The EFL Championship is finally back up and running. Financial restraints saw League’s One and Two curtailed rather than play on in empty venues with congratulations in order for Coventry City and Rotherham. Both teams will be playing in the Championship next season after winning promotion via points per game.
There were concerns the Championship would be settled the same way, but the return of the Premier League made a restart of the second tier inevitable, with the season due to complete at the end of July. Two games into the restart with seven to go, this most unpredictable of leagues is up to its usual tricks.
Leeds in the Box Seat
Leeds held the strange honour of being on top of the table for three months while the season was on hiatus. The break came at the wrong time for Marcelo Bielsa’s side, who won five consecutive games without conceding a goal. A 2-0 loss at Cardiff upon the restart had Leeds fans fearing a collapse, but a stunning 3-0 win over promotion rivals Fulham sent them eight points clear of the dreaded third place.
The second season for Bielsa’s side has been built on the defensive pairing of Ben White and Liam Cooper with young goalkeeper Ilan Meslier a late upgrade on Kiko Casilla. In attack, the return of Tyler Roberts has provided a late shot in the arm to Leeds’ promotion push. It was back-to-back defeats last Easter that punctured Leeds’ promotion dreams, but this year, they have some breathing space.
West Brom in a Fight
West Brom have struggled to reignite their season since the restart. A goalless Birmingham derby was followed by a 1-0 defeat to promotional rivals Brentford. The problem has been in attack with Slaven Bilic’s side drawing four straight blanks. It leaves the Baggies looking over their shoulder with their cushion to third place reduced to five points.
Of the chasing pack, Brentford have emerged as the likeliest side to break into the top two. Brentford restarted their campaign with back-to-back wins over two of their principle rivals; first in Fulham, and then West Brom. The potency of their attack, lead by Ollie Watkins, has won most of the headlines. However, unlike previous Brentford teams, Thomas Frank’s side has been built on a solid defense with Pontus Jansson and Ethan Pinnock enjoying excellent seasons.
The biggest losers from the restart have been Fulham. The Cottagers have endured the most difficult run-in of the promotion contenders, with defeats to Brentford and Leeds proving damaging. To make matters worse, Alexsander Mitrovic is facing a three-match ban for elbowing Leeds’ Ben White. Scott Parker has a talented squad, but Fulham have proved brittle at the back while captain Tom Cairney hasn’t quite hit the heights he managed in his side’s previous promotion push. Fulham are seven behind West Brom and need to turn their form around quickly if they are to finish in the top two.
Nottingham Forest fans could have been forgiven for being underwhelmed by the appointment of manager Sabri Lamouchi, but the Frenchman has got Forest rolling. Forest has proven to be difficult to beat and have spent most of the season in the playoff zone. Matty Cash has enjoyed an exceptional season at right back, while Lewis Grabban has provided the goals. Forest are level points with Fulham, looking secure in the playoff zone. Still, they need to keep winning to pounce on a slip at the top.
There is always a team who fades out of the playoff picture and one who makes a late run. This year, Preston appear to be the unlucky team with Cardiff mounting a late surge. The surprise 3-1 win for Cardiff at Deepdale saw them leapfrog Preston, who have taken just one point from their last five games. Alex Neill’s team face a tough run-in, but the impressive form of Daniel Johnson has been a cause for optimism.
Neil Harris has worked quickly to move Cardiff up the table since his appointment last November, recording a win over Leeds at the restart. Harris’ team remains robust at the back and direct in attack with Joe Ralls finding form, but it’s Lee Tomlin who could hold the key to Cardiff’s playoff hopes.
Bristol City looked to be playoff contenders for most of the season, but have now gone seven straight games without a win. Defeats to Leeds and West Brom in February weren’t a shock, but being comfortably beaten by Sheffield and Blackburn has sent Lee Johnson’s team tumbling into midtable. Games against Cardiff and Forest this week will be pivotal to Bristol’s hopes of getting back into the top six.
Millwall are another team suffering a frustrating restart. A last gasp defeat to Derby was followed by a stalemate against basement dwellers Barnsley. However, the fixture list has been kind with no remaining games against the top six; much will depend on the form of Jed Wallace and Tom Bradshaw.
Swansea enjoyed a great start to the season, but a surprise loss to Luton has dented their playoff push. Steve Cooper has done an admirable job in his first season with the Swans. Inevitably, Rhian Brewster on loan from Liverpool has caught the eye.
