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Championship preview: Storylines you won't want to miss this season

Before the spotlight switches to the Premier League, the English Championship kicks off Friday, Aug. 3 and promises to be as competitive and exciting as ever. Here are some key narratives and players to look out for this season, along with some dangerously early predictions.

Relegated strength adds to abundance of derbies

The league’s quality has arguably increased despite the departure of impressive promoted trio Wolverhampton Wanderers, Cardiff City, and Fulham. West Bromwich Albion, Stoke City, and Swansea City together ostensibly represent one of the strongest sets of relegated clubs in recent years – all three demoted sides earned more than 30 points in the Premier League last term for the first time since 2011, and each has its own pedigree in the second tier. The Swans never finished below eighth in three years in the division from 2008-11, Stoke came second in 2008 and are only just returning after a decade in the big time, and West Brom’s record speaks for itself:

If the competitiveness and drama weren’t enough, this season will be festooned with enough local rivalries to provide a grudge match on a weekly basis. In the Midlands alone, Aston Villa, West Brom, Birmingham City, Derby County, Nottingham Forest, and Stoke will battle it out. Yorkshire also boasts six clubs, while Lancashire and London both have at least three representatives. That’s without even mentioning the fierce Norwich vs. Ipswich battle. There will be fireworks, and regularly.

Bielsa, Lampard key managerial protaganists

Perhaps the most fascinating story this season can be found at Elland Road. Volatile manager Marcelo Bielsa was appointed by volatile owner Andrea Radrizzani to take over volatile Leeds United in a cautious, risk-averse move that won’t produce any explosive results whatsoever. “If you try to predict the future, you are trying to be a demagogue rather than (a) football coach. It is better to be reasonable and measured,” Bielsa said at his unveiling. Maybe the former Argentina and Chile boss should have been informed that “reasonable and measured” are often distant concepts in this corner of West Yorkshire. However, the Argentine’s renowned organization and forensic detail could be just what the Whites need to finally launch a sustained promotion push. Whatever happens, this will likely be the season’s premier must-watch drama.

Some 80 miles down the M1, another fascinating tale is unfolding. As a distinguished former England international, Frank Lampard has the privilege of landing a relatively high-profile debut coaching gig without needing to cut his teeth in the footballing wastelands. His task at Derby will be to dispel the club’s recent reputation as late-season chokers. Amongst other managerial changes, the man Lampard replaced in the dugout, Gary Rowett, has taken charge of Stoke, while fellow relegated side Swansea handed an opportunity to Ostersund’s English boss, Graham Potter.

3 stars who will stand out (if they stay)

Joe Allen (Stoke) – Allen, a technically gifted player who has slowly earned a stellar reputation, could have secured an immediate return to the Premier League this summer, but instead signed a new deal with the Potters. “Players sometimes wash their hands of it all but it would have felt wrong for me to leave,” he said last week. “After speaking to the club and finding out their intentions, it was an easy decision to stay.” The Welshman will thrive under Rowett and will be one of the best midfielders in the division this season.

Patrick Bamford (Leeds) – The potential £10 million paid to Chelsea this summer for the Blues’ perennial castoff could prove a shrewd investment. Historically a Championship goal machine and the league’s player of the year in 2014-15, Bamford was revitalized during a loan spell at Middlesbrough last term when Tony Pulis moved him from out wide to a central attacking role in February. He promptly scored 10 goals in his final 13 regular-season games to propel Boro to the playoffs. If Bielsa is content to make the 24-year-old his key man, Bamford – and, possibly, Leeds – could finally make the big leap.

Jack Grealish (Villa) – The will-he-won’t-he saga of Grealish’s potential exit is by no means over, but new investment means Villa don’t necessarily have to cash in anymore. However, Tottenham are still thought to be keen, and there’s a chance this deal still gets done at over £20 million. If it doesn’t, Grealish will be his side’s main hope of promotion as well as, again, one of the trickiest attacking midfielders in the second division.

3 Premier League-bound prodigies

Ben Brereton (Forest) – Since scoring his first Forest goal with an injury-time winner against Villa in February 2017, England Under-19 star Brereton has had a whirlwind 18 months. Named Championship Apprentice of the Year at the end of the 2016-17 campaign, his stock rose further last term, helped by a converted penalty in the 4-2 FA Cup win over Arsenal in January 2018. He is unlikely to be at this level for long.

Mason Mount (Derby) – One of Lampard’s first acts was to raid his old club Chelsea for talented midfielder Mount. The 19-year-old racked up 13 goals and 10 assists on loan at Eredivisie side Vitesse last season, and Brereton’s Under-19 international teammate will likely be too good for this level. Expect him to enjoy a breakthrough season in England as Derby’s creative fulcrum.

Ollie Watkins (Brentford) – Watkins joined Brentford for a reported £1.8 million from Exeter City last summer and the winger had a fine maiden second-tier campaign, scoring 10 goals and adding five assists. The 22-year-old has piqued Premier League interest, and the Bees reportedly value him at £15 million. It’s a big figure for such an inexperienced prospect, but he’ll go a long way toward justifying it if he sticks around for another year at Griffin Park.

Early predictions

Automatic promotion – Stoke, Middlesbrough. Both the Potters and Tony Pulis’ Boro will have too much quality and nous in the end, and Rowett will finally win the plaudits he deserves.

Playoff winner – West Brom. The Baggies’ stellar record at this level will continue. Though they will miss out on automatic promotion under the inexperienced Darren Moore, they’ll emerge victorious from the playoff potluck.

Relegated – Rotherham United, Bolton Wanderers, Hull City. Bolton were lucky to survive the drop last year but won’t be so fortunate this time around; floundering Hull have lost a host of key players amid animosity toward the owners; and Rotherham – sorry, Millers fans – will be adrift by April.

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