In terms of both increased media publicity and financial incentives, the rewards of promotion to the Premier League are greater now than they have ever been before. Because of this, owners have become increasingly desperate to get their teams promoted. As a result, transfer fees have risen dramatically as inexperienced decision-makers look to throw excessive amounts of money at clubs in an attempt to win one the three highly sought after promotion places.
Now that the transfer window has closed, and managers have little or no scope to add to their squads, it is now possible to look at the top teams to assess their chances of winning promotion. Current form and upcoming fixtures shall be considered, as we look to provide a clearer picture as to who has the greatest chance of kicking off in the world’s biggest league in August.
Wolves (Current Position: 1st | Our Prediction 1st)
Little attention needs to be paid to the race for top spot. Ever since the League kicked off in August, Wolverhampton Wanderers have looked like champions-in-waiting.
The influence of super-agent Jorge Mendes was huge, particularly in terms of the signings of Ruben Neves and Diogo Jota.
In truth, Wolves are probably better than several of the bottom half Premier League sides. However, it should also be highlighted that based on the credentials of their players and their manager, Nuno Espirito Santo, a failure to get promoted this season would’ve led to much scrutiny and inquisition.
The Midlands club sit 11 points clear at the top, and whilst they still have Aston Villa, Derby County and Cardiff City to play, we would be very surprised if Wolves were not lifting the Championship trophy on the 6th May.
Aston Villa (Current Position: 2nd | Our Prediction: 2nd)
Aston Villa’s 2-0 victory over Birmingham City on Sunday saw them leapfrog Cardiff and Derby and move into 2nd (© expressandstar.com)
The race for second place is certainly more interesting. Aston Villa currently occupy second spot following an impressive run of seven straight victories culminating in a 2-0 win in the Second City derby this weekend.
In the past, Villa have fallen short in terms of recruitment. Rather than looking to build the best team, they have instead looked to simply throw money at the league’s most in-form players, such as Scott Hogan and Henry Lansbury. In such a competitive league, this is rarely a successful formula. Put simply, going out and buying the league’s hottest properties doesn’t automatically lend itself to building the best cohesive unit, and this is where Villa have fallen short.
This season feels somewhat different for Aston Villa. In Steve Bruce they have got a highly experienced manager who has a track record of getting teams out of the division. John Terry and James Chester have formed a solid partnership at the back, and it’s also important to note that this winning run has come without the presence of free-scoring striker Jonathan Kodjia.
The race is certainly not over, and Derby County and Cardiff City will push hard, but Villa have seemingly found the resilience they’ve been missing since they came down to the Championship, and based on their huge squad depth, they look as if they may be difficult to catch in the battle for the second automatic promotion place.
Derby County (Current Position 3rd | Our Prediction 4th)
Gary Rowett’s well-organised Derby side look likely to make the top-six (© goal.com)
The key to Derby County’s success up to this stage of the campaign has been their organisational discipline. They have used the 4-2-3-1 system to great effect, a formation that has accentuated the influence of summer signings Tom Huddlestone and Joe Ledley in the holding midfield role.
Derby’s defence has been superb, conceding a mere 26 goals in 32 outings (2nd only behind leaders Wolves). Curtis Davies has enjoyed an excellent season alongside Richard Keogh at centre-half, and their consistency has been key, with both men (alongside goalkeeper Scott Carson) having started all 32 league games this season.
At the other end, Matěj Vydra’s influence has been crucial. The Czech forward is the league’s leading scorer having found the back of the net 17 times to-date, and The Rams will be reliant on his continued success should they wish to maintain their push for automatic promotion. Meanwhile, the January addition of Cameron Jerome was undoubtedly a shrewd piece of business, and he may have a large role to play in the coming weeks.
