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How are the Championship promotion contenders shaping up?

The Boot Room

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It is fair to say that the Premier League title race was never really given the green light this season. Jose Mourinho has put together a typically Jose Mourinho team at Chelsea and despite some minor setbacks, they already look set to wrestle Manchester City’s title. For a real fight for supremacy, English football fans need to look to the second tier, the Championship, where after Game-week 35 when this article was written, seven teams are separated by just six points.

If the season were to cease tomorrow however, which contenders are currently best suited to coping with the Premier League’s infamously greater demands? And which of these teams’ fans should perhaps be quietly hoping for a near-miss in order to allow an extra season’s time to strengthen? Let’s take a look:

Middlesbrough

It may not seem like too long since Middlesbrough were a regular fixture in the Premier League, beating Sir Alex Ferguson’s United 4-1 at the Riverside and challenging for European places, but the club has now spent a whopping six years in the second-tier. Before now they had not come close to getting promoted back up either, languishing in mid-table without the fear of relegation or much hope for success. This season has been completely different, and after a quiet start they have skirted with the top of the table ever since.

Boro’s success has been built on a well organised backline, the quality of which has been surprising given the players involved. The likes of once-upon-a-time Liverpool prospect Daniel Ayala, and quietly efficient George Friend have been made to look imperious under Karanka’s discipline, while youngsters like Adam Reach and Ben Gibson have excelled at full-back positions. The team’s excellent organisation is likely also helped by the presence of Greek goalkeeper Dimitrios Konstantopoulos, a veteran of the English Football League for over a decade.

As seen working to devastating effect against Manchester City in the FA Cup, Middlesbrough play with a narrow packed midfield and the ploy has worked for them all season. Albert Adomah breathes life into the system with his power and drive, while Grant Leadbitter has been a surprise revelation in front of goal, netting more league goals this season already than during his whole seven year stint at first club Sunderland. Adam Clayton, a summer signing from Huddersfield Town, has also made impressive impact by slotting right into a regular place protecting the defence.

While keeping out opposition has been Middlesbrough’s strength, their attackers have been able to get the job done too, albeit with less proficiency than the teams around them (when this article was written Middlesbrough had scored the least goals in the Championship’s top seven, while occupying top spot). Chelsea loan signing Patrick Bamford has been the only striker to break double figures, with fellow forwards Lee Tomlin, Jelle Vossen and Kike all struggling to consistently find the net.

Overall, Middlesbrough’s squad looks more than ready to deal with top-flight rigours next season, and it looks increasingly likely they will be there, given their consistency. In cup ties with Liverpool and Manchester City, they showed they can more than just hold their own too. With the Premier League step-up as notoriously difficult as it is however, manager Aitor Karanka will surely be in the market for player with top-level experience to lead his line however.

Derby County

There might still be Rams fans who suffer from nightmares over Derby’s last venture into the top flight in 2007/08. Just one win in 38 games, 89 goals conceded and top-scorer Kenny Miller notching a whopping four goals, it was literally the worst campaign of any Premier League club to date.

This season they are back among the top contenders, having suffered the anguish of a playoff final defeat to QPR last May despite finishing 3rd in the league standings. Defence was again County’s Achilles’ heel across the 13/14 campaign, but that appears to be improved somewhat this time round – only Middlesbrough and 11th placed Sheffield Wednesday have a tighter record as of Round 35 of fixtures – but they still average over a goal-per-game conceded, and have a tendency to concede softly against lowly sides.

An attack-minded midfield does little to protect its back four, but they are certainly a young and exciting unit going forward. Jeff Hendrick, Craig Bryson and Will Hughes (playing his third season as a regular starter aged just 19) often take turns joining the front three, while Omar Mascarell, on loan from Real Madrid, has been preferred as the more conservative anchor in a central trio.

Forwards are in abundance at the iPro Stadium, with Chris Martin chief among them, averaging just over a goal every other game. In recent internationals with Scotland his lack of mobility has been an issue, but the 26-year old knows how to convert chances and has been a focal point for Derby’s attack this season. Darren Bent has been brought in on loan from Aston Villa and repaid the chance with fine form (Villa could certainly use a goalscorer), keeping the goals coming as Martin’s form deteriorated.

To their credit, Derby already look to have had a better season this time round, than the campaign they had in 06/07 that got them promoted via the playoffs. This is a young and exciting team, led by a manager who knows success and how to achieve consistency in Steve McClaren. He also has considerable influence and knows how to bring in quality players like Darren Bent and Tom Ince, and that will only be improved if Derby can achieve promotion to the world’s most lucrative league. If the Rams can hold on to an automatic promotion spot then they have the potential to hold their own in an attacking sense, but a top quality centre back will be top of McClaren’s shopping list.

