The Usual Suspects part 2

In a previous article I predicted that despite in recent years Southampton, Norwich and West Ham all bucking the trend, that this term would see a return to normal with the Premier League’s Usual Suspects (http://footballtalklife.wordpress.com/2013/07/28/the-usual-suspects/)  the main contenders for relegation; the promoted sides. Of course football is notoriously unpredictable with this being especially the case in the Championship, famously one of the most competitive leagues in Europe. However, whilst the lower and middle reaches of the Championship look as competitive as ever, the situation is less unpredictable at the top and don’t be too surprised to see all three relegated teams return immediately back to the top flight, with Leeds, Bolton and Leicester the pick of the rest. All of these contenders, apart from Bolton, kicked off the return of the Football League this weekend with wins; let’s have a closer look at their chances:

QPR: Ridiculed and embarrassed, Queens Park Rangers were relegated having overspent and underperformed. Mark Hughes’ disastrous reign could not be rescued by the wily Redknapp, whose reputation took a hit after a £20 million January splurge failed to improve results. Many have been quick to predict that this awful form and ridiculous transfer behaviour would continue this season and see QPR struggle as other relegated teams Blackburn and Wolves did last season. However, regardless of criticism, in Redknapp QPR have a manager that has been there and done it all at this level and whilst Tony Fernandes seems somewhat naïve, he is at least passionate.

The predicted exodus of the high paid mercenaries has already begun, but this isn’t really a negative and indeed should bring stability as opposed to being disruptive. Even without these players, QPR should have a squad more than capable of achieving promotion.

In Charlie Austin, Andrew Johnson and Bobby Zamora have quite potentially the best strike force in the league and should all certainly plunder goals at this level. Nor should ammunition be a problem, whilst inconsistent in recent seasons, Hoilett and Wright-Phillips are talented players and both could be menacingly creative this season.

Championship promotion battle veterans, Barton, Henry, Derry and Faurlin will provide a combative midfield in support of this attack and if Redknapp can coax some consistency out of the mercurial Jermaine Jenas, he could provide some real quality at this level. Robert Green is undoubtedly one of the best keepers in the league and he will be shielded by the experience of Hill, Dunne and Ferdinand.

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Even as the likes of Samba, Boswinga and Remy head out of the back door, with the likes of Granero, Park and Júlio César sure to follow, QPR still have a squad equipped to challenge for the Championship title. The players left still have quality and certainly more fight and passion to compete at this level. If QPR can achieve promotion this term, their return to the Premier League will be bolstered by the return of loaned out players Taarabt and Remy.

Reading: Arguably the team least affected by relegation from the Premier League, Reading have largely kept the core of their squad together and have to be favourites for the Championship title. Nigel Adkins knows all about getting teams into the top tier and Reading’s Russian owner has already proved that he will back his manager in the transfer window.

There is quality throughout the Reading team and they will hope that they can continue to ward away Premier League interest for their key assets, such as stopper Alex McCarthy. In Pearce, Mariappa and Gorkss, Reading have some excellent defenders at this level and will certainly be hard to beat, with Wayne Bridge a fantastic addition, coming off the back of a good season with Brighton.

Jem Karacan and Mikele Leighterwood will provide strength and creativity in midfield, and Reading should also be dangerous up the pitch as well. The ever consistent Jimmy Kebe and Adam Le Fondre will come up with goals and if Adkins can bring out the best in the brilliant but inconsistent trio of Robson-Kanu, Pogrebnyak and new addition Drenthe then Reading will be one of the most dangerous sides in the league. Expect Reading to continue their winning ways all season.

Wigan Athletic: So used had Premier League fans become to Wigan’s usual end of season heroics, their relegation came as somewhat of a shock. Finally their slow start to a season and swashbuckling style was punished as relegation tainted a historical FA Cup victory over Manchester City.

It’s all change at the DW Stadium this season; a new manager, 13 players out, 9 players in, a new league and European football, Wigan face a challenge to remain competitive next season. However, this is a challenge they should be able to handle. Despite a string of high profile exits, Wigan have still kept hold of some of their best players including the excellent Shaun Maloney who should be nothing short of devastating this season.

Ever steady centre back Gary Caldwell will continue to marshal a defence bolstered by full back Stephen Crainey and former Celtic player Rogne. McCarthy and McArthur will continue their double act in midfield, supported by the experience of Ben Watson and the creativity of Jordi Gomez. Up front, Callum McManaman will hope to continue to impress and pressure on him for goals will be relieved somewhat by the signings of Norwich target man Grant Holt and former West Brom and Celtic striker Marc-Antoine Fortuné, with Holt opening his Wigan account this weekend.