Derby currently sit on 58 points, just 1 point behind 2nd place Aston Villa, and will be looking to bounce back from their disappointing (and rather surprising) 2-0 defeat at Hillsborough on Tuesday. Rowett’s next test will be the visit of Paul Heckingbottom’s Leeds United on Wednesday, and one would expect that they will bounce back. Although it would be foolish to consider any side a sure-thing for the top-six, the consistency of Rowett’s side and the fact they sit 9 points clear of 7th place suggests that they will extremely difficult to dislodge.
However, whilst we think a Play-Off space looks assured, Fulham’s recent run-of-form leads us to believe they will pip The Rams to 3rd place. Interestingly, Derby travel to Villa Park in the season’s penultimate game – a game which may prove crucial in determining who takes the 2nd automatic promotion spot.
Cardiff City (Current Position 4th | Our Prediction 5th)
Neil Warnock’s Cardiff City are this season’s surprise package (© transforcandy.com)
Neil Warnock’s Cardiff City side are perhaps the surprise package of the season. At stages they looked like they would be the only potential challengers to Wolves, however, a woeful run of 4 straight defeats saw them slip down the table. Nevertheless, Warnock’s men answered the doubters with an impressive 4-0 home win to Sunderland, followed by a comfortable 4-1 win at Elland Road.
Going forward, Junior Hoilett and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing have been the real difference-makers for The Bluebirds, and their fans will be hoping the latter can return to the fantastic run-of-form he enjoyed at the start of the season. The addition of Gary Madine for £6 million in January certainly raised a few eyebrows, but the target-forward has looked relatively impressive thus far, particularly during his debut at Elland Road, and should provide adequate competition for Kenneth Zohore.
Where Warnock’s side have excelled, in a similar vein to 3rd placed Derby County, is in their astute organisation. Sol Bamba and Sean Morrison, often flanked on the right by Lee Peltier (and more recently Bruno Écuélé Manga), and on the left by Joe Bennett, have enjoyed a fantastic campaign, shipping a mere 27 goals in 31 games.
Being gritty and hard to beat has proven a crucial commodity for a number of teams on this list, and it is a trait that Warnock’s side personify. They successfully endured and came through their difficult run, and one would expect them to be part of the Play-Off picture come-May.
Fulham (Current Position 5th | Our Prediction 3rd)
Slaviša Jokanović’s Fulham have enjoyed a recent surge in form (© meridiansport.com)
Last season’s Play-Off Semi-Finalists Fulham endured a difficult start to the season, which led to questions over manager Slaviša Jokanović’s future. However, an incredible run of 7 wins and 2 draws, including a thumping 6-0 victory over struggling Burton Albion has propelled The Cottagers into the promotion race.
Fulham are now the league’s in-form side, and it appears as if things have clicked at exactly the right time for Jokanović’s men. They have at their disposal an abundance of wide-options, including Sheyi Ojo, Lucas Piazon, Neeskens Kebano, Floyd Ayité and wonder-kid Ryan Sessegnon, who has contributed 11 goals and 4 assists at the tender age of 17. This has meant that goals haven’t been a problem, despite the absence of an out-and-out centre forward, until the loan-arrival of Aleksandar Mitrović in January.
Meanwhile, Oliver Norwood has stepped up during Tom Cairney’s extended absence, with 5 goals and 3 assists. The importance of Stefan Johansen and Kevin McDonald can’t be understated; both players are entirely capable of maintaining possession and turning defence into attack with ease, and are at the root of Fulham’s success.
Fulham’s recent run-of-form is reminiscent of their end to last season’s campaign, which saw them head into the Play-Offs as favourites. Whilst it wasn’t to be for Jokanović’s side last season, we personally believe that they will continue to impress, and could easily launch an assault on the automatic promotion places. However, with Aston Villa 8 points ahead of them at this stage, The Cottagers may have to settle for 3rd.
Bristol City (Current Position 6th | Our Prediction 8th)
Lee Johnson’s Bristol City have felt the effects of a busy fixture period (© rokerreport.com)
Bristol City have, as many expected, endured a difficult period following on from their FA Cup heroics, which saw them defeat Mourinho’s Manchester United, and put up a spirited display against Guardiola’s Manchester City.
