News, views and gossip from the magnificent 72
With just a dozen matches of the Championship campaign remaining for most sides in the division, it’s time to break out the clichés and assess who will be 'in the mix' for the top spots come the end of the season, and who will be left 'sick as a parrot' come May...
One thing is certain – it will be about as dull as a firework party in your granddad’s garden shed. With no less than half the division still believing they have a crack at the Promised Land, nothing is guaranteed in the race for promotion.
Of course, the usual suspects have taken their places in the division’s top spots, but with a whole host of strong sides battling for a place at English football‘s top table, quite who will be strutting their stuff at Old Trafford and the Emirates next year is still nowhere near being determined.
1. QPR (pld 34, 67 pts)
Ask most Queens Park Rangers fans about their side’s promotion prospects, and the vast majority will struggle to see past a crack at the big boys next year - and who can blame them? They have seen their side occupy top spot for the bulk of the campaign, holding on to pole position ever since mid-November.
It’s been quite some campaign from Neil Warnock’s side, who have built from the back with a strong defence which has conceded just 20 goals all year. Couple that with the revelation that has been Adel Taraabt and you have yourself a winning formula. Warnock has made the mercurial Moroccan international the attacking linchpin of his side, and the rewards have been spectacularly reaped.
There may be some way still go – Warnock will need not reminding – but it is becoming increasingly difficult to look past his Rangers side for league glory.
2. Swansea (pld 34, 62 pts)
The decision to hire Brendan Rogers has been the very definition of a masterstroke. Life looked somewhat bleak in this corner of south Wales at the beginning of the campaign, and eyebrows were raised at his hiring after a disastrous spell in charge of Reading. But Rogers’ reputation at Chelsea had not been diminished and the Swans were prepared to take the gamble.
The rest, as they say, is history. Rogers has maintained the excellent defensive reputation that had remained with the Swans throughout the Sousa days, but with it he has added the goals that had previously been painfully lacking. With four straight league victories, including a 3-0 demolition of Leeds last weekend, a defeat is becoming difficult to predict. Just try stopping them.
3. Cardiff (pld 34, 61 pts)
Snapping at the heels of their fierce rivals are a Cardiff side who have flirted with promotion for too long. With arguably the strongest squad in the division, it may soon be time for the Bluebirds to pluck up the courage and finally sweep the automatic places off their proverbial feet.
Simply put, Dave Jones will never get a better chance to take this side to the Premier League.
With loanees Craig Bellamy and Seyi Olofinjana helping the likes of Michael Chopra and Jay Bothroyd prove the firepower up top, there really can be no excuses this time around.
The Bluebirds have unsurprisingly not struggled for goals, and they will need their big players to continue firing if they are to finally land their Premier League dream. A midfield crisis is threatening to derail another year’s promotion bid, but for the record, UTFLWG thinks they will.
4. Nottingham Forest (pld 34, 59 pts)
If there is one side to burst the Welsh promotion bubble, it is more than likely going to be Forest. Like their Cardiff counterparts, Forest pose one of the fiercest challenges in the division and will almost certainly fight to the death in the battle for the automatic promotion places.
As is the case with most sides pushing for the top, a strong defence has proved the foundation of success for Billy Davies. That and a formidable home record, with Forest’s untainted by defeat in almost a year and a half of league football.
Davies has the squad, they have the confidence and soon, Forest could have another shout at English football’s top tier. Don’t be surprised if they break Welsh hearts this time around.
5. Norwich (pld 34, 59 pts)
The Norfolk side have taken everybody by surprise this term, not least for the outrageous manner in which their league matches have so often ended – usually, with a Canaries goal. Paul Lambert’s side have hit the net 10 times in the last five minutes of matches this season, propelling Sky Sports’ Jeff Stelling into his excitable late goal routine on a seemingly weekly basis.
As was proved with Leicester last season, suffering relegation to League One doesn’t always signal the start of a prolonged period of pain. Quite the opposite in fact, as the Canaries have demonstrated in a flawlessly consistent season since gaining promotion back to the second tier.
An excellent away record has formed the basis of an enjoyable campaign for Lambert and his side, who look good value to hang onto their current top six place. The automatic places are still in reach, but there is perhaps too much of a strong challenge from elsewhere for them to scare the top two.
