Rafa Benitez has helped turn Newcastle into early title favourites in the Championship
The 2016/17 Championship season has already delivered its fair share of memorable moments. The season is now approaching the halfway stage so it is time to take a look and see which clubs will be looking to do battle for promotion to the Premier League and which clubs will be fighting for their lives to avoid relegation to League One.
It is the dream of every team competing in the Championship to reach the promised land of the Premier League but only two sides will earn automatic promotion with one side earning promotion via the play-off final, also known as “the most lucrative game in world football” with the winners pocketing an estimated £200 million. Here are the main contenders who are likely to be in the race for promotion until the end.
It goes without saying that Rafa Benitez’s side are the undoubted favourites to not only earn promotion but to also finish the season as the title winners in the Championship. The former Liverpool boss was trigger happy with the cash in the summer spending £57 million on new signings such as Dwight Gayle, Matt Ritchie, and Mohamed Diame. However, the club also raked in £86 million in player sales getting rid of high earners including Andros Townsend, Georginio Wijnaldum, and Moussa Sissoko. Shrewd business from the Toon Army and it appears to be paying off as they look set to enter the Christmas period at the summit of the division. They are nailed on favourites to take the title.
Brighton – The Seagulls have been a positive footing ever since former Newcastle gaffer Chris Hughton took the managerial position at the Amex Stadium in 2014. The club narrowly missed out on automatic promotion last season finishing 3rd place before suffering heartbreak in the play-offs. This season, after a summer of fine-tuning an already impressive squad, Hughton’s men look more polished as a squad. They currently possess the best defensive record in the Championship and with players such as Glen Murray banging the goals in, Anthony Knockaert producing match-winning moments, and David Stockdale organising the back four they will be hard to dislodge from the automatic promotion spots. It will take something special to stop Hughton’s men taking that second spot.
The Royals have been quietly flying under the radar all season but a run of four wins in a row during November catapulted Jaap Stam’s men into the realm of promotion contenders. Stam had been criticised earlier in the season for focusing too much on a possession-based game that was failing to get results but his patience and faith in that approach is now paying off. The need for a prolific striker will be a priority in the January transfer window with the club relying on goals from midfield players such as Garath McClearly, John Swift, and Danny Williams. The acquisition of that striker could be the difference between success and failure in the chase for promotion. Play-offs seem a more realistic proposition this season.
Undoubtedly, the surprise package of this season are the Terriers. Former Borussia Dortmund coach David Wagner has stamped his own mark on the side since he took over back in November, 2015. They were expected to spend another season at the wrong end of the table but there was quiet optimism amongst the Huddersfield fans in pre-season that has been justified. Fifteen new signings have transformed a squad with players such as Aaron Mooy, Kasey Palmer, and Danny Ward proven key in the side’s transformation. A very dangerous side to watch out for. Their only downfall might be their defence. The play-offs should be their target this campaign but it remains to be seen if they have enough about them to earn promotion in that way.
Gary Rowett has been slowly building a very effective squad at Birmingham over the past couple of seasons and it seems that the club is finally taking a step up to the next level. The signing of Lukas Jutkiewicz on loan from Burnley has solved their scoring crisis that held them back. It still feels as if the team is lacking in a couple of areas but if the defence can remain tight and Jutkiewicz can continue to link well with Clayton Donaldson then they could well gate crash the promotion party. The highly-rated youngster Che Adams is also a secret weapon at Rowett’s disposal.
The Canaries started the season as firm favourites to bounce straight back to the Premier League. Manager Alex Neil had impressed at Norwich since day one and he had managed to keep a lot of their squad together. Unfortunately, the wheels appear to have fallen off the Norwich promotion wagon. A winless run of five matches throughout October and November saw them drop from being promotion contenders to just clinging on to the last play-off spot. Speculation is now surrounding Neil’s future as Canaries manager. The squad remains packed with Premier League quality but something just isn’t clicking right now and the team is at risk of plummeting down the league unless that changes.
