As we move in to February, the home straight in the English football season is within sight.
The Championship is as competitive as any league in Europe, so who will come through a huge 46 game season and reach the holy grail of the Barclays Premier League this time around.
The two automatic promotion places are currently occupied by West Ham and Southampton, and you wouldn’t bet against these two finishing the season there.
West Ham are favourite’s for the Championship and currently sit atop the pile. They followed their surprise 5-1 defeat by Ipswich last week, with a 2-1 win over fierce rivals Millwall at the weekend – playing 80 minutes with ten men. This showed The Hammers’ fighting spirit and although they will be without Kevin Nolan for several games, they will look to use the victory to boost their title chances.
Most teams in the Championship tend to do better at home than away. West Ham have an advantage here, with both home and away records very similar. This has a lot to do with how Sam Allardyce likes to set up his teams – first and foremost to be solid defensively. It is no coincidence that West Ham have one of the best defensive records in the league.
Add to this, the fact that the East Londoners bought in two very exciting attacking players on transfer deadline day and their squad looks very strong indeed.
Man United’s troubled teen Ravel Morrison may have been brought in with the next few years in mind, but Nicky Maynard is a proven goalscorer at Championship level and will be keen to help the club progress in order to test himself against Premier League defences.
It would be very surprising at this stage if West Ham did not get promoted this season.
Southampton, on the other hand, after occupying top spot for a few weeks, have started to slip a little. The Saints have won only one of their last six in the league and manager Nigel Adkins will hope his team can find some form again, or risk relying on the lottery of the play-off’s to gain promotion.
Southampton do have a very talented squad and have the Championship’s top scorer in Rickie Lambert. They’ve also added Billy Sharp in January in an attempt to boost their attack during the all important last few months. Southampton, like West Ham, will be in the promotion shake-up at the end of the season whatever happens.
They would want to be in the top two though, rather than go through the play-off’s. I think they should be okay if they are able to mount one more run of good form before the end of the season.
After the top two, there are probably nine teams with a realist target of getting, at least, a play-off place. Six points separate Cardiff in third and Burnley in eleventh. Two teams stand out from this group in my opinion. Birmingham City and Blackpool.
The Blues are the league’s form team, unbeaten in eight games, scoring 25 goals in the process. They may have timed their run just a little early, with 18 games left, but if they can keep up their current scoring rate, they will easily make the play-off’s and will be the team everyone wants to avoid.
Meanwhile, every Premier League fan’s second team last season, Blackpool, are quietly but efficiently going about their business this season. No-one predicted that Blackpool would make an immediate return to the Premier League after losing key players such as Charlie Adam and David Vaughan, but they are right up there.
Ian Holloway decided to stay on as manager and has continued his good work. Blackpool managed to keep hold of their new star-man, Matt Phillips, in January and are unbeaten in 2012. I expect them to make the play-off’s and they might even have half an eye on the automatic promotion places with four months to go.
Out of these two, I would expect Blackpool to do that little bit better, as they have the more potent attacking threat, which will be the difference should they make the play-off’s.
In all honestly, there are numerous teams who will be thinking about promotion, be it through the play-off’s or automatically, but the three most likely in my opinion are West Ham, Southampton and Blackpool.
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