After a typically unpopular international break, it is now time to asses the credentials of the current top 6 for that golden ticket to the Premier League.
To kick us off (apologies), there is no way of ignoring the rampant form of Burnley. Now, sitting top, the realists among us would have forecast that the loss of Charlie Austin would have severely hampered Burnley’s hopes of challenging for promotion – let alone top spot. Enter Danny Ings. Scorer of 10 goals and trailblazer for Burnley’s sensational 12 game unbeaten run. However, I see problems looming on the horizon. All of Ings’ goals have come alongside the footballing nomad of Sam Vokes. Neither of Burnley’s star men have been sent out without each other, the importance of maintaining this partnership is clearly paramount. Elsewhere, Burnley have shown defensive improvements under Sean Dyche. But, strength in depth, particularly up front, is surely a concern in Lancashire. A cruelly timed injury or a panic buying Premier League club flexing their soon to be short lived finical clout could really put the sword to Burnley’s aspirations. With parachute payments drying up, it will take some excellent business with what remains of Austin’s fee to really help Burnley go the distance and seal automatic problem. Prediction: 3rd
A team that I once dubbed as the ‘Man City of the Championship’, Leicester have done well to take the spot light off of them. After the tenure of Sven, which saw players as overpaid as they were overweight, things seem to have turned around. This can largely be attributed to the return of Nigel Pearson. Under him, Leicester have given chances to such youngsters as Liam Moore. Perhaps more importantly, Pearson has retained some experienced heads and brought in some new ones, and to turn to that seemingly timeless footballing cliche, who ‘know what is necessary’. Leicester, not unlike Cardiff a few seasons ago, were I’m sure questioning if they could do it having come close so often. Like Cardiff last season too, Leicester have players with a wealth of experience, and above all else, a hunger not to again fall at the final hurdle. For this reason, and genuine ability from back to front, I believe this year will be their year. Prediction: 2nd
I have no doubt that I wasn’t the only fan of a team under performing in the transfer window that gained some satisfaction from Gary Hooper choosing Norfolk over West London. This is not because I thought Hooper would appreciate the scenery more, but because I found QPRs summer spending, quite frankly, terrifying. QPR did not rest on their laurels however. No, they snapped up one of the highest scoring players in the league last season, followed up with Niko Kranjcar- the Croatian wizard and an array of other big names. QPR’s squad contains an impressive mix of players, some of which have comfortably strutted about in the Champions League, with others who have mixed it week in week out in the Championship. Short of Joey Barton assassinating Harry Redknapp, the ability and experience of this squad, with the added Fernandes factor in January, leaves me in no doubt that QPR will at least get promoted, and almost certainly more. Prediction: 1st
Blackpool can boast the only player from the last Championship season that made it into both the top 10 assists and goals table. Stats can often flatter players, this is certainly not the case with Thomas Ince. He has proven to be a genuine game changer, who has on many occasions carried a fairly underwhelming side. While his all round game would be sorely missed, if he became unavailable his assists would be the biggest loss. Blackpool do not struggle for options in the striking department with Chopra and Delfounso but to name a few. Aside from Ince though, Blackpool do look thin in the creativity department, alongside this, an inability to defend leads, makes you wonder if Ince can carry Blackpool any longer. His loyalty is unquestionable, but when February comes, Blackpool could be planning for another season in the Championship. Prediction: 8th
The sidelining of Chris Cohen is no doubt a huge blow for Forest, as captain and fan favorite. This being said, midfield is probably one of the kinder places for Forest to sustain an injury, with players of quality like Henri Lansbury already contributing to the team. Billy Davies can also call upon the prodigious talent of last season in Nathan Chalobah. Midfield however, is not the main area of concern. Lansbury and Andy Reid (yes, the Andy Reid), lead the scoring on 5 goals, with the strikers lagging behind on 4 each, a tally less than half of that of the Championships top goal scorer. The numbers do not lie, and with the return of defensive stalwart Kelvin Wilson, Forest look strong everywhere else, apart from where it matters most. As simplistic as it sounds, Forests victory or downfall this season really could depend on their strikers. Whether it comes through one of the current players or by signing a player capable of turning their fortunes. Although finding such a player is no mean feat. Prediction: 4th
Here’s to Brian McDermott. To some, unfairly sacked as Reading manager, only then for him to inherit a team cultivated by a man who once compared himself to Osama Bin Laden. Not only was Neil Warnock inept at using appropriate metaphors, the squad he left behind would suggest a similar level of ineptitude in footballing management. However, as Reading fans in the past and now Leeds fans realise, McDermott is brilliant at working well with what he is given. Leeds like Reading of the past have a limited budget – one which McDermott has used prudently. Some financially conscious Leeds fans may have winced at the £1 million lavished on Luke Murphy, but frankly, when Michael Brown was the alternative, well… McDermott’s side is further enhanced by a re-energised Ross McCormack, who is now leading scorer in the league. However, as good a salvage operation as he is doing, Leeds have survived thus far by plugging gaps in their side with youngsters and has beens. Such an approach with regard to the blooding of youth, will certainly pay off in the future. But, like Burnley and Blackpool, can one player really hold up a team over a league season, renowned as one of the toughest in world football? Prediction: 7th