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Championship

Football League: Team of the Week – Matchday I

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The long-awaited Football League season is back, and the 2016/17 campaign started in scintillating fashion with some superb team and individual displays across all three divisions in the new EFL format.

There were also some surprises, particularly in the Championship as top two favourites Newcastle United and Aston Villa slipped to opening day defeats. But as teams looked to get off to the perfect start, who stood out the most across all three divisions? This is The Boot Room’s brand new weekly feature, the Football League Combined Team of the Week from the Championship, League One and League Two. And our pick goes as follows:

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Coach: Alex Neil (Norwich City)

The Canaries kept faith with their manager even after they suffered the setback of relegation from the Premier League last season, and having led Norwich out of the Championship in 2014/15 via the playoffs, Neil got his players off to the perfect start this term, overseeing a 4-1 rout over Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park.

The Scottish coach made a big call in handing a debut to Jacob Murphy, and the gamble paid dividends as he solidified the centre of the park for Norwich and scored a superb lomg-range goal to open the Canaries’ account for the season. He got Norwich out of the blocks like an express train, and a message has most certainly be sent out on this showing that the Carrow Road outfit mean business this season, and an immediate return to the Premier League is in their sights.

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Goalkeeper: Mark Gillespie (Carlisle United)

A trip from Cumbria’s Lake District all the way down to the South Coast to play promotion hopefuls Portsmouth would seem a terrifying prospect at any point in the season, never mind in a campaign opener. Add going a man down to a Jamie Devitt red card to the equation and all of a sudden you seem very much in an uphill battle to get anything from the game.

Cue Mark Gillespie inbetween the sticks for Carlisle, who made a string of fantastic saves to keep the game level at 1-1 and preserve a point for Carlisle at Fratton Park. The shotstopper was called into action as early as five minutes into the game, saving smartly to deny Milan Lalkovic, and was only beaten after the Cumbrians went a man down with Devitt’s dismissal, as Carl Baker’s low shot evaded him. In a backs-to-the-wall second half, Gillespie was excellent, and his composure in coming to claim the ball was instrumental in gaining a share of the spoils.

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Right-Back: Denis Odoi (Fulham)

Fulham were given the honour of hosting the Football League curtain-raiser on Friday night as the Cottagers played host to relegated Newcastle United before the Sky Sports cameras. It was the home side who took the spoils with a hard-earned 1-0 victory, and a bright-spark was debutant Denis Odoi, a summer-signing for new boss Slavisa Jokanovic from Belgian club Lokeren.

Odoi was not only solid defensively and superb in going forward, but he produced what will probably one of the showboats of the season on the opening night, turning away from the ball dropping towards him on the byline to bounce the ball off his back beyond the approaching Paul Dummett, before beating the Newcastle man for pace and gathering the ball once more to the thrill of the Craven Cottage crowd.

Dummett, the crowd and most of the audience watching at home were left bamboozled by the debutant’s piece of skill, and if that is a sign of things to come for Fulham this season then fans of the West London club can begin to get seriously excited.

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Centre-Back: Ryan Shotton (Birmingham City)

So often criticised for being a defensive liability and making crucial mistakes during his time with Stoke City and Derby County, Shotton shone in new club Birmingham’s colours with a fantastic display at Cardiff City. The Blues were under the coche for long periods, but Shotton was instrumental as Gary Rowett’s side held the South Wales club to a 0-0 stalemate to take a point back down the M6 to St. Andrews. If he can continue to produce this form, then he may finally begin to look the real part in central-defence with the West Midlands side.

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Centre-Back: Nathan Smith (Port Vale)

The highly-rated 20-year old made his league debut on Saturday, and it was a tricky opening assessment as the Valiants made the trip to West Yorkshire to take on promotion hopefuls Bradford City at Valley Parade. Smith put in a solid performance in what was an intimidating atmosphere from the 17,000 Bradford supporters in attendance, and he handled the daunting task of marking the Bantams’ 6ft 4inch target-man James Hanson like a defender who’d been playing for years. On this showing a promising future lies ahead of the Madeley-born youngster.

