Championship in focus: Leeds, Norwich, West Brom and Derby among big teams chasing promotionAt this stage of the Championship last season, Wolves had already accumulated 61 points, were 12 points clear of their nearest rivals and had all but sewn up the title.
At this stage of the Championship last season, Wolves had already accumulated 61 points, were 12 points clear of their nearest rivals and had all but sewn up the title.
Twelve months on and this season’s race to join the Premier League elite looks far tighter with just five points separating the Championship’s top four, eight points between league leaders Leeds and sixth-placed Derby, and 12 points between Leeds and QPR, who sit ninth.
With Leeds hosting Derby at Elland Road on Friday and second-placed Norwich travelling to West Brom, who sit fourth on Saturday, this weekend could prove pivotal in sorting out the Championship’s pecking order and it’s time to assess just who is likely to reach the promised land of the Premier League.
Since Harry Redknapp left in 2015, six men have taken charge of at least one QPR league game, and new chairman Amit Bhatia will be looking forward to a season of stability under Steve McCLaren.
But the early signs looked ominous for former England manager McClaren after QPR lost their first four Championship matches, including a 7-1 defeat away at West Brom, and there were rumours about his future with QPR languishing in 19th position in the league after earning just ten points from their first ten games.
Since then, QPR have been one of the league’s in-form teams with McClaren guiding his side to the fringes of the play-offs after a run of just three defeats in 16 games and without the aid of a top-class striker - Bermudian striker Nahki Wells is the club’s leading goalscorer this season with six goals.
However, with QPR the only team among the Championship’s top 13 sides to have a negative goal difference, coupled with a poor away record of four wins in 14 games, the best they can hope for is a place in the playoffs.
After being appointed manager in May last year, Garry Monk has had to deal with a transfer embargo and strict budgets at a club struggling financially and facing the possibility of a points deduction.
Monk has worked wonders to lift Birmingham to eighth in the league and his side are difficult to beat, with 12 draws in their 26 games, and they have a decent home record, losing just once in 13 games at St Andrews.
Birmingham also have one of the best strike partnerships in the division, with young forward Che Adams proving a lively foil for journeyman Lukas Jutkiewicz - the pair have 22 league goals between them.
Birmingham perform particularly well against the weaker teams in the division but their form against the stronger sides looks shaky, with their last three defeats coming against local rivals Aston Villa, Derby and Bristol City.
Draws will need to be converted into wins if Birmingham are to improve but the prospect of the club being docked points prevents any excitement over potential promotion.
Nottingham Forest 66/1
There was huge anticipation surrounding Nottingham Forest’s performances this season after a summer of heavy transfer activity, which included the club-record signing of 21-year-old midfielder Joao Carvalho for £13.2 million, the purchase of Lewis Grabban for £6m from Bournemouth, the continued loan signing of Jack Colback and the free transfer of Claudio Yacob.
With the Forest board detailing minimum expectations of a promotion challenge and a spot in the playoffs, pressure has been growing on manager Aitor Karanka as the season wears on and the Spanish manager reportedly saved his job, if only for the time being, when Nottingham Forest beat league leaders Leeds 4-2 in their last home game, their first league win in six matches.
With defender Michael Hefele out for at least a month through injury and Grabban suffering from a recurring achilles problem, Karanka has been forced to rely on 35-year-old striker Daryl Murphy to lead the line, which could prove problematic towards the end of a long season.
Another of the division’s draw specialists, Nottingham Forest have a crucial couple of months ahead, with matches against Bristol City, Birmingham, West Brom, Derby, Stoke, Hull and Aston Villa to play before mid-March and it could be unlikely that Karanka remains at the helm after that difficult run of fixtures.
Frank Lampard has impressed thus far in his first managerial job and he is superbly marshalling one of the youngest sides in the division.
Aside from goalkeeper Scott Carson and regular centre-half Richard Keogh, Derby County’s side consist of exciting teenagers and young twenty-somethings who all look to have big futures.
Lampard’s forays into the loan market with Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori from Chelsea and Harry Wilson from Liverpool have worked out well, while he has now seemingly settled on summer signing Jack Marriott and Tom Lawrence as his first choice frontmen.
Derby travel to league leaders Leeds on Friday and, if they avoid defeat, their next run of fixtures could propel them into a battle for automatic promotion, with Lampard’s team facing Reading, Preston, Hull, Ipswich and Wigan, who are all in the bottom half of the table, before the middle of February.
Good performances in those fixtures will surely see them occupy a position higher than their current position of sixth and, with bookmakers offering each-way terms of 1-5 the odds for the first three places, the 20/1 about Lampard achieving promotion in his first season as manager looks good value.
