The Championship Race for Promotion: Southampton, Reading and the Play-Off Candidates
With 6 games to go in the season, the race for promotion to the riches of the Premier League is hotting up.
It is seemingly a three-horse race for the two automatic promotion places on offer. Southampton and Reading are the two clubs currently in the driving seat but a strong West Ham United side are lurking close behind in third.
The race for the Play-Offs also looks set for an intriguing finish as a number of sides look to seal their place in the top 6 and be in with a chance of promotion to the “big-time.” 3rd spot looks likely to be taken by one of the top 3 but the positions of 4th, 5th and 6th are still up for grabs with Birmingham, Blackpool and Brighton currently occupying these all important play-off spots.
The teams just outside of the play-offs such as Middlesbrough, Cardiff and perhaps even Hull will be looking to string together a few good results in the last six games to ensure that they get the chance to be in the play-offs. The big question on every fans lips is who will be in the Top 6 of the Championship come the 28th April when all the teams’ fates will be decided?
1st – SOUTHAMPTON
Manager: Nigel Adkins
Played: 40 Points: 78 GD: +34
Current Form: DWWWWL
The Saints have been the frontrunners nearly all season for automatic promotion and have set the pace right from the off. Unlike other sides in the promotion mix, they have been consistent from the start and are deservedly top of the Championship with six games to go. The question is can Southampton hold their nerve for the final run-in to complete unexpected back-to-back promotions and a return to the Barclays Premier League?
Their home form this season has been extraordinary having only dropped 8 points at St. Mary’s all season. This form coupled with a number of crucial goals from star-striker and top scorer Rickie Lambert has seen the South-Coast club stay ahead of the pack at the top of the Championship.
Southampton’s remaining fixtures don’t look tough on paper as they have to play rivals Portsmouth & Coventry who are threatened by relegation and Crystal Palace & Peterborough who are sitting in mid-table with nothing to play for. But no results are set in the stone and if they underestimate such opposition, Southampton could be left red-faced. A home clash against second-placed Reading on the superstitious date of Friday 13th April will have a huge bearing on the race for automatic promotion.
Our Prediction: We think that Southampton will have enough left in the tank to see out the remainder of the campaign and be sitting in one of those two automatic promotion places come the end of April. Adkins is a firm manager who won’t allow for any complacency in the final run-in and will still expect the best from his players to ensure that the Saints achieve their aim of promotion. There is no reason why Southampton can’t continue their excellent form which they have shown all season for the crucial final six games.
2nd – READING
Manager: Brian McDermott
Played: 40 Points: 76 GD: +24
Current Form: WDWLWW
On the 21st January after a sloppy 1-0 home defeat to Hull, the Royals sat in eighth position in the league. However, three months later and Reading are flying after a remarkable transformation which has seen them claim a phenomenal 34 points out of a possible 39. Reading’s rich vein of form is in no doubt down to the players, who really stepped up to the mark in this crucial period, but also to their manager Brian McDermott who they managed to keep hold of despite strong speculation of interest from Premier League side Wolves. The much-admired manager then signed a new contract to keep him at the Madejski until 2015 as he made a statement committing himself to the Royals.
At the start of the season, many would never have said that Reading would be in such a strong position with a matter of games remaining as many questioned whether the squad would be strong enough to claim promotion back to the top-flight. However the likes of Noel Hunt, goalkeeper Adam Federici and veteran Ian Harte have all contributed towards Reading’s surge up the table in the past few months. Last Saturday’s crucial 4-2 win at Upton Park against third-placed West Ham really emphasised their dominance and the strides that they have made in order to be in contention for automatic promotion.
Our Prediction: Reading should feel confident of winning their three remaining home games but tough away games against Southampton, Brighton & Birmingham will be decisive in determining Reading’s fate. We think it will be close between West Ham and Reading as to who can grab that all important second place but we believe that West Ham won’t be able to claw back a four point deficit after defeat to the Royals on Saturday, and that Reading will be celebrating automatic promotion. We even think that Reading could overtake Southampton and pip the Saints to the title come the 28th April.
3rd – WEST HAM UNITED
Manager: Sam Allardyce
Played: 40 Points: 72 GD: +21
Current Form: DDDDWL
After a disappointing campaign last year that concluded with West Ham being humiliatingly relegated from the Premier League, everyone associated with the club was keen to see the Hammers return to their rightful place in the top division. They managed to secure a reputable, experienced manager in Sam Allardyce and brought in the likes of Matt Taylor & Kevin Nolan in the summer and Nicky Maynard & Ricardo Vaz Te in January to ensure that the aim of automatic promotion could be achieved.
However, despite all the money being ploughed in to the club from the backing of the owners, things haven’t gone as smoothly as many expected this season for the London-based club. Despite the Hammers sitting in the top two for most of the season, they now find themselves in third place and four points adrift of second placed Reading after a recent erratic run of form which has seen 5 consecutive frustrating draws.
There is no doubt that West Ham have the personnel capable of automatic promotion but in recent weeks they have struggled to string together a good run of results. If the Hammers are to stand any chance of overtaking Reading then they need to look at possibly gaining maximum points from all of their final remaining games which is a tough ask from the players.
Our Prediction: As disappointing as it will be for West Ham, we think that the Upton Park club will have to settle for third place in the Championship and look at gaining promotion through the play-offs, and they should be confident of booking their trip to Wembley for a chance to return to the top-flight.
