As last season’s Championship wound to a close two things were certain: Leicester and Burnley were guaranteed promotion to the Premier League. In a division so often characterised by hotly contested chases for automatic promotion places, Burnley finished a clear eight points ahead of third placed Derby, with Leicester a full nine above the Clarets. This year, however, the race for the top spot is far from over.
On Saturday Eddie Howe’s AFC Bournemouth reclaimed their place atop the Championship table, edging ahead of Aitor Karanka’s Middlesbrough on goal difference with a 5-3 win over Cardiff City. Requiring a win by two goals to overtake Middlesbrough, who only that day took first position in the early kick off with fellow promotion chasers Derby, the Cherries took the initiative when Matt Ritchie turned home after just 39 seconds. Bournemouth appeared to cement their lead when Harry Arter calmly slotted in their second just minutes before half time, only to see Cardiff regain some momentum when Kenwyne Jones pulled one back just before the break. Only moments later, though, Mark Pugh reinstated Bournemouth’s two goal lead, putting the Cherries 3-1 ahead at the end of the first half.
Cardiff, buoyed by their near-comeback in final moments of the first half, emerged energised for the second half, and again reduced the deficit to one with a Sean Morrison header. The Bluebirds back line, though, was unable to keep the league’s highest scoring side at bay, and Yann Kermorgant found the back of the net with a well-placed free kick into the top corner to put Bournemouth 4-2 to the good. A determined Cardiff remained resolute, with Morrison adding his second to put them back within reach of an impressive comeback. However, after letting a two goal lead slip in their previous game to Millwall Howe’s men looked to prevent history from repeating itself, and as Cardiff pushed for an equaliser Callum Wilson was able to race clear onto Ritchie’s through ball and neatly finish an incisive counter to guarantee the victory that lead Bournemouth to the summit of the league table.
While Bournemouth’s players and fans were justifiably ebullient at the mere possibility of retaining their automatic promotion place to the end of the season, they are all too aware of the challenge they face if they are to do so. The Championship is proving particularly competitive this year as many teams exhibit promotion-worthy form, and with four sides within 3 points of surmounting them Bournemouth need to maintain their run of form to maintain their slender lead. One encouraging omen that might predict the continuation of these victories is the disciplined, well-organised teamwork they have exhibited thus far. Succeeding in the league despite little in the way of spending – bringing in Dan Gosling, Junior Stanislas and Callum Wilson, a significant part of that spending was in response to the departure of Lewis Grabban to Norwich – Bournemouth have, more than simply replacing their former top scorer, facilitated an improved style of play by introducing new, quality players throughout their starting eleven.
The man responsible for these productive changes is manager Eddie Howe, who recently declared his loyalty to the club and assured fans of his intention to remain with the Cherries regardless of any offers to a supposed “bigger club”. His dedication and managerial skill, implementing Bournemouth’s improved style and crafting strong relationships with his players, are evidently a significant contributor to his side’s success. A particular testament to Howe is the presence of Junior Stanislas. Having played under Howe during his tenure as Burnley manager, Stanislas elected to join the Cherries in a free transfer to rejoin his former manager, despite Burnley’s promotion to the Premier League. With the introduction of Stanislas, alongside fellow canny introduction Dan Gosling, similarly arriving on a Bosman, and Callum Wilson to replace the goalscoring void left by Grabban, Howe looks to have assured future progress for the Cherries in their pursuit of promotion.
How might Bournemouth extend their stay at the top of the table?