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Left-Back: Ryan Dickson (Yeovil Town)

The Glovers began their SkyBet English Football League Two campaign at home to Notts County who had made several big additions in pre-season in a bid to gun for promotion. Yeovil soon put pain to such optimism, and Dickson captained the side at Huish Park with a strong performance in defence and was always eager to get forward and join the attack. A very solid showing and encouraging signs for Yeovil as they look to make their way back toward a return to League One.

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Right-Midfield: Erhun Oztumer (Walsall)

Oztumer was one of the Saddlers’ summer signings, making the move to the Black Country from League One rivals Peterborough. Not only did he put on a superb performance out on the right for his new club in their curtain-raiser against third-tier newcomers AFC Wimbledon, but he opened their account for the season with a fantastic 38th minute free-kick to open the scoring. His goal saw him so enough to stave off Cardiff’s Peter Whittingham who came in at a close second.

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Centre-Midfield: Anthony Grant (Port Vale)

The star-man in Vale’s 0-0 draw at Bradford, the defensive-midfielder and reigning Player of the Year at Port Vale showed his class and his importance to Bruno Ribeiro’s team with a superb show of tackling in front of his defence and some intelligent covering play to support his full-backs when under intense Bradford City pressure. Whenever anything got through the back four, the Londoner was on hand to sweep up for his team, and he barely misplaced a pass in front of his defence either. Linked with a move away from Vale Park after handing in a transfer request earlier this summer, this performance will have upped his value that little extra although Vale fans and his manager will be desperate for their club to hang onto him.

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Centre-Midfield: Grant Ward (Ipswich Town)

The 21-year old only signed for Mick McCarthy’s Tractor Boys from Tottenham on Monday, and having been thrown on as a half-time substitute in Ipswich’s Championship opener against Barnsley, Ward took the game by the scruff of the neck and made himself the first name on the teamsheet for our best XI pick with a remarkable hat-trick, scoring his first within 39 seconds of his introduction. Ward’s three strikes handed Ipswich a 4-2 victory, and if he can continue to have such an impact then the Championship had best be wary.

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Left-Midfield: Jacob Murphy (Norwich City)

“Nathan Redmond gone over the summer? No problem!” Those words will undoubtedly be on the lips of Norwich City supporters after Murphy grabbed his chance with both hands following Alex Neil’s decision to start him on the left of a midfield three. He started the Canaries’ season in scinitllating fashion, with a 25-yard shot into the top corner to stun hosts Blackburn Rovers, and was a thorn in the side of their Lancashire opponents throughout as Norwich cruised to a 4-1 victory. Murphy shone at League One level last season with a fruitful loan spell at Coventry, and now he looks more than capable of making the extra step-up to the Championship.

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Centre-Forward: Britt Assombalonga (Nottingham Forest)

The main-man up front for Philippe Montanier’s Forest started and ended the scoring in the Reds’ 4-3 win over Championship new-boys Burton Albion on the opening day of the season at the City Ground. It was his first start in 18 months having overcome a knee injury, and he proved his worth to Forest with two goals which sparked relief for the home crowd against a plucky Burton team who were playing in the Championship for the first-time in their history, and sending Forest to victory at the expense of club legend Nigel Clough, son of the legendary manager Brian Clough who took Forest to their two European Cup triumphs. With Assombalonga back, Forest fans will be hopeful that their paltry goal tally from last season will be history, and they can look forward to a new era under a new boss with an opening three points now in the bag.

