The race for promotion to the Premier League is shaping up to be a cracker! With just 11 games left there are still several teams fighting for automatic promotion, not to mention several vying for a play-off berth.
The top spot is held by Burnley however Middlesbrough, Hull and Brighton are all within touching distance. Derby find themselves safely in fifth place whilst Sheffield Wednesday, holding the final play-off spot, are under pressure from Cardiff, Birmingham and Ipswich, snapping at the final play-off position. So who’s got what it takes to go up?
After beating Lancashire rivals Blackburn, the Clarets leapfrogged Middlesbrough to go top of the Championship table. Albeit with ‘boro and third place Hull with a game in hand. But having gone 12 league games unbeaten they seem firmly in-place to bounce straight back into the Premier League.
Burnley have recovered spectacularly from a poor slump earlier in the season and are the divisions top scorers with 54 goals, 21 of those from summer signing Andre Gray. The former Brentford man faced a daunting task to replace the departing Danny Ings but has thrived under Sean Dyche, already bettering his goal tally from last year.
Burnley’s experience of Championship promotion could be a deciding factor in the promotion race: the clarets have twice been promoted from the division most recently in 2014, with several players from that side still in the squad, not to mention manager Sean Dyche.
Having won 8 from a possible 9 games it appeared as if Middlesbrough were running away with the title in 2 months ago. Then came disappointing losses against Bristol City and Nottingham Forest, which knocked ‘boro’s momentum. Following this were three draws against largely average side, giving their rivals a perfect opportunity to catch them, which were taken.
Middlesbrough have managed to recover their form of late and are just a point of Burnley with a game in hand. ‘Boro have been solid at the back this year having conceded just 20 goals all season, the joint best record in the division, it’s their goal scorers that have let them down, no player has scored more than 7 league goals for them this term.
In an attempt to end their lack of goals, ‘boro signed Jordan Rhodes in January, for a substantial £9 million. As of yet, Rhodes hasn’t lived up to his hefty price tag, scoring just once in 7 appearances. Despite this, the scot still has time to find form before the end of the season and combining the league’s best defence with one of the most prolific strikers in the country, would make Middlesbrough a force to be reckoned with.
It was largely unfortunate that Hull were relegated from the premier league last year; injuries played a key part, take £6 million signing Robert Snodgrass who was ruled out after just one game into the 2014/15 season. Considering that, it is hardly unexpected to find the Tigers sitting near the top of the table, potentially going straight back into the top division.
Little over a week ago, Hull sat at the top of the table, but a draw and a loss against Sheffield Wednesday and Birmingham means they now find themselves 4 points off Burnley.
City, however, have undoubtedly got one of the strongest squads in the promotion race. They ooze with premier league quality from all departments. Take Abel Hernandez, with 24 caps for Uruguay and experience in both the Premier League and Serie A, it could be expected he would shine in the Championship. Steve Bruce has done well to retain the likes of Hernandez, as well as signing new players like Sam Clucas and Moses Odubajo, all of whom have performed well. Hull may now be behind Burnley and Middlesbrough, but with so many pundits and managers citing them as the “the best team in the league” its hard to see what will stop them in putting in a real challenge.
Brighton and Hove Albion
After going an exceptional 21 games unbeaten from the start of the season, Brighton have been the surprise package of the division this year, rising spectacularly from a 20th place position last year. Despite a short blip around the new year in which the Seagulls lost 3 consecutive games, Brighton have been good value for money losing on just two other occasions.
Chris Hughton has done a great job of transforming a side many people expected to be fighting for relegation to a team surely nailed on for a play-off spot. The former Newcastle manager took over from Sami Hyppia in December 2014, with the team in the championship drop zone, he saved the club from relegation and is now leading them on the way to gain their first ever promotion to the premier league.
Albion were joined by club icon and former England striker Bobby Zamora in the summer. Zamora’s hit 7 goals and has tasted championship play-off success with QPR in 2014, experience that may well be needed.
As Derby County went on an eight game winless run, many fans would surely be thinking here we go again. Last year the Rams missed out on the play-offs finishing eighth, despite being top at Christmas. Derby suffered a similar situation in the 2013-14 season and some may have had a sense of dae ja vu.
Fortunately for the Rams they’re still in with a shot. Eyebrows were raised after manager Paul Clement was sacked but Darren Wassall has recently improved form, suggesting that Derby are all but finished. Chris Martin has returned to form and the prolific striker will surely play an important role in Derby’s push for the automatic places.
Derby will remain in fifth place for at least another set of matches, however. They are four points off Brighton and five points ahead of Sheffield Wednesday in sixth. With 11 games left it will be difficult for Derby to close the seven point gap between them and 2nd place, but it will also be difficult for them to be caught by any of the chasing pack. Considering this, it’s likely to be a play-off position for the Rams. Their last appearance in the play-offs ended in Wembley heartbreak against QPR, a feat Derby will be hoping to avoid this time round.
A four game winless run may have scuppered Wednesday’s brief hope at an automatic spot. The owls are now 12 points off Middlesbrough in second and may count themselves lucky to retain the final play-off spot with three teams all within one point of the Yorkshire club.
A play-off position would show great improvement for Wednesday, who are currently on track to record their highest league position in 16 years. Under Stuart Gray the owls showed solidity but lacked fire power up front. Carlos Carvalhal, however has changed that with Wednesday playing some of the most attractive football in the division, scoring 50 goals in the process.The strike force of Fernando Forestieri and Gary Hooper has proved highly successful since, the latter arrived at the end of October, scoring 12 and 10 goals respectively.
Holding off Cardiff, Birmingham and Ipswich will now be the challenge for Carvalhal’s men as they look to hold on to their chance to get back to the premier league for the first time since 2000.
The Rest of the Pack
All within one point of Wednesday, Cardiff, Birmingham and Ipswich will be fancying their chances to a play-off position. Cardiff have won their last two games and thrashed Brighton 4-1 in February. They’ve consistently been in and around the play-off spots and have a great chance to take sixth place for the first time since December when they face Leeds on Tuesday.
Birmingham beat Hull on Friday taking them just a point of Sheffield Wednesday and with a game in hand. And the blue half of Birmingham will be feeling confident they can overtake the Owls who face Brighton on Tuesday. The blues may have lost Demarai Gray in January but have one of the Championships most promising managers in Gary Rowett and will be hoping for a return to the premier league for the first time since 2011.
Mick Mccarthy will be looking for his second championship promotion after his success at Wolves in 2009. His Ipswich side missed out to rival Norwich in the semi finals last year, but the tractor boys haven’t shown the same consistency this year, hence their lower league position. This may be partly down to Daryl Murphy’s lack of goals this year: his 8 so far no where near the staggering 27 the previous year. As the league’s longest serving side the club will want out but given the strength of the rivals it remains to be seen if they can ever make the play-offs.
The only other side with any hopes of securing an unlikely play-off spot would be Preston, who have done exceptionally well in their first season back in the second tier. However sitting in tenth, six points of Wednesday in sixth, it would take something special for them to get in the play-offs.
So there we have it. Both automatic promotion and the play-off race are far from decided and it could well go down to the wire. Middlesbrough are Sky Bet’s 1/5 favourite to gain promotion and justifiably so, but in a league where anything can happen it’s unlikely to be that simple.