Wigan’s hopes this season will rest on how Owen Coyle’s new side are able to manage their new European fixtures. If Wigan prioritise the league and ensure that the Europa League is treated as an exciting distraction only, then promotion certainly isn’t unrealistic, barring that their squad isn’t further raided of key players.

Bolton: A mixed season last term for Bolton, brilliant at times, poor spells of form particularly in September and December proved costly as the Wanderers missed out on the playoffs by goal difference to Leicester. Dougie Freedman’s side will aim to go that one step closer this season and claim one of those playoff spots.

Bolton’s hopes this season will rest on getting Ngog and Beckford firing, both have the quality, but both all too often fail to show it. A strong defence containing Zat Knight and David Wheater has been bolstered by the signings of Marc Tierney and Alex Baptiste and in Chris Eagles Bolton have a player who was involved in 24 goals last term. If Bolton are to take those extra steps and beat one of the relegated sides to promotion, much will depend on the form and fitness of midfielders Stuart Holden and Chung-Yong Lee, who have struggled in recent seasons.

Leeds United: Former First Division winners, Leeds United’s fall from grace has been well documented and their rebuilding process has been long and slow, but things do seems to be looking up for the Peacocks. With a huge support, Leeds are a club who belong in the Premier League and if there is a side to beat one of the relegated sides to promotion this season its Leeds.

With Brian McDermott at the helm, Leeds fans will be able to enjoy more maturity and stability than under Warnock’s tenure. New owners have brought much hope to Elland Road, with fans expecting an end to the days of selling their best players such as the departures of Becchio and Snodgrass last term, and things do look promising as Leeds have spent over £1 million on a player for the first time in a long time with the signing of Crewe academy product Luke Murphy.

There is quality throughout the Leeds side and in Lees, Pearce, Peltier, Warnock and Byram they have some superb defensive options. However, there are still plenty of ifs about this Leeds side, they will be reliant on new signing Murphy hitting the ground running and wonderkid Byram replicating last season’s brilliance. Also unclear is where Leed’s goals will come from; Diouf, Hunt, Varney and Poleon are all useful players, but the Whites do lack that 20 goal a year striker that a promoted sides tends to possess. A good side, Leeds are only few choice signings away from genuine contenders.

Leicester City:  After missing out on promotion via the playoffs, Leicester will be aiming to go one step further next term. They certainly have some excellent players in their squad; Wes Morgan, Neill Danns, Andy King and Anthony Knockaert are all fantastic at this level.

Furthermore, goals certainly shouldn’t be a problem with Nugent, Schlupp and Wood bound to consistently hit the back of the net. However, several seasons of heavy spending have caught up with Leicester, with Financial Fair Play dictating that they must cut back. Nigel Pearson now faces the daunting task of thinning a squad that’s main weakness last season was a lack of depth; a problem that saw attacker Schlupp at times deployed at left back. If Pearson can manoeuvre cleverly in the transfer market, then Leicester could have a chance at promotion, but more likely however, will be another nearly miss.

And what about the rest? Having missed out on promotion in the playoff final, many have predicted that Watford will be there or there about again. However, whilst the Hornets have made permanent some of last season’s loan stars, Vydra and Chalobah will both be huge misses and although Zola has been admirably dealing with all of the instability surrounding Watford recently, this season may well be just a little too much.

Nottingham Forrest are another team that will no doubt have a tilt at the playoff positions but similar to Watford are likely to just fall short unless they can bring in a 20 goal striker. Blackburn fans will hope for a huge improvement on last season’s disappointing performance and indeed will most probably see one but are more likely to consolidate in mid-table than make a tilt for promotion.

Birmingham City have continued to sell off their best assets with the sale of Nathan Redmond and fans will have to settle for mid-table once again, as will Burnley, especially without Charlie Austin’s goals. The other playoff losers Brighton will aim for top six for a second term running but could well suffer from the uncertainty following Gus Poyet’s acrimonious departure.

As for the rest of the table, expect the unexpected, with every place from about 12th down likely to be up for grabs. Keep an eye out for little Yeovil Town’s mammoth task to avoid relegation for a true underdog story. Players to watch include Tom Ince’s brilliant performances for Blackpool, Danny Ings as he attempts to fill Austin’s boots at Burnley and Dale Jennings, who returning from an odd and unsuccessful spell at Bundesliga and Champions League winners Bayern Munich. Tommie Hoban of Watford, Will Huges of Derby and Sam Byram of Leeds are all destined for the Premier League (http://footballtalklife.wordpress.com/2013/07/15/nine-young-english-players-who-deserve-a-chance-in-the-premier-league-next-season/), so enjoy them in the Championship while you can.

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