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We are across the halfway point in the EFL Championship season. With just 19 games to go, the season has thrown up thrilling games, great goals and controversy, but who’s vying for automatic promotion, the playoffs and who’s facing relegation?
The Title Contenders
Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds hold a 4-point cushion at the top of the table. Dramatic 95th minute Kemar Roofe goals against first Aston Villa and then Blackburn confirmed Leeds’ place at the top.
Worryingly for everyone else, Leeds is addressing their biggest weakness with the arrival of Real Madrid goalkeeper Kiko Casillas. Even the endless debate over ‘spy-gate’ hasn’t derailed Bielsa, after admitting he sent a scout to observe Derby County’s training session. Leeds dominated Derby at Elland Road to record an easy 2-0 win.
In the second automatic promotion spot sits Sheffield United, where manager Chris Wilder continues to overachieve, despite limited resources. Wilder signed the bargain of the summer in veteran forward David McGoldrick, who in tandem with Billy Sharp have scored 27 goals this term. However, goalkeeper Dean Henderson’s late gaff against Leeds gave away 2 points at Bramall Lane; a mistake that could haunt the Blades in the title shakedown.
Trailing Sheffield United on goal difference are Norwich City, having spent most of the season in the top two. Norwich were expected to struggle this season following the summer sale of James Maddison. However, Daniel Farke’s side have been in the promotion hunt for most of the season, thanks largely to their incredible knack of scoring late goals. Boxing Day’s late comeback from 3-0 down to draw with Nottingham Forest proved their greatest escape. Their promotion push has been chiefly engineered by the goals of Finnish striker Teemu Pukki and the creative play of Onel Hernandez and Marco Stiepermann.
It looks increasingly likely 2 of these 3 sides will win automatic promotion, but crucially both Norwich and Sheffield United still have to face Leeds at Elland Road, while Norwich hosts Sheffield United next weekend.
Behind the top three lays a trio of teams hoping to sneak into the top two, but needing to consolidate their playoff places. West Brom have bounced back from their Premier League relegation, and Darren Moore’s side remains just 3 points back from the automatic promotion places. West Brom remains a physically powerful and experienced side, spearheaded by the goals of Dwight Gayle. However, the Baggies suffered a huge blow when Harvey Barnes was recalled from his loan by parent club Leicester. Barnes has provided skill and incision to the West From attack, and his absence will be keenly felt at The Hawthorns.
Middlesbrough have been in the top six throughout the campaign, and Tony Pulis’ side remains the toughest defense in the league, having conceded just 19 goals. However, scoring has been a problem, with only 3 teams in the division scoring fewer goals. With only 5 defeats all season, Middlesbrough remain a solid bet for the playoffs.
Frank Lampard’s Derby County currently sits in the final playoff spot. Derby has one of the strongest squads in the division, with their attack is largely dependent on young loanees in Harry Wilson and Mason Mount. Derby do concede goals, and their recent form has been patchy, with just 1 win in their last 6 matches.
The Dark Horses
There are a gaggle of mid-table clubs looking for a late boost to gatecrash the promotion race. Bristol City have enjoyed an excellent season after a busy summer of comings and goings. New arrival Andres Weimann has enjoyed a productive season down the right-wing, with Callum O’Dowda impressing down the left. Lee Johnson’s side remains just 2 points off the playoff places.
Just 2 points further back sits a quartet of clubs who started the season with very different ambitions. At the start of the season, most saw Nottingham Forest as a promotion contender. Despite 15 goals from the prolific Lewis Grabban, Forest remained a side who rarely lost, but draw too many. Their 5-5 draw with Aston Villa may have been the best game of the season to date, but just 9 wins all season cost manager Aitor Karanka his job. The club have appointed one of its favourite sons in Martin O’Neill, but his reputation in management took a hit after his disastrous final year with the Republic of Ireland.
Birmingham City, QPR and Hull City were tipped to struggle, but all three are level with Forest. An excellent run for Hull City even saw them beat Leeds, but star man Jarrod Bowen is attracting transfer interest. Birmingham, much like Forest, has proved draw specialists, but the goals of Che Adams and Lukas Jutkiewicz are keeping them in contention. While Steve McClaren has overcome a disastrous start to get QPR into the hunt, despite working under a transfer embargo.
Meanwhile, Blackburn was another tipped to struggle, but Tony Mowbray’s side has consolidated in mid-table with striker Bradley Dack and skipper Charlie Mulgrew enjoying fine campaigns, although promotion looks a long shot.
In the lower mid-table are a host of clubs of who couldn’t deliver. Aston Villa endured a summer of turmoil off the pitch, but the new owners managed to sign Jack Grealish to a new contract. The acquisition of manager Dean Smith from Brentford seemed to promise a promotion push, but he needs time to rebuild. In result, Villa has endured a poor run of just 2 wins from their last 9 matches.
England striker Tammy Abraham has bagged 16 goals for Villa, but only remains at the club on a season-long loan. Smith will be desperate to extend Abraham’s stay in the likely event that Villa remains in the Championship next season.
Smith’s move to Villa killed off Brentford’s start to the campaign, and after spending the early season in the promotion hunt, Brentford is struggling to steer clear of relegation. Worse still, their key players are attracting transfer interest.
Stoke City entered the season as the bookmakers favorites to win the title, but Gary Rowett struggled to find fluency in a side that still includes Premier League regulars Jack Butland, Bruno Martins-Indi, Joe Allen, Saido Berahino and Peter Crouch. Rowett paid for the poor season with his job, and now former Luton boss Nathan Jones is trying to turn around the club’s fortunes.
Swansea is another club trying to turn the corner after relegation. Manager Graham Potter has kept his side competitive, but has seen his best players sold with little invested in the squad. Sheffield Wednesday has also ensured a tough season, despite the odd spectacular goal from Adam Reach. Wednesday have appointed Steve Bruce as manager to steady the ship, but a potential transfer embargo could make this an extended rebuild.
The Relegation Candidates
It seems the club that made the reputations of England’s two most successful managers is heading for the humiliation of relegation to League One. Ipswich Town has just 3 wins and 18 points, leaving them 7 points short of safety after conceding a shocking 46 goals. Bolton is another club with a proud history, but their precarious financial position has left the club in deep trouble.
Reading continues to struggle for points, but last weekend’s 2-0 win over Nottingham Forest has boosted their survival hopes under new manager Jose Manuel Gomes. Rotherham United sits 2 points clear of relegation, and operating under a small budget, survival would be a huge achievement. However, last week’s defeat at Ipswich was a missed opportunity to pull away from danger.
Hovering just above the drop zone are Millwall, Wigan and Preston. Millwall was hoping to push for the playoffs, but have struggled with financial constraints. Wigan has consolidated with the squad that won promotion last season, and holds a 6-point cushion on the relegation places. Preston came close to promotion last season, but has struggled this season after the loss of Gregg Cunningham.
Photo Credits: Yorkshire Post, Talksport, Getty