Twists, mayhem… and shocks galore! The Championship is BACK and the run-in is set to be as bonkers as ever
- The Championship is an unpredictable league and the run-in will be full of drama
- Norwich and Watford however seem to be in strong positions to be promoted
- The play-off picture is less clear while there is a dog fight going on at the bottom
A semblance of order is threatening to break out amid the delightful mayhem that is the Championship.
Norwich and Watford, with their deep squads and the luxury of parachute payments at a time when the gates are closed and money is tight, appear strong and healthy at the top.
Middlesbrough boss Neil Warnock called it that way at Christmas. ‘They have more consistency because they have more choices when they lose players,’ said 72-year-old Warnock, veteran of eight promotions.
Bar a last-minute disaster, Norwich should find themselves promoter at the end of the season
Second-place Watford also look strong and set to bounce back at the first time of asking
‘Look at the size of the squads they’ve got and the inconsistencies with the parachute payments, they’ve not really had to sell their best players.’
Norwich, eight points clear at the top and 14 points clear of third, have been rewarded for holding their nerve and retaining faith in manager Daniel Farke after promotion and relegation.
Teemu Pukki, the Championship’s top scorer two years ago, has 22 goals this season and only Ivan Toney at Brentford has more.
Watford stayed true to their hire- and-fire model.
Vladimir Ivic was gone by December and his replacement Xisco Munoz has produced a charge of nine wins in the last 10 games, squeezing goals from a team crammed with familiar names, including £35million record-signing Ismaila Sarr and England internationals Nathaniel Chalobah and Tom Cleverley.
‘I have good luck,’ smiled Xisco ahead of Frday’s game against Sheffield Wednesday. ‘It is a very good squad and they have good ambition but it is important to have respect for other teams.
‘The Championship is world famous as a very hard competition with a lot of games and totally different from Spanish football. Everyone has the same ambition. It is perfect for me.
‘We are working very hard. The first objective is to be in the play-offs, after that to be in second and after that to take the top because we want the best for our club.’
Watford have a team of familiar names and have benefited form parachute payments
Brentford’s promotion charge is being led by the Championship’s top scorer Ivan Toney
Bouncing straight back has become tougher but the advantage of the £40million parachute payment has been amplified by a schedule more congested than ever, random elements of the pandemic — such as testing and quarantine — and the nagging financial pressures on rivals.
Bournemouth, the third of the relegated teams, are just outside the play-off places going into the Easter fixtures, the traditional turn for home in the promotion race.
With a game in hand on Barnsley and Reading, just above them, a full set of three going up on the rebound is not out of the question, although their first campaign of the post-Eddie Howe era has not been smooth. Bournemouth did lose players — among them Callum Wilson, Josh King, Aaron Ramsdale and Nathan Ake — and suffered more disruption when Jason Tindall was sacked in February.
They have won five of 10 since Jonathan Woodgate took over and the target is clear.
‘If they’re big-game players then this is a big-game scenario we’re in,’ said Woodgate as he prepared to face his beloved Boro, where Warnock will still have an eye on the play-offs. This being the Championship, there are certain to be twists.
Johnathan Woodgate has insisted that Bournemouth’s target is to finish in the top six
Swansea, as well as Brentford, are still in the battle for an automatic promotion spot
Swansea and Brentford will hope to recover lost form and make the closing month uncomfortable for Watford, who finish the campaign with fixtures against the Bees and the Swans. It is three years since Swansea were relegated from the Premier League and Steve Cooper has kicked on from last season when his team made a late surge to reach the play-offs.
It is 74 years since Brentford were last in the top flight and twice they blew their chance last season: first with a home defeat by Barnsley when victory would have clinched automatic promotion; then by defeat in the play-off final against Fulham.
Thomas Frank’s attractive team continue to draw admirers but must learn to handle pressure at a time when the club’s much- heralded recruitment strategy is having to adapt to Brexit and new work permit regulations.
Reading and Barnsley have been the surprise challengers. Barnsley’s run of 28 points from 10 games has propelled them from a team tipped to go down into the play-off picture. They are direct and intense under Valerien Ismael but Sheffield Wednesday halted the winning run before the international break.
Wednesday, deducted six points for financial irregularities, are in a desperate fight to escape the drop into League One along with assorted iconic clubs of yesteryear.
Surprise play-off challengers Reading (left) and Barnsley (right) face off on Friday evening
Birmingham City, now under Lee Bowyer, are deep in the mire and Derby, led by Wayne Rooney have lurched back towards trouble.
Nottingham Forest have not won in six and Huddersfield have won only twice in 2021. Both should survive although Huddersfield have a daunting run-in with five of the top seven to play, starting with Brentford on Saturday and Norwich on Tuesday.
The shock factor could be lurking at the bottom and Rotherham hold the key. No team in the second tier have been hit harder by positive Covid tests and they will face a dozen games in little more than a month starting with Millwall on Friday. A run of five games in a fortnight includes six-pointers against Wycombe, Huddersfield, Coventry and Birmingham.
Wycombe are 11 points from safety and their first taste of the Championship looks set to end in a swift return to League One.
No surprise there, perhaps. Predictability is fighting back in the land of the unexpected.
At the other end of the table, Sheffield Wednesday have a mountain to climb to stay up
Wayne Rooney’s Derby have also got to be careful to avoid slipping into a relegation fight
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