EFL Championship – Mid-Season Review – Part 1

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Leeds United's Jack Harrison is congratulated.

Part 1

Leeds and Norwich are in the box-seats for automatic promotion as all 24 sides head into 2019 in what is turning out to be yet another unpredictable Championship season.

Will both be celebrating promotion back to the ‘big time’ in May? And which three sides seem destined for the drop?

Part 1 of our mid-season review looks at Aston Villa through to Millwall.

Part 2 – Norwich City to Wigan Athletic

 

ASTON VILLA

The story so far… One of the Championship’s biggest hitters are finally beginning to motor as Dean Smith stamps his authority on his hometown club.
Reasons to be cheerful… This is a side that oozes class all over the pitch and now has a manager who has shown he can deliver impressive attacking football – if they can just find consistency.

Derby County manager Frank Lampard (left) greets Aston Villa manager Dean Smith.

 

Reasons to be fearful… Villa still have considerable traffic to wade through if they want to lock-up a play-off spot and can still look vulnerable defensively in key games against those around them.
Where will they finish? If Smith is given some room to manoeuvre in the transfer window, Villa look best-placed of the chasing pack to mount a late play-off charge.

 

BIRMINGHAM CITY

The story so far… Quietly creeping up on the rails without many people noticing. Vying with QPR for the title of this season’s surprise package.
Reasons to be cheerful… One defeat at home all season is a strong platform to build upon in a division as nip-and-tuck as the Championship. If they can add some more wins on the road, expect them to remain firmly in the play-off hunt.
Reasons to be fearful… The Blues are overly reliant on their prolific front pairing of Che Adams (11 goals) and Lukas Jutkiewicz (10). Both will need to stay fit and firing for the rest of the season.
Where will they finish? Garry Monk is performing above expectations at St Andrews but may find his side squeezed out of the play-off picture by higher-spending rivals. A Top 10 finish would still be an impressive achievement after several years of struggles.

 

BLACKBURN ROVERS

The story so far… Rovers are exceeding expectations under the astute management of Tony Mowbray, sitting comfortably in mid-table after sealing promotion back to the Championship after one year away.
Reasons to be cheerful… It’s been a low-key season at Ewood Park – and that’s exactly what they need as they look to stabilise in the Championship after their recent struggles at this level.

Blackburn Rovers’ Darragh Lenihan is congratulated on scoring his team’s second goal.

 

Reasons to be fearful… Form has been slipping slightly in recent weeks, and in a league as tight as the Championship, a 10-point buffer to the relegation zone can quickly erode. A few quick wins are needed to arrest sleepwalking into danger.
Where will they finish? Consolidation was the aim pre-season and Mowbray’s side look far too well-drilled to be dragged into a relegation battle.

 

BOLTON WANDERERS

The story so far…
 A lack of resources is starting to bite for Phil Parkinson’s side, with Wanderers desperately battling for points towards the bottom of the table.
Reasons to be cheerful… A 2-1 win over Rotherham on Boxing Day demonstrated some of the fighting spirit this patched-together squad will need to retain their Championship status.
Reasons to be fearful… That win was their first since September – and a paltry 17 goals all season suggests Wanderers simply don’t have the firepower to claw their way to safety without switching things up in January.
Where will they finish? Given Bolton’s much-publicised troubles, Parkinson has done a great job since joining the club in 2016, but he desperately needs some extra quality to avoid Wanderers returning to the third tier after just two seasons. At the moment, relegation looks inevitable.

 

BRENTFORD

The story so far…
 Tipped by many as the likely surprise package at the start of this season, the biggest surprise is just how below-par the Bees have been throughout this season – particularly since losing Dean Smith to Aston Villa.
Reasons to be cheerful… The Bees’ new Danish head coach Thomas Frank may have finally stopped the rot after finally picking up some much-needed points over Christmas, and as one of the best-run clubs in the Championship, Brentford are likely to keep a calm head even if others around them hit the panic button, despite a difficult start to Frank’s tenure.

Brentford’s Lewis Macleod (centre) celebrate with Neal Maupay (left) and Alan Judge.

 

Reasons to be fearful… Is he the right manager to guide Brentford through an unexpected relegation battle? The Bees may have to make a swift judgement call to avoid a surprising drop back into League One – but are so far sticking by their new manager.
Where will they finish? Brentford have good enough playing personnel to comfortably avoid any long-term flirtation with relegation this season, whether or not they choose to keep the faith with Frank. Mid-table.

 

BRISTOL CITY

The story so far…
 Eight wins, eight draws, eight defeats. The Championship’s most consistently inconsistent side?
Reasons to be cheerful… In a relatively log-jammed league, City are surprisingly still only a few wins off the play-off spots – and have shown in previous seasons they are capable of hitting a winning streak if they put their mind to it.
Reasons to be fearful… The Robins are getting a reputation as draw specialists in recent weeks. That might be enough to keep them safely away from the bottom of the table, but won’t help move the dial in terms of pushing them into the play-off picture.
Where will they finish? City are the archetypal mid-table Championship side. Expect them to pick up the odd surprise away win, lose a home banker, and finish just about where they sit now.

