relegation.
His side, on a run of three without a win, host the league leaders, beaten for the first time in ten during midweek. Both will be desperate to return to winning ways but those expecting Pompey to turn it back on might not be aware of Barnsley’s unbeaten home record.
How Kenny Jackett’s players react to a first defeat in over two months adds to the intrigue of this clash. An unexpected defeat to Charlton in midweek, just their second loss of the campaign, was a stark reminder how competitive this league can be.
Fortunately for Portsmouth, top spot is still intact, while their unbeaten away record should stand them in good stead at Oakwell. But they would have preferred an easier game to get back up and running with.
Saturday - Macclesfield vs. Crawley (15:00)
Already a crucial week for Campbell: He’s only been in his first managerial job five minutes. Yet you could say Sol Campbell’s first home match as Macclesfield boss is a ‘must not lose’.
Having taken charge of the side propping up the entire football league, the former England defender is only too aware of the job on his hands. But he needs to get them winning. And quick. An average so far of one win every seven games isn’t going to stop The Silkman from hurtling straight back down to the National League.
An ineffective showing in front of goal at Colchester - nothing new given their paltry goal tally of 16 all season - cost Campbell his first defeat in his first game. He’ll be counting on back-to-back home games against Crawley and Port Vale to yield him his first points.
And it’s a golden opportunity when you consider the form of the visitors to Moss Rose. Crawley are on a rotten run on the road having lost their last five.
They too are adjusting to a new man in the dugout with Gabriele Gioffi taking over from Harry Kewell in September. The Italian has overseen five home wins but can’t seem to replicate the same form away from the Broadfield. There’s no doubt this fixture would’ve been identified as one they could profit from though.
Monday - Derby vs Nottingham Forest (19:45)
‘The Brian Clough Derby’: Rounding off the weekend in the EFL is the standout fixture between two clubs who have more in common than just their East Midlands rivalry.
Just three points separate the two great foes and while it’s the hosts who hold the slight upper hand in league position and recent form, Frank Lampard will recall his side being beaten twice before on the big occasion at Pride Park; early on to Leeds and most recently to Villa. He’ll hope both serve as a stark reminder to the threat of getting caught up in the atmosphere of a big game.
The Rams are in decent form though having accrued maximum points in four of the last six. Without tempting the same fate to fall on previous Derby teams, this side moulded by Lampard looks as if it has the right blend of youth and experience to endure the marathon of the Championship. In the short-term however, it’s all about beating fierce rivals Forest.
Aitor Karanka will also be aware of the significance of this derby match, not just for the Forest faithful but in terms of keeping within reach of the play-off spots. But trying to get Forest over the line in certain games is a quandary for the Spaniard. Even more so when you think he has the league’s top scorer, Lewis Grabban, in the ranks.
Amazingly, his 14 goals haven’t been enough to propel Forest into the play-off positions. A league high of 10 draws and a lack of consistency in results is preventing The Reds from picking up any momentum, the key for any side in this division. Will a famous win in this fixture be the kick-start they’re in need of?
Much travelled championship hitman Grabban is doing what he does his best for Forest