Every year, without fail, the race for promotion to the Premier League is packed full of drama and excitement – and this season is no different.
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Leaders Norwich currently boast a healthy eight-point advantage over second-placed Watford, with the play-off spots occupied by Swansea, Brentford, Barnsley and Reading. Though just outside the top six, Bournemouth, Cardiff and Middlesbrough also remain within touching distance.
As the conclusion to the most unique of seasons approaches, we assess the contenders for promotion to the top flight…
Current Championship table
Projected Championship table
Based on their current ratios for goals scored, conceded and points per game, Norwich would win this year’s Sky Bet Championship title with 100 points, with Watford joining them in the Premier League. The teams contesting the play-offs would be Swansea, Brentford, Barnsley and Reading.
Norwich leading the way
With three of their last five Championship campaigns having ended in promotion, it is safe to say that, more often than not, Norwich know how to find their way out. Two years ago, with the end of Premier League parachute payments looming, Daniel Farke guided the Canaries to the title despite a rocky start – and it looks as though history is on course to repeat itself this time around, too.
Four points from the opening four games brought them back down to Earth with a bang and left them languishing in 17th during the first international break of the season. From there, Norwich kicked on and, while displays weren’t always necessarily easy on the eye, they managed to grind out the difficult results that define champions.
They have almost exclusively sat top since the end of November, with two lengthy winning streaks along the way interspersed by the odd defeat to keep them grounded. A run of four games without scoring in all competitions from January into February afforded Brentford a brief flirtation with top spot and proved a timely reminder that nothing is guaranteed in this division.
In the summer leading up to their previous title triumph, Teemu Pukki and Emi Buendia arrived at Carrow Road, while a burgeoning talent by the name of Max Aarons made his first steps into senior football. Interest, notably for the latter pair, was high in the Premier League and it hasn’t faded since the return to the second tier. Crucially, the trio will remain at the club until the season reaches its conclusion, at least.
They return to action after the March international break looking to extend their 10-game unbeaten run – which included a club-record nine successive wins – and though Farke has previously been reluctant to discuss a potential title win, the writing is, surely, on the wall now.
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Watford looking good for an immediate PL return
Watford have rarely been out of the top six since the season started with Vladimir Ivic at the helm, but since he was replaced by Xisco Munoz in the lead up to Christmas, their season has taken on a whole new lease of life.
The cheerful Spaniard made a winning start on Boxing Day, when the Hornets beat Norwich 1-0 at Vicarage Road, and that has been a continuous theme in Hertfordshire, with 13 of his first 18 games in charge ending in victory, including nine of the last 10.
An upturn in fortunes on the road has been key to keeping the club in the race for promotion; under Ivic, the record read: P10 W2 D5 L3, while under Munoz, it is P9 W5 D2 L2, with the two defeats coming against Swansea and Bournemouth and settled by just a one-goal margin.
It is the run-in that could prove problematic for Munoz and Co, however. In their final six games, they face four of the other five teams that currently make up the top six: Reading, Norwich, Brentford and Swansea. The dominant form of late will fill them with confidence during this period but a top two berth is not yet secure and they’ll have to continue to bring their A game.
Swansea in among the favourites
Having sneaked in to the play-offs on goal difference alone last season, Steve Cooper set out to make it much less of a close call for his Swansea side this time around. Defensive solidity has been paramount during this push and the approach is paying dividends, despite the Joe Rodon-sized hole that was left in the backline when the homegrown Welsh international left for Tottenham in October.
The experienced Ryan Bennett was brought in on a free transfer from Wolves as his replacement and, alongside Marc Guehi – who re-joined on another loan deal from Chelsea – and 20-year-old Ben Cabango, has helped the Swans towards their tally of 18 clean sheets. In 37 league games this term, they have conceded just 22 goals, which equates to an average of 0.78 per game.
While they have been miserly at the back, they have, in fact, scored the second-lowest number of goals of any current top 10 side, with their tally of 45 second only to Millwall’s 38.
The January addition of Conor Hourihane was an inspired one, with the on-loan Aston Villa man scoring four goals and assisting another in his first seven appearances, but he came off injured in the South Wales derby defeat to Cardiff on March 20. Meanwhile, Andre Ayew has scored just two goals from open play in 2021, and Jamal Lowe has drawn a blank in his last 13.
Swansea have found the past month-and-a-half tricky to navigate, with four wins and four defeats across the last nine, which has seen them slip away from the top two, though with a game in hand still to play, they will still fancy their chances.
Can Brentford get back on track?
Brentford have a tendency to start seasons slowly and this campaign was no different, though having endured a gutting play-off final defeat to west London neighbours Fulham back in August, few could have blamed them. But it would do Thomas Frank’s men a disservice to say they had suffered a hangover, particularly given what followed a 3-2 defeat to Stoke in late October
Any lengthy unbeaten run is a feat to be applauded, but the Bees’ 21-game streak between October 24 and February 14 was quite remarkable by Championship standards. The first half was, admittedly, littered with a few too many draws, but a run of eight wins from the final nine tied in perfectly with a brief stutter by Norwich that saw them reach top spot.
The star of the show was – and continues to be – Ivan Toney. The 25-year-old – who joined from Peterborough as Ollie Watkins’ replacement – has hit 28 goals in 36 Championship appearances and, with nine games still to play, is on course to break Glenn Murray’s record 30-goal haul, set in 2012/13.
