Championship Preview: Table-toppers Cardiff face youthful Birmingham

The Bluebirds will be hoping to carry their fine form into 2013, while Lee Clark faces a crippling injury crisis that could see him field an entire XI made up of teenagers
Cardiff spent 2012 getting better and better. After defeat in the League Cup final to Liverpool and a play-off elimination at the hands of eventual winners West Ham, the Bluebirds have soared up the table this season, and go into 2013 five points clear at the summit.

Malky Mackay's side have steamrollered almost all visitors to the Cardiff City Stadium, but they will start the new year with an away game, at Birmingham.

The Welsh side are clear favourites for promotion, but winger Craig Noone insists that the club are not thinking about the end of the campaign just yet.


Crystal Palace
Sheff Wed
Charlton (13.00)
Nottm Forest
Hull City
Bristol City
He told reporters: "I won't be mentioning it. We'll just be taking it game by game. I think we've got our heads screwed on.

"We know what we want and that's just to keep going, take it game by game and keep getting the results. We don't really think about stuff too soon."

Manager Mackay has hailed the togetherness of his squad, with several members of his first team having been signed just this season.

He added: "I'm really proud of the way they work for each other and the complete lack of ego at the training ground among them.

"The respect that they've got for each other and the respect they've got for the staff is something I'm immensely proud to be involved with that group.

"They've gelled together, new players coming in again this year and it's not easy, it's a huge turnaround at a football club in 18 months in terms of that playing squad."

The Blues have been decimated by injuries in recent weeks, with Lee Clark forced to blood several youngsters in the first team.

After defeat to Bolton on Saturday, the Midlands outfit are currently just two places above the relegation zone, with an angry Clark facing criticism from disgruntled supporters.

"I heard a few rumblings from our supporters that we should be playing four-four-two," he blasted. "But we now don't even have a fit or available striker for the next match, so how are we meant to do that?

"I'm absolutely furious with that performance and I'll be working hard to address it.

"I'll play 11 teenagers if I have to. I know there is a fine crop of youngsters here who are ready to play and if the senior guys aren't up for it then they won't play.

"They can help the club kick on and I'd prefer to keep all those young lads than to keep hold of players who don't want to be part of the club."

The Scotland international has been one of few good things at Ewood Park so far this season, with his 12 goals so far this season fully justifying his £8 million price-tag. Rhodes scored his first goal in five games at the weekend and must continue that form to help boost Rovers' flagging campaign.
The winger may not be at Bloomfield Road much longer with Liverpool deep in discussions to bring him back to Anfield in a £7 million deal, but Michael Appleton will be hoping the England Under-21 international can bow out in style against the league's in-form side, Hull City, after having had a hand in an astonishing 23 goals in 23 games already this term.
The Bluebirds' goals have been evenly spread across the entire squad so far this season, having scored a joint league-high 47, despite top scorer Heidar Helguson having hit just eight. Former Brighton winger Noone has been one of the side's top contributors though, scoring five himself and laying on eight for his colleagues in just 20 appearances so far.
Barnsley will begin life after Keith Hill with a tough trip to fellow strugglers Peterborough.

The Tykes sunk to the bottom of the league on Saturday after a 3-1 defeat to Blackburn, with David Flitcroft taking charge of the team for the meeting with the Posh.

"We've had a pretty rough time results-wise over the last few months and the board decided we have to do something positive in order to try and retain our status in the Championship," general manager Don Rowing told BBC Radio Sheffield.

Despite seeing a three-game winning was brought to a halt by Bristol City at the weekend, Peterborough boss Darren Ferguson was delighted with his side's recent performances, and wants them to continue into the new year as he looks to steer his side to safety.

He told BBC Radio Cambridgeshire: "To win one game at this level is hard enough. To win three is fantastic.

"But I don't want us to stop there. We've got the confidence and belief back that we can win against any team in this league.

"We can't let up now. It's the time to up the ante and see where it takes us."

Hull City are the form team in the division, with five wins and a draw from their last six matches seeing the Tigers climb to second as they travel to Blackpool.

The east Yorkshire club are beginning to be taken seriously as promotion contenders and manager Steve Bruce is ecstatic with the instant impact he has been able to make at the KC Stadium.

"I have enjoyed the last five or six months here," he told reporters. "All I wanted to do was get back to work. I was out of work a year ago, so I'm really pleased.

"It's been a huge month for us. Six games, won five, drawn one.

"I couldn't have wished for a better return. We looked like we wouldn't score in the first half but we went about our business properly and we were great to watch. Some of our players, like Sone Aluko, you'd pay to watch."

The Tangerines are winless from their last three games and are seven points off the top six.

Manager Michael Appleton was left lamenting a poor start from his side as they slipped to a 4-2 defeat at high-flying Middlesbrough at the weekend.

He said: "It was disappointing for myself and the staff and more so for the players because they were well short of how they can play.

"I've got to say I didn't see that first half coming. We improved in the second half and nearly did enough to get back into it.

"At the end of the day we are one excellent penalty save away from salvaging a game away at a side that are up at the top.

"When I took over people told me when Blackpool are good - very, very good - but when they are bad they are awful. I think in the first half I saw that bad side."

Elsewhere, Blackburn face Nottingham Forest in a clash between two clubs that sacked their managers over the festive period.

Alex McLeish required a last-minute Billy Sharp goal to salvage a point against Crystal Palace in his first game in charge of the Reds, but the Scot was delighted with what he saw from his new charges.

"I thought there was a lot of fighting spirit among the players. To their credit they went all the way to the final whistle," McLeish said.

"They could easily have put their heads down after Palace had taken the lead again in the last 10 minutes but they fought right to the death and that shows great character.

"I also saw some great quality on the field today. Andy Reid was fantastic - what a game he had, and he was instrumental in the two goals. The one he scored was a peach."

Gary Bowyer will remain in temporary charge for Rovers, with global advisor Shebby Singh insisting that an appointment at Ewood Park will not be rushed.

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