In this article…
In the fourth weekend of Championship action, it was a dream Birmingham debut for Jay Stansfield, Luis Sinisterra gave lift-off to Leeds, Gary Rowett and Millwall enjoyed a crucial victory, while there were defining moments of magic from Mads Frøkjær-Jensen and Ryan Hedges at Deepdale and Vicarage Road respectively.
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Birmingham City: Stansfield’s dream start
Jay Stansfield has a long-standing association with Exeter City. His father Adam played 142 games for the Grecians during their successful rise over the late-noughties and was a club legend, but tragically passed away in 2010. Jay subsequently played his youth career with City before being snapped up by Fulham at 16 in 2019, returning on loan last season to score nine goals in 36 appearances, adding pace and penetration to a dangerous attack before bowing out with a hat-trick in a final day victory over Morecambe.
Stepping up a league, the perfect way for Stansfield to start his Birmingham career would have been to come off the bench to score a last-gasp, injury-time winner against Exeter’s arch-rivals Plymouth Argyle, which is exactly what he did with a thumping finish to boot. The result leaves Blues flying high in third at the end of August, with a wave of positivity around the club, following a summer change of ownership, filtering into their league campaign.
Saturday’s result might not have been a surprise, given that John Eustace’s side were odds-on at 1.95 for victory, but few expected them to be where they are in the table – even now, they’re 4/1 outsiders for a top six finish.
Leeds United: Whites up-and-running
It had been a disappointing start for Leeds, who were held to a 2-2 draw with Cardiff on the opening day, before a dour 1-0 loss at Birmingham on week two, though they probably deserved more than a point from West Brom the following Friday after a dominant last half-hour. What the Whites were missing on that occasion was the individual quality of forwards Wilfried Gnonto and Luis Sinisterra, who made all the difference after coming into the starting line-up against Ipswich Town at Portman Road.
Leeds rejected a £25 million bid for the former, the latter is a 2021-22 Europa Conference League runner-up with Feyenoord and both have far too much quality for the Championship, which they proved in Suffolk with a goal apiece. With Joel Piroe grabbing a goal on his debut after signing from Swansea, it seems Leeds now have the final third incision to maximize the work of prodigy Archie Gray and dynamo Ethan Ampadu in midfield.
The contrast in early-season form between Ipswich – who started with three straight wins – and their hosts, was such that Daniel Farke’s side were as big as 2/1 for victory, even against a side that’s freshly promoted from League One. If Leeds can retain Gnonto and Sinisterra, though, that 11/5 price on promotion will look generous…
Millwall: Rowett relief
Kevin Nisbet grabbed the only goal of the game as Millwall bounced back from three consecutive defeats in all competitions to beat Stoke City at The Den. +Gary Rowett has delivered top half finishes in each of his four seasons at Millwall, with his side landing in eighth, 11th, ninth and eighth again last season, all on a bottom-six budget. As such, Rowett sometimes doesn’t get the credit he deserves, even from his own fans at times as well as from the outside. Lions supporters always take to ‘up-an’-at-‘em’ football – an aggressive, high-line, two-up-top approach – whereas Rowett likes a more cautious approach which means he can come under criticism when results go awry.
Frustration seeped in after passive performances against Bristol City and Norwich in defeat followed a solid opening day victory at Middlesbrough, meaning Millwall were as big as 2.60 for a home win against a side that finished 16th last season, albeit with significant summer investment. They responded defiantly though, to get that 1-0 victory as, unusually, Rowett did plump for two up top with summer recruit Nisbet keeping his place, and last season’s top goalscorer, Tom Bradshaw, earning his first start of the campaign.
Having two up top made a difference for the South Bermondsey outfit, because it meant Billy Mitchell in midfield, and Zian Flemming in the number ten position, had runners to pick out in a way they didn’t have in other games this season. Credit must go to Rowett for changing things up and getting the desired results; his side are 3.0 for the win next week against another of the manager’s former clubs, Birmingham.
Preston North End: Frøkjær-Jensen turns on the style
It’s been a wonderful start to 2023/24 for Preston North End, who conclude August inside the top six with ten points from their first four games after a 2-1 victory over Swansea last time out. Ryan Lowe’s side had been 2.43 to beat the Swans, and they delivered thanks to goals from Andrew Hughes and Duane Holmes. Hughes has also been key to the Lilywhites’ defensive strength, with just three goals conceded already, forging a sturdy defensive trio with Jordan Storey and Liam Lindsay to his right. Elsewhere, teenager Kian Best has fared admirably in the absence of a senior left wing back and could become an unlikely breakout star.
The results would not have been possible, though, without Mads Frøkjær-Jensen, who signed from Odense in the summer. The 24-year-old’s shooting on Saturday might have been a tad off-colour, with two wasteful mis-hits in the first half preceding a rasping, closer effort in the second that still missed the target. Even when the attacking midfielder was performing a notch below his own high standards, though, he was still capable of moments of serious quality, including some lovely cushioned passes to the flanks, and a delightful assist for the winner.
Frøkjær-Jensen had the intelligence to slow the game down, exchange some passes with team-mates and almost create the illusion of someone struggling for ideas, then accelerate rapidly. At that precise moment, Frøkjær-Jensen nutmegged marker Jay Fulton when he just wasn’t expecting it, before entering the box and squaring for Duane Holmes to drill home the decisive goal. Frøkjær-Jensen can do things with the ball that the club haven’t seen from a footballer for a very long time, and if this season is to be a special one for North End – 4.50 for a top six finish – he’ll unquestionably be the key.
Blackburn Rovers: Watford nullification
Blackburn lifted themselves to ninth after a 1-0 win at Watford, thanks to a skilful finish from Ryan Hedges. Having been 3.20 outsiders against the Hornets, who have the second-best xG difference in the Championship at 3.69 according to Soccerment. Rovers had to absorb pressure to secure the victory and needed an excellent goalkeeping performance from Aynsley Pears, who pulled off a fine low stop to deny Matheus Martins, preserving the lead.
The defence looked stronger, too, as Dominic Hyam matures into a key leader for Jon Dahl Tomasson’s side, ably supported by Joe Rankin-Costello, Hayden Carter and Callum Brittain. Sam Gallagher, meanwhile, made a difference from the bench: the target man might not be the ruthless finisher Blackburn are craving, but Sunday showed his physicality and industry can still trouble opponents.
Tomasson will want his side to control more of the ball than they managed to at Vicarage Road moving forwards, but will be delighted with his side’s defensive resolve as Rovers mount another play-off challenge. Despite going close last year, just falling short in seventh and missing out on goal difference, Blackburn are still as big as 4.0 for a top six finish.
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