The Championship Preview: Week 1 including Cardiff City & Leeds United kicking things off with wins
This Friday sees the start of one of the most competitive leagues in Europe, The nPower Championship. 24 teams battling it out for an all exclusive place in The Premier League and in a tightly contested nine months, you can never be certain who will climb their way out of the division. One of the strongest set of teams in The Championship for a long time, there is sure to be a few surprises.
Cardiff vs Huddersfield
It has been a pre-season of change this year for Cardiff City. Malaysian owner, Datuk Chan Tien Ghee, has done something almost unheard of these days in football. Cardiff, a side that have worn a blue home kit since 1908, have changed their colours to red. They have also changed their badge, something some ‘Bluebirds’ fans have been up in arms about. On the positive side though, the businessman, worth approximately £800m, has created an investment plan which includes a stadium expansion, a bigger transfer budget and a brand new state of the art training facility. On the transfer front, manager Malky Mackay has brought home local lad Craig Bellamy to add some goals in order to finish in a Play off position once again.
A quieter pre-season for Huddersfield however, as Simon Grayson has gone about his business in a calm and clever way. The former Leeds United boss has taken Adam Clayton from his old club and added Oliver Norwood, who was once at Manchester United. Grayson also secured the signatures of Keith Southern from Blackpool and Anthony Gerrard from Cardiff, both for undisclosed fees. Huddersfield have also, so far, kept hold of 22 year old Scotland international Jordan Rhodes. A target for many Premier League clubs including Fulham and newly promoted West Ham, Rhodes scored a staggering 6 hat-tricks last season for The Terriers which saw him finish on 36 league goals.
Prediction: I predict Cardiff to finish higher out of the two, but I don’t think Huddersfield will struggle to keep their position in the league this year.
Cardiff 3-1 Huddersfield
Leeds vs Wolves
I’m backing Leeds to have a decent season this year. Neil Warnock has taken over at Elland Road and will have his sights set on promotion. Whether they get it or not is another matter but with the loss of creative spark Robert Snodgrass to Norwich, Warnock will need to find someone with the same level of ability to keep the team ticking. Not an easy task. The Leeds defence looks more solid than that of last year with the signings of Adam Drury and Jason Pearce and the fans will be hoping for at least a Play Off place.
Wolves had a horrible season in 2011/12, finishing bottom of The Premier League. A fresh start was needed by the club and that is what they got, with Norwegian Stale Solbakken coming in as as manager. Michael Kightly departed for Stoke City and with Steven Fletcher and Matt Jarvis widely expected to be joining him in the so called ‘best league in the world’, that leaves a gaping hole in the Wolves side. Exciting Iceland international Bjorn Sigurdarson has been brought in for £2.4m as Wolves try to bounce straight back up to the top flight.
Prediction: I expect both teams to be around the top 6 for the majority of the season but you can never tell in this league. Home win.
Barnsley vs Middlesbrough
Barnsley’s youngest ever captain Jacob Butterfield, has abandoned them in an attempt to make a name for himself with Norwich City in the Premier League, but The Tykes have been quick to replace him with Polish midfielder Tomasz Cywka, after his contract at Reading expired. The reds have also signed big Egyptian Mido in an attempt to keep them up, but fans will have to wait to see the ex Spurs striker in action as he has damaged his hamstring in a pre-season game. Mido not fit to play? Who’d have though it?
Middlesbrough were one of the more impressive teams to visit The Amex (Brighton and Hove Albion’s ground The American Express Community Stadium) last season and it was a pleasure to watch their style of football, although they lacked a creative spark. Emmanuel Ledesma looks a promising signing, already scoring on his debut in a 2-1 win over Bury in the first round of the Capital One Cup. Previously having trialled with Brighton before his move to Walsall in 2011, Ledesma joins Middlesbrough looking to revive his career and help ‘Boro finish in the top 6.
Prediction: I fancy Middlesbrough to have a successful season if they stop relying so heavily on Marvin Emnes to provide the goals, taking it a step further than last year’s 7th place finish for a Play Off spot. For Barnsley however, a bleak season glares at them, straight in the face.
Barnsley 1-3 Middlesbrough
Birmingham vs Charlton
Birmingham had a good season last time round and will be looking to maintain the sort of performances that allowed them to finish in 4th place. With Lee Clark replacing Chris Hughton, he has a lot to live up to and The Blues’ fans will not accept less than another stint in the Play Offs. The spine of the team has been maintained and with the likes of Darren Ambrose being recruited, Birmingham should be contenders.
A Charlton squad that doesn’t yet look complete nor ready to survive the harshness of The Championship. Depending on Chris Powell’s ability to get some talent added, fans at The Valley could have their hands in their heads come May. 21 Year old Chris Solly looks a promising player, but he is attracting interest from some of the top clubs in the country. Can The Addicks hold on?
Prediction: Lee Clark will be demanding a winning start from his boys and I can see them getting it. Charlton will have to replicate the work rate and passion that saw them get promoted, giving blood sweat and tears to the cause to have a chance of survival.
