It’s been yet another unpredictable season in the EFL Championship so far, with Leeds and Norwich in the box-seats for automatic promotion as all 24 sides head into 2019.
Will both be celebrating promotion back to the ‘big time’ in May? And which three sides will face the agony of slipping into the third tier?
Part 2 of our mid-season review looks at Norwich City through to Wigan Athletic.
The story so far… The Carrow Road faithful are starting to believe with the Canaries currently pulling away from the play-off pack. Written off by many pre-season, Daniel Farke’s side look like they finally trust in their own potential.
Reasons to be cheerful… As with fellow promotion chasers Leeds, there is a sense this Norwich side are never down and out even if they aren’t fully firing on all cylinders – and that’s a trait common to many sides who have previously gone on to claim a top two berth in the Championship.
Reasons to be fearful… This is not a squad brimming with Championship promotion experience and that could play a factor in the gruelling final few months of the season.
Where will they finish? This being the Championship, Norwich will surely have a wobble at some stage, but there’s enough positivity in their ranks to ensure they just squeak over the line.
The story so far… A frustrating season at the City Ground, with Forest flattering to deceive at times, and reported unrest around the dressing room – despite the fact they are firmly in the hunt for a play-off spot.
Reasons to be cheerful… Forest certainly look like a side capable of going up a gear if they could just get things to click on a more consistent basis – particularly when it comes to their middling home form.
Reasons to be fearful… Recent reports suggests manager Aitor Karanka could be on borrowed time at Forest – but is this the right moment to stick or twist? Further upheaval could be a risky move.
Where will they finish? Inconsistency might just cost Forest the play-off spot many felt was realistically within reach before this campaign started. Another missed opportunity of a season.
PRESTON NORTH END
The story so far… Gliding serenely towards mid-table after briefly threatening to get dragged into the relegation dog-fight.
Reasons to be cheerful… They say patience is a virtue, and PNE deserve credit for sticking by Alex Neil when they could easily have hit the panic button after the first few months of the season. They now look much more like the side that almost secured a play-off spot when finishing 7th in 2017/18.
Reasons to be fearful… If they claim a few more wins over the next couple of weeks, there’s a danger Preston could be on the beach as the season reaches the spring. Complacency is always a possibility for any Championship side with little left to play for.
Where will they finish? Not quite good enough to mount a promotion charge, far too good to go down – so same as it ever was for Preston. After a sticky start, mid-table consolidation will be more than fine for a team that continues to impress on a relatively tight budget at Championship level.
The story so far… A surprise turnaround in fortune for the much-maligned Steve McClaren. Can he seal a fairytale ending by guiding the Hoops into the play-offs?
Reasons to be cheerful… With QPR punching way above their weight so far this season, there is absolutely no pressure on them compared to many of the sides around them. That could play into their hands as the season heads into the final straight.
Reasons to be fearful… Squad depth might just hold them back, with a six-week injury lay-off for Tomer Hemed a blow heading into the January window.
Where will they finish? Top half – and that will be a job well done for McClaren as he rebuilds his reputation after difficult spells at Newcastle and Derby.
The story so far… It’s been another long, hard season at the Madjeski with Paul Clement failing to revive the Royals’ fortunes. Reading will be hoping the left-field appointment of Jose Gomes will add some spark during the second half of the season.
Reasons to be cheerful… Reading needed to do something to turn around a wretched run of form and while Gomes looks to be a massive risk given his lack of Championship experience, a small ‘managerial bounce’ could be all they need to keep their heads above water.
Reasons to be fearful… They by no means have the worst goal-scoring record of teams towards the bottom of the table, but goals have been drying up over December with only one in their last four games up to Boxing Day. Can Gomes improve their attacking options?
Where will they finish? Gomes’ record doesn’t inspire confidence that he can transform a team that has been in quick decline for two years. Reading were lucky to escape in 2017/18 but that luck might just run out this time around.
The story so far… A much-improved campaign from the Millers after they sunk without a trace the last time they competed at this level two seasons ago.
Reasons to be cheerful… Realistic expectations at the New York Stadium should ensure Paul Warne’s side will continue to battle for every point without supporters turning on the team. They have almost beaten their entire points tally for the 2016/17 season before the turn of the year, a huge positive going into 2019.
Reasons to be fearful… Question marks remain as to whether Warne’s side has any more room to grow given the limitations of their budget at this level. Other teams may have more wriggle room to make shrewd January moves in the transfer market to pull away from danger.
Where will they finish? It’ll be touch-and-go but the Millers have enough battling quality to take their race for survival to the final day and grab an extended stay at this level.
