Championship Outright Preview: How Will The Season End?14 min read
With the final international break of the Championship season upon us, this is a good opportunity to predict the home straight. We look at who will finish top of the table, who else will achieve automatic promotion, who will triumph in an increasingly competitive race for the play-offs, who could suffer the dreaded drop and which striker will finish top goalscorer.
Canaries to stay on their perch?
Norwich City have played some excellent football this season.
Although their dominance of possession has not changed from the previous campaign, almost everything else – intensity, tempo, ball-playing skillsets, width from full-backs, ability to mix things up with the odd early forward ball – has, so they must be considered the clear favourites for automatic promotion.
Not only are they on a run of six consecutive victories, they have also accrued 73 points from a possible 96 since the uninspiring 1-1 East Anglian Derby draw with which they began September.
Within that sequence, it has only been their mid-February 3-1 loss at Preston where they definitively had an off-day.
In all the other games, they have either been comfortable winners, battered the opposition but not quite got the rewards, or not quite been at their best but stuck to the game plan, kept their composure and won a high-scoring game in injury time, highlighting their excellent fitness levels.
The Canaries are not promoted yet but they are 1/2 to win the title, which looks reasonable value.
90 points is the projected requirement for top spot and Farke’s side are currently on 78; they are likely to need 12 points from their final eight games to reach that tally – maybe one or two more if Leeds or Sheffield United increase their current return.
Considering they have taken 21 from their previous eight games, it is hard to see them not winning promotion en route to attaining the title.
— Norwich City HQ (@norwichcityhq) March 16, 2019
Leeds or Blades for second?
We could see a Spring show-down for second place between Leeds and Sheffield United, with the latter going into the international break after a crucial 1-0 victory away to the former.
Without Mark Duffy, the Blades were not able to play their best football at Elland Road and had to weather the early storm, with Martin Cranie deputising superbly in the back-three next to the ever-reliable John Egan and Jack O’Connell; however, Billy Sharp delivered a captain’s performance and set up the winner for rare goalscorer Chris Basham.
The result means United are the same price for automatic promotion that Norwich are for the title, but it is important that we do not place too much importance on one game – Chris Wilder’s side lead the race for second, but only by a slender one-point.
That could change drastically the week after the international break, when Leeds host relegation-threatened Millwall – Sheffield United have a potentially tougher clash with play-off contenders Bristol City.
The Whites have an in-form playmaker in Pablo Hernandez, as well as Luke Ayling back fit and back to his best and they are certainly not out of this.
The play-off scramble
West Brom look very likely to find themselves in the play-offs in May, with a seven-point gap to the automatic promotion places but a healthy 10-point cushion to seventh.
The appointment of a permanent manager to replace Darren Moore though has not happened quite as quickly as expected so they are in an usual position of approaching those crucial two or three May encounters without knowing who they have in charge.
Middlesbrough, having began March with half an eye on the top two, may now be fearing for their place in the top six after three straight defeats, including a 3-0 loss at Aston Villa last time out.
The Villans, themselves, are among the teams well-placed to take advantage from recent slips from Boro, Derby and Bristol City; they have won four consecutive games since influential midfielder Jack Grealish returned to the side.
Grealish, who scored the Second City Derby winner at Birmingham, has certainly helped Dean Smith’s side going forward with 11 goals in four since his return, but his smart ball retention has also aided them defensively with just one fluke goal conceded – Villa are an attractive 5/4 for a top six finish.
— Jack Grealish (@JackGrealish) March 10, 2019
Preston North End, in seventh and behind the Midlanders only on goal difference, have also timed their run well and represent an appealing 7/2 poke for the top six.
The Lilywhites accrued just five points from their first 11 games due to a long list of absentees not being legislated for with a small squad.
However, since Glenn Whelan’s missed injury-time penalty meant they escaped Villa Park with a 3-3 draw in early October, they have taken 51 points from 27 games – only Norwich and Sheffield United have accrued more points in that time frame.
Alex Neil has been rewarded for bravely introducing a young centre-back pairing of Ben Davies and Jordan Storey, who have improved their distribution from deep; the Lancashire outfit also boast two of the best midfielders in this division in ball-winner Ben Pearson and energetic presser Alan Browne.
Rotherham can beat the drop
Ipswich are as good as down – although a few things Paul Lambert has done has struck a chord with natives and there is reason to think they will respond promptly in League One.
Bolton are also in that category after a 5-2 loss at Wigan left them eight points off safety; they are on the verge of a proposed takeover, but there is fear that on the pitch the games are running out for The Trotters to rescue their Championship status.
It is highly likely that there will be a cluster of teams looking to avoid finishing in one final relegation spot; Reading have improved sufficiently under Jose Gomes to suggest they will just about survive, with the additions of goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez and centre-back Matt Miazga making a crucial difference.
Rotherham are odds-on for the drop but there is reason to think the Millers have the characteristics to stay up.
It's been a while since I've said it, but I feel it's appropriate after another whole-hearted showing today…
This #rufc team are giving everything, like I've never seen in my time working for the club.
I, for one, am proud as punch of 'em and their efforts deserve to stay up
— Sam Todd (@Toddy024) March 16, 2019
Firstly, they have very strong determination to right the wrongs of 2016-17, when they produced one of the worst teams in second-tier history and that experience means that they will have that extra edge when challenging for 50/50 balls, blocks and aerial duels.
As the season reaches such a critical point, the Championship relegation scrap is not necessarily as much about quality because few teams, at such a crucial point, have much composure.
When nerves creep in, the best course of action may be to veer towards primate instincts and play percentages, which is what Rotherham do very well; when Will Vaulks returns, they will be a real threat from direct balls into the box, long throws and set pieces with the athletic utility man Semi Ajayi getting on the end of everything – Ajayi is their main threat with six goals in his last five.
Millwall have similar methods but Steve Morison’s inevitable decline in terms of stamina at 35 has tempted Neil Harris to veer towards more of a counter-attacking approach, with Lee Gregory running the channels and Ben Thompson making late runs into the box.
That worked well in their last league game, a 2-0 win at Birmingham, but with Harris coming under pressure from a section of fans and four of the top six still to play as well as Bristol City, they could be the ones to fall at 6/1.
The only two contenders for the accolade are Norwich’s Teemu Pukki and Sheffield United skipper Billy Sharp.
The latter has scored 13 (59fferent positions.
Because the Fin does not establish himself as the main goal threat early on in Norwich’s moves, sometimes allowing a Marco Stiepermann or an Emi Buendia to break ahead of him, he then can make late runs into goalscoring positions unchartered.
It could be those qualities that make the Evens on Pukki to be the Championship’s top goalscorer good value.
Norwich to win the title
Aston Villa to reach the top six
Preston to reach the top six
Millwall to be relegated
Teemu Pukki to be top goalscorer
Read Gabriel’s League 1 outright preview.