The races for promotion, play-offs and avoiding relegation in the Championship

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This season has proved to be one of the most gripping ever, with nothing between the top six and very little defining the relegation places. As always, managerial dismissals have been a talking point but some of the football being played deserves it’s plaudits and is sure to make the dogfight at the bottom and the race to the top more intense than ever before.

Race for Automatic Promotion

AFC Bournemouth

Top of the Championship and living in dreamland, if you had to name a Manager of the Season at this current moment it would undoubtedly be Eddie Howe.

Only promoted last season, Bournemouth have made this league look easy when so many find it almost impossible to make any progress. The defence has come under criticism in the past, however, seeing off Birmingham 8-0 at St Andrews silenced the critics and showed that there is no need to worry about defence when you have their current attacking ability.

Promotion would be very much deserved on the season so far, however there are still 18 games left to prove they have what it takes.

Verdict – If Howe can tighten the back four, there would be few who’d bet against promotion for the Cherries.

Derby County

Chris Martin has been at the forefront of a Derby County team looking for a backlash against the disappointment of losing in the play-off final last season. Over the past two seasons Steve McLaren has built a team capable of promotion and many believe their performance as a whole last season was enough to gain Premier League status, however, they fell at the last hurdle against a QPR team of star individuals.

Everything is pointing towards a top two finish for the Rams after a consistent run of results throughout the season, but they must learn from last season that letting it slip and finishing 3rd place can prove costly.

Verdict – Could finish anywhere in the top three.

Middlesbrough

After so many big names have tried and failed at the Riverside, Aitor Karanka looks to be the man who has finally got it right. As Mourinho’s understudy at Real Madrid, Karanka has brought discipline and the importance of a strong, balanced squad to the North East.

Boro boast the best defensive record in the league and have real quality going forward in the likes of Patrick Bamford, Lee Tomlin and Grant Leadbitter; who have each popped up with important goals. There has been plenty of praise for the manager, but the team he has assembled have given their all in the push for automatic promotion.

Verdict – Boro have the ability for the top-flight, whether it’s through the play-offs or automatically, however, they look good for a top two finish.

Play-off Pushers

Ipswich Town

Ipswich came from nowhere in the race for promotion and have had a great season so far, however, there are still some improvements to be made.

There have been too many instances this season where they have been ahead and switched off to concede late on or have been behind and let their heads drop without concentrating on getting back in the game. Mick McCarthy has done a great job at Portman Road and within them they have the powers to finish in the top two, play-off positions or even just outside the top six.

Verdict – It should be a comfortable top six finish for McCarthy’s men.

Brentford

Mark Warburton and his team have shown how carrying on momentum from one campaign to the next can be hugely successful. Going forward Brentford have been ruthless to many of the Championship’s defenses, with the 171cm Tottenham loanee Alex Pritchard creating most chances in the final third.

The concern for Brentford fans will be the defence, who have let in three or more goals on too many occasions this campaign and will be an area the opposition will be looking to exploit in the final stretch of the season.

Verdict – Play-off’s looking good for the West Londoner’s, but will they crack defensively under the pressure?

Watford

When they are not in the Premiership Watford always seem to be sniffing around the top six, however, whether they have enough to make the step up remains unknown.

One of the Championship’s most memorable moments came at Vicarage Road in 2013 when Troy Deeney scored a last second winner to take them to the play-off Final; they will be hoping for something similar come May.

For a team who has had four managers already this season, Watford seem to be unaffected going strong in sixth position in the hunt for promotion.

Verdict – Watford should be up there come the end of the season and will look to put the Play-off final defeat to Crystal Palace in 2013 behind them.

Wolverhampton Wanderers

Like Brentford, Wolves’ expectations should not have gone further than a top half finish this season after a comfortable promotion from League Two. However, their early form has given the club a foundation to build on come the latter months of the campaign, and could join Brentford in challenging for a top six finish and back-to-back promotion.

After a promising start and the Sky Bet Championship Manager of the Month award for Kenny Jacket in August, Wolves have since dropped down to mid-table but are starting to find a bit of form again after conceding far too many goals over the festive period.

Verdict – Wolves may just miss out on the play-off places, however, are in a good position to build on this season’s achievements and attract quality over the summer in preparation for a promotion push next term.

Battling to Avoid the Drop

Leeds United

Again, the majority of attention has come off the pitch this season, an aspect that has been quite constant since their financial struggles in the Premier League. Leeds continue on their form from the past few years in being a mediocre team throughout the current campaign and whilst struggling, they haven’t exactly given all they can give.

The Yorskhire outfit are currently on a good run, unbeaten in four with victories against league leaders Bournemouth and Yorkshire rivals Huddersfield along the way – this is the exact consistency that is needed to climb out of the relegation scrap and couldn’t have come at a better time.

The likes of Miro Antenucci and teenager Alex Mowatt must continue to perform if Neil Redfearn’s men are to conjure up a more respectable finish.

Verdict – Leeds have more than enough of what is needed to stay in the Championship and should secure their League status come May.

Brighton and Hove Albion

It was always going to be tough for Brighton to match the fan’s expectations off the back of the last two seasons, where they finished in the play-off positions. Sami Hyypia only managed three wins in his first coaching role in English football, however the more experienced Chris Hughton has taken charge and already has three wins under his belt in his first month.

A narrow defeat to in-form Arsenal and a win versus Ipswich has revived the fans at the Amex, who believe Hughton is the right man to keep the Seagulls from the drop.

Verdict – Too much quality on the field and behind the scenes for League One – Hughton must start building the team to be promotion contenders next season.

Rotherham United At the start of the season the chairman would have asked nothing more of Steve Evans than to avoid relegation. If they are to stay up they need to string together a good set of results and this needs to happen soon, before the end of the season tension started and fans start getting on their backs.

Even though they currently sit in 20th position, the fact is there are teams below them who have more quality and are more capable of shooting up the table after a winning run. With only one victory since the turn of the year, Rotherham will be looking for some sort of wizardry to help keep their Championship status.

Verdict – Not enough experience, expect them to bounce back down to League One.

Millwall

After a relegation struggle last term the South Londoner’s were one of the surprise packages in the early weeks of this campaign, however performances have since deteriorated and the team has slumped to 22nd.

The downfall this season has been that there has been no one to poach a goal; they have no problem in creating chances, but never seem to put them away. Top scorers Lee Gregory and Ricardo Fuller both have a miserable tally of four goals each and the goal difference of -18 proves that the problem is simple; they concede too many and don’t score enough.

Verdict – Even an experienced Ian Holloway will find it tricky to keep Millwall in the Championship for a fifth successive season.

Wigan Athletic

The Latics were within one game away from a straight return to the top-flight in the summer and much was expected of them coming into the 2014/15 campaign. Their poor form was well documented in the early months and more controversy surrounded the club when Malky Mackay was appointed to take over from Uwe Rosler.

Defensive frailties have played a massive role in Wigan finding themselves second from bottom and something needs to be done to fill these cracks in the back four. The attacking, easy on the eye style of football needs to be scrapped and reverted to a basic style of playing to win if they are to end this horrid run of just two wins in 24 matches.

Verdict – It may be too late for Wigan to change their style of football to one more suited to a relegation dogfight.

Blackpool

What a difference a year can make. The Tangerines were going strong in the Championship the first half of last season, with the force of both winger Tom Ince and father Paul Ince at the helm. However, since the dismissal of the latter in early 2014 the club has struggled to stay above the drop zone.

The appointment of Lee Clark just after he was sacked from fellow relegation rivals was a poor one from the Blackpool board. Problems started back in preseason where they struggled to get a squad together and this has continued throughout the campaign with a team that has been constantly chopped and changed.

Verdict – It’s highly unlikely there’ll be second tier football at Bloomfield Road next season.

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