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Which clubs are the strongest contenders to win promotion from the Championship?



The Championship has developed into one of the best second-tier leagues in Europe, with the level of drama, excitement and tension at both ends of the table epitomising the fact there is no such thing as an easy game. An increase in quality across the board has created a division in which anyone can beat anyone, with teams who drop down from the Premier League finding it increasingly difficult to bounce back up at the first attempt. The last few years have seen the race for promotion and battle to avoid the drop go down to the wire, and although Betway have had their own say on who they believe are in contention to reach the top flight in 2016/2017, there are a number of clubs who should value the Premier League as a realistic target.

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Although some may argue that Norwich are the best equipped of the three relegated clubs to bounce straight back, having secured promotion from the Championship last summer with practically the same squad they have now, it is difficult to look past Newcastle as the clear favourites to top the division. Keeping hold of Rafa Benitez could prove to be their greatest signing this summer, with the board providing considerable financial backing that has enabled the former Liverpool and Real Madrid manager to secure big-money deals for Dwight Gayle and Matt Ritchie. Newcastle have also agreed a deal to bring Blackburn centre-back Grant Hanley to Tyneside, and although Benitez may lose Georgino Wijnaldum and Moussa Sissoko before the transfer window shuts, the Spaniard would still have the strongest squad in the Championship. It remains to be seen whether their strength in depth produces results on the pitch, but their passionate fanbase will hope that Newcastle return to the Premier League at the first attempt.

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Sheffield Wednesday

Carlos Carvalhal arrived at Hillsborough as a relatively unknown manager from Portugal, but he managed to transform Sheffield Wednesday from a mid-table team into play-off finalists. The Owls will look to bounce back after losing to Hull at Wembley thanks to a wonder goal from Mohamed Diame, and while Carvalhal will hope to take the team one step further in pursuit of glory, it remains to be seen whether they have the spirit and character to come back even stronger.

Sheffield Wednesday have been away from the Premier League since 2000, and although their decline has seen the club yo-yo between the Championship and League One, Carvalhal’s arrival appears to have breathed new life into the Owls. Their hugely convincing victory against Brighton in the play-off semi-finals illustrates just how good Sheffield Wednesday are when they hit full gear, with the signing of free agent Steven Fletcher representing superb business. The former Sunderland striker will undoubtedly add more firepower alongside Gary Hooper and Fernando Forestieri, and if Carvalhal is able to keep fellow key players Kieran Lee, Barry Bannan and Kieran Westwood, then Sheffield Wednesday could represent great value for promotion with Betway. The ability to change the odds to decimal numbers on their website paints a clearer picture as to how much can be won if the Owls end their seventeen-year absence from the top flight, but although they may be considered outsiders, Sheffield Wednesday have the quality to mount a serious promotion push.

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Derby have somehow found a way of blowing wonderful positions in recent years, with the Rams ultimately falling short despite being amongst the favourites for promotion. Falling at the play-off semi-final stage last season was another case of ‘so near, yet so far’ for the Rams, and although they showed great character in the second leg to come within one goal of a remarkable comeback, Darren Wassall’s side gave themselves far too much to do after losing 3-0 at home to Hull. The board have turned to Nigel Pearson in the hope that he can use his experience and no-nonsense persona to get Derby back on track, with the former Leicester manager having strong experience of building teams in the Championship. He was instrumental in the Foxes’ resurgence from League One to the Premier League, and ultimately laid the foundations for their title-winning season.

Pearson’s arrival could prove to be the best signing of the summer for Derby, but he may face a fight to hold onto his best players. Will Hughes and Jeff Hendrick have been linked with moves away from the iPro Stadium, and although the Rams are yet to make a move in the transfer market, deterring potential suitors from two midfielders that will be key to their promotion chances may be Pearson’s main priority. Derby certainly have the quality to sustain a promotion push with the likes of Chris Martin, Lee Grant and Richard Keogh at the club, and if Pearson instils a strong mentality that enables them to last the distance, then the Rams could return to the Premier League for the first time since 2008.

Derby County

Manchester United 2–0 Derby County: Three talking points from Old Trafford



Photo: Reuters

Two goals inside the last ten minutes from Jesse Lingard and Romelu Lukaku helped Manchester United secure a routine victory over Derby County in their FA Cup third-round tie on Friday night.

Jose Mourinho put out a strong side for the home clash with their Championship opposition and there was a clear gulf in class from the word go, with the hosts laying siege to Scott Carson’s goal.

