Championship mid-season review – the top 6

So, it’s Christmas and we’re halfway through this season’s Championship, the league is as competitive as ever. Unusually, both the relegated and promoted sides have struggled in the second tier so far, making automatic promotion even more up-for-grabs than usual. How are the top six shaping up? Check back later for the rest of the division…

bellamy leicester

Cardiff City

The rebranded Bluebirds have taken the Christmas #1 spot this year after extensive strengthening in the summer. Their position so far is down to imperious home form (bar a stunning upset by Peterborough), while in recent weeks they have turned their abysmal away record around with a scintillating display at Blackburn and a resilient smash and grab at Leicester. Cardiff are perhaps lacking a dependable goal-scorer – the loss of Nicky Maynard may prompt Malky Mackay to add more forward options in January. They may be joint top scorers, but they’ve shared the goals around – no-one has hit double figures yet. Also, a tendency to leak goals away from home must be fixed if Cardiff are to finally banish their promotion hoodoo. Nevertheless, with captain Mark Hudson in ‘brick wall mode’ at the back and Craig Bellamy lauding his teammates as “the most honest and hard-working group I’ve ever worked with,” things are looking good for the Bluebirds.

Rating:           B+

Prediction:    Automatic promotion. Surely they can’t mess it up this time?

Hull City

Hull have just crept into the top two off the back of an impressive run of four consecutive wins, three of which have come away from home. And it is their form away from the KC stadium that has provided a foundation for the team to climb high in the table, for the Tigers boast the best away record in the division with an impressive seven wins. Stephen Quinn and Sone Aluko have been two great additions by Steve Bruce and they’ve slotted in nicely with Robert Koren to provide a cutting edge that Hull were lacking last