It’s finally here. The wait has been much shorter thanks to a thrilling World Cup but finally league football is back in England with the Championship returning on Friday.
It’s a cliché but for all the excitement that we have in the Premier League – more on that later – you can have that added with the unpredictability of the football league in general and picking the title winner of this division is a real feat. Parachute payments have led to an extremely strong set of clubs on the fringes along with the three dropdowns from the top flight who in recent times have offered strong competition for the title.
It’s this set of affairs that leads to having a top of the market with 5 teams all quoted in the single figures; The relegated three of Cardiff, Fulham, and Norwich along with Derby and Wigan, QPR’s two victims in the playoffs over the past season.
Cardiff went down bottom last season, but to their credit they do at least retain the large majority of their squad from the Premier League and the squad that won this division two years ago. There has been a large exodus but it’s unlikely that they’ll really miss anyone apart from Steven Caulker and Fraizer Campbell and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has bought some very useful additions to bolster his chances including some potentially smart captures in the shape of Reading’s Adam Le Fondre and Federico Macheda. Le Fondre has been a stalwart at this level for a good while and scored 15 for Reading last season while Macheda looked to have discovered some of the potential he showed when he burst onto the scene with that goal for United against Aston Villa – how long ago it is – when scoring 10 goals for Birmingham last season.
Javi Guerra scored 72 goals in 149 appearances for Valladolid and if bringing that form to England, can give Cardiff a fair better set of striking options than they had when putting just 32 past opposition defences last year in the league when Jordan Mutch’s seven was the most any of the Bluebirds racked up; More firepower also comes from midfield with Marcus Burgstaller, who scored 12 goals in 35 appearances as Rapid claimed a second-placed finish in the Austrian Bundesliga last year.
The question mark is over how the former Manchester United manager takes to life in the second division and how a defence that shipped at will on some occasions last season will cope in an end-to-end league but their firepower will be a massive asset this season.
Fulham weren’t far behind in terms of the mediocrity stakes last year with the arrival of Felix Magath not the saving grace they needed and it remains to be seen if a much lighter and much changed squad takes to the former Schalke man this time around.
They have the biggest signing of the summer in money terms in terms of the £11m paid for Ross McCormack to lead the line – however it’s not without good reason. The scot scored 28 goals for Leeds last year and if repeating that level of performance will be a vital asset for their bid to bounce back at the first attempt. Adam Taggart is less heralded but had caught many an eye when earning a place in Australia’s world cup squad when topscoring with the Newcastle Jets.
In fact, with the highly promising Moussa Dembele hoping to make a full graduation from junior league football, Fulham too have a potent frontline with McCormack, Dembele, and Taggart all options.
The addition of the immensely promising Thomas Eisfield from Arsenal could also reap instant dividends with the German finally given his first team chance; And the continued presence of Bryan Ruiz is also going to be a massive boost for the men from Craven Cottage and Magath could be a better bet than most in the manager stakes even with many big departures from the, which is totally understandable; They look to be the best of the relegated trip.
Norwich look to be in a far less certain place than the other two, with a replacement for Chris Hughton not found and Neil Adams facing an extremely tough task at the helm with dreadfully little experience under his belt.
At this time of writing they do still have much of their premier league squad – the likes of Fer, Hoolahan, Snodgrass, Van Wolfswinkel, Hooper, Olsson, and Ruddy are all still listed – but the worry is that names will leave in the month oncoming before the window closes and the situation could change rapidly; Even if keeping their squad, there is a worry that the managerial situation could be an issue and that’s unavoidable at this level.
Derby were outstanding in missing out by the skin of their teeth last year, losing out in especially undeserved style when a 90th minute QPR winner having dominated that game, while they were much the best in their playoff win as well. The addition of Steve McLaren proved to be a master-stroke last season and with him at the helm from the beginning this time the leadership structure should be well and truly established.
To add to that, they’ve kept future starlet Will Keane away from the many prying eyes that have been growing over the past season, and have also pulled the same coup with Scottish International Craig Bryson as well as a booster before the start of the season; If Chris Martin can repeat his tally of 19 goals from last year then the highest scorers in the division last season won’t lack for goals although Craig Bryson wasn’t far behind with 16 league goals and Johnny Russell and Patrick Bamford made themselves very useful with at least eight goals between them and their chances of going up are extremely obvious.