Marcus Rashford missed two glorious chances to give his side the lead before the break, blazing over the crossbar when well set inside the area before guiding a header on to the post from just a number of yards out, and Paul Pogba fired wide twice as United started to turn the screw on Derby.

The visitors did come close twice in quick succession through Marcus Olsson and Alex Pearce but Mourinho’s side re-asserted control just before half-time when Carson pushed two free-kicks away.

And United started the second as they did the first, coming out fast and continuously testing Carson’s resolve in the Derby goal.

Pogba, Lingard and half-time substitute Lukaku all had shots palmed and parried away by the ex-England number one whilst Rashford – without a goal in seven – saw a dipping shot strike the post.

But just when it seemed that Derby might cling on for a priceless replay it was Lingard who produced yet another stunning 20-yard effort into the top corner to break away hearts, before the returning Lukaku played a neat one-two with Anthony Martial in injury-time to tuck home and secure passage.

United ensure lightning doesn’t strike twice

After being well and truly humbled by Bristol City just a few weeks ago in their last meeting with Championship opposition, Jose Mourinho ensured lightning didn’t strike twice against Derby County.

And whilst they may have left it late on Friday, the result was never really in doubt.

Manchester United have an extremely good pedigree in the FA Cup, losing just one of their past 36 games with lower-ranked opposition prior to kick-off at Old Trafford, and you could understand why.

Mourinho named a similarly strong starting eleven to that which played at Ashton Gate last month but this time around their play was much more dynamic, zipping the ball around quickly and allowing Paul Pogba to work his magic in the middle of the park.

Both he and Jesse Lingard continued their excellent form of late and, backed up by Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford – who could have had a hat-trick – their intricate passing moves proved too much.

Had it not been for an inspired Scott Carson between the sticks and for the woodwork than the score-line could have been much more flattering, but Mourinho has reason to be quietly pleased with his side’s work.

Lingard and Pogba steal the show again

As mentioned above, two players at the heart of everything good about Manchester United’s play once again were the charismatic duo of Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard.

Pogba in particular impressed and, although there are those that will say it was ‘only’ against a Championship side, the way he glided across the pitch and linked defence with attack was superb.

In the absence of Nemanja Matic – being rested after a busy festive schedule – Pogba played the role of an ultimate box-to-box midfielder, and after a slow start since returning from injury this Christmas he carried on from where he left off against Everton with a display full of power and flair.

Within ten minutes he had already sent two long-range efforts flying narrowly past Carson’s goal and it was from that moment that you could sense he was in the mood, and if it hadn’t been for a string of excellent stops from the Derby goalkeeper – one free-kick in particular springs to mind – then the Frenchman would have deservedly got himself on the scoresheet.

As it was, it was left to the red-hot youngster Lingard to settle the home supporter’s nerves in the 84th minute with yet another trademark long-range strike, this time rifling high into the top corner.

It was the 25-year-old’s fifth goal in his last six games and he’s really starting to outshine his fellow United midfielders this season – which can only be a good thing as United strive for a top-four finish.

Tougher tests will undoubtedly surface with the Premier League and Champions League set to gain traction over the next month, and the FA Cup could turn out to be an unwanted distraction from their main ambitions for this season, but the form of Pogba and Lingard is a huge positive for United.

Eye-opening experience for promotion-chasing Derby

With no loss in seven heading into their third-round trip to Old Trafford, and with the knowledge that Bristol City humbled United last month, Derby would have had high hopes ahead of the game.

The Rams’ impressive run of form over the festive period has seen them rise to second in the Championship table, two points ahead of their nearest challengers Cardiff City, and now there’s a real growing feeling that this could be the year that sees them return to the Premier League.

Yet if they do make it to the pinnacle of English football once again then they will have to get accustomed to playing the likes of Manchester United week-in, week-out, and on Friday’s showing there’s still a lot of work to be done before their squad is prepared for that.

To their credit they gave it a go in the opening 45 minutes, looking sharp on the counter-attack and committing numbers forward to try and get at a weakened defence containing Victor Lindelof at right-back and Daley Blind in the middle.

But despite holding the hosts for all of 84 minutes – coming within touching distance of an unlikely replay – they were indebted to both Carson and their own woodwork for keeping them in the game for so long.

The main aim for manager Gary Rowett will undoubtedly be to secure top-flight football for next season for the first time in ten years, but they’ll look back at Friday’s defeat as an eye-opening experience that offered a glimpse of what the 2018-19 campaign could have in store.

