Who will win the Championship promotion race?
With over a third of the season gone it seems like a good time to cast one’s eyes at how the Championship promotion race is hotting-up. Promotion from the English second tier has been big business for some time now, but with the new £5.14 billion TV deal coming into play next season, the importance of making the jump this season has grown further. The spending of teams such as Middlesbrough and Derby over the summer emphasised that there is a sense of desperation setting in at the prospect of the gulf between the Championship and the Premier League growing ever further.
The Championship is now packed with very decent, experienced clubs who may previously have been billed as the perennial ‘big hitters’ in the second tier. Of the 24 Championship teams, 17 have played in the Premier League, 12 have stadiums with a capacity of 30,000 or more and 14 have won a major trophy at some stage in their history. The pre-season odds had Middlesbrough and Derby as the favourites; Hull and Derby not far behind; with QPR, Wolves and a few other making up the chasing pack.
17 games later and the league table is beginning to take shape. There have been no great surprises, Brighton are performing better than most people expected, perhaps QPR a little poorer; but by and large, the league table is no major shock. Already, despite the Championship being notoriously tight and congested, something of a ‘top 5’ seems to be developing, and it seems very likely that 2 of those 5 teams will make up the automatic promotion places come May. Of course, the Championship is renowned for its unpredictability, and there is almost always a team that emerges around the Festive period and goes on a marvellous run. In the interest of brevity though, today we will just look at the top 5 and analyse who is best equipped to earn promotion.
After coming close to survival last season and successfully hanging on to a number of their better players, Hull City were unsurprisingly regarded as a good bet to make a swift return to the top flight. Their season kicked off under an air of doubt, with fears over Deadline Day poaching of their star players and being the last club in the Football League to make a signing. Steve Bruce’s recruitment has been good once more though, with Moses Odubajo, Sam Clucas and Shaun Maloney all looking like good pieces of business; whilst Ryan Taylor and Arsenal loanees Isaac Hayden and Chuba Akpom still have a little to prove. The clubs only other signing was Norwegian forward Adama Diomande, who was already injured when he was brought to the club and is yet to play a game for the Tigers.
The season began in a laboured manner. The results were okay but the performances weren’t there. Steve Bruce seemed unsure of his best team or formation and their displays were a little disjointed and somewhat defensive for a team with such considerable talent at their disposal. Grinding results out kept Hull in the race though, ready for a much more convincing string of performances which began with a 3-0 win over Ipswich and ended with a 3-0 win over fellow promotion hopefuls Middlesbrough. The Tigers showed a little more of their early season form against Bristol City last weekend, drawing 1-1, but will look to bounce back at the KC Stadium tonight in another big game against Derby.
Crucial for Hull City has been the performances of Michael Dawson, Andy Robertson, Jake Livermore and Abel Hernandez. Dawson has probably be in the outstanding performer in the Championship this season and an absolute rock at the heart of the best defence in the country. Andy Robertson began the campaign on the bench but since his involvement Hull have looked far more balanced and he has developed a fine partnership with Sam Clucas. Livermore’s return to the team has added an injection of bite to the midfield, he and David Meyler being crucial in Hull’s five-game winning run and Abel Hernandez has scored regularly, something a Hull City player hasn’t done in at least 7 years.
Brighton & Hove Albion
The only team in the top 5 who might not have been most people’s thoughts when considering promotion from the Championship at the start of this season, Brighton had a disappointing campaign last time out, finishing 20th. Remarkably though, the club currently sit in second and are yet to lose a game this season, the only club in England who are still unbeaten. They have won 9 of their opening 17 games, in comparison to just 3 last season, and look an all-round much more well-drilled side under Chris Houghton this season.
Their team is not blessed with outstanding individuals but has an excellent mentality and to be unbeaten at this stage is some achievement. Brighton are yet to blow a team away though, and have had to battle for every point they’ve won this season. They are yet to win a game by more than one goal, in comparison to a Hull side who have done so 8 times already this season. Brighton have only won 1 of their last 5 games, suggesting something of a slump and an end to their exceptional early season form.
