The EFL Championship has passed the halfway mark after a packed festive program. Most of the division has just 20 games remaining to decide their season. As the season enters the new year, two teams have set themselves apart from the rest. The playoff scramble has intensified while a football legend returned to England.
Leeds and West Brom Go Nine Clear
Preseason favorites Leeds United have lived up to their billing and sit top of the table with 52 points from 26 matches. Marcelo Bielsa’s side established themselves at the top of the table after winning seven in a row through November and early December. Results over Christmas were mixed, but their dramatic 5-4 win over Birmingham restored any lost momentum. In addition, New Years Day’s strong performance at West Brom earned a 1-1 draw to consolidate top spot.
On loan, centre back Ben White has been the best defender in the division this season; while the arrival of Helder Costa has relived some of the creative burden of the team from Pablo Hernandez.
Bielsa confirmed after the West Brom game that striker Eddie Nketiah is returning early to parent club Arsenal, leaving Leeds needing a forward in the January transfer window. Southampton’s Che Adams has been mooted as a replacement and Leeds needs to get this right to avoid over dependence on Patrick Bamford.
West Bromwich Albion have looked far more assured this season under the stewardship of Slaven Bilic. Much like Leeds, West Brom enjoyed a winning run through November, but suffered mixed fortunes over Christmas. Bilic’s team have been powered by the creativity of Matheus Pereira and midfield presence of Romaine Sawyers. They sit level on points with Leeds, but are behind on goal difference; nine points clear of the chasing pack. Having lost in the playoff semifinals last season, both teams look extremely well placed for automatic promotion this time.
Playoff Race Heats Up
With Leeds and West Brom disappearing into the distance, the rest of the promotion hopefuls appear to be chasing a playoff place. Just three points separates the next five teams in the division, partly because no one seems capable of putting a consistent run of form together. Leeds and West Brom held an 11-point lead on third place going into the four-game Christmas rush, yet despite picking up just five points each, the lead has only been cut by two points.
Brentford look to be the best placed to challenge the top two’s lock on the automatic promotion spots. They sit in third place on 43 points and contain a vastly better goal difference than the teams behind them. The goals of Ollie Watkins have been crucial, while former Leeds defender Pontus Jansson has reinforced the defense.
However, they have lost 9 games this season and if Griffin Park is to host Premier League football for the first time, it’s likely to come via the playoffs.
Nottingham Forest are currently level in points with Brentford in fourth place. Former Rennes boss Sabri Lamouchi is proving to be a success at the City Ground after the club previously appointed a staggering 18 managers since the summer of 2011. Lewis Grabban has notched 14 goals as Forest will face Leeds and West Brom within a week of each other in February.
Fulham began the season much fancied, and as expected Aleksandar Mitrovic has been prolific up front. However, Scott Parker’s side does concede goals. Despite beating Leeds at Craven Cottage, defeats away to Brentford and at home to Reading saw Fulham squander the chance to chase down the leaders.
Swansea City were early season hopefuls, topping the table at end of August. Things have regressed since, but Steve Cooper has succeeded in getting a tune out of Borja Boston and Andre Ayew. After the summer sale of Ollie McBurnie and uncertainty in the boardroom, a playoff spot would be a major achievement for Swansea.
Another club going well on limited resources are Millwall, who started the season among the relegation favorites but currently sit in seventh. Gary Rowett is rehabilitating his reputation with Jed Wallace enjoying a stellar season of 9 goals and 7 assists to date. Millwall’s season will likely be shaped by a run of fixtures at the end of January and early February that sees a trip to Leeds and home games against West Brom and Fulham in quick succession.
After 34 games last season, Aston Villa sat in the bottom half of the table. However, a 10-game winning streak saw them gatecrash the playoffs and secure promotion at Wembley. This season, a host of clubs are looking to repeat the trick and turn a middling season into a Premier League berth.