Perhaps most concerning for Lee Johnson has been the lack of goals in recent weeks. Indeed, prior to last weekend’s 3-3 draw with struggling Sunderland, City had scored a mere 3 goals in 6 games, a run that also included a hefty 6-0 defeat to fellow promotion contenders, Aston Villa.
Johnson has acted swiftly to address this, overseeing the addition of Ryan Kent and Loïs Diony in January, both of whom could be vital in keeping The Robins’ Play-Off aspirations afloat. Kent has looked particularly impressive in his 4 appearances, and Diony has shown glimpses of ability in his 3 substitute appearances, despite not finding the back of the net.
Bobby Reid has been the side’s most important attacking player this season, and will be crucial in keeping them in the top six – Robins fans will be hoping he can add to his 12 goal tally for the first time since December.
The Robins travel North on Sunday, to face a struggling Leeds United side that thumped them 3-0 at Ashton Gate earlier in the season. Should they fall to defeat at Elland Road, questions will be asked over their capabilities of reaching the Play-Offs.
Although Johnson possesses an exciting squad, we believe they may be the ones to miss out. They have conceded the most and scored the least of any team currently in the top-six, and their run of just 1 win in 7 Championship games is certainly a cause for concern. However, if Johnson’s side can produce some of the scintillating football that was on display during their December run of form and turn their current fortunes around, then they would undoubtedly be ones to watch in the Play-Offs.
The Chasing Pack
Tony Pulis’ side are hoping for a late surge of form that sees them into the top-six (© mfc.co.uk)
Of the teams behind 6th placed Bristol City, Tony Pulis’ Middlesbrough (9th) are undoubtedly the side who possess the calibre to break into the Play-Off places. Pulis’ side face a daunting trip to Cardiff this weekend, and should they come through that unscathed, they can look forward to their subsequent games against 20th placed Hull and 23rd placed Sunderland.
However, in 7th lie Alex Neil’s Preston North End, who have slipped under the radar somewhat. The departure of Jordan Hugill is undoubtedly a hammer blow to Neil’s men (the lowest scorers in the top-12), and it is difficult to see them maintaining a push for the top-six with the absence of their leading goal-scorer. Nevertheless, Preston are currently the best-placed side to break into the top-six, with just 3 points separating them from 6th placed Bristol City, and could break into the Play-Off places with an unlikely victory over Wolves on Saturday.
Meanwhile, despite their 2-1 victory over Leeds last weekend, Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United (8th) look destined to miss out on the top-six. Paul Coutts’ season-ending injury and top-scorer Leon Clarke’s lack of goals in recent weeks look like they may have scuppered The Blades’ promotion hopes. Nevertheless, it has been a fantastic first season back in the Championship for Wilder’s men, and with some relatively kind fixtures in the upcoming weeks, they certainly shouldn’t be written out of contention.
Brentford (10th), Leeds United (11th), Norwich City (12th) and Ipswich Town (13th) all sit behind Middlesbrough on 44 points, however, other than Norwich, all these sides are enduring fairly woeful runs of form heading into the season’s final stages. With 8 points separating them from the Play-Off places, it would take a remarkable run of form for any to reach the top-six. If Leeds can beat Bristol City (6th) on Sunday, and begin a resurgence in form under their new manager, then they, alongside in-form Norwich are perhaps the best equipped to mount a challenge on the Play-Offs.
However, we believe that Tony Pulis’ Middlesbrough ultimately possess enough quality to put together a run-of-form capable of making the top-six. Of particular importance will be the performances of record-signing Britt Assombalonga and in-form man Adama Traoré. Congolese forward Assombalonga hasn’t scored since December, and with Boro’s defence looking fairly astute, it is the goals that will prove crucial in seeing them climb into the top-six. Traoré on the other hand has thrived under Pulis, and his brace helped his side to victory over struggling Reading last Saturday.
By Charlie Ibbotson & George Roberts