This part of the football season is often labelled ‘the business end’ as it is the most vital part of the campaign, with titles to be won, promotion to be won and relegation to be avoided. So I thought I’d do a mini-series here on It’s Football Not Soccer, looking at how these all important battles, or ‘races’ as I’m calling them, will pan out. First up, the race to win promotion to the Premier League. Here are the contenders…
All stats and odds correct at the time of writing (10/03/17)
- Current Position: 1st (Games played: 36 / Points: 77)
- Current Promotion Odds: 1/100
Key Player – Dwight Gayle
Crystal Palace’s top goal scorer in all competitions for the previous three campaigns, Dwight Gayle moved to Newcastle in the summer for a fee in the region of £9 million. Despite missing 10 games through injury, the 27 year old has still managed to net 21 goals, a tally only bettered by Leeds’ Chris Wood. Newcastle have a Premier League squad playing in the Championship, and Gayle is one of a number of players that are way too good for the second tier.
Newcastle haven’t quite torn the Championship apart as much many expected them to, but have still shown that they’re a class above most weeks. I saw on Tuesday evening how they can be nullified, but when Gayle is back to full fitness and re-connects with the equally impressive Matt Ritchie and Jonjo Shelvey, the Magpies should claim the league title and break the 100-point barrier in the process. 1st
Brighton & Hove Albion
- Current Position: 2nd (Games played: 36 / Points: 74)
- Current Promotion Odds: 1/8
Key Player – Anthony Knockaert
For me, Anthony Knockaert is the best player in the Championship. Quick, skillful and clinical, the Frenchman won promotion with Leicester in 2014 and is on course to do the same with Brighton this year. He has contributed 12 goals and seven assists in 35 games, often proving to be the difference in tight fixtures. He didn’t get much of a chance in the Premier League with the Foxes, but you get the impression that Knockaert would more than hold his own in the top flight.
You wouldn’t have blamed Brighton for crumbling after missing out on automatic promotion by one goal last season, but the Seagulls have come back stronger this year and should have just about a enough to retain a spot in the top two. Could perhaps win the title, but recent slip-ups against Newcastle and lowly Nottingham Forest suggest that the Magpies will probably beat them to it. 2nd
- Current Position: 3rd (Games played: 35 / Points: 68)
- Current Promotion Odds: 11/8
Key Player – Aaron Mooy
Three goals and five assists might not present Aaron Mooy in the best light, but the stats certainly don’t tell the whole story. On loan from Manchester City and rated by Pep Guardiola, Aaron Mooy is often the driving force in the Huddersfield midfield and at the heart of their attacking moves. He’s what makes the Terriers tick, and has even been likened to Kenny Dalglish and Zinedine Zidane. High praise indeed for someone who had before this season been playing in his native Australia for four years.
David Wagner has done a magnificent job in West Yorkshire, turning Huddersfield from relegation candidates to promotion challengers with a few canny signings such as Mooy, top scorer Elias Kachunga and Isiah Brown (all loanees). If anyone is to disrupt the top two it will be the Terriers, who have beaten Brighton this season, but they will probably fall just short. 3rd
- Current Position: 4th (Games played: 36 / Points: 65)
- Current Promotion Odds: 11/4
Key Player – Chris Wood
Chris Wood’s story is similar to that of Anthony Knockaert, as he too was part of Leicester’s Championship winning side in 2014 but also was sparsely used in the Premier League. Now trying to get back to the big time, he is the division’s top scorer with 22 goals – his best ever tally in one season already and 44% of Leeds’ total goal tally (the biggest contribution in the Championship). At 6ft 3in, the New Zealand international is strong in the air but equally good with the ball at his feet, and the Whites slapped a hefty £15 million price tag on him in January amid interest from West Ham.
In with a chance of finishing in the Championship play-offs for the first time in 11 years, Elland Road’s 37,000 strong crowd finally have something to cheer about under Garry Monk. This impressive home support could be key in the run-in for the Whites, especially when Brighton visit Yorkshire later this month. I can’t really imagine Leeds challenging the top two, or top three for that matter, but they should have enough to stay in the play-offs. 5th
- Current Position: 5th (Games played: 36 / Points: 64)
- Current Promotion Odds: 13/2
Key Player – Garath McCleary
Due to an unfortunate run of injuries and the team in general failing to perform, Garath McCleary has struggled to reach the heights of 2013-14 when he was one of the division’s best players as Reading just missed out on the play-offs. But this campaign he has come back with a bang, contributing eight goals and a team-high seven assists from the right wing. The Jamaican international, who signed a new three year contract in January, is quick, full of trickery, and capable of producing some incredible goals.