Wigan are also in the mix, having had a fine season on all fronts that may have worked out against them last year. With a run to the semi finals of the FA Cup, and a Europa League campaign as well, Wigan played 62 games and succumbed only to QPR in extra time of their second leg at the end of an arduous season.
This is arguably reflected by the fact that they finished the season very weakly – they took just 11 points from their last 10 games and lost half of their last 6 games to limp across the line, but this year they should have a much lighter calendar – they played 8 extra games on top of the season’s minimum (50) – and that could be a crucial difference for them this year.
The loss of Jordi Gomez to Sunderland is a blow but Shaun Maloney returns from injury, a vital boost in midfield if he’s at his best, while James McArthur remains one of the league’s most exciting and influential players; The additions of Don Cowie and Emyr Huws bolster the strongest part of the squad yet further and
How Oriol Riera fits in will be possibly the most crucial aspect in terms of strikers as Nick Powell and the now absent Jordi Gomez led the charts with seven a piece last season, but Riera scored 13 in la Liga for Osasuna last season and if he gets going early then he could give a real spearhead to Wigan’s challenge.
There’s a strong level of depth with Roger Espinoza having played at the World Cup for Honduras while Ali Al-Habsi is a fine goalkeeper, and crucially they will having the guidance of Uwe Rosler from the beginning in the same way that Steve McLaren will be present from the beginning and it’s not hard to see a big challenge forthcoming from them over the coming season; They make the most appeal of the favourites for a title run and a promotion charge even with much resting on the shoulders of Riera.
There are flashes of promise at Middlesbrough, with Aitor Karanka’s presence bringing not only some notable connections in terms of personnel – he has been able to capture Chelsea and Nigeria’s Kenneth Omeruo for one – but also invigorating a squad that had been reeling from a run of just 2 wins in 12 games under Tony Mowbray before his sacking with strong runs through Christmas through to the end of January and also to end the season.
Plenty of promising and exciting captures have already been made, especially of forwards Kike, a prolific scorer in Spain with Murcia, and Emilio Nsue, who is bought from Real Mallorca, to name just two, with Thomas Mejas also capable of making a key impression, although they are very much the right price having been backed into single figures a week beforehand they look major playoff contenders – with more to come if the new singings bed in.
Watford’s link with the Sanninio family still has the potential to be a brilliant success and they have the undoubted quality to make a challenge – they have bought in Spurs’ Heurelho Gomes from Spurs along with Matej Vydra – re signed on a season long loan, but a previous scorer of 23 goals in the Championship – Ecuadorian defender Juan Carlos Paredes, Udinese’s regular loannee Odion Ighalom and Gianni Munari from Parma, to join – but Giuseppe Sannino had all that quality to his name last season and it didn’t help him at all during an extremely disappointing campaign last year and it remains to be seen if team cohesion can be found with so many new arrivals.
Nottingham Forest failed to build on the promise of what they showed in 2012/13 with a disappointing finish last season and Stuart Pearce’s unhappiness about their transfer dealings does not bode well for the upcoming season. The polar opposite appears to be happening at Blackburn, where the chaotic Venky’s reign seems to have calmed down and Gary Bowyer is now firmly in charge of affairs and steering the ship in the right direction.
Gone are the days of trying to find big name players on the wane and move to a new, more fluid style of football, but last season they reverted to type and had their most solid campaign for some time, never dropping below 12th in the table and losing just 12 times – the same amount of times as QPR and less than Wigan, for comparison’s sake – they also didn’t lose a game from the middle of March right through to the end of the season and were third in a final form table based on the last 10 games behind only Leicester and Derby.
Last year they dominated many games they didn’t take three points from but they ended last year just 2 points outside the playoffs. This was led in the main by the extremely exciting Jordan Rhodes, who has now scored 51 goals in his two seasons at the club, and also Rudy Gestde, who scored 13 in his first campaign, and if the two stay fit then they can lead the charge through the coming season.
Transfer business has been very light over the summer, which might be seen as a negative given the flurry of deals elsewhere, but a healthy atmosphere at the club is likely to be solidified this year and the additions of Chris Brown and Luke Varney provide important injury cover for the main two striking options which is much needed. At 20/1 they appeal as value to surprise a few and make a bold bid for the title while the 13/2 for promotion and the 11/4 for a top 6 finish both make great appeal here.