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Centre-Forward: Simeon Jackson (Walsall)

Canadian forward Jackson is the final player to make the cut after he re-ignited his career at Walsall with two opening day goals against AFC Wimbledon. Having gone off the radar since his free scoring days at Rushden and Diamonds, Gillingham and Norwich, scoring the goal that won the latter of the three promotion to the Premier League, Jackson’s career somewhat stagnated after a move to Bundesliga side Eintracht Braunschweig didn’t work out and following spells at Millwall, Coventry and Blackburn Rovers also failed to bear fruit. His brace for new-club Walsall shows that he still has goals in him at 29, and that he may just be the perfect replacement for the departed Tom Bradshaw. An encouraging opening day performance which indicates that Jackson may find himself back amongst the goals again this season for the Saddlers.


Featured Image- All Rights Reserved by Long Nguyen https://www.flickr.com/photos/longnx92/

Scott is a Port Vale fan who writes regularly for The Boot Room as a freelancer. He is a fan of several sports but most of his experience in journalism comes from football and volleyball. He has produced several works on major Championships for both the FIVB and CEV in the volleyball world out in Switzerland, and is currently studying for a BA Hons in Modern Languages at the University of Oxford.

FA Cup

Sheffield Wednesday 0-0 Swansea City – Tammy Abraham didn’t take first-team opportunity

Jake Jackman

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Swansea

Swansea City were held in the FA Cup away to Championship club Sheffield Wednesday. The Swans have been drawn to face lower league opposition in every round of the competition so far and this occasion saw Carlos Carvalhal return to his former club. It was a huge day for him and he will be slightly disappointed by the performance that he witnessed.

Although the Premier League side selected a talented team, it was an even contest and both teams had chances to score. Neither team deserved to go through on this viewing and they will have to meet again at the Liberty Stadium in just over a week’s time.

It will be interesting to see who will await the winners of this tie in the next round and that could dictate whether Swansea take the replay seriously or not. Here are three talking points from Hillsborough:

Tammy Abraham didn’t take his opportunity

It was a frustrating day for Tammy Abraham as he had few chances to impress in the final third and he was taken off midway in the second half. That will be a disappointment for the forward as this was an opportunity to earn more game-time in the Premier League and his contribution on Saturday is unlikely to bring that.

During the match, he failed to have a single attempt on goal, while his pass success was at a poor 58%. The service he received was non-existent as shown in the second half when Luciano Narsingh refused to play the striker in.

Abraham did nice work to release the winger and spin in behind his marker, but the return ball didn’t arrive. The striker was visibly annoyed that the ball wasn’t given back.

Jordan Ayew was the man that replaced Abraham and he offered more when he was on the pitch. He was willing to drop deep to be given possession, while he got two attempts in on goal during his short time on the pitch.

His distribution was more effective, as displayed by his two key passes. The former Aston Villa man is the player that should lead the line for the relegation-threatened club.

Adam Reach stood out in midfield

This has been a season to forget for Sheffield Wednesday as they are a considerable distance off promotion, despite being one of the best Championship teams in recent seasons.

The match against Swansea provided the players with an opportunity to prove they can compete with Premier League opposition and Adam Reach was one of the standout performers.

The 25-year-old showed glimpses of both attacking and defensive quality, which shows he can contribute in both halves of the pitch. He will be the first to admit his final ball could have been better, but he regularly got in positions to cause problems for the away side. During the match, he attempted three shots and completed 86% of his passes.

Meanwhile, he worked hard out of possession and didn’t allow Swansea to dominate the midfield battle. Reach won four tackles and made a further two interceptions. He was relentless in work rate and his energy rubbed off on the rest of the team. The midfielder will be a player to keep an eye on in the replay.

Alfie Mawson had to miss the match through injury

The Swansea City defender was pencilled in to start in the match, but he was injured in the warm up and had to be replaced in the starting eleven by Kyle Naughton.

This was a major blow for the team as Mawson is a born leader at the back and offers composure to the back-line. He was later pictured wearing a knee brace and holding crutches, in what was a worrying sight.

The last thing Swansea need is a serious injury, especially to one of the team’s most important players. Towards the end of the game, the cameras showed that he was moving his leg more freely, but it is a concern nonetheless.

