Championship play-off race begins to heat up

The race for the lottery that is the Championship play-offs is starting to head towards the final furlong.

Just six points separate Watford who themselves occupy 12th position to former Premier League champions Blackburn Rovers in 6th. I analyse each team as to whether or not they possess the qualities going forward to cement their place in the top six.

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Watford 12th, 56 points

The Hornets whom are suffering a hangover from their relegation from the Premier League last season, are still alive in the race for promotion. Rob Edwards was the man put in charge to get his side back to the top flight however, after ten games the Pozzo family decided to cut the now Luton Town manager’s time short. Former Croatia manager Slaven Bilic was then tasked with challenge of firing the Yellows back to the big time. Injuries however, put paid to those plans and the loss of key players in vital stages of the campaign, were the undoing on Bilic.

The axe was soon to fall on the former West Ham United and West Bromwich Albion head coach and he was sacked on the seventh of March winning just nine out of 22 games in charge leaving the Hornets four points outside the top six. Chris Wilder the man who guided Sheffield United back to the promised land in 2019, is now in charge of Watford. Watford certainly possess the quality to reach the play-offs and with players like Hamza Choudhury, Leandro Bacuna and the pace on the wings of Joao Pedro and Ismaila Sarr, they can still make it. Its about consistency and that’s what has set Watford back this season. Squandering a two goal lead over Coventry City away on Easter Monday could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Watford have Bristol City at home on Saturday followed by floundering Cardiff City at home next week. Win those two games, and they are right back in the picture. Hull City then welcome Wilder’s side to the MKM Stadium followed by a trip to Sunderland and lastly finishing the campaign against Stoke City at Vicarage Road.

West Bromwich Albion 11th, 57 points

Just like Watford, consistency and a change of managers has seen the Baggies topsy turvy season hit a bumpy road. Steve Bruce was tasked with hoping to garner yet another promotion to the Premier League. However, a horror run of results which resulted in Albion falling into the bottom three led owner Lai Guochuan make the decision to part ways with former Manchester United captain.

Carlos Corberan the man who almost completed the fairy-tale story of putting Huddersfield Town back to the top flight, is now in charge. The appointment of the Spaniard has seen a remarkable turnaround in form which has seen them move up the table. With the quality of John Swift in the ranks who has five goals and seven assists, Jed Wallace on the wing who has been a key figure for Corberan’s men with eight assists, the Midlanders sit close to the promotion places. Daryl Dike a powerful American striker is back fit again and on his day can blow the best of centre halves away. If Dike can get firing, they can reach the play-offs.

Without in a win in their last four games is with dropping vital points over relegation threatened sides is holding back the Baggies. A loss to Rotherham United and limp draw to Queens Park Rangers should be games Albion should be striving to win. The final set of fixtures include trips to Stoke, Blackpool, Sheffield United and Swansea City with home games being important against Sunderland and Norwich City.

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Sunderland 10th, 58 points

The Black Cats first campaign back in the Championship since relegation to League One six years ago has been successful. Owner Kyril Louis- Dreyfus gave backing to manager at the time Alex Neil with €2.3 million forked out on Northern Ireland defender Daniel Ballard. Neil, wanted his side to be competitive in the division and used key players from League One promotion season such as Elliot Embleton, Patrick Roberts and Ross Stewart to elevate the campaign. Neil himself, did not show loyalty as he jumped ship to Stoke City after just a couple of games in the new league. Neil was soon replaced by former Blackburn Rovers boss Tony Mowbray.

Mowbray has continued the progressive football by his predecessor and has the Mackems in prime position to push for a top six spot. The loss of striker and talisman Ross Stewart and not deterred Mowbray’s charges. The goals equally shared out in a team game that is headed by on loan Manchester United forward Amad Diallo. Diallo has contributed 11 majors and two assists. Jack Clarke is also a focal point for the Black Cats and the forward has found the net eight times.

Inconsistent performances however, may prove decisive for Sunderland. A sequence of three draws and just one win in the last five games has seen the gap to the top six increase. If the Mackems have an aspiration of getting back to the Premier League, they need to follow up Easter Monday’s victory over Cardiff City with two more over Birmingham City and Huddersfield Town. The campaign then ends in intriguing fashion with games against teams around the Black Cats looming such as West Brom away, Watford at home followed by a trip to Deepdale on the final game.