Their stint at the summit was short-lived; as the Canaries regained their footing, Brentford lost theirs. Valentine’s Day was soured by a 2-0 loss to Barnsley, QPR edged the west London derby three days later, while a poor performance in a defeat to Coventry at St Andrew’s was later capped by the news that influential left-back Rico Henry’s hamstring injury will likely keep him out until later this month.
Subsequent wins over Sheffield Wednesday and Stoke seemed to have put them on the right track again but a titanic clash against Norwich at Carrow Road ended in favour of the Canaries and, after a gritty 1-0 win over Blackburn on March 12, they dropped four points in as many days when they drew with Derby and Nottingham Forest after failing to protect the lead.
Watford’s resurgence means that, even with a game in hand, reaching the automatic promotion places will be a challenge. With a record of nine failed play-off campaigns from nine attempts, Bees fans will be hoping for a stroke of fortune in the final weeks of the season.
Barnsley’s admirable rise
It’s still surreal to think what Barnsley – who survived by the skin of their teeth last season and were in the relegation zone as recently as October, when Gerhard Struber departed for the New York Red Bulls – have achieved so far this term.
Struber’s successor – Valerien Ismael – picked up four wins from his first five league games and by the end of December, the Tykes were sat in eighth. The year started with three straight defeats, bringing optimistic fans’ expectations down a notch, but the journey was only just beginning.
Since January 27, they have been on a mesmerising upward trajectory from the relative comfort of mid-table to the cusp of the play-off places, which they entered for the first time on March 6 after a 1-0 win over Birmingham – their seventh win in a row.
A 12-match unbeaten run was brought to an end just before the international break when Sheffield Wednesday edged the Yorkshire derby 2-1 at Oakwell, but with a nine-point cushion between themselves and the chasing pack, Barnsley look on course to book a play-off spot.
Reading still in touch
Just four years ago, under Jaap Stam, Reading earned their best chance at returning to the top flight when they lined up against Huddersfield in the play-off final, only to agonisingly miss out in a penalty shootout at Wembley. Three seasons of mediocrity followed, which made their start to the current campaign all the more surprising, yet refreshing, in equal measure.
It started in bizarre circumstances when Veljko Paunovic was announced as the club’s new manager two days before Mark Bowen’s departure from the helm was confirmed. Quarantine rules on arrival to the UK forced his absence from the Royals’ EFL Cup win over Colchester on September 5, but he was in place in the dugout for the Championship curtain-raiser seven days later.
For the best part of a month-and-a-half, they blazed a trail at the top of the league and even opened up a seven-point gap on second-placed Swansea at one point. The bubble burst in November, when they picked up just one win from five outings, but a resurgence from Boxing Day into the New Year lifted them back to fourth.
Consistency is a valued commodity in this division and it is something that is being shown in patches in Berkshire, though four defeats from seven in February – including a shock 1-0 loss to basement club Wycombe – showed there was still work to be done.
Paunovic’s men took eight points from the 15 on offer in March, though their last win came against Sheffield Wednesday on March 6, and with Bournemouth just three points behind in seventh – with the added bonus of a game in hand – a play-off place that had previously looked safe is in danger of slipping from their grasp.
The chasing pack
At this point, it should come as no surprise that the battle to reach the play-off places is heating up.
Everything seemed to be going swimmingly for Bournemouth legend Jason Tindall until mid-December. The cracks started to show when they only managed to snatch a 1-0 win over Wycombe after Alex Pattison’s red card and when they started the year with four defeats from six, Tindall was swiftly replaced on a caretaker basis by Jonathan Woodgate, who had arrived at the club only days earlier.
The former Middlesbrough boss – who has since been appointed until the end of the season – turned results around in his first month in charge – including taking the club to the FA Cup quarter-finals – but with many of the teams below them on the charge, a top six place that once looked assured will now have to be worked for.
It has been quite the year so far for Cardiff, whose slump in form resulted in Neil Harris’ sacking on January 21. The greatly experienced Mick McCarthy succeeded him a day later, drew his first two games and was then only denied an unprecedented seventh straight win to complete a perfect February by Paddy McNair’s late equaliser for Middlesbrough.
A resounding 4-0 win over Derby in McCarthy’s 999th game in management on March 2 lifted the Bluebirds into the final play-off place at Bournemouth’s expense – and though they have since dropped out again, one defeat in the last 14 is surely an indicator of an inspired squad.
Meanwhile, Neil Warnock – for whom McCarthy was once an apprentice at Barnsley – has kept Boro within touching distance of the top six for most of the season, even though consistency has been an issue.
Millwall sit 10th, 10 points outside the top six, while Stoke follow closely behind, but without injured talisman Tyrese Campbell, it is generally accepted that stability is the priority this term.
Who are the favourites, then?
Norwich are the clear frontrunners for the title, and are currently priced at 1/20 to lift the trophy with Sky Bet, with Watford a 9/1 title shot and 1/4 to finish inside the top two.
Brentford are third favourites to be promoted at 10/11, with Swansea 5/2, Bournemouth 9/2, Barnsley 5/1 and Reading 10/1.
Cardiff (11/1) and Middlesbrough (28/1) come next, with Stoke (200/1), Millwall and QPR (both 250/1) significant outsiders.
The final stretch is now in sight, but nothing is decided in, arguably, the most unpredictable league in world football. What is certain is that a thrilling month or so lies ahead.
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