Naughton came in and did well, with one excellent challenge saving a goal in the first-half. The entire Swansea defence played well, with Kyle Bartley standing out as a Premier League centre-half.

The former Leeds United loanee won five aerial duels and made four ball recoveries. He could be required to step up if Mawson has to miss some of the run-in.

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Chelsea

Chelsea 4-0 Hull City – Willian plays himself into Champions League contention

Jake Jackman

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Chelsea

Chelsea continued their upturn in form with a convincing 4-0 win over Hull City in the FA Cup. The Blues were overwhelming favourites for the tie, but they had to get the job done and they did so effectively, scoring four times in the first-half.

They would have had one eye on the Champions League tie against Barcelona that is upcoming and that led to Antonio Conte making several changes.

The Italian decided to rest key players such as Eden Hazard, Ngolo Kante and Cesar Azpilicueta. It was the right decision as they progressed with comfort. Here are three talking points from the match:

Olivier Giroud is off the mark

One huge positive to come out of the game for the hosts was Olivier Giroud’s first goal for the club. He signed in January to provide competition for Alvaro Morata and his performances have been encouraging since signing, but to hit the back of the net takes the pressure off the Frenchman.

The signing carried relatively little risk for Chelsea as the striker has lots of experience in England and his consistency is already shining through in a Blues’ shirt.

Early into the game, he had a great opportunity to open his account, but he blazed a volley over the bar. It was a difficult chance as the ball was lifted over the defence to play him in, but a striker of his calibre should have done better.

Three goals were scored and he didn’t score one of them. If he had finished the match without scoring, it would have been talked about and that is why his goal just before half-time will relieve the pressure from him.

The rest of his game was excellent as he got two assists and linked up the play well from the front-line. Although he was brought in to be the back-up striker, Conte may give him the start against Barcelona as he is the player in form.

Hull City showed fight in the second half

The contest was over by the time the players stepped back out for the second-half, but Hull City showed fight and commitment to keep the score down to 4-0.

Nigel Adkins knows the importance of every mental victory when battling against relegation and to draw the second half can provide the players with confidence ahead of a return to league action.

Their performance was markedly improved as they created good opportunities and came close to scoring from the penalty spot. David Meyler stepped up and saw his penalty saved, but that didn’t see the players lose focus as they continued to create opportunities. During the match, they had 10 shots to Chelsea’s 14, which shows that they were far from embarrassed. They just didn’t have the quality in the final third that their Premier League opposition did possess.

It would be a huge blow for Hull City to suffer back-to-back relegations and their manager will be aware of that. This match against Chelsea was a good occasion, but it was far from a priority and their defeat won’t live too long in the memory.

They are currently 21st in the Championship and only above the bottom three by one point. Their far superior goal difference provides encouragement, but they must show this level of commitment until the end of the season if they are to avoid the drop.

Willian proved his quality before the return of the Champions League

Rotation can cause problems in the FA Cup, but in this case, it provided an opportunity to those that are on the fringes of the first-team to play themselves into contention for the Champions League.

Willian is an interesting case as he does feature prominently, but he isn’t a guaranteed first-team starter, as Pedro often gets the nod to start ahead of him.

Willian was excellent against Hull City and certainly gave his manager some food for thought ahead of the match with Barcelona. He completed six dribbles, attempted four shots and made three key passes as he terrorised the opposition defence. On the day, he scored twice, but he easily could have got a hat-trick.

Antonio Conte will be aware that his team’s big weakness is an over-reliance on Eden Hazard. The return of Cesc Fabregas goes some way to providing some support to the Belgian, but if Chelsea can get Willian playing to this level consistently, that would be a positive. He is more dynamic than Pedro and offers more flair to the attack. This performance could see him start against Barcelona.

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Nottingham Forest

Nottingham Forest must give Aitor Karanka time to succeed

Nottingham Forest must give Aitor Karanka time if he is to achieve success at Nottingham Forest, writes Greg Whitaker.