Watford

After Watford’s management fiasco at the start of the season (current manager Jokanovic was the club’s fourth of the season already when he was hired last October), it is a wonder they were even able to build on last season’s 13th finish, never mind challenging for an automatic promotion place. As it is, the Hornets have been the Championship’s top scorers and a delight for neutrals, with their matches averaging over three goals per game.

Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney lead the line, having surpassed 30 goals between them after Round 35, while Mat?j Vydra has also reached double figures, so the competition for places up front is encouragingly strong. In the centre of the park, Abdi and Ben Watson are the first choice pair – the latter holding while Abdi supports the forwards – while Daniel T?zsér, Gianni Munari and Miguel Layún have been called upon to complete a central trio on plenty of occasions. Watford’s line-up normally orchestrates with a back three featuring the likes of Joel Ekstrand, Gabriele Angella and Craig Cathcart, and this has been exposed on several occasions, evident by the fact they have conceded almost twice as many goals as league leaders Middlesbrough. Featuring the comedic Heurelho Gomes between the posts certainly doesn’t inspire confidence for a water-tight defence in any case. Jokanovic’s side certainly boast two strong options on each flank – Ikechi Anya and Juan Paredes. The Scot and Ecuadorian respectively have shown adeptness at full-back as part of a back four, and as wing-backs in a midfield quintet.

Much of Watford’s success has revolved around simply scoring more than their opponents (February’s 4-3 win over Bolton being a prime example) and that mentality will surely be punished in the Premier League. I can’t help but feel too, that the club’s best interests are not always with Gino Pozzo, who also owns Serie A’s Udinese and La Liga’s Granada. If Watford were to be promoted and failed to immediately establish themselves then Pozzo has other options to focus his energies; his preferences are already evident by the amount of players – Idhalo and Vydra among them – whose parent club is Udinese. Fans may be careful of what they wish for before making the unknown venture up a division.

The Rest:

Bournemouth: Having coasted along at the league’s summit due to stellar first half of the season form, Bournemouth’s 2015 has been disappointing, allowing a host of teams to catch up and surpass them. Goals and clean sheets have been harder to come by since the turn of the year, after free-scoring form brought them initial success (including the 8-0 demolition of Birmingham City). Eddie Howe has done a good job but his squad has outdone itself this campaign – a lot of work and investment would be required to give them any hope of surviving the Premier League.

Norwich City: Alex Neil has, since taking over Norwich in January, shown how capable this squad is, and that it should have been challenging for an automatic promotion place much earlier in the season than it is now. Six consecutive victories from Game-weeks 28-34 before a blip against Wigan have shot the Canaries back up into promotion contention, though the overall form being displayed by the division’s top three might mean they have to settle for a play-off place. With Premier League experience throughout much of their squad still intact after last season’s relegation would stand Norwich in good stead for a return to the big time. Whether their manager has the necessary know-how to compete with the best however, is another matter, but Neil’s recent accent proves he has a promising future ahead.

Brentford: Marc Warburton’s side have quietly gone about their business this season, and find themselves six points off the leaders with just over ten rounds of fixtures remaining. A steady average of two wins in three since the new year has kept them in the play-off places, though it will be tough to keep hold of that position if Ipswich manage to turn round their recent poor form. The squad has a promising crop of young players including midfielder Alex Pritchard and top scorer Andre Gray, along with some experienced heads to look up to, but the Bees still look a few players shy of being seriously capable promotion challengers. If the unlikely were to occur however, some serious investment into attaining players with top level experience would be required – the current squad is almost completely devoid of it.

Ipswich Town: Like Bournemouth, Ipswich’s 2015 has been in stark contrast to their first half of the season, and has seen them drop out of the play-offs altogether after a Game-week 35 defeat to Leeds United left them with just 12 points from the last 33. Mick McCarthy is a proven manager, who has won the Championship twice, with Sunderland and Wolves, and he knows how to build a squad capable of meeting the Premier League’s demands. Despite boasting the league’s top scorer Daryl Murphy, goals throughout the squad have been hard to come by, with David McGoldrick and centre back Christophe Berra their next highest scorers and in single figures. If they can climb out of their current rut, Ipswich are certainly capable of ousting Brentford for a play-off spot, but Norwich City and Watford both look like stronger Premier League candidates for next season.

The Boot Room is a football analysis website, bringing original and creative content to the fans of the English Football League.

Aston Villa

Gary Gardner must leave Aston Villa this summer

The central-midfielder needs to consider moving on from Aston Villa this summer.

Mathew Coull

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Aston Villa are now condemned to another season in the Championship after suffering defeat in the play-off final against Fulham yesterday. Steve Bruce’s side are set for another season in the second division and need to look at some new signings this summer to take the next step. They also might have to consider moving other players on. One player whose future is surely up in the air is central midfielder, Gary Gardner.

The local lad has been with Villa for 13 years and this summer he will turn 26-years-old. But still, he has lived a life of perennial loan deals and, since making his debut for Villa in 2011, has played just 46 times for the club.

In that time he has also spent successful loan spells at Coventry City, Sheffield Wednesday, Brighton and Nottingham Forest. This season he was at Barnsley, where he suffered relegation from the Championship.

So what next for Gardner?

There is a school of thought that Aston Villa remaining in the Championship might have helped his chances of getting into the first-team at Villa Park. however, Gardner has now tried and failed on numerous occasions to make it into the first-team at his local club and the time has come for him to move on.

(Photo by Martin Willetts/Getty Images)

He is under contract at the club until 2020 but his future is surely no longer at Bodymoor Heath. Gardner struggled for his best form in Yorkshire this season. Now the time has clearly come that the loan deals are no longer sustaining him. Gardner needs a permanent new home in order to fully show off his talents as an excellent midfield option at this level.

Back in the 2015-16 season, Gardner was brilliant on loan at Forest and he could rediscover that form if given the right opportunity at the right club.

The time has come for Aston Villa and Gardner to part, in order for the midfielder to finally establish himself as a top Championship player.

His departure would be the best option for his career.

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Leeds United

Leeds United news round-up: Pearce wanted, Cisse linked and Pedersen flying

The latest updates from Leeds United this past 24 hours.

Mathew Coull

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Pearce to Bournemouth

Leeds United could sell young left-back Tom Pearce to Bournemouth this summer, according to the Sun on Sunday (27/05/18, pg 65). The report claims that Bournemouth are ahead of Everton in the pecking order for the youngster, who has impressed since making his way into the Leeds first-team at the end of the season.

The report claims Bournemouth could offer Leeds £2 million outright to complete a deal, which would remove any messy compensation battle.

Pearce appears to have become Leeds’ first-choice left-back under Paul Heckingbottom and the manager must do everything in his power to keep hold of the 20-year-old talent.

(Photo by Pete Norton/Getty Images)

Giant linked

The Sun on Sunday is also reporting that Leeds are interested in the signature of MK Dons midfielder Ousseynou Cisse. In their Goals section, (27/05/2018, pg 8) they claim that Leeds are keen on bringing in the player along with Blackburn Rovers.   

The Mali international, who is also said to be wanted by Club Brugge and FC Augsburg, was one of the only shining lights in what was a terrible season for the MK Dons – who were relegated.

The 6ft 5ins midfielder, who can also play at centre-back, came through the youth ranks at Paris Saint-Germain and is also a Mali international.

Improving the midfield options at Leeds is certainly a priority for Leeds this summer and Cisse appears to be a good option.

Pedersen takes flight

Leeds United have recently been linked with a move for Union Berlin left-back Kristian Pedersen. Now the news is gaining momentum after he posted an Instagram story, showing him in an airport.

HITC shared the news and it has sparked plenty of discussion and rumour over his potential move to Elland Road this summer.

With Leeds seemingly in the hunt for a left-back, the move for the Danish defender.

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Leeds United

Sunderland should make move for £50k-a-week Pierre-Michel Lasogga

The German is leaving Leeds United and Sunderland need new recruits.

Mathew Coull

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Pierre-Michel Lasogga will not be heading back to Leeds United this summer. The Hamburg striker spent last season on loan at Elland Road, as a replacement for Chris Wood. the one-time German international hopeful was looking like a very good signing at the start of his Leeds career, but his form always proved to be streaky.

In the end, his inconsistency did not impress new manager Paul Heckingbottom and he found himself out of the side. With his wages high, Leeds decided not to keep him on board for next season.

But what about other clubs in England. According to Hamburger Morgenpost, as relayed by Sport Witness, there is English interest in the striker and it appears Hamburg, who were recently relegated to the 2. Bundesliga, believe the English market is the best for finding Lasogga a new team.

So who might want to bring the striker in?

One team who should be interested are League One newbies Sunderland. The Black Cats suffered a second successive relegation last term and now find themselves looking to fight for promotion back to the Championship.

(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

However, it has been a progressive summer at the Stadium of Light so far. The club is under new management in Jack Ross and new ownership, with hefty funds being promised to fuel a promotion push.

Lasogga would be a perfect option for Sunderland, who need to strengthen their attacking options. The German has proven, albeit inconsistently, that he can find the net in English football and that was in the Championship. In the league below, he could be a major force to be reckoned with and could be the man to fire Sunderland back up.

It could be that Lasogga might see League One as a step below him, but playing for a club the size of Sunderland should make those issues subside.

Lasogga’s wages will be an issue for anyone in English football. It has been reported that the striker is on around £50,000-a-week with the German side, an amount that Sunderland should not even contemplate spending.

The Black Cats could, however, pay a portion of those wages, either on a loan deal or if snapped up permanently.

Lasogga would be a brilliant addition to the Sunderland attack and one the Wearside club should be entertaining this summer.

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