Unsurprisingly, given their manager, Middlesbrough’s strength this season has been their solidity with Tony Pulis’s side having the best defensive record in the Championship, conceding just 18 goals in their 26 league matches.
However, only the bottom five teams in the division have scored fewer goals than Middlesbrough’s 28 goals in 26 games and it normally takes a free-scoring side to gain automatic promotion. Only Birmingham, who scored 54 goals and finished runners-up in the 2008/09 Championship season have gained automatic promotion after scoring fewer than 63 goals in a league season and Middlesbrough are way off the necessary pace.
Pulis’s side are also in their worst run of the season, winning only two of their last eight league matches and they play four of the top eight sides, including Leeds, West Brom and Sheffield United back-to-back in their next five league matches.
It is entirely plausible that Middlesbrough’s bad run continues for some time yet and there could be value in opposing them to even make the playoffs if pressure from the fans continues to build after an extended run of draws and defeats.
West Brom 5/1
West Brom are the leading scorers in the division with 54 goals in their 26 league games and have three forwards in the running to be the league’s top scorer, with Jay Rodriguez, Dwight Gayle and 21-year-old Harvey Barnes scoring 35 goals between them.
Barnes, who is on loan from Leicester, has caught the eye to such a degree that those in the know suggest he may be recalled by his parent club for the remainder of the Premier league season, and that would be a huge blow for West Brom as Barnes provides the quality on the ball and creative spark needed for a promotion push.
West Brom have lost only once in the last ten games and have a good home record, losing just twice in 13 league matches, and they still have to face Middlesbrough, Sheffield Utd and Nottingham Forest at the Hawthorns, wth victories against their title rivals likely to go a long way to cementing automatic promotion.
Manager Darren Moore also has plenty of experience in his dressing room with Gareth Barry, Jake Livermore, Kieren Gibbs and James Morrison unlikely to be fazed by the added pressure, which will be tested with matches against Norwich, Middlesbrough, Stoke, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa, Sheffield United and Leeds among their next eight games. That run will make or break their automatic promotion hopes.
Sheffield United 6/1
Chris Wilder has done a superb job in his two years as boss of Sheffield United, who sit third in the division just four points off leaders Leeds.
Journeyman strikers David McGoldrick, aged 31, and Billy Sharp aged 32, have played for 17 league sides between them during their careers but have scored more than half of Sheffield United’s goals this season. Injuries to either would strongly weaken their chances of promotion.
An experienced side, there were four players over the age of 30 and none younger than 24 in their starting line-up against Wigan in their last Championship game, Sheffield United’s squad is not the largest and that could also hinder them during the run-in.
With that in mind, Chris Wilder made ten changes to the team before an embarrassing 1-0 defeat to non-league Barnet in the FA Cup third round, but he will be forgiven if he can steer the team back to the Premier League.
Although Sheffield United are clearly a team greater than the sum of its parts, the suspicion remains that they are overachieving and, if one team is likely to fall a couple of positions in the next five months, it could be them.
Despite painting the away dressing room pink in an effort to lower the testosterone of opposition players, Norwich have faltered in recent weeks and have failed to win any of their last three league games, including when conceding two goals in the last three minutes to lose 4-3 to fellow promotion hopefuls Derby last month.
Daniel Farke’s side also failed to win when scoring three goals at home to Nottingham Forest and have conceded 13 goals in their last six games.
A big month lies ahead for Norwich, with their next four matches against West Brom, Birmingham, Sheffield United and Leeds and it’s difficult to imagine them coming through those matches unscathed given their defensive frailties at present.
Finnish striker Teemu Pukki, who signed on a free teansfer from Brondby, has been one of the buys of the summer after scoring 15 goals in his 23 league games but Norwich will need to tighten their defence if they are to hold off challenges from below or have designs on catching Leeds at the top.
After a run of seven straight league wins, which included victories over Bristol City, Sheffield United and Aston Villa consolidated their lead at the top of the table, Leeds have lost their last two Championship matches to Hull and Nottingham Forest.
With a home game against promotion chasers Derby on Friday, manager Marcelo Bielsa will be keen for his side to bounce back to winning ways as soon as possible.
In Kemar Roofe and Mateuzs Klich, Leeds have two of the classiest players in the division but Klich’s form has dipped after an impressive start and it’s interesting to note that Bielsa rested him for the FA Cup defeat at QPR.
Leeds have done well to still be top of the table but are struggling with injuries and reportedly have seven first-team players ruled out for the game against Derby. Their squad could struggle to overcome such a lengthy injury list and they may not quite have the staying power to become champions.