The story so far… Chris Wilder is getting closer and closer to his mission of securing a dream promotion back to the Premier League for his hometown club. Will the Blades seal the deal in 2019?
Reasons to be cheerful… Tenacity – Utd don’t look like a side capable of going on a 10-game winning streak, but they rarely hit a rough patch either. Fourth place looks about right for a side that look far more capable of hanging on to a play-off spot in 2018/19 after falling away badly in the second half of last season.
Reasons to be fearful… Will they be as ruthless as their play-off rivals in the transfer window in January? With the likes of Villa and Stoke ready to pounce, Wilder may need some extra firepower up front to help relieve the pressure on Billy Sharp.
Where will they finish? The Blades are made of stronger stuff this season and should weather any late season wobbles. Expect to finish about where they are now.
The story so far… A disappointing campaign for Wednesday with things starting to look worryingly stale at Hillsborough. The imminent arrival of a new manager might just change that.
Reasons to be cheerful… With reports that Steve Bruce is set to take the reins, Wednesday will at least have one of the Championship’s shrewdest operators to call upon to keep them away from relegation danger.
Reasons to be fearful… A look back at the history books suggests there is always one side sitting in lower mid-table that suddenly gets dragged into danger with only a few weeks remaining. Another downturn in form could see Wednesday play that role this season if no upturn happens under the new man in charge.
Where will they finish? It might not necessarily be pretty, but Bruce has enough Championship nous to move them back towards mid-table safety – if he does take the job.
The story so far… Undoubtedly the Championship’s biggest underperformers during the first half of the season. In an unpredictable league, however, there’s a feeling Stoke could still come on strong.
Reasons to be cheerful… This squad has the quality and depth to put a string of wins together when the games come thick and fast in March and April. If other teams have a wobble, there is a viable pathway for Stoke to put a difficult 2018 behind them and snatch that last play-off spot.
Reasons to be fearful… Stoke look incapable of seeing out games, throwing away plenty of points from winning positions this season. They will need to eradicate that trend to stand any chance of a late tilt at promotion.
Where will they finish? Results are still infuriatingly inconsistent for Potters fans, but Stoke are within striking distance if Rowett can find the right blend during the second half of the season. He might just still be left with too much to do to recover from his rocky start with the club.
The story so far… A low-key season for one of the Premier League’s relegated sides with Graham Potter tasked with a tricky rebuilding job at the Liberty.
Reasons to be cheerful… Results have been inconsistent, but Potter’s enthusiasm for the tough task he has been handed is infectious. With Swans in no danger of relegation, he deserves a season to push his ideas across. It hasn’t done Norwich any harm…
Reasons to be fearful… Drift – Potter will need to keep his side motivated if the Swans find themselves with very little to play for by the spring.
Where will they finish? Mid-table – but that will be fine as Potter is given the time and space to start plotting his Swans revolution. A season of consolidation will probably do Swansea the world of good after a turbulent couple of seasons.
The story so far… Rookie manager Darren Moore has rallied his troops well with West Brom looking the most likely contender to dislodge the current top two.
Reasons to be cheerful… The Baggies look like a side capable of moving up another gear in the second half of the season, and have picked up several points without necessarily always playing to their full potential.
Reasons to be fearful… Moore faces a very tricky spring fixture list with home games against Middlesbrough and Sheffield Utd and away trips to QPR, Stoke, Aston Villa and Leeds. Come through those fixtures unscathed, and the future will be looking bright for the Baggies.
Where will they finish? By far the strongest of the relegated Premier League sides, West Brom have enough experience and guile in their ranks to make both Leeds and Norwich nervous as the season reaches its climax. If either of those sides stutter, the Baggies will be the ones to pounce.
The story so far…. Nerves are starting to creep in at the DW Stadium with the glow of last season’s League One title charge fading with Wigan enduring a bleak midwinter.
Reasons to be cheerful… Pound-for-pound compared to some of the teams around them, Wigan look to have enough talented individuals to start pulling a few results together – but they will need to find a way to start picking up points away from home.
Reasons to be fearful… Paul Cook’s side are badly out of form with only one point to show from their December return so far after a Boxing Day defeat to West Brom. Can Cook arrest the slide?
Where will they finish? A lower mid-table finish might be unsatisfying given the momentum Wigan brought into this Championship season, but would still be a more than satisfactory return for a side that has been yo-yoing between the divisions in recent seasons.
All image sources from PA Images
What are your predictions for the rest of the EFL Championship season?
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