I’ve just finished Burnley and Tottenham Hotspur play out a boring 0-0 draw in one of the dullest Premier League games of the season. It once again reminded me of the most exciting league in the world – The Championship. It’s not been a great season in the second division for my team Reading, but at the top of the table, it’s the closest it has been since the second tier was re-branded in 2004. After 40 games, the top eight teams are separated by just seven points, compared to the 28-point difference between first and eighth at this stage last season. It’s with regret that I don’t include Reading in this report, but here’s my low-down of the promotion candidates and what I think will happen come the end of the season. All points, positions and stats are correct to the 5th April 2014.
1st – Middlesbrough (75 points)
A former player at Real Madrid, where he was also assistant to Jose Mourinho, Middlesbrough boss Aitor Karanka hopes to join his one-time mentor in the top flight. His team currently the lead the table, after overcoming a few slight hiccups following an almost effortless run, losing just one game in 18. Goalkeeper Dimi Konstantopoulos has kept a league high 17 clean sheets this season, meaning that Boro have conceded just 30 goals – 11 less than anyone else. Chelsea loanee Patrick Bamford leads the line up front, with 15 goals so far, and fans have a lot to thank him for if they do go up. Their key fixture is tomorrow as they face Watford, whilst they also face Norwich and and Wolves later on this month.
My verdict – With a solid defence, Boro have got every chance of going up and then perhaps surviving, but a fairly tough schedule means that could miss out on automatic promotion. 5th
2nd – Bournemouth (74 points)
The Premier League has seen fairytale stories of Swindon and Blackpool in the past, and Bournemouth could be the latest, as they look to go up to the top division for the first time in their history. Eddie Howe is fulfilling his promise as one of England’s brightest young managers, as he only brought them up from League One in 2013. Statistically The Cherries are the in-form team of the top eight, with 14 points from the last 18 available. After drawing with Ipswich Town 1-1 on Friday, they have no more promotion rivals left to play, so have to be favourites for automatic promotion. They are the division’s highest scorers, with five players scoring over 10 goals so far this season. That includes Kenwyne Jones, who signed on loan a few weeks ago, and after netting on his debut, could have a big part to play in the final push for the South coast club aiming high.
My verdict – There’s been no reason at all for Bournemouth to be glum over the past few years, and the good days will continue as they should reach the top flight for the first time in their history. They might just do it as champions too… 1st
3rd – Norwich City (73 points)
After sacking Neil Adams following a terrible run which left Norwich as huge promotion outsiders, the gamble to recruit 33 year old unknown Alex Neil from Hamilton Academical has paid off, as they have only lost once their last in 13 games and are up to third. The Canaries are the only one of the three teams relegated from the Premier League that have a chance of going straight back, and they have top division experience in their squad such as John Ruddy, Wes Hoolahan and Cameron Jerome. The latter is their top scorer with 18 goals, placing him third in the Championship chart. Their fixture list makes for good reading too, with four of their six remaining games against teams in the bottom half, with the big test being when Middlesbrough visit Carrow Road on April 17th.
My verdict – Alex Neil will go from a nobody to hero at Carrow Road in the space of a few months as the Canaries should utilise the experience in their squad to go up automatically. 2nd
4th – Watford (73 points)
Another high-scoring team, it’s been all about goals for Watford this season, as I should know, as I witnessed the Hornets smash Reading 4-1 at Vicarage Road last month. Italian owner Gino Pozzo has been through six managers in three years — four this season alone, but finally seems pleased with Slavisa Jokanovic, and understandably so. A stoppage-time loss to Ipswich before the international break ended a six-game unbeaten run, but Watford now only have Middlesbrough to face out of the other promotion chasers following a 2-2 draw with Derby last time out. Out of their 80 goals this campaign, 50 have been scored by Matej Vydra (13), Odion Ighalo (18) and Troy Deeney (19), meaning defences know they’re in for a tough time whenever those three are on form.