Coventry City 9th, 59 points

Mark Robins continues to do an incredible job with the Sky Blues. With home comforts sorted, Coventry have flourished. The start of the season had the men from the Midlands on the back foot with games at the Coventry Building Society Arena being postponed due to an unplayable pitch. That saw the Sky Blues struggle for form however, that form soon turned around with hotshot striker Victor Gyokeres firing the side closer to the promotion lottery.

Gyokeres is one of the best frontmen outside of the Premier League and his 18 goals this season and 9 assists are one of the reasons as to why City are on the hunt for the play-offs. Anchored in the backline by the vocal veteran Kyle McFadzean and the influential Dutch playmaker Gustavo Hamer, the Sky Blues continue to soar. Matty Godden is also beginning to catch fire and his partnership with Gyokeres could be key in determining whether Coventry can fire themselves into the top six. The form book shows that Coventry have just one win from the last six and that figure needs to improve.

The run-in features some interesting yet winnable games. A trip to Loftus Road on Saturday is followed swiftly by another away trip to fellow contenders Blackburn Rovers. Reading then come to town followed by a derby with Birmingham City. The Sky Blues end their campaign away to high flyers Middlesbrough. An aim of at least ten points is very much achievable from my own gut feeling for Robins men and if that target can be reached, they will make the top six.

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Norwich City 8th, 61 points

An up and down season for the yoyo East Anglian side sees them just outside the play-off places. The season started on a lull with poor performances seeing newly appointed Leicester City manager Dean Smith being made redundant. Smith, failed to get goalscoring Finnish veteran Teemu Pukki firing and the side sat in fifth just after Christmas and a run of three defeats in four games for a side who should be aiming for the top two was deemed not good enough.

David Wagner, the charismatic German, was seen as the man to fire the Canaries back up the ladder. The former Huddersfield manager has racked up 7 wins in 15 games in charge since taking over Smith. Pukki has failed to score since netting twice against Preston back in January and that run of a drought has seen Josh Sargent and Brazilian Gabriel Sara stepping up to the plate. Just one win in six outings has seen the Canaries somehow stay in the face for the coveted promotion spots.

Draws with relegation candidates Rotherham and Huddersfield are chinks in the armour which I feel will hamper the Canaries in their quest for a Premier League return. The remaining fixtures include Middlesbrough at home, a trip to London to face QPR followed by Swansea visiting Carrow Road and finally a winnable game against League One certainties Blackpool. I feel that Norwich will fall short due to a lack of goals in the team.

Preston North End 7th, 62 points

The play-offs are within touching distance for the Lilywhites. Boasting 16 clean sheets this campaign, the defence has to be applauded. Freddie Woodman, brought in on a free transfer from Newcastle United, has been the lynchpin in North End’s success. Liam Lindsay and Jordan Storey key most attackers at bay. And the goals of Everton loanee and Republic of Ireland u21 star Tom Cannon and rocketed the Lancashire club march to the top six.

Ryan Lowe has built his side on a solid base and while finding the net was a problem at the start of the season, the goals of Cannon have made up for it. The rally towards that allusive first trip to the big time is fuelling the players. Five wins in the last six are the reason as to why Lowe’s men are closing in. They are level with Blackburn in sixth and are just outside on goals difference. That run of form and the form of Cannon in particular has been impressive.

The remaining fixtures for North End are tricky. A trip to The Den against Millwall lies ahead on Saturday quickly followed by a trip to Swansea. A huge local derby with Blackburn at Deepdale will make for huge interest. Bramall Lane comes calling followed then by a home game against Sunderland. If Preston can keeping firing Cannon they can certainly make the play offs however, if the marksman fails to fire their challenge may fall short.

My top six
  • 1st Burnley
  • 2nd Sheffield United
  • 3rd Luton Town
  • 4th Middlesbrough
  • 5th Millwall
  • 6th Coventry City

The Author

Jonathan Burke

Mayo Resident, Blackpool supporter

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