Predictions For The Championship – Who’ll Finish Where?
August 23, 2012 in Championship
Talking on BBC Five Live last night, Robbie Savage said that it would take a “brave man” to predict what would happen in the Championship this season. Now, I have never been one to shirk a challenge, but with only 180 minutes played of the new season and every team seemingly capable of beating the other, Robbie for once has a valid point. Nevertheless, I am about to throw caution to the wind and put my humble opinion forward about what I expect from the Championship teams this season.
Title contenders and automatic places
Despite the indifference between the first and second positions, the Championship league title has always seemed important to me. Without it, my team Sunderland would not have won anything in over four decades; actually, no team in the North East would have, apart from Middlesbrough (and they don’t count). Besides, being champions of a league is always nice. However, most teams finishing second won’t really care, as the main target for any team is to reach the holy grail of the Premier League.
Talking of Middlesbrough, they are my first pick for potential champions. They have added real quality to a solid seventh place finish last season, and although they have lost talisman Barry Robson during the summer, Tony Mowbray’s side is full of quality. The midfield and defence is solid, and with Marvin Emnes up front, they should be able to get goals. The loan signing of Josh McEachran from Chelsea is also a very good bit of business by all accounts.
Wolves and Bolton are my picks from the three just-relegated clubs. Both have lost players but have managed to keep together a decent spine of teams which, this time last year, were considered Premier League mainstays. They might not be as full of unmistakable quality as Newcastle and West Ham were in previous seasons, but both have creativity in midfield (Mark Davies and Chung-Yong Lee for Bolton, Jamie O’Hara and Nenad Milijaš for Wolves), and have bustling forwards that should be big enough to handle the Championship’s hurly-burly defenders.
The big result in the Championship last night saw two of my other tips face each other, with Blackpool doing brilliantly to pull back a 1-0 deficit to beat Leeds 2-1 with a last-gasp Matt Phillips goal – making them the only team to take maximum points from the first two games. A lot will depend on whether Ian Holloway can keep the younger Phillips at the club with Premier League clubs circling. The Tangerines have changed little from their fantastic season in the Premier League, still full of free-flowing football, and with the experienced heads of Barry Ferguson and Kevin Phillips, they will be a threat to all of the teams in this division.
Leeds United, who were unlucky not to have held out against Holloway’s side, are now into their second season with Neil Warnock, and in typical fashion, he has put together a side with desire and determination to get promoted. Despite losing Robert Snodgrass, Warnock has a strong side; Luciano Becchio, David Norris and Luke Varney are all proven quality, and with maverick Senegal international El-Hadji Diouf, they are a team who will be able to compete both physically and with the ball at their feet.
My last pick in this category is one I don’t expect to be necessarily pushing for the title. However, they have been heavily tipped as favourites by others, and I could see them sneaking into the second automatic place. Leicester City have had a lot of money pumped into them in recent seasons, and a failed experiment in bringing former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson didn’t really work out. However, under reappointed manager Nigel Pearson, they should have the foundations to push for the automatic promotion places. I really rate Kasper Schmeichel in goal, and although I can’t say the same for David Nugent and Jermaine Beckford up front, they are both proven goalscorers at this level and should do enough to keep Leicester in the automatic promotion hunt.
As for the last team relegated from the Premier League, I believe that they will not do as well as Bolton or Wolves. What can you say about Blackburn Rovers that hasn’t already been said? Last season’s off the pitch troubles clouded the performances of the team; the upside to this is that everyone sort of forgot how truly shocking they were at times. The downside was that it created an animosity between manager Steve Kean and the fans that will not be rectified. With the owners inexplicably refusing to get rid of the Scotsman, it will be hard for Rovers to start the season with any positives, and I think this start will probably stop them from pushing for the automatics. However, they still do have some very good players, and the signing of Danny Murphy from Fulham will be a masterstroke at this level. If they can get the ball to the former Liverpool man, he should be able to set up regular chances for the much maligned David Goodwillie (I actually think he is a good player) and new signing Nuno Gomes. It is a shame one of the other signings, Leon Best, will not be available for the start of the season either, because he would have been a good addition.
The last two teams with real proven Premier League quality in this list are Birmingham and Cardiff, with the Brummies perhaps just edging the Welsh side. Under Chris Houghton last season, Birmingham struggled at balancing European football and the drop down in division, and although Hughton has left, he has left new manager Lee Clarke with a much more stabilised team than the one he inherited. Darren Ambrose is their best signing this season, and has established himself as a dangerous goalscoring midfielder. Cardiff City too have a dangerous midfield man in Peter Whittingham, who regularly hits double figures from midfield and must be fancied to do the same again. The Bluebirds’ manager Malky Mackay has tried hard to recreate the team he had at Watford that so nearly got promotion under his leadership, and with the signing of local hero Craig Bellamy, they look a team who will cause problems by playing fast attacking football. A run to the final of the Carling Cup last season shows their pedigree.