Reading were just one point ahead of Blackburn last year but with the club under such a cloud – there have been no new arrivals and a whole host of exits, the most damaging of which would be Adam Le Fondre, whose 14 league goals from last year will be sorely missed – they don’t make such appeal. The core talent of the squad that was in the Premier League is still there (Adam Federici, Jem Karacan, Alex Pearce and Pavel Pogrebnyak) but through a long season squad depth could be a telling issue and while they are a temptingly big price, others make more appeal.
Brighton have finished in the top 6 for the past 2 seasons and are well worth considering to go well again having made some smart pickups over the summer, with David Stockdale from Fulham an excellent pickup although Jesse Lingaard from United isn’t far behind (Aaron Hughes will be useful too) and the arrival of Sami Hypia with his Bundesliga and European experience is just a bonus.
Mick Mccarthy’s Ipswich have edged closer to the top over the past two years – blocked in the group of teams on the playoff fringes – and with possibly their best summer of transfer business behind them in recent times. Young additions in midfielder Kevin Bru and striker Balint Bajner from Sofia and Dortmund look to be potentially smart captures while Jonathan Parr and Cameron Stewart come from Crystal Palace and Hull respectively and add experience to a squad that Mick Mccarthy has been slowly improving year on year and they can make interesting handicap contenders even if promotion proves to be beyond them with a generous start compared to the main names of 18 points.
Even more interesting in this market are Milwall, who get 30 points from scratch and could make some big impressions having avoided relegation last year with 15 points from their last 7 games after a change of manager to Ian Holloway – whose stint with Crystal Palace had not worked out to say the least – who steers the ship with the same expertise that he has always used at this level.
It’s worth nothing that his previous stint in the top flight with Blackpool didn’t work out either (albeit by the skin of his teeth) but he bounced back by taking them straight back to the playoffs the next year and after leaving Blackpool he then took Crystal Palace up, again through the playoffs. That’s three playoffs in the last 5 years, winning them twice, at this level.
If it’s anything, take a look at what the BBC quoted from Matthew Briggs and his reasons for joining Milwall:
The 23-year-old left-back has signed a one-year deal with the Lions following his release by Fulham.
“I had a bad time with injury last season and Ian has picked me up and shown great belief in me,” Briggs told BBC London 94.9.
“I want to play for him and do well for myself. It is his character really. He brings out the best in players.”
He added: “He knows what everyone is capable of and makes you believe in yourself.
“People lose belief in themselves sometimes and he can bring it back out in you.”
In transfer terms Bryon Webster’s addition brings real menace and physicality to the backline with Danny Shittu, while Owen Garvan, Ricardo Fuller and Carlos Edwards all add some depth arriving from Palace, Blackpool, and Ipswich respectively, so it’s not just Holloway’s presence that adds considerable appeal and they look to be best of the outsiders not just for the handicaps but also for a long range title bid – 100/1 could be very big if Holloway works his magic again.
It remains to be seen if Blackpool can void the drop and sort themselves out, and just how Wolves adapt to the second division again; Staying up would be the aim for Kenny Jackett’s men. Leeds once looked like they were going the right way but they’re falling apart at the seams and none of the other contenders make any sort of appeal for either promotion or relegation.
Advice – Outright
1.5 pts each/way Wigan (10/1 general)
1 pt each/way Blackburn (20/1 Bet365)
1 pt each/way Milwall (100/1 Bet365)
Advice – Promotion
3 pts Wigan (10/3 general)
2 pts Blackburn (13/2 general)
1 pt Milwall (20/1 Bet365)
Advice – Handicaps
1 pt each/way Ipswich +18 (18/1 general)
1 pt each/way Milwall +30 (18/1 general)
Advice – Top relegated side
2 pts Fulham (15/8 general)
Advice – Groups
1 pt Blackburn to win Paddy Power’s Group B (7/2 general)
1 pt Ipswich to win Paddy Power’s Group C (10/3 general)
2 pts Ipswich to win Skybet’s Group D (12/5 general)
4 pts Wigan to make the playoffs (11/10 general)
2 pts Blackburn to make the Playoffs (11/4 general)
10 pts Milwall top half finish (4/1 Bet Victor)