 

DERBY COUNTY

The story so far…
 Frank Lampard put his reputation on the line in taking a management role in a division as volatile and unforgiving as the Championship but so far looks a natural in the dugout.
Reasons to be cheerful… Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the former England star’s managerial bow has been his ability to bounce back instantly from defeat. So far there appears to be little sign of the infamous ‘Derby collapse’ creeping in.

Derby County’s Richard Keogh (right) and Nottingham Forest’s Ben Osbourne (left) battle for the ball.

 

Reasons to be fearful… The final few months of the season will be a massive acid test of Lampard’s credentials. With so many clubs competing for those final few play-off spots, can he outsmart his more experienced counterparts when it comes to game management as the pressure mounts?
Where will they finish? The Rams have looked a little lethargic over the Christmas period without too much of a drop-off in results. If Lampard can rectify that, they will remain firmly in the play-off race as May approaches.

 

HULL CITY

The story so far…
 A slow start has given way to a very Happy Christmas at Hull with mid-table safety looking more likely by the week.
Reasons to be cheerful… In Nigel Adkins, Hull look to have found the right fit for their current circumstances with both parties looking to bounce back from a frustrating couple of years.
Reasons to be fearful… The recent uplift in form could tempt Hull into selling a few of their star names towards the end of the transfer window if safety looks within reach going into the final third of the season. Will the owners opt to cash in?
Where will they finish? It’ll be hard for Hull to sustain December’s impressive uplift in form, but they have enough about them to retain their Championship status with relative ease.

 

IPSWICH TOWN

The story so far…
 A shock to the system for the Championship’s longest-serving club, with the Tractor Boys threatening to finally depart this division for the first time since 2001/2002.
Reasons to be cheerful… He might not offer up Champagne football, but Paul Lambert is a safe pair of hands who knows how to organise a team. If he can turn Portman Road into a fortress, they may yet stand a chance of surviving.

Ellis Harrison of Ipswich Town celebrates.

 

Reasons to be fearful… This team looks as if it needs major surgery at both ends of the pitch – putting huge pressure on Lambert as he embarks on his first transfer window with the Tractor Boys.
Where will they finish? Paul Lambert has improved their chances no end, but he surely has far too much work to do to avoid Ipswich falling to the unfamiliar depths of League One.

 

LEEDS UTD

The story so far…
 A fairytale season at Elland Road under the slick management of high-profile coach Marcelo Bielsa.
Reasons to be cheerful… Title winners find a way to win – whether it’s steamrollering the opposition or snatching last-gasp winners. Leeds never give up even when the result seems beyond them – and that’s a quality that should deliver the promotion fans have been craving for over 14 years.
Reasons to be fearful… Not much has gone wrong for Bielsa’s side this season but fatigue may be a concern for such a high-energy team as they embark on the final stretch of the season.
Where will they finish? Leeds are ticking all the right boxes, and if they can improve squad depth with a few additions in January, it’s hard to see them falling short this time around in the race for promotion. Bielsa’s side look a Premier League outfit in waiting.

 

MIDDLESBROUGH

The story so far…
 The jury is out on whether Tony Pulis can steady the ship and deliver Boro the promotion their outlay in recent seasons probably demands.
Reasons to be cheerful… Boro are built on solid foundations and up until recent weeks had a defence that hardly gave opponents a sniff. Their recent struggles shouldn’t be overly problematic to fix.

Middlesbrough manager Tony Pulis gestures on the touchline.

 

Reasons to be fearful… The natives are getting restless on Riverside with goals drying up in recent weeks. Will they have the patience to hold their nerve with Pulis with other teams currently more likely to snatch their play-off berth?
Where will they finish? Boro are in danger of disappearing out of promotion contention completely. Much will depend on how patient Steve Gibson is feeling if his well-backed side continue to fluff their lines under Pulis. Momentum is against them in the race for the play-offs.

 

MILLWALL

The story so far…
 The Lions have reverted back to the mean in the Championship after a surprise flirtation with the play-offs in 2017/18. Can they learn how to scrap again with relegation looking a real possibility?
Reasons to be cheerful… Millwall have been something of a streaky team since Neil Harris has taken charge of the club – don’t back against them putting another unlikely winning run together to claw their way towards mid-table mediocrity.
Reasons to be fearful… An appalling away record has held Millwall back all season. No wins from 12 away games played puts almighty pressure on them claiming points at The Den.
Where will they finish? Results have been far harder to come by this season for Harris, but he may well be saved by the fact that there look to be at least three sides poorer around them. Home form should see them just about scrape home.

Part 2 – Norwich City to Wigan Athletic

 

All image sources from PA Images

What are your predictions for the rest of the EFL Championship season?

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