Other teams who had good seasons last year and will be hoping for repeats are Hull and Burnley. Both have quality up front and should score plenty of goals, but neither have quite enough strength in depth to challenge the big boys. Although Burnley lost Jay Rodriguez to Southampton, they still have Charlie Austin and Martin Paterson, with Sam Vokes to come off the bench. Hull have Jay Simpson and Matty Fryatt, while new signing Nick Proschwitz could prove a find. I also have to say that despite his last few months in charge of Sunderland, Steve Bruce is a solid manager and should do okay for Hull at this level, while for Burnley, Eddie Howe is a young exciting manager who knows how to play good football.
As the last few seasons have proved, promoted teams into this division can cause a few upsets, providing their football is good enough, and for that reason, I am going to suggest that Sheffield Wednesday could also push for a play-off place. While perhaps not having the quality of Southampton last year, or Norwich the season before that, the Owls have spent far too long away from the top division and have pumped money in to try and get them back on the top perch (excuse the pun). Seasons professionals Anthony Gardner and Chris Kirkland have signed up, while young Chris Maguire will prove a strong addition.
My inclusion of Sheffield Wednesday as the team most likely to achieve promotion from the three promoted teams will perhaps anger fans of Charlton, who ran away with the League One title, finishing a full eight points above the aforementioned Wednesday. However, they have failed to add to their squad and will rely heavily on the same players that took them up, particularly Bradley Wright-Phillips, who was top scorer for the Addicks last term. However, I do not see him scoring as many in this division, and as a result, they will have to settle for a year of consolidation.
Brighton fans are also probably another set who will be angry to not see their names included in the play-off hopefuls, and they have made some big name signings this year, as Wayne Bridge and Tomasz Kuszczak have been brought into strengthen their defence. Keeping midfield playmaker Vicente was also a huge bonus, but like with Charlton, I just can’t see their top forward, Craig McKail-Smith, doing enough to really push the team beyond a decent mid-table finish.
The next four clubs I see as also-rans are Championship regulars. Ipswich, NottinghamForest, Derby and Watford have all flirted with both ends of the Championship in recent seasons. Ipswich and Forest will probably be happy with a year of steadiness after a few years near the bottom, and both need more strength in depth if they are to really push forward. I will say that having seen him yesterday that Ipswich’s ex-Arsenal player Jay Emmanuel-Thomas will be a danger this year, while Nottingham will be excited about what their new owners have in store for them – the appointment of Sean O’Driscoll over a big name shows that they will be astute and patient with the building process.
In contrast to Forest and Ipswich, Derby County and Watford enjoyed productive outings last term. Under Nigel Clough, the Rams enjoyed their best season in a long while, and although they don’t have too much to spend, they should be okay under his tutelage. Watford, on the other hand, have been taken over, and under very little fanfare, Gianfranco Zola has gone about bringing in a lot of quality from their owners’ other teams, most notably Italian Champions League side Udinese; though they will probably struggle to gel so many players quickly, the little Italian and the Hornets will try and pass their way out of this division. Young forward Matěj Vydra is one to watch, having been brought in by Udinese for roughly £5 million only last year.
It must be said that this was the most difficult of all the four categories and it was simply a matter of elimination for who I thought would be down here, but anyway, in what is sure to result in a whole lot of insult, the teams I believe will be fighting for relegation will be Crystal Palace, Peterborough, Barnsley, Huddersfield, Bristol City and Millwall.
Palace and Peterborough are the only teams yet to pick up any points in their first few games, and it is perhaps time that Dougie Freedman’s Palace side finally fall into League One. Having little to no money over the last few years, Palace have relied on youngsters coming through their terrific academy to sustain them; however, as the 4-1 thumping last night at the hands of Bristol City showed, they just don’t have the squad to sustain them at this level. Unless highly rated youngster Wilfred Zaha can inspire them, it will be a long season for Palace. Similarly with Peterborough, having watched them last season, they don’t look to offer enough in any areas of the pitch, and although Darren Ferguson has done a good job there, I feel like they too will be relegated.
Last year, Barnsley struggled to score once star-man Ricardo Vaz Te left for West Ham. and there are big question marks over the people they have brought in to replace him. Mido and Marlon Harewood will be known to all fans of Premier League football, but are either remembered for particularly good reasons? Jacob Butterfield, who moved to Norwich during the summer, will also be massive for the Tykes. Millwall have also lost and failed to replace a key striker over the close season; Harry Kane, who was on loan at the Den last season, will be a big miss, and although their fans ensure a terrifying atmosphere at home, I have a feeling Milwall will struggle despite a good effort last term.
A similar loss to the one Barnsley faced still haunts Bristol City; Nicky Maynard, who also moved to the Hammers, was something of a talisman for Bristol, and they will struggle to replace his goals again this season, although they’ve brought in young manager Derek McInnes. New signing Jody Morris (who used to play for Chelsea) doesn’t really inspire me with confidence despite his pedigree.
Perhaps the most contentious of all my choices is to predict Huddersfield to struggle. A team that at times looked good enough to challenge for automatic promotion to the Championship struggled to secure their place, and only eventually managed to get promoted through a penalty shoot-out. They are heavily reliant on star-man Jordan Rhodes and I feel he will be gone by the end of January should he prove anywhere near as good as he was in League One. If he doesn’t, then Huddersfield will struggle anyway.