A number of teams are also vying for promotion in the Championship but currently lie just outside the play-off spaces. Leeds are looking resurgent under Garry Monk. The club has failed to find any consistency under chairman Massimo Cellino but Monk appears to be doing the right thing at the moment. Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday possess the squads to launch a solid attack on the play-off spots but neither has been able to find their best form yet. Cottagers boss Slavisa Jokanovic has already tasted promotion from the Championship with Watford and the Owls gaffer Carlos Carvalhal was so close to guiding them back to the Premier League last season. Derby and Aston Villa are also two sides that possess quality squads who are looking re-invigorated under new managers so they should be considered as late contenders as well. The appointment of Steve Bruce at Villa Park could well be the most streetwise managerial appointment in Championship history.
The Millers were only saved from the clutches of League One last season after some miracle work by Neil Warnock. Unfortunately, Warnock was not able to agree a renewed contract to keep him with the club and the Yorkshire side now seem destined to suffer relegation. The appointment of Kenny Jackett smacks of a side that is preparing for life in England’s third tier and the rebuilding process is already starting. They are already as good as gone.
It appears that if West Brom were once considered the archetypal “yo-yo” side between the Premier League and the Championship then the Latics are in danger of earning that reputation between the Championship and League One. The criticised sacking of ex-manager Gary Caldwell has left the club in disarray. Warren Joyce is an interesting but high-risk appointment that so far does not seem to be paying off but it is early days. The owners will need to take a fair share of the blame having only invested £500,000 in new players after winning promotion last season. Will Grigg being on fire could be their only hope of survival. Losing goalkeeper Adam Bogdan to injury for the season could be a killer blow. It’s not over yet but it’s not looking good. With relegation battles, season after season no one can expect what will happen. Certain teams crack under pressure whereas others drive towards success at the most vital time ensuring them safety. The league is so unpredictable it becomes really difficult for anyone to guess the score line or even the next scorer, but if you are the lucky one and do manage to guess correctly the rewards are astonishing. In addition, with the availability of live sports betting online in the UK – it has now become even easier for fans to place wagers from the comfort of their homes.
The fate of Rovers seems to be a matter of inevitability. The club has been on a downward spiral ever since Venky’s took over ownership of the club back in November 2010. The Indian poultry firm has overseen the club plummet from mid-table Premier League veterans to a side on the brink of being relegated to League One. A number of sub-par managerial appointments have not worked out and current manager Owen Coyle has no budget, despite the millions of pounds generated by player sales, and a lacklustre squad to work with. It will be astounding if the former Burnley and Bolton manager can save them this season.
If there was one club you had to put your money on staying up this season then it is the Bluebirds. Their squad still holds a number of players that were part of their ill-fated Premier League campaign back in 2013/14. Even though they are fourth from bottom there are some bookies offering them as low as 150/1 to still get promoted. In current manager Warnock they have a man who has a proven track record at this level and with experienced players such as Rickie Lambert, Aron Gunnarsson, and Peter Whittingham it seems almost impossible to imagine them going down. As the season progresses, they should pull away from the relegation quagmire.
Many had tipped the Brewers to be the whipping boys of the Championship but anybody with any sense knew they would be competitive and a fight for anyone. Nigel Clough knows how to get the best out of players such as Jackson Irvine, Lucas Akins, and Lloyd Dyer. Their main problem is the size and depth of their squad. If Clough can keep them out of the bottom three over the Christmas period then there is hope. If not, then it could be a bleak finish for a Burton side that has already won the hearts and minds of fans across the division.
A few teams are loitering dangerously over the bottom three in the division and their current plight is not showing any sign of changing in the near future. The two stand-out candidates that must be considered as dark horses for relegation are Wolves and Nottingham Forest. Their owners cannot settle on the man they want as manager and unless they find some consistency then it will feed through into the form of the team and they will drop like a rock to the bottom end of the division.
Promotion: Newcastle and Brighton with Aston Villa via the play-offs
Relegation: Rotherham, Wigan, and Blackburn