It has been 25 years since Blackburn won the Premier League, and while few expected them to return to that division this year, Rovers are on the fringe of the playoff race. Adam Armstrong has enjoyed a productive season and former England winger Stewart Downing has impressed, but Tony Mowbray’s side remains inconsistent.
A more decorated former England man has been capturing the headlines for Derby County. Wayne Rooney has been vital to the Rams reeling off four straight wins to haul them within three points of sixth-placed Cardiff. However, Derby will have to do it the hard way with games against five of the top six left to play.
Inevitably, as the season enters its final phases, there are a clutch of teams with neither promotion to dream of or relegation to fear. QPR typify those who could be thinking about their holiday plans, as they sit 10 points off the playoffs and eight above the drop zone. QPR were furious at the season’s restart, and successive defeats have ended Mark Warburton’s hopes of taking the West London club back to the Premier League this season.
Birmingham City are stuck in a holding pattern with confirmation that manager Pep Clotet will leave this summer and young star Jude Bellingham is set to depart for one of Europe’s elite clubs. Whoever takes over at St Andrews will hope striker Lukas Jutkiewicz remains.
Reading were expected to struggle, but have recorded a season of steady improvement with Yakou Miete and George Puscas among the goals. Manager Mark Bowen will feel he has built solid foundations for a promotion push next term.
Wigan looked set for another relegation battle, but six wins from seven have pulled Paul Cook’s team five points clear of danger. With games against four of the division’s struggling teams still to come, Wigan appears to be only one win away from safety.
Another team in useful form are Sheffield Wednesday. A poor mid-season run ended Wednesday’s promotion hopes, but taking four points out of Forest and Bristol eased any relegation worries; it was even more surprising as they did it without top scorer Steven Fletcher. The Scot is among a clutch of high profile Championship players refusing a short-term extension to their contracts running out this month.
With Fletcher gone, one of football’s long lost talents has stepped up in the shape of Connor Wickham, the points won giving Gary Monk the chance to begin planning for next season.
The Spectre of League One
The pandemic has brought with it the prospect of financial ruin for clubs dropping down from the Championship. Life in League One currently comes without television money, and with no crowds to swell the bank balance, the three clubs going down face a grim future.
After winning League One last season, it was widely expected Luton Town would struggle at this level.They currently sit one point off the bottom, but James Collins’ 12th goal of the season handed the Hatters a win over Swansea to renew hope. They’re not short of fight, and will need it on Tuesday with a trip to Elland Road. However, after facing Leeds, Luton’s fixture list is packed with relegation six pointers they will believe they can win.
Barnsley came up with Luton, and likewise, were expected to struggle. The goals of Cauley Woodrow have kept them in contention. Barnsley remain at the bottom; four points from safety. To add worry, their last three games are against Leeds, Forest and Brentford.
Huddersfield were in the Premier League last season, but are currently third from the bottom and face a double-dip relegation. Karlan Grant has provided 18 goals, but Steve Mounie has missed too much action this season. Three straight defeats have continued the team’s downward spiral.
Middlesbrough barely missed last season’s playoffs, and Steve Gibson lost patience with manager Jonathan Woodgate last week and brought in Neil Warnock. The outspoken manager won his first game at the helm to settle the nerves, but Middlesbrough have struggled to score goals all season. Despite the winning start, Warnock’s team sit just two points above the drop.
Stoke City made their management change earlier in the season, and things have improved under Michael O’Neill. However, losing Joe Allen was a bitter injury to suffer. With games against Wigan and Barnsley next on the schedule, Stoke are facing a crucial week in their season.
Hull City picked up a much-needed point in the weekend’s 3-3 draw with Birmingham. The Tigers haven’t won a league match since New Years Day, and the sale of Jarrod Bowen only deepened the bitter divide between the fans and owner Assem Allam. They’re currently keeping their heads above water on goal difference, but crucially have three remaining games against their relegation rivals.
Finally, spare a thought for Charlton Athletic boss Lee Bowyer. The club dropped into the bottom three right before the lockdown, raising the specter of a points per game relegation. Bowyer was relieved to see the season restart, but Lyle Taylor was among the group of players refusing to sign a short-term contract extensions. A large debt owed to their former owner and a new owner to work with and Bowyer could be forgiven for walking away.
However, Bowyer stayed and won successive games to pull the club three points clear. Just to add another twist to the plot, if Charlton need a point on the last day of the season, it will be against the club Bowyer represented in the Champions League: Leeds.