My verdict – Having witnessed the Hornets in action myself, I’m hugely impressed with the quality of their team, especially the talent upfront. It’ll be nail-biting to the end and incredibly close, but fans might have to settle for the lottery of the play-offs. 3rd
5th – Brentford (69 points)
Whatever happens this season, Brentford boss Mark Warburton will step down in the summer after a difference of opinion with the board about how the club should move forward. Even if they don’t go up, I think it’s a huge mistake from the Bees’ bosses to let him go, as the 52 year old has done a huge job to earn Brentford promotion from League One last year and give them a chance of reaching the promised land in 2014-15. He has turned a squad of lower league novices, such as 23 year old top scorer Andre Gray (14 goals), into a team that play attractive football and scare Championship opposition. They travel to Derby next weekend which is their only possible hiccup, whilst the Greater London outfit also have the worst defensive record out of the top eight.
My verdict – In a situation where goal difference could be crucial and Brentford’s is the worse, successive promotions is probably a step to far for Brentford. Mark Warburton should feel incredibly proud when he walks out of Griffin Park in the summer though. 8th
6th – Derby County (68 points)
Last season’s beaten play-off finalists seemed untouchable for much of the season, but recent injuries to key players are threatening to derail their challenge. It may only be the Championship, but Steve McClaren has gone some way to resurrecting his managerial career with the Rams, taking them from a mid-table side in September 2013 to a side that everyone was expecting to get promoted at the end of the last season and at the beginning of this. The loan signings of Darren Bent, Jesse Lingard and Thomas Ince, all brilliant captures have strengthened an already strong squad, so realistically Derby are in a good place to go up especially after nearly doing so last season. But cracks are beginning to show, as the Rams are without a win in their last seven, but they probably have the easiest set of fixtures out of the top eight, and face Reading on the last day!
My verdict – As much as they’ll hate, I think Derby are going to have to go through the lottery of the play-offs once again, as their poor recent run has probably decided their fate, and even a good finish might not be enough. 4th
7th – Ipswich Town (68 points)
It’s not always pretty, but Ipswich more often than have grinded out wins this season under canny boss Mick McCarthy, who has previously taken Wolves up from this division. Not really anyone’s favourites for promotion at any point of this season, the Tractor Boys’ underrated squad have gone under the radar for the majority of the campaign, even going on a run of one defeat in 20 earlier in the season. Daryl Murphy has emerged as a regular scorer and is having the best season of his career in front of goal, topping the Championship list with 23. As for fixtures, Town’s list includes just Wolves from the top eight, meaning you don’t want to write them off yet.
My verdict – With a goalscorer like Daryl Murphy and a manager like Mick McCarthy, Ipswich have everything they need to reach the play-offs. Automatic promotion could be too far though. 6th
8th – Wolves (68 points)
Like Brentford, Wolves only came up from League One last season, but Kenny Jackett has done a great job at Molineux. He has encouraged cautious optimism, without piling too much pressure on his players to achieve a second successive promotion. They have lost only one of their last nine games and they carry a genuine goal threat, but they have the trickiest run-in, with Middlesbrough and Ipswich both to play before the end of the season. There’s no one player spearheading the charge, but you have to say that without top scorer Bakary Sako, promising youngster Nouha Dicko and former Arsenal man Benik Afobe, Wolves wouldn’t be where they are. There’s always that one team that sneaks into the play-offs at the death, and that might just be the case with West Midlands team hitting form at just the right time.
My verdict – There’s certainly goals in this Wolves team, but whether they can score against the big opponents will decide their fate. I think it’s between them and Ipswich for 6th place, and a loss against the Tractor Boys on April 18th may knock the stuffing out of Kenny Jackett’s team. 7th
How it will end up
2. Norwich City
4. Derby County
6. Ipswich Town
The play-offs will see Watford play Ipswich and Derby face Middlesbrough. With the Tractor Boys only just scraping into the top six, Slavisa Jokanovic’s goal hungry team might be too much for them. The other semi-final will be even closer, perhaps even going to penalties. But this season Middlesborough have proven that they are up for the big occasion, beating Manchester City in the FA Cup, whilst their defensive record is one to applaud. Derby’s minds may go back to last season and nerves could kick in at the wrong time.
So it comes down to Watford vs Middlesbrough at Wembley. Another tight encounter is in store, with Watford’s impressive attack up against Boro’s tight defence. We’ll get a better idea of how this battle will unfold when the two teams meet tomorrow (Monday 6th April), but for now I’m going to say Watford will just edge it, joining Bournemouth and Norwich in the Premier League next season.