Ask many pundits who out of the current top six is most likely to drop out and they’ll probably say Reading, who perhaps have the weakest squad on paper out of the contenders and a couple of tough fixtures coming up. But the second best home record in the league, the togetherness and team spirit that has driven them so far this season under the leadership of Jaap Stam, plus a run-in of their final five games being against teams currently in the bottom half, should mean they finish in the top six relatively comfortably. 4th
- Current Position: 6th (Games played: 36 / Points: 62)
- Current Promotion Odds: 10/3
Key Player – Fernando Forestieri
After a superb debut campaign at Hillsborough last season that quickly made him a fans’ favourite, Fernando Forestieri’s relationship with the Owls’ faithful was put in jeopardy in the summer as he refused to play against Norwich in order to force a move away. But all that seems to have been forgotten after the 27 year old issued a full apology, going on to score 11 goals and getting five assists so far this season to spearhead Sheffield Wednesday’s play-off push once again.
Sheffield Wednesday know all about sustaining a place in the play-offs, having remained in sixth from around mid-January to May last season, and that experience of when the pressure is on could be key as they aim to do the same again, and perhaps push even higher. Carlos Carvalhal continues to do a magnificent job and the turnaround he has performed at Hillsborough should not be forgotten, whilst the signing of striking duo Sam Winnall and Jordan Rhodes in January has given the Owls some extra fire power that should see them make the play-offs. 6th
- Current Position: 7th (Games played: 35 / Points: 57)
- Current Promotion Odds: 4/1
Key Player – Chris Martin
Having netted 52 Championship goals for Derby County over the last three campaigns, Chris Martin moved to Fulham on a season-long loan back in the summer as the Cottagers looked to replace prolific duo Moussa Dembele and Ross McCormack. They were big shoes to fill, but Martin has done a pretty good job so far, scoring nine goals to help Fulham really push on from two bottom half finishes since relegation in 2014. They reportedly have an agreement to sign the Scottish international permanently in the summer, and they would be silly not to.
Fulham’s tally of 60 goals so far this season is 10 better than any of the current teams placed third to sixth, so their attacking quality is evident and if anyone is to break into the play-offs it would surely be the Cottagers. Win their game in hand against lowly Blackburn and Slavisa Jokanovic’s side will be only two points behind Sheffield Wednesday, who they face in the final game of the season. That fixture at Hillsborough could be vital, but I think that in the end Fulham will just miss out, but perhaps only by a point. 7th
The only other teams that Sky Bet are currently offering odds on for promotion are Norwich, Derby, Preston and Brentford, with the latter 15 points off the top six. In reality, all four teams have been pretty inconsistent throughout the campaign and are unlikely to break into the top six with just ten games to play. It will mean disappointing campaigns for the Canaries and Rams, both of whom would have had high ambitions back in August, with Norwich even being comfortably in the top six before an implosion in November.
Going by my prediction, Huddersfield will meet Sheffield Wednesday and Reading will face Leeds in the end of season play-offs. Both would certainly be entertaining affairs, with the Owls having already beaten the Terriers twice this season, but David Wagner’s side would likely go into the ‘lottery’ with the more momentum having just missed out on automatic promotion – but Brighton will testify that that does not always help. Reading’s impressive home record could prove key in the other tie, especially if the Royals do indeed finish fourth and secure the second leg at the Madejski Stadium. Yet with Leeds possessing one of the most clinical strikers in the league and Reading with no stand-out target man, it could easily go the other way.
- Sheffield Wednesday 1-1 Huddersfield Town
- Huddersfield Town 1-0 Sheffield Wednesday
- Leeds United 1-0 Reading
- Reading 2-1 Leeds United (Leeds to win AET)
- Huddersfield Town 2-0 Leeds United : The Terriers join Newcastle and Brighton in the Premier League!
Disagree with my predictions? How do you think the race for promotion will pan out? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter!