Leeds, Derby and a look at six Championship favourites dreaming of the Premier League

Matt Jones - Editor 17:34 18/08/2019
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Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds have started the season brightly and will be expected to mount a Premier League promotion push.

Leeds United, Derby County, Nottingham Forest, Stoke City, Sheffield Wednesday and Fulham – the Championship is littered with giants of English football and previous Premier League stalwarts.

An exciting competition where anything can happen, the biggest issue for the 24 combatants is that England’s second tier is so competitive. It is cut-throat and you can be stuck there for years – just ask Leeds fans.

As part of a series kicking off this season, we’ll be taking a look at the teams and leagues out of the spotlight of Europe’s elite. While the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1 grab most of the headlines, we’ll be taking a look at some of the other big leagues around the globe.

This week’s it’s the second tier in England, the Championship, and a look at the teams who could finish inside the top 6.

LEEDS UNITED

Genuinely one of the biggest sides in Britain, Leeds have spent an inordinate amount of time languishing in England’s second tier – 15 years to be precise.

That’s an awful long time to still hang onto the tag of ‘big club’. But there’s no question they are.

The real question is: just how long is it going to be before we see them back in the big time?

They had their best chance last season when they blew automatic promotion to finish third. Marcelo Bielsa’s side tanked down the home straight, losing six and drawing one of their final 11 games, leading to Sheffield United surging clear to take the second automatic spot behind champions Norwich.

They were forced to settle for a play-off spot, subsequently losing out 4-3 to Derby – going down 4-2 at home having won 1-0 at Pride Park – in their semi-final clash.

Remarkably, it was just the second time the Yorkshire giants had made the Championship play-offs in 12 seasons. The other was when they came fifth in 2005/06.

They lost captain Pontus Jansson to Brentford in the summer, which was expected to be a big blow, but have started well and sit atop the table after three games, with an average of 17.7 shots per game.

DERBY COUNTY

Derby will miss the goals of Harry Wilson.

Derby will miss the goals of Harry Wilson.

Frank Lampard may be gone, along with a whole host of promising young loan stars who’ve returned to their clubs, but Phillip Cocu is an upgrade at manager, despite how resplendent a season the Rams enjoyed under the Chelsea legend.

The former Barcelona and Netherlands midfield maestro masterminded three Eredivisie titles in five years at the helm of PSV Eindhoven – with whom he lifted four during two spells as a player.

The losses of Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori – who returned to Chelsea and will try to force themselves into Lampard’s plans at Stamford Bridge – dent the Rams, as does that of Harry Wilson, the Liverpool loanee who’s now joined Bournemouth for the season.

In Wilson (15) and Mount (8) Derby have lost 23 of the 69 goals that fired them to the Championship play-offs last term.

But they do still have Wales forward Tom Lawrence who will enjoy the spotlight and has already shone with two spectacular goals in the 2-1 opening day win over Huddersfield.

Promising home-grown right-back Jayden Bogle, who won last year’s player of the year accolade, also has a bright future, as does Poland Under-21 centre-back Krystian Bielik who joined this summer from Arsenal for £10 million.

FULHAM

Mitrovic should fire in the Championship.

Mitrovic should fire in the Championship.

The obligatory shout out to teams coming down from the Premier League who are annually tipped to go straight back up – this year it’s Fulham, Huddersfield and Cardiff.

But whereas the Terries are a dog’s dinner of a club at the moment, they fired Jan Siewart on Friday night after a 2-1 defeat to the Cottagers and in the wider spectrum just one win in seven months, Fulham look tailor-made to bounce straight back.

Their strategy last summer of adding 15 new players and spending over £100m backfired horribly. Rather than flourish, Fulham floundered and went through three separate managers as they were immediately relegated, with the likes of Jean Michael Seri and Andre Schurrle flattering to deceive.

They’ve adopted a more sensible and streamlined approach this season with Seri sent on loan to Galatasaray. They’ve kept Aleksandar Mitrovic who could destroy defences at this level.

He plundered 12 goals in 17 league appearances to fire Fulham to promotion two years ago and already has two in three games this season.

Ryan Sessegnon has been sold to Spurs, but Scott Parker has shrewdly acquired electric forward Anthony Knockaert from Brighton who should prosper at this level. Parker also has a season to prove himself and what better way than to make Fulham a force once again.

WEST BROM

Slaven Bilic is the new man in charge at The Hawthorns.

Slaven Bilic is the new man in charge at The Hawthorns.

A team with a big pedigree of playing in the Premier League. A manager with a big personality, if highly volatile. It’s a recipe for being favourites for promotion – but with very good reason.

The Baggies were in the mix to bounce back to the big time after a 12-month absence last year, but maybe lacked the dynamism of Derby or Leeds, even though they did possess the stunning strike force of Dwight Gayle and Jay Rodriguez.

They finished fourth but were overcome by more stylish Villa in the play-offs, but with Slaven Bilic in charge and a squad built for the second tier, they will be favourites to at least finish in the top six once more.

They chronically lack firepower though, with Gayle and Rodriguez gone. They made a decent profit by selling 30-year-old Rodriguez back to Burnley, but are still trying to re-sign Gayle – with 23 goals he was the league’s third highest scorer last term – but face competition from fellow Championship side Leeds.

Unbeaten thus far with two victories and a draw seeing them sit on seven points with five other teams. On-loan West Ham midfielder Grady Diangana, 21, has found the net twice, while Charlie Austin is a potential candidate for the league’s golden boot if the Baggies can keep him fit and on the field.

BRISTOL CITY

Lee Johnson is a dynamic young manager in charge of a dynamic young team. The Robins flew oh so close to promotion last term by finishing eighth – their best finish in four seasons back in England’s top flight.

They’ve steadily improved year on year since earning promotion from League One back in 2016 – climbing from the depths of the English league system to 18th, 17th, 11th and then coming just four points behind Derby in sixth last term.

The Robins have floated around the lower leagues for the better part of their 125-year existence. Came close to the big time a decade ago when they finished fourth in the 2007/08 Championship and reached the play-off final, where they suffered a 1-0 defeat to Hull City, so last year was a case of breaking new ground.

City are a solid all-round unit but lack goals. Former Aston Villa forward Andreas Weimann (10) and Senegal striker Famara Diedhiou (12) were their top scorers last term, but they lack the firepower of other goal-hungry sides.

Their defence though was the fifth stingiest last season – however they have since sold star centre-back Adam Webster to Brighton, while promising young left-back Lloyd Kelly, 20, was bought by Bournemouth.

Have started steadily with an opening day defeat to Leeds followed by a draw with Birmingham City and 2-0 victory over Queen Park Rangers.

OUTSIDER

CHARLTON

A big name of Premier League seasons past, having punched above their weight in the top flight for eight years following their memorable play-off penalty shootout win over Sunderland in 1998.

They did go straight back down a year later, but then finished champions of the First Division the very next campaign to earn promotion again, then embarking on a seven-year residency before relegation in 2007.

They finished ninth upon their return in 2000/01, just nine points behind Chelsea and a UEFA Cup berth. Three years later they were just three points away from Europe as they finished seventh.

They’ve roamed the wilderness since dropping down though and have experienced dire straits financially – leading to two separate relegations to League One.

They came up under a cloud, including an absent owner and years of boardroom unrest, but they all have silver linings as the saying goes. And just how shiny would that lining look if Charlton could float back up to the highest level after a 14-year absence?

It’s unlikely. But their 1998 promotion was improbable and unfashionable.

They’ve started brightly too and are unbeaten under academy graduate Lee Bowyer, with Wales international Jonny Williams (three assists) pulling their strings.

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