Queens Park Rangers are, barring any punitive action from the FA and the courts, all but promoted to the Premier League. This leaves a five-way battle for the remaining automatic promotion spot and, optimistic Watford fans will tell you, an eight team fight for 6th spot and the final playoff place.
With this in mind is it any wonder than many call the npower Championship the most exciting league in the world? Financial services company Deloitte have calculated the Championship Playoff Final to be the most valuable single fixture in world football. Add this to the sheer unpredictability of the division and it is no wonder it sits behind only the top leagues in England, Germany and Spain as the fourth most attended football (soccer) division in the world. The staggering audiences captivated by the topsy-turvy nature of the competition rank the Championship above the top divisions in France, Holland, Italy, Portugal, Argentina, Brazil, North America and Scotland. It makes you wonder why anyone would ever want to leave the division!
The carrot dangling in front of them is worth the trials, often literally (just ask Cardiff and Portsmouth), and tribulations though; the Barclays Premier League is the holy grail all English Football League teams strive for. It’s wealth knows no bounds and offers players and managers the chance to pit themselves against some of the best talent the footballing world has to offer.
Here then is my assessment and (foolishly) predictions of who will be strutting their stuff in the promised land next season, and who will be left to toil away in the unforgiving world of the Championship for at least another twelve months.
(Before I start I should inform you that I am a Nottingham Forest fan. I will attempt to remain impartial and objective throughout but given recent results don’t be surprised if I’m a little harsh on some of the teams above the reds in the league).
Automatic As It Stands (Remaining Fixtures):
As of 17-04-11
||QPR H, Preston A, M’boro H, Burnley A
||Ispwich A, Derby H, P’mouth A, Coventry H
||Leeds A, Sheff Utd H, Coventry A, Derby H
||P’mouth A, Ipswich H, Millwall, A, Sheff Utd H
Cardiff have the box seat at the minute, but all the teams barring Reading have held that second spot at some point in the last month so that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Judging by the form table Reading will overtake Cardiff with two games to play, but that can also mean very little now the expectation levels have been raised at the Madejski. Pressure is a funny old thing and both Cardiff and Forest buckled under it at the business end of last season.
Looking at each teams respective run-ins you would surmise that Cardiff have the more difficult fixtures, QPR could clinch promotion with a win, Preston still have Championship survival in their sights and Burnley could still be in with shout of the play-offs come the last day of the season.
Norwich face four teams all with very little left to play for, often an easier task but occasionally, without the pressure of needing a result, a team can relax and play the sort of football they wish they’d been playing all season long.
Reading’s next two games are against Yorkshire rivals with much to play for but for very different reasons, but their final two fixtures shouldn’t pose too many problems if they continue to play as they have been recently.
And finally Swansea, their place in the playoffs seems secure but they faltered at the wrong time last year and missed out completely so will want to avoid a repeat this season. Their games look relatively simple on paper with Millwall away looking like the biggest threat to their promotion hopes.
History suggests that Cardiff don’t have the mental fortitude to do what is needed and seal their place in the Premier League over the coming weeks. Norwich have forged a reputation as a never-say-die team with numerous late goals to earn them extra points this season. Reading are on a phenomenal run of eight league wins on the trot, can they really do the unthinkable and keep it going to snatch second? Swansea are the outsiders and seem to be falling away at just the wrong time, they’ll still make the playoffs but second seems a little out of reach this season.
I seem to be siding with Reading at the moment, folklore suggests there’s always a team to go on a late season run and force their way into the promotion shake-up somehow. Usually it’s into 6th place and then win the playoffs (see Blackpool last season), Reading seem determined to go one better though and steal the automatic spot from the teams that have been up there all season long.
The Race For 6th As It Stands (Remaining Fixtures):
As of 17-04-11
||Reading H, C Palace A, Burnley H, QPR A
||Leicester H, Bristol City A, S’thorpe H, C Palace A
||M’boro H, QPR A, C Palace H, Bristol City A
||Preston H, S’thorpe A, Swansea H, Barnsley A
||Nott’m Forest A, Watford H, Doncaster A, Ipswich H
||M’boro H, Derby A, P’mouth H, Leeds A, Cardiff H
||Norwich H, Swansea A, Preston H, Leicester A
||Barnsley H, Leicester A, QPR, H, Preston A
First off I’d like to eliminate Leicester, Ipswich and Watford. With games against each other as well as fellow promotion rivals it would take something extraordinary for any of these three sides to overhaul Leeds and grab sixth, I’m not saying it’s beyond possibility but it’s very close.
Leeds have been in and around the playoff positions for the vast majority of the season but their remaining games look the toughest of the bunch. They’ve consistently picked up points throughout the season though without going through a truly bad patch so may just have enough points in hand to scrape over the finish line.
If we’re talking about bad patches then Forest are your team, second bottom of the form table with four points from a possible twenty-four. This is a team very capable of putting together a winning run though as their spell from December to February shows. It’s largely the same players that fell in the playoffs last year though and they seem to be running out of steam at just the wrong time again, the Forest fan in me keeps saying anything is possible but the realist is having none of it unfortunately.
Hull and Millwall have crept their way up the table of late and are now within striking distance, Hull have the points advantage but were it to come down to goal difference Millwall currently have the upper hand. Hull also seem to have the slightly more favourable run of games to finish off and those two extra points could prove to be the difference.
This leaves Burnley, were they to win their game in hand that would take them up to 10th – level on points withForest and Hull but with a vastly inferior goal difference. With Cardiff to play on the final day of the season their chances seem slim and they need to start banging in the goals to have a chance.
So it seems I’ve narrowed it down to Leeds or Hull, whoever does end up in the 6th spot I don’t believe will have enough to go all the way though (unless of course Forest win four on the bounce!). The four teams above them have shown themselves to be just that little bit better over the season, and no-one seems to be riding the wave of form we’ve seen in the past that would sweep all in front of them away.
There we have it then, the playoffs will see Cardiff, Norwich, Swansea and either Leeds or Hull fight it out for the one remaining spot in the Premier League. If I were a betting man I’d put my money on Norwich, but I’m not so my wallet will stay safely in my pocket.
So QPR, Reading and Norwich will be plying their trade in the promised land next season if I’m to be believed. But better people than me have tried to predict the outcome of the Championship for years and not fared any better so take my words with a pinch of salt and go with what you think will happen. You probably won’t be right either but that’s the point and why we love the Championship so, you never can tell what’s going to happen next.