Birmingham 2-0 Charlton
Burnley vs Bolton
What a way to kick off the season for these two local rivals! Along with Blackburn, Bolton would have been the game that The Clarets would have been keeping an eye on when the Championship fixtures were announced, and with the added spice of Bolton manager Owen Coyle being an ex Burnley manager, this is likely to be an interesting game to say the least.
Burnley have signed Jason Shackell on a four-year deal and have also handed the captaincy to the 28 year old. Losing top scorer Jay Rodriguez to Southampton, Burnley will be relying on Charlie Austin and new permanent signing Sam Vokes to deliver the goals for Eddie Howe’s team.
Bolton’s relegation means they lost a number of first team players over the summer. Jussi Jaaskelainen, Nigel Reo-Coker, Ivan Klasnic and Gretar Steinsson have all departed from The Reebok, leaving Owen Coyle to fill the gaps. Replacing Jaaskelainen with Andy Lonergan from Leeds, adding Ireland international Keith Andrews and splashing out to add 6ft3 Matt Mills to their ranks, The Trotters are another team looking for promotion.
Prediction: Anything can happen in the opening day of the season, especially if it is a local derby like this one.
Burnley 2-2 Bolton
Crystal Palace vs Watford
Palace are making progress under former player Dougie Freedman, albeit a slow one. A miserable finish of 17th in the last campaign was overlooked as Palace enjoyed a run in the Carling Cup, beating Manchester United in extra time to reach the semi-final and as much as it pains me to say it, they somehow managed to fluke a surprise win at The Amex, although I can’t remember the score! With the loss of Nathaniel Clyne, Sean Scannell and Darren Ambrose, it will be up to the clubs famous youth academy to compensate for the loss of the dynamic trio.
Watford have had a busier time than most this summer. The club have been taken over by the Pozzo family, who also own Spanish club Grenada and Italians Udinese. Almost immediately, the new owners thanked Sean Dyche for Watford’s best season in 4 years and sent him on his way, replacing him with 1997 FWA Footballer Of The Year, Gianfranco Zola. The Hornets have so far captured 7 players, 5 of which are on season long loans from either Udinese and Grenada and the other two being goalkeeper Manuel Almunia and towering defender Fitz Hall. Sean Murray will look to resemble his form from the second half of last season as he continues to flourish in the yellow of Watford, but the club’s ‘Young Player Of The Year’ has already made a name for himself as one of the brightest young players in the country. Exciting times for the 18 year old.
Prediction: There really is no telling whether Zola’s team will click straight away or will need time to gel, so we will have to wait and see. I don’t see Palace making much of an impact, probably starting brightly but will soon be left to decay in the bottom third of the table.
Watford 1-1 Crystal Palace
Derby vs Sheffield Wednesday
If Derby sign the striker manager Nigel Clough so desperately wants, then County can hope for a top half finish. If not, and if they continue to concede cheap goals then it is likely to be a battle to stay away from the drop zone. Jason Shackell has been replaced with Richard Keogh, who has arrived from Coventry, plus versatile defender James O’Connor who will provide cover across the back four, signing for an undisclosed fee from Doncaster.
New boys Sheffield Wednesday will be hoping to have a solid first season back in the English second tier, ready to build and push on next year. Championship experience arrived at Hillsborough in the shape of Anthony Gardner and lanky shot stopper Chris Kirkland, the latter will compete with Stephen Bywater for a starting place in goal. Michail Antonio has signed a four-year deal at the Yorkshire club with the nippy winger scoring on his competitive debut for The Owls in their 4-2 victory over League One Oldham Athletic in the League Cup.
Prediciton: I imagine both teams will be lingering around mid table, flirting with relegation at some point of the season.
Derby 1-0 Sheffield Wednesday
Hull vs Brighton
Steve Bruce takes over from Hull favourite Nick Barmby in an attempt to push on and get themselves into the top 6. Manchester United loanee Ben Amos and Swiss international Eldin Jakupovic give Hull options in goal while experienced duo Abdoulaye Faye and Alex Bruce come in to provide extra cover at the back. Another new recruit Sone Aluko, is a pacey winger with an eye for goal and will link up well with German target man Nick Proschwitz.
Perhaps the most important bit of business Gus Poyet has completed this summer is keeping talisman Vicente at the club. ’The dagger’ has had his contract extended by a year and after a summer of doubt over his future, the south coast will be lucky enough to see the Spaniard in action again this season. With nearly 250 appearances for Valencia and playing 38 times for the Spanish senior side, he could be the difference between Brighton going up or staying in the division, depending on his fitness. A place Brighton were lacking quality was in the full back positions. Wayne Bridge (season long loan from Manchester City) and Bruno Saltor (free from Valencia) will now be occupying this berth along with fellow Spaniard Inigo Calderon and Marcos Painter. Andrew Crofts has also rejoined the club after 2 years with Premier League outfit Norwich City to give support to Liam Bridcutt, Gary Dicker, Ryan Harley and Matt Sparrow in the centre of midfield, although at least one of these are likely to be on their way out. Tomasz Kuszczak has been brought in on a free from Manchester United to add competition between the sticks, going up against Peter Brezovan and Casper Ankergren for the starting spot. Poyet has suggested a target man is on his way but at the time of writing this, nothing has been confirmed.
