All 24 Championship sides are about to embark on the most gruelling phase of the season.
Which sides are best equipped to come through the cold winter months with their Premier League dream alive – and which sets of fans will be looking up hotels in Accrington for 2018/19 when the clocks go back?
It’s probably the hardest league to predict in the world – but that doesn’t mean we won’t give it our best shot. Here’s our look at the current state of play…
The race for automatic promotion
With no team looking capable of going on a consistent winning run, the time is surely now for Leeds Utd to reclaim their place amongst the elite – especially if they can leverage their current position to strengthen their squad options in what remains of the transfer window.
Fatigue may be their biggest threat to their chances with Bielsa’s energetic style likely to catch up with them at some point – but it’s hard to see them not taking at least one of the two automatic slots available given a general lack of consistency from their promotion rivals this season.
The second automatic spot looks a lot more open but Sheffield Utd look as if they have the mental toughness to at least last the pace as the season enters the home straight. Chris Wilder’s side will be better for their experience of falling away badly in 2017/18 and currently look the most consistently reliable of the chasing pack.
Norwich City’s surge up the table came out of leftfield earlier this autumn, but a recent wobble suggests the play-offs may be more of a realistic target for Daniel Farke’s much-improved side. The Canaries’ impressive firepower should keep them in the mix, but sloppy defending and a lack of promotion-winning experience within the squad could dent their charge.
West Brom and Middlesbrough have been infuriatingly inconsistent at times this season but remain well-placed to pounce if the teams above them stutter. Darren Moore’s side are the top scorers in the division with 55 goals but tend to swing from pummeling opponents to careless defeats, while Tony Pulis’ side still look short of goals despite looking as if they have now overcome a tricky festive downturn in form.
It wouldn’t be entirely surprising, however, if either of these sides clicked into gear with a lengthy winning run towards the business end of the season. Can the Blades and Canaries hold their nerve and keep them at bay?
Verdict: Momentum is everything in the Championship, which should get Leeds over the line.
For all their flaws, West Brom look to have the squad best-placed to navigate the exhausting final third of the Championship season – underlined by the fact they are three points off second place without even hitting top gear this season.
The play-off picture
Barring a major slump in form from the division’s current top five it looks as if as many as nine teams could be chasing just one play-off spot in May.
This being the Championship, don’t rule out a late surge or collapse by any team, but a young Derby County side under Frank Lampard are just starting to show signs of looking a little weary with the physical and mental demands of a play-off challenge.
They have the talent to seal that final spot, but momentum currently looks against them. A few fresh faces in the transfer window might be needed to help re-set their season.
Otherwise, this is starting to look like one of those seasons where one team ‘does a Blackpool or Huddersfield’ and grabs a surprise play-off berth with little or no pressure on them to deliver. Pick any one from Bristol City, Birmingham, Hull or QPR to play that role with all those sides enjoying unexpectedly strong seasons. Dean Smith looks to have too many problems to fix at Aston Villa for them to make the final cut this season, while Swansea and Blackburn don’t look convincing enough to put in the winning runs needed to navigate through the traffic currently above them.
Finally, could new managers have the final say in the play-off shake-up? Both Martin O’Neill and Nathan Jones are intriguing appointments for different reasons at Nottingham Forest and Stoke, although it’s the former who has the far easier task of making an instant impression within this campaign. A fresh charge in 2019/20 is probably Stoke’s priority now, given Jones is a manager who tends to take time to implement his methods.
Verdict: The play-off race usually comes to the team most capable of hitting a hot streak at just the right time. Under Lee Johnson, Bristol City have always been a streaky team – and in a tight play-off battle, that could help them squeeze through the pack to claim that final spot.
The relegation dogfight
Unusually for the Championship, the relegation race already looks like a fairly closed shop with only just over half of the season gone, with none of the bottom four or five looking capable of stringing enough wins together to enjoy a comfortable spring.
That said, there always seems to be one side that nosedives in the second half of the season, and Sheffield Wednesday’s unusual management situation could see them be that team to slide if Steve Bruce fails to hit the ground running when he finally takes over in February.
Despite a poor season, Brentford surely have the quality within their ranks to get the wins they need, while Preston and Millwall should be battle-hardened enough to keep their heads above water. Poor away form could make Wigan vulnerable to an immediate return to League One, while Rotherham are doing about as well as can be as expected given their limited resources but will be a side firmly in the sights of all the bottom three.
In terms of the teams currently occupying the relegation places, Reading have gambled with a leftfield appointment in José Gomes, but a recent turnaround in form suggests a new voice on the training ground might just pay dividends following the forgettable Paul Clement era.
They look to have the best chance of survival, with Bolton dogged by financial worries and poor form, and Ipswich surely cut too far adrift to extend their remarkable 16-year stay in the division.
Verdict: Ipswich and Bolton look doomed – although Paul Lambert’s pragmatism and busy January wheeler-dealing could give the former a glimmer of hope. Sadly for a battling Rotherham team, a lack of genuine Championship-level quality is likely to see them yo-yo yet again between the divisions.
View all Championship Predictions here.
All image sources from PA Images
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