With half of the Championship’s clubs entering the final 10 matches of the season this weekend, theScore looks into the teams battling for the three promotion spots and assesses whether they could compete in the Premier League.
1. Wolverhampton Wanderers
After Wednesday’s 3-0 win at Leeds United, it’s abundantly clear the Championship title is Wolves’ to lose – if it wasn’t already.
Wolves are granted flicks through the portfolio of super-agent Jorge Mendes, allowing Premier League-standard captures of Ruben Neves, Diogo Jota, Ivan Cavaleiro, and others since the Fosun consortium took over in the summer of 2016.
The pre-season appointment of Nuno Espirito Santo was met with scepticism – especially after the carousel of Kenny Jackett, Walter Zenga, and Paul Lambert over the previous year – but the Portuguese has responded by implementing football that, in its current incarnation, would send Wolves into mid-table of the Premier League.
2. Cardiff City
The only thing longer than Neil Warnock’s managerial career is the “Disputes” section on his Wikipedia page, but the 69-year-old continues to be the canniest operator in the Championship – and it’s not as if the old dog has learned any new tricks.
Cardiff City only connects with 60.4 percent of its passes – the worst figure in the league – but ceding possession and relying on its defensive nous is paying off. No team beats the Bluebirds’ rate of only 28 goals conceded in 35 outings, and they have plumped up a four-point cushion in the automatic promotion places with 11 matches to go.
While this team would require wholesale changes to make it top-flight ready, and certainly wouldn’t win many fans with its direct approach, the divisive Warnock is nearing his eighth promotion whether we like it or not.
3. Aston Villa
Steve Bruce is in charge, John Terry is captain, and Gabby Agbonlahor is on the fringes of the first team. Welcome to the antediluvian world of 2018.
A common cliche aired by Football League managers is that they need players with experience in England to reach their goals (and it’s not necessarily true if you take Huddersfield Town as an example). Bruce has treated this as his mandate, and his predominantly British legion is making a late spring for the automatic positions.
Considering the former Manchester United centre-half seemed destined for the sack when relegation looked a possibility in September, it’s been a remarkable turnaround. If promotion is clinched, his squad should require just a few smart acquisitions to ensure Premier League safety.
Fulham was the most attractive side to watch in the Championship last season, and is overcoming a difficult first half of the 2017-18 campaign to attempt a climb this time around.
The famous names are producing – Tom Cairney is arguably the most intelligent midfielder below the Premier League, and teenager Ryan Sessegnon continues to showcase his unbridled potential – but it’s the most infamous, Aleksandar Mitrovic, who is the final piece in the jigsaw.
Aboubakar Kamara, who pairs his initials with the No. 47, has disappointed since his transfer from Amiens, so Mitrovic was called in on loan from Newcastle United in January. The Serbian has since swapped his chequered disciplinary record for a record of five goals in seven second-tier appearances, and hopes to spearhead Fulham’s long overdue return to the Premier League.
5. Derby County
Derby County looks to build on one of the strongest away records in the division at archrival Nottingham Forest on Sunday. To stir up support ahead of the clash, Derby released a video of a ram’s face in a cloud darkening Forest’s City Ground. It’s rubbish.
Nevertheless, fans may need galvanising after a winless streak of six matches. The Rams’ grip on the top six has loosened, and a failure to secure at least a play-off berth would be a failure with their resources.
“If there’s any interest from Premier League clubs, every manager and player wants to be in the Premier League,” manager Gary Rowett said when spurning the Stoke City job in January. “It is always flattering but for me this was probably the job out of any job I was hoping to do.
“This club is set up in a Premier League way.”
The swish and whistle of a Tony Pulis tracksuit has been soundtracking the guts of Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium since Boxing Day.
The Welshman’s coaxing some impressive results from a squad that was plugged with expensive recruits by his predecessor Garry Monk, and the most pleasing union has been between Pulis and Adama Traore. The Barcelona product has technical ability in droves but, in what would normally irk Pulis, no tactical discipline whatsoever. They’re an odd couple, but the winger is now enjoying the best performances of his career in England.
Expect Middlesbrough to lock down a play-off berth, and then to resort to some Pulis pragmatism for as long as that run lasts.
7. Bristol City
Sitting one point outside the play-off positions and with a straight-forward trip to Burton Albion coming up on Saturday is Bristol City. Lee Johnson’s Robins won acclaim in their spirited two-legged League Cup tussle with Manchester City, but their league form after Boxing Day – 10 points have been taken from a possible 36 – is derailing a promotion push.
If the slump ends with a mid-table standing, it would still be above what many expected before the season began. Aden Flint, Bobby Reid, and plenty more have starred, but Bristol City’s standing is down to good management rather than genuine quality.
8. Preston North End
Preston North End was gunning for the play-off places and eyeing its first term in the top flight since 1961. But then the Lilywhites sold their best striker.
Except Jordan Hugill’s transfer to West Ham United hasn’t resulted in a drop off from Preston. Alex Neil’s side has been beaten once in seven matches, with Tom Barkhuizen and Sean Maguire the sharpest elements in recent attacks, but promotion remains a mere pipe dream for a club that has already performed well above expectations.
9. Sheffield United
Sheffield United fan and manager Chris Wilder took the Blades to the Championship’s summit in the season’s early days, but back-to-back promotions look a big ask in a fiercely competitive division.
Stepping up another rung in England’s footballing ladder would be too much for this club right now anyway. Wilder needs to identify younger replacements for frontmen Billy Sharp and Leon Clarke, who have a combined age of 65, and to refresh other areas of his squad. The Blades are back, though, and seeing them in the Premier League in the next few years is conceivable.
Jota, Maxime Colin, and Harlee Dean were all plucked from Brentford by Birmingham City in late August, so the satisfaction in beating the Midlands club twice this season – by a 7-0 aggregate scoreline, no less – must have been huge for the Bees.
But being preyed upon is nothing new. Owner Matthew Benham’s use of statistics in the transfer market and other areas of operation has established Brentford as a Championship force. It was previously scratching around in the lower leagues for much of its history. The Londoners are a likable bunch, and Premier League football should come calling in the future if Birmingham and other rivals can be kept at bay.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)