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Last Updated: 19/12/12 at 17:11 Post Comment

Clayton: the Huddersfield midfielder could play a key role against Crystal Palac

Clayton: the Huddersfield midfielder could play a key role against Crystal Palac

We will bring you four key matches from the Championship over the festive period, starting with Blackpool's duel with Wolves on Friday night.

Each off the fixtures will feature teams gunning for promotion or, at the very least, places in the play-offs, so the clashes are sure to be keenly contested.

Read below for my thoughts on the games in question...

Blackpool v Wolves: 7.30pm, Fri, Dec 21 (Sky Sports 2 HD)

Blackpool are eight games unbeaten under the stewardship of Michael Appleton and have tightened up defensively in recent weeks, though there is still work to do in that department for the former Portsmouth manager. A heart-warming win over near neighbours Blackburn in front of the Tangerine Army has moved Blackpool to within five points of the play-off places, and their next two matches - against Wolves and Huddersfield - represent their best chance of getting points over the Christmas period with games against high-flying Middlesbrough and Hull up after that.

Wolves continue to be a conundrum; performances are getting better but back-to-back victories were followed by a defeat at Middlesbrough last weekend. Wanderers have an experienced squad and should be doing better but with an inexperienced yet seemingly unflappable manager in Stale Solbakken at the helm, the Wolverhampton faithful are not convinced the club has the recipe for promotion. The players who could light up the game are Blackpool's much-coveted Thomas Ince (pictured) and Wolves newcomer Bakary Sako. Both widemen have devastating pace and trickery and an eye for goal, and have been stars of the Championship season so far.

Crystal Palace v H'field: 5pm, Sat, Dec 22 (Sky Sports 2 HD)

At the time of writing, Crystal Palace are two points behind Championship leaders Cardiff and one point ahead of Middlesbrough and Hull so, with an evening kick-off against Huddersfield on Saturday, could find themselves in fourth place. Even if that is the case, the Eagles have covered themselves in glory over the first half of the season and Dougie Freedman, Ian Holloway and the playing staff have been a revelation - but the Palace fans have created such noise that they have more than matched the on-field exploits of their side. Glenn Murray and Wilfried Zaha have been taking all the plaudits but the Londoners are anything but a two-man team, with midfielders Owen Garvan, Andre Mortiz and Kagisho Dikgacoi troubling the scorers regularly.

I was worried when my favourite Championship 'keeper, Julian Speroni (pictured), cut off his ponytail but he has performed heroics and shown no loss of strength or form after his visit to the barbers. Huddersfield, meanwhile, have dropped a couple of places after their fourth defeat in six games but a 29-point haul from 22 games has given them an 11-point buffer from the relegation places. The Terriers have picked up more points away from home and found it easier to score on their travels than at the John Smiths Stadium. It was always going to be tough without Jordan Rhodes' goal-scoring endeavours but expect a couple of signings to boost a squad that has shown enough to suggest they will consolidate in the Championship. The men to watch in this game will be the brilliant Yannick Bolasie (Crystal Palace) and bargain buy Adam Clayton (Huddersfield).

Nott'm Forest v Leeds: 12pm, Boxing Day (Sky Sports 1 HD)

Only one point separates these two teams but with Forest playing away at Gianfranco Zola's Watford and Leeds afforded home advantage in a Yorkshire derby against Tony Mowbray's Middlesbrough that could easily change by the time these sides meet. After back-to-back losses against Ipswich and Hull, Forest have gained four points from six and the big plusses have been the blossoming strike partnership of Billy Sharp and Dexter Blackstock and the renaissance of Andy Reid.

Leeds have had a positive response since their takeover, however flaky the investment of real investment seems. Recent loan signings have made a huge difference so expect the five or six borrowed players to sign to the end of the season, as well as the acquisition of a new striker. Leeds are playing a very attacking brand of football under Neil Warnock and have taken 15 points from a possible 18 with both Luciano Becchio (pictured) and Paul Green among the goals. Forest star Sharp - buoyed by the birth of a new baby boy - is an out-and-out goal-scorer who will catch the eye, while Leeds' teenage sensation Sam Byram will hope to add to his growing reputation as one of the most assured attacking full-backs outside the Premier League.

Brighton v Watford: 5pm, Sat, Dec 29, (Sky Sports 2 HD)

Brighton are without a win in four Championship matches and have been beset by injuries to Spanish trio Andrea Olandi, Vicente and Bruno Saltor, as well as Gary Dicker. Albion showed great heart to come from 2-0 down to draw with Millwall on Tuesday night but Gus Poyet was once again left bemoaning the fact that he did not have the threat of one-time loanee Chris Wood to finish off all the fantastic approach play that Brighton produce. Watford have Nottingham Forest at home and Bristol City away in their next two fixtures and should have kept pace with the teams around them before they tackle Brighton. The Hornets, along with Palace are one of the two teams that have, against the odds, made a big impression with limited resources and little expectation. This should be a game for the purists as Gus and Gianfranco like their teams to play out from the back.

Brighton will be favourites on home soil but that could play into Watford's hands, as Zola's men flourish with the underdog tag. Many people will be expecting this to be a low-scoring affar and a direct shootout between Brighton's Craig Mackali-Smith and Watford's Troy Deeney, but my players to keep an eye on are Will Buckley and Nathaniel Chalobah. Albion's Buckley is a tall, rangy winger who is comfortable on either flank and even though he already has five goals to his name this term, there is much more to come from a player who I have watched closely since his early days at Rochdale. Hornets man Chalobah, meanwhile, is a machine; athletic, elegant on the ball and with a great temperament, the Chelsea loanee is equally comfortable playing as a footballing centre-half or a Patrick Vieira-like midfield player; the 17-year-old's influence on this game will be crucial.

Excitement

However, there are big matches aplenty in all three divisions this Christmas that will effect both tends of the tables.

Defenders usually afford forwards lots of festive spirit leading to crazy scorelines and excitement galore, so strap yourself in and enjoy the ride.

My games to look out for are as follows...

CHAMPIONSHIP

Cardiff v Crystal Palace (Boxing Day)
Hull v Leicester (Boxing Day)
Bristol City v Peterborough (Sat, Dec 29)

LEAGUE ONE

Brentford v Stevenage (Sat, Dec 22)
Doncaster v MK Dons (Sat, Dec 22)
Hartlepool v Portsmouth (Sat, Dec 22)

LEAGUE TWO

Rotherham v Port Vale (Boxing Day)
Southend v Gillingham (New Year's Day)
Bristol Rovers v Plymouth (New Year's Day)

And finally...

Thank you to all the fans that have taken time to write in and ask me questions this year, regarding your club's players, performances and general wellbeing. I hope you all have a brilliant Christmas and prosperous New Year.

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