Championship: race to the Premier League

As we hit the business end of the season, there are plenty of clubs dreaming of that all-important promotion to the Premier League. Will West Brom continue to run riot at the top? Will Leeds defy the annual “falling apart” narrative? Will Forest end their 20-year absence from the top flight? Will Fulham bounce back at the first time of asking, or could Brentford bid goodbye to their 115-year home of Griffin Park by reaching English football’s top flight?

Although it is tempting to say that West Brom and Leeds could run away with the top two, many reached a similar conclusion in mid-December before the chasing pack closed the gap. If the Championship has taught us anything, it is that there will always be twists and turns.

West Brom

Slaven Bilic has made his Albion side click this season and what is perhaps most impressive is that they have found different ways of winning games.

They had an unwavering ability to come from behind in the first quarter of their season, then put together a run of defensive solidity and although they endured a five-week lull post-Christmas, they have since perfected their work at both ends of the pitch – at least up until Saturday’s 1-0 home loss to Wigan.

Albion’s adaptability is highlighted by the fact that they are the division’s top scorers with 64 goals, yet their individual top scorer – Hal Robson-Kanu – has only 10, 13 fewer than the top scorer in the division, highlighting their diversified goal threat.

Leeds United

Life is never dull at Elland Road.

As, on paper, one of English football’s top 10 biggest clubs, there is always likely to be an expectation among supporters for Leeds United to thrive at this level, even if the absence of any parachute payments dictates that their financial muscle is not always directly proportionate to this pressure.

At certain points, the backing of Leeds fans can be a massive, massive strength, but at the same time, it takes a certain type of manager to handle the pressure in the correct way – and Marcelo Bielsa is just that.

Previous managers, like Thomas Christiansen, for example, had similar principles to Bielsa but was not quite able to hold onto his beliefs during intense periods of scrutiny.

The Argentine, by contrast, is incredibly stubborn and tunnel-visioned, providing the kind of leadership that was crucial to getting Leeds to overcome the winter cold streak of four defeats in five.

Leeds have played some delightful football this season and look ready to end their 16-year wait for top flight action.

Premier League betting currently suggests Aston Villa, who were promoted via the play-offs last campaign, could be one of the three sides to swap places with Leeds as they continue to struggle in the top flight.

Fulham

Most head coaches, embarking on their first full season in senior management, would be dealing with relatively modest expectations and a re-building season.

Scott Parker, though, is tasked with taking an expensively-assembled Fulham squad back up to the Premier League at the first time of asking – quite understandably, that task has not looked entirely smooth.

Although Fulham are in a respectable position of third, which is where they finished in 2017-18 before going up via the Play-Offs, they do not look as fluid or cohesive at this level under Slavisa Jokanovic.

Most of the Whites’ victories have been decided by the clinical finishing of Aleksandar Mitrovic, rather than particularly impressive all-round play – ironically, it could be argued that their best collective displays have come without a recognized centre-forward, which shows that Parker is struggling to find a coherent system that successfully incorporates his best finisher.

That is partly because the West Londoners miss the drive and thrust of right-back Ryan Fredericks, who they had in their last season at this level, as well as the metronomic influence of Kevin McDonald, who is struggling to maintain his prior form due to fitness issues.

Parker must devise a system that can make his side a force in the run-in, as his side chase down the five point gap to the automatic promotion places, if not, then a threat in the Play-Offs.

Nottingham Forest

The Reds are undoubtedly this season’s surprise package.

When Sabri Lamouchi was appointed in the summer, within an hour of Martin O’Neill’s dismissal there was a lot of external scepticism: outsiders damned the club’s perceived lack of loyalty to managers.

It seems highly unlikely, though, that Forest would occupy a top six berth, as they currently do, had they persisted with O’Neill, who was seemingly struggling to maintain the faith of players.

Lamouchi has built a tough, disciplined and resilient outfit that has kept a respectable 13 clean sheets, while showing a touch of genius to convert energetic winger Matty Cash into a rampaging right-back.

Cash has shown his value by forming an outstanding right-sided partnership with Joe Lolley, who loves to make winding runs in from wide areas and produce moments of outstanding quality.

Forest are not the finished article and perhaps not yet quite good enough for the Premier League, but Lamouchi is on course to deliver the club’s first top six finish in nine years – it has been a successful season whatever happens hereon in.