6. Leeds (pld 34, 54 pts)
Like Norwich, Leeds have hit the ground running after making the step back up from League One. The heavy defeat at Swansea on Saturday may have put their play-off place in doubt, but
Simon Grayson knows his side have enough heart to hang onto their top six spot.
The Elland Road outfit have been in the promotion mix since the end of October, and will not bow down without a fight. Goals have been free-flowing all year for Grayson’s attack-minded grafters, with Luciano Becchio and Max Gradel catching the eye in particular. Gradel, a steal from Leicester in the summer, is finally proving his Championship value after struggling for consistency with the Foxes.
The trailing pack is hot on the heels of the Whites, but Grayson will be confident of holding off the ambush below to help restore Leeds to its former glory.
7. Leicester (pld 34, 52 pts)
It’s been quite some turnaround at the Walkers Stadium for Leicester under Sven-Goran Eriksson. Sitting bottom after nine matches when the Swede arrived, the Foxes have since turned things around and now look like making a like surge for the play-off places.
Eriksson has already admitted defeat for his side in their bid for automatic promotion after failing to win in either of their last two fixtures, but with a strong squad, a shot at the top six is well within sight.
The likes of Yakubu, Andy King, Richie Wellens and Kyle Naughton will all need to keep firing on all cylinders throughout the run-in. The Foxes’ recent league run of eight wins in nine is more than enough proof required to demonstrate they have what it takes.
8. Burnley (pld 32, 50 pts)
It all started well for Burnley in their return to the Championship. Then it got worse. So bad, in fact, that Brian Laws was forced to clear his desk and head for the door. It always was an odd appointment, wasn’t it?
But enough of that. Eddie Howe arrived to take the reins after working wonders with Bournemouth, and it appears on the surface that the same could be about to occur at Turf Moor. With just the one defeat in his seven matches in charge so far and three wins in their last four, Burnley are quietly going about making their assault on the top six.
The goals of Chris Eagles, Jay Rodriguez and Chris Iwelumo are likely to come in handy soon enough as Howe’s men begin their charge towards the play-off places. Don’t rule anything out.
9. Hull (pld 34, 49 pts)
Nigel Pearson is getting rather good at putting together promotion-worthy teams. After getting close to taking Leicester to the Premier League last season, Pearson looks to be doing it again with his ambitious Hull side.
The club’s newfound financial backing has allowed him to bring in the likes of Matty Fryatt, Aaron MacLean and Cameron Stewart to help turn around the team’s dismal goal record in the league so far this season.
The Tigers will make their case heard for a top six finish, but several tough fixtures waiting ahead in the run-in will ultimately make it an uphill struggle from here.
10. Reading (pld 34, 48 pts)
The stats may not tell the whole story, but a questionable defence at times has been the Achilles heel that has perhaps prevented Reading from taking up a play-off place at this stage of the season.
That and some highly questionable consistency. The season graph reads like a Himalayas dot-to-dot, with frustrating patches derailing hopes of a top six position.
But the Madejski outfit will not worry too much. At this stage of the season last time around they were in 19th position without a hope of mounting a promotion charge, but a late onslaught saw the team finish within three places of a play-off place.
There is quality in the ranks with the likes of Jimmy Kébé, Jobi McAnuff and Shane Long capable of scaring any Championship defence on their day, but it may be too little too late for Brian McDermott’s challengers.
And this is just the top ten. Millwall, Portsmouth and Watford are all narrowly behind in the rankings, with Steve Cotterill’s Pompey winning their last five matches. A late challenge for a play-off spot is not uncommon – can the Fratton Park outfit put all their financial troubles behind them and shock the lot?
This is the Championship, after all. Everybody thinks their side has a shot at play-off glory, but when it all boils down to it only one will emerge out the other side with a smile on their face.
At this stage nobody looks like folding in the top six, but we all know that change is almost inevitable before the campaign’s time is up. And for your amusement when the time comes, here are the UTFLWG predictions for the final table:
1. QPR2. Cardiff-------------------------------3. Nottingham Forest4. Swansea5. Norwich6. Leicester
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