Sheffield Wednesday lead the division’s middle order with Gary Monk stabilizing the club. However, three successive defeats over Christmas has Wednesday wobbling before Adam Reach’s winning goal boosted morale. Hull City have looked a dangerous side and currently sit in ninth, but fans face a nervous transfer window with Premier League clubs circling Jarrod Bowen.
Preston North End have flirted with the playoff spots all season, but a poor run over Christmas has knocked Alex Neill’s side back into midtable. Preston have missed the cutting edge of Callum Robinson, but midfielder Daniel Johnson has stepped up with 8 goals. Two teams who have disappointed this season are Bristol City and Cardiff City.
Bristol were expected to make a playoff push, but have been riddled with inconsistency, despite a fine season from Andreas Weimann. Cardiff meanwhile suffered a humiliating 6-1 loss to QPR on New Year’s Day as Neil Harris tries to fill the shoes of Neil Warnock.
Rooney Returns for Misfiring Rams
One club suffering a miserable season are Derby County. As playoff finalists last season, Philip Cocu’s side have struggled to replace departed loanees Mason Mount, Harry Wilson and Fikayo Tomori. On the pitch, results have suffered with Derby struggling at the wrong end of the table.
The arrival at Pride Park of Wayne Rooney is the most eye-catching move any club in the division will make this January. Signed as a player/coach, Rooney made an impressive debut in a 2-1 win over Charlton. Still, Derby remain eight points adrift of the top six.
Another unusual name among the ones struggling is Middlesbrough. Rookie manager Jonathan Woodgate has been forced to cope with the departure of key players as they attempt to balance the books.
Of the other lower midtable teams, Reading are in the best form and are on a run of four consecutive wins. The Royals suffered an abysmal 2018-19 season, but are regrouping under the stewardship of Mark Bowen with midfielder John Swift providing 7 assists.
Queens Park Rangers are another club in rehabilitation with forward trio Nahki Wells, Jordan Hugill and Eberechi Eze notching a combined 32 goals between them. Former Premier League Champions Blackburn Rovers meanwhile are consolidating in their second season back from League One with Bradley Dack enjoying another solid season.
Struggling for Survival
While the riches of the Premier League await for three clubs, the footballing purgatory of League One awaits for three others. The newly promoted clubs have struggled for much of this season with Luton Town and Barnsley occupying the bottom of the table. Luton have shipped 56 goals to date and haven’t won any of their last six games. Meanwhile, Barnsley’s survival bid has been spearheaded by Cauley Woodrow and Conor Chaplin. However, Woodrow is expected to attract interest from bigger fish this month.
Wigan Athletic currently occupy the last relegation spot and are stuggling for goals with a division-low 24 this season. They did fight their way out of trouble last season with a late run of form, so manager Paul Cook may need a repeat if Wigan are to survive.
Charlton Athletic sprinted out of the blocks following their promotion, but Lee Bowyer’s team have dropped from the playoff places back to 19th in the division. The club are now under new ownership and Bowyer will be looking for investment this month.
Birmingham City were hit with a points deduction las season and could be dealt another for breaching FFP regulations. On the pitch, results have nosedived with their dramatic 4-5 loss to Leeds and a devastating loss to Wigan. After the departure of Che Adams, the goals of Luka Jutkiewicz are paramount to reviving Birmingham’s season.
Finally, two clubs who recently dropped down from the Premier League are fighting to stave off relegation to League One. Stoke City were expected to be part of the promotion shakeup, with a squad that includes the likes of Jack Butland, Joe Allen and Sam Clucas.
However, a dreadful start to the season saw manager Nathan Jones sacked. As a result, they turned to Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill. He guided his country to Euro 2016 and has made an immediate impact. His side has moved out of the bottom three. However, O’Neill will make a brief return to Windsor Park for Northern Ireland’s Euro 2020 playoff games in March.
Huddersfield Town survived their first season in the Premier League, but tumbled out of the division last season and went through three managers. Danny Cowley has started to turn their form around with Karlan Grant totaling 12 goals and 4 assists.
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