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Derby County

Three things we learnt from Sunderland opening day draw with Derby County

Jake Jackman



Sunderland started their first season in the Championship since the 2006-7 campaign against a well-organised Derby County side.

This was a good test for the Wearside outfit as they came up against a team with a lot of second tier experience.

Although they didn’t win the match, they did manage to take a point and the performance gives them something to build on over the coming weeks.

The away side were solid, but they lacked pace and dynamism in attack.

Here are three things that we learnt from Friday night’s match…

There were signs of encouragement for Sunderland

After their convincing defeat to Celtic in pre-season, there were a lot of people that thought Sunderland would be easily beaten at the Stadium of Light, but that wasn’t the case. They gave a good showing of themselves and had the better of the match for long periods.

The defence remained a weakness and they gave up a goal without much of a fight, but Simon Grayson will be able to improve their organisation during the coming weeks.

Lee Cattermole looked back to his best and delivered an all-action performance in the middle of the park. There was evidence that Lewis Grabban and James Vaughan could develop into a good strike partnership at this level.

The latter may not have got on the scoresheet, but his work rate is exactly what Sunderland need. They haven’t had many players that give everything on the pitch, but Vaughan certainly fits that description.

Grayson will want a couple more signings before the window closes, with a creative central midfielder needed. If he gets them, the Black Cats could surprise a few this season.

Derby need to replace Tom Ince

The concern going into the match was that Derby County hadn’t sufficiently replaced Tom Ince and their attacking performance provided indisputable proof of that.

Sunderland’s defenders were full of nerves when they were forced to defend in their own box, but the Rams didn’t put them on the back foot enough. They lacked a quick attacker that could run at defenders and get them to commit themselves to a challenge. Their build-up play was too one-paced and that prevented them from creating many clear-cut chances.

Gary Rowett has managed to get Derby well organised and they will be a team that competes in the top half of the division, but they need more quality in the final third to push on for the top six.

There was a report from the Derby Telegraph that stated the club have an interest in Preston North End winger Callum Robinson. Although he may not have the star quality of Ince, he would provide pace and directness to the attack.

If they don’t replace last season’s top scorer, a top six place will be beyond them, based on this match.

The Sunderland fans need to stay with the club

It seems churlish to compare Sunderland to Newcastle last season, as there aren’t many similarities between the two relegations, but the Black Cats could learn from their local rivals when it comes to supporting the team.

The attendance at the Stadium of Light was less than 30,000 and it made for a sorry sight on the television.

Supporters will rightfully talk about the decline of their football club, which has caused the loss of support. However, this is the time to get behind the players and do their bit in helping their club get back to the Premier League.

The players won’t benefit from playing in a half-empty stadium, while the image of the club will be damaged. Grayson will be hoping that he can win the fans over and this performance would have helped in that as the players did work extremely hard, which can’t be said about a lot of recent Sunderland teams.

A drop to the Championship may be a step back, but they will win more games and it will be more fun to be a supporter. Given their history and size as a club, they can be a real force at this level.

To become that, they need the fans to be behind them. Attendances have to improve.

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Derby County

How Twitter reacted to Sunderland’s return to Championship football against Derby



Sunderland made their return to the second tier for the first time in 11 years and did so in disappointing fashion as Derby County held  them to a 1-1 draw. Roy Keane’s side romped  the division on that occasion but that seems unlikely after a summer full of sales with few arrivals.

Bradley Johnson opened the scoring just ten minutes in as some sloppy defending allowed him to run in at the far post to stab the ball home to give the Rams the lead in the worst possible start for the home side.

The Black Cats had dominated the early stages and everntually got back into the game as Lewis Grabban pulled one back from the penalty spot on his debut at the Stadium of Light. Jacob Butterfield was controversially adjudged to have handled inside the box and Grabban ensured that he paid the price.

The second period saw an even affair with Sunderland once again going closest, hitting the post and forcing Scott Carson into several good saves to keep his side in the game. Derby looked comfortable, if under pressure at times, and a point seemed a fair result for both sides.

After a disastrous 2016/17 campaign in the Premier League, the Championship may be kinder to the club. Now under Simon Grayson’s command, the fans were clearly not impressed and voiced their frustration at the final whistle. They may have to adjust their expectations to what may be another difficult season ahead, regardless of the stature of their club.

Here’s how Twitter reacted to the result:

Unfortunately for fans, there was no sign of improvement on the pitch…

But it wasn’t the players’ fault…

Not everyone was impressed…

There were a lot of comments on the sparse attendance…

At least rival fans enjoyed it…

There were some reasons for positivity…

But some things matter more than football…

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