Prediction: As a Brighton fan, I am more excited than I have ever been (not difficult considering some of the times we have been through) and I would like to think Gus Poyet has built a squad ready for a serious promotion challenge, or at least a play off place.With the ground also being expanded, Poyet will have over 25,000 home fans cheering him and the team on, hopefully making for a successful season. As for Hull, I expect them to be finishing in the top 10 as a minimum.
Hull 0-2 Brighton
Ipswich vs Blackburn
Ipswich always seem to be ‘the dark horses’ of the league and are usually tipped to make their mark. A finish of 15th last year was not a surprise to many locals though, as it has been a while since they showed their potential. One of the smallest squads in the league will undoubtedly be stretched if players start to pick up injuries or suspensions and unless Paul Jewell dips his toes into the transfer market, even the most enthusiastic Town fans will be predicting a mid-low table finish for The Tractor Boys.
Blackburn are still struggling with off-field antics, as this week in a press conference, Blackburn owners announced if they lose 3 consecutive games then manager Steve Kean will be sacked. This was met by cheers from the Rovers ‘faithful’ which sums up the state the club are in. Good signings in Danny Murphy and Fabio Nunes, together with Leon Best and Colin Kazim Richards, make Blackburn look dangerous, especially in the final third.
Prediction: I cannot for the life of me see Steve Kean lasting the whole season and the longer he stays, the longer the negative vibe around the club will linger. For me, Ipswich will finish between 10th and 14th and after securing loans in January to cover their feeble squad, with Blackburn making a serious title challenge.
Ipswich 2-4 Blackburn
Leicester vs Peterborough
Surely this will be a high scoring game with plenty of talking points and at least one red card. Cue a 0-0! 25 year old Jamie Vardy scored 31 goals in 36 games for fleetwood town which prompted Leicester manager Nigel Pearson to sign him on a three-year deal worth up to £1.7m, a non-league record. Richie De Laet and Zak Whitbread have replaced the popular Sol Bamba and the not so popular Matt Mills, with Lee Peltier also leaving The Foxes.
Posh have been busy signing some lower league talent since the end of last season, most notably Michael Bostwick from Stevenage. The natuarally gifted midfielder was Darren Ferguson’s number one target throughout the summer and the Scot will be looking forward to seeing how he fits in to the team. As last season finished, George Boyd and Grant McCann were both placed on the transfer list at London Road, however the pair look set to start the season still at the club.
Prediction: It is hard to name 3 teams that, on paper, look weaker than Peterborough and I expect them finishing in the dreaded relegation places. Leicester will be looking for promotion yet again but I am not convinced they will achieve it.
Leicester 3-0 Peterborough
Millwall vs Blackpool
I had Millwall down to finish bottom last year, but what do I know? Kenny Jackett is one of my favourite managers in the football league and I’m glad he had a strong finish to last season, keeping Millwall in the league. Chris Taylor from Oldham has been shipped in to help inject some creativeness. Jackett has drafted in veteran goalkeeper Maik Taylor, 40, with the former Southampton, Fulham and Leeds keeper looking to go out on a high as his long eventful career starts to come to an end.
Yet another club looking for promotion is Ian Holloway’s Blackpool. A crushing last gasp defeat to West Ham in the Play Off final leaves Holloway to pick up the pieces and rejuvenate the squad, ready to do it all again. Known for their fluent attacking style of play, The Tangerines’ defence again looks like their Achilles heel, but an additional player would help to improve their bid for promotion.
Prediction: Millwall will be expected to languish at the bottom of the table and Blackpool to be pushing at the top.
Millwall 1-3 Blackpool
Nottingham Forest vs Bristol City
A season of rebuilding seems in order for Forest as the recent takeover and change of management has thrown pre-season preparation up in the air. Sean O’Driscoll has returned to forest, this time as manager, and will be responsible for improving on the dismal 19th place finish of last year. Danny Collins was snapped up by O’Driscoll, as well as Kieron Freeman from local rivals Notts County and Jamaal Lascelles from Stevenage. Big names Chris Gunter and Garath McCleary were both poached by Brian McDermott’s Reading and will be playing against some of the best players in the world when they step out from the tunnel at The Madjeski this season. 6ft5 defender Greg Halford signed at The City Ground for an undisclosed fee and the club have today announced signing of West Brom striker Simon Cox for a fee of around £2m.
Another relegation candidate, I’m sorry to say, are Bristol City. The Robins have had a clear out this summer, replacing older players with younger, and more importanly, cheaper players. Their squad looks weak, contains a number of individuals considered deadwood and players eating up much needed wages. If Dereck McInnes is given time to reshape the club, playing home-grown talent, then it could be a breath of fresh air to Ashton Gate as they await the crucial decision on their future home. Providing they stay up of course.
Prediction: Forest will be out to impress from kick off and will have too much power for a flimsy Bristol team.
Nottingham Forest 3-0 Bristol City
The Championship really is a unique league. Huge crowds, weekly upsets and the fast paced entertainment provided on the pitch are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to England‘s second tier. Be sure to tune in when it all kicks off this weekend.