4th – BIRMINGHAM CITY
Manager: Chris Hughton
Played: 40 Points: 66 GD: +23
Current Form: LWLDWW
Although Birmingham have played 55 games this season already due to League & Cup commitments, the Midlands club still remains on course for a stab at promotion in the play-offs, despite indifferent form at the start of the season. Since relegation from the Premier League on the final day of the season in May, the future of the club has been clouded in uncertainty after money laundering from Carson Yeung and having to sell a number of its Premier League stars.
However, the club under the guidance of manager Chris Hughton has been able to compete successfully in the Championship with a small squad of players and are deservedly in the mix for a spot in the play-offs. Players such as a rejuvenated Marlon King, Chris Burke and talented youngster Nathan Redmond have all helped the Blues climb up the table. A win against Burnley in their game in hand last night helped to consolidate Birmingham’s position in the play-offs and moved them to only 6 points off third placed West Ham.
Our Prediction: We are more than certain that Birmingham City will be in the top-six come the end of April and we believe that they have enough in the tank to overcome the opposition in the play-offs and make it to the final at Wembley. Personally, we think a clash between West Ham & Birmingham City in the play-off final is looming but as we know anything can happen in football!
5th – BLACKPOOL
Manager: Ian Holloway
Played: 40 Points: 63 GD: +13
Current Form: LLWDLW
Ian Holloway’s so-called “Tangerine Army” earned their praises last year after a hard-fought campaign last year saw them go down on the final day of the season to break the hearts of all Blackpool fans. However, ‘barmy’ manager Ian Holloway stayed with the club and has led them to be in the hunt for the play-offs with six games remaining as they look for an unlikely immediate return to the Premier League.
Vital goals this season from old-timer Kevin Phillips have helped the Seasiders to many crucial points along the course of this campaign as the likes of Matty Philips have also been give a chance to shine this season. Blackpool famously clinched promotion to the Premier League last time out with an epic performance in the play-offs but can they secure their place in the top-six once again to have a chance to repeat their heroics once again?
Our Prediction: Over course and distance this season, Blackpool have looked stronger than the likes of Brighton, Middlesbrough and Cardiff who are behind them in the table and waiting for the Seasiders to slip up. Therefore we think that come the end of the season, Blackpool will be in the top six and fighting for promotion via the play-offs.
6th – BRIGHTON & HOVE ALBION
Manager: Gus Poyet
Played: 40 Points: 63 GD: +8
Current Form: DWLWDD
Considering this is Gus Poyet’s first managerial role, the Uruguayan is doing very well for himself after securing promotion from League One last year. Many expected the Seagulls to struggle in the Championship but Brighton have defied the odds and after just one loss in the League in 2012, Brighton have climbed up the table to leave themselves firmly in play-off contention with only a few matches to go.
However, the last six games will prove to be a serious test for Brighton’s promotion credentials as they have to face Reading, West Ham & Birmingham in the final run-in which could make or break their season.
Our Prediction: We think it will be close between Brighton and Cardiff but in the end the Seagulls fans will be celebrating come the end of the season as we believe that they will just pip Cardiff to 6th place.
7th – MIDDLESBROUGH
Manager: Tony Mowbray
Played: 40 Points: 63 GD: +3
Current Form: LLDDDD
After a great start to the season, Boro were lying in 2nd position at the end of 2011 as hopes were high that the Yorskhire club could reclaim its place among the best in the Premier League. However,a dodgy 2012 so far has seen Middlesbrough slip back down the table as they now find themselves just outside the play-offs on goal difference after recent erratic form has seen the Northern club winless in 6 and facing the prospect of missing out on promotion after what seemed to be a promising start to the campaign.
Goals from Marvin Emnes have played a pivotal role in Boro’s success so far this campaign and the fans will need to see the Dutchman score a few more goals if they are to overtake Brighton and claim a spot in the play-offs.
Our Prediction: Unfortunately for Boro fans we think that Middlesbrough just won’t have enough left to secure that all important play-off spot as the club will ponder what could have been after a bright start to the season.
8th – CARDIFF
Manager: Malky Mackay
Played: 40 Points: 61 GD: +7
Current Form: WLDDDD
In the past few years, Cardiff have been one of those sides that have always missed out on play-off glory as they are still looking for their ultimate quest to be part of one of the 20 sides in the Premier League. The Welsh club, who are now sitting in the shadow of their arch-rivals Swansea who are impressing in the top division, had hoped that they would be sitting higher in the league after a successful start to the campaign; but a run of just one win in 8 after the Carling Cup defeat to Liverpool has seen the Bluebirds slide from 4th to 8th in the league.
However, in spite of their recent miserable form, the side from South Wales are still in contention for a place in the play-offs as they only lie two points behind 5th placed Blackpool and are therefore still in with a shout of reaching the play-offs.
Our Prediction: Cardiff have an easier run-in of fixtures compared to many others as they don’t have to face any of the top-six in their final run of games and they will compete with Brighton for that last play-off spot. However, ultimately we think that they will just miss out on the play-offs as fans will have to wait another season for a chance at making it to the Premier League.
So fundamentally, we believe that there will be no change to the current top six in the final six games as Southampton & Reading will gain automatic promotion to the Premier League and West Ham, Birmingham, Blackpool & Brighton will battle it out in the play-offs. Nonetheless, as we know a lot of things can change in six games and there are bound to be plenty of shocks and surprises still left in store as the Championship campaign reaches its all important climax.
Please let us know your thoughts on who you think will triumph and who will be in the top six come the end of the season.