That may not necessarily be the case though. Kazenga LuaLua will miss his tenth consecutive game this weekend through injury. So often a match-winner, his absence has been a huge problem for the Seagulls, and they will hope to see a spike in form once he returns. Furthermore, Chris Hughton has delved into the loan market, bringing highly-regarded Manchester United youngster James Wilson to the Amex. Twinned with the return of Bobby Zamora, Brighton should have goals in them now.
One of the early favourites after spending roughly £14 million in the summer transfer window on the likes of Stewart Downing, David Nugent, Cristhian Stuani and Carlos de Pena, Middlesbrough are unsurprisingly in the mix after 17 games. They have lost 4 games already, twice as many as any other team in the top 5, but have counteracted that with 10 wins, the joint most with Hull. Boro have shown glimpses of becoming a really dominant side in games this season, but have let themselves down by putting in the occasional poor display.
A hammering away at Hull evoked memories of unconvincing away defeats at last season’s promotion rivals Bournemouth and Watford, as Boro became the campaign’s nearly men. That is something Aitor Karanka will be aware of, and games against Burnley, Brighton and Derby all between the 15th of December and the 1st of January will provide an opportunity for him to put things right. As his been the case for some time now, Middlesbrough are built on a strong defence, and had only conceded 9 goals prior to their 3-0 defeat at Hull.
Along with their solidity, Boro have the flair and creativity of Downing and Fabbrini, the pace of Adomah and Nugent, and the goals of Stuani, who already has 7 to his name this season from only 15 games. Middlesbrough undoubtedly have a squad capable of promotion, and it would be a huge surprise if they didn’t finish in the top 6, but in order to make the automatic places they will have to become more ruthless and cut out the sloppy performances, especially against fellow promotion hopefuls.
Fellow big spenders and early-season favourites Derby County are right back in the mix after a shaky start. The Rams had the biggest outlay in the Championship over the summer, forking out close to £20 million, with Bradley Johnson, Tom Ince and Jacob Butterfield being their most expensive purchases. Derby fans may have feared the worst after their new management failed to find a single win in any of their first 5 league games, but 9 wins from their last 12 games has put them much closer to where they want to be, and only 2 points off the leaders Hull, who they face tonight with the chance of taking top spot.
Pivotal to Derby’s season has been the goals of Chris Martin, who has 8 to his name already. Derby have an embarrassment of riches up front, but Martin has established himself as the club’s leading marksman at this stage. Bradley Johnson has been an excellent signing, providing an injection of pace, strength and directness into a Derby midfield which was ruing the injury of Will Hughes on the opening day of the season. A poor performance and defeat to rivals Nottingham Forest showed there is still work to be done, but a win tonight could propel Derby to promotion favourites after a difficult start.
The form of Tom Ince could prove decisive. The mercurial winger had an outstanding loan spell with the Rams last season, despite his arrival co-inciding with the clubs dramatic slide down the league table, but has failed to hit those levels consistently this time out. When on song, he is one of the most dangerous players in the division.
Relegated from the Premier League in their first season back in the top flight, Burnley were always likely to be a strong outfit back in a division they know so well. Having made little recruitment when promoted, Burnley retained the core of their squad upon relegation, with Danny Ings and Kieran Trippier being the obvious exceptions. Having made little waves in the 2014 summer transfer window, Sean Dyche shocked many people when he made a deal worth a potential £9 million (£6 million up-front) for Brentford striker Andre Gray this summer.
The Clarets seem to have had very good strikers for some time now, with Jay Rodriguez, Charlie Austin and Danny Ings all being exceptional second tier forwards. The outlay for Gray may seem inflated, but in the current market a young, prolific English forward demands that kind of price tag, and 9 goals in 12 games suggests it was a shrewd piece of business. Partnering Sam Vokes, who scored 20 goals in his last season in the Championship, the pointers would suggest Burnley have plenty of goals in them this season.
Tendayi Darikwa seems like another good piece of business. Brought in from Chesterfield, Darikwa is capable of playing at both right back and right midfield, and has done a good job of filling the void vacated by Trippier on that side of the pitch. With goals a plenty and decent Championship players all over the park, Burnley will be real challengers this season and have both the depth and mentality to last the cause throughout the season.
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