Greg Whitaker

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Aitor Karanka
Photo: Reuters

The Championship is awash with British footballing institutions this season.

Leeds United, Derby County, Sheffield Wednesday and Wolves have all been Champions of England in their time, while Aston Villa have won nearly everything there is to win in the game, including the European Cup in 1982.

Yet, it is Nottingham Forest that hold one of the most unique records in football history, as the only British side to win back-to-back European Cups.

However, two decades of instability on the pitch, in the dugout and in the boardroom have frustrated the Forest faithful.

Twenty years since the Reds last graced the top flight, nights of European glory under Brian Clough and Peter Taylor seem an eternity away.

If new manager Aitor Karanka is to bring the good times back to the City Ground, Forest must break with the bad habits and mismanagement that have plagued the club in recent years and back their man – both with time and the investment needed to wake this sleeping giant.

Since taking the hot-seat at the start of the year, Karanka has not enjoyed the best of starts.

With just one win and five defeats making up his first six league games in charge, one could be forgiven for suggesting the Spaniard is already under pressure.

After all, Karanka is the 13th manager in just ten years to take the reigns at the City Ground. But paradoxically, this is exactly why the former Real Madrid man must be given time.

Indeed, it would certainly be fair to suggest that the painfully inconsistent nature of Forest’s league form over the past decade or so comes as a direct result of their trigger happy mentality when it comes to their manager, paired with their scattergun approach to appointing a successor.

In the last four years alone, Karanka represents the seventh man tasked with kick-staring the Tricky Trees.

What is more concerning is the blindingly obvious lack of consistency in these appointments. Never has a list of seven managers contrasted so much.

From Billy Davies to Philippe Montanier, Stuart Pearce to Mark Warburton, each manager has come with radically different ideas, approaches and management styles.

As Forest legend Garry Birtles was quoted as saying in the local media last month, Consistency breeds consistency but the same is true of inconsistency.’

Although it could be argued that the appointment of the pragmatic, Jose Mourinho-esque, Karanka, immediately after the very English style of management offered by Mark Warburton, smacks of no joined-up thinking at board level once again, the appointment was welcomed by fans.

Whilst he has garnered a bit of a reputation for his short temper, the former defender has a good record in the Championship, leading Middlesbrough to the Premier League in 2016.

Of the 13 managers to take to the Forest dugout over the past decade, Karanka is certainly one of the more exciting prospects and warrants the time needed to put his own stamp on this Forest side.

Despite a poor start, the Spaniard must now work with the ragtag squad of players he has inherited and ensure Forest are still a Championship club come May, before rebuilding in his own image next summer.

After all, the squad undoubtedly possesses a good deal of ability and potential, with a number of exciting young prospects also making their way into the first team fold.

However, much of this ability is raw or inconsistent.

Karanka’s first job is surely to inject much needed confidence and organisation into this group of players.

During his time at the Riverside, Karanka managed to turn an underachieving Boro team –  who were arguably in a similar state to that of the current Forest side – into promotion winners.

He did this through implementing his own pragmatic approach – making his side defensively very well-drilled and difficult to break down.

Although this style, labelled as negative by some, proved not as successful when applied in Middlesbrough’s single season in the Premier League, this meticulous focus on preventing the opposition from playing their natural game often pays dividends in the rough and tumble of the Championship.

What is certain is that Karanka views Forest as a project.

He has shown in recent interviews and press conferences that he understands and respects the rich and prestigious history of the club.

However, he has also indicated that he is under no illusions that making Forest a true force again will require time and, in the long term, large investment in his squad.

What it all comes down to now is simple.

After five chaotic years under the ownership of Fawaz Al Hasawi, will new owner Evangelos Marinakis show Aitor Karanka the patience and investment needed to revitalise one of England’s biggest footballing institutions?

After all, in the words of Nottingham Forest’s greatest ever manager, Brian Clough: ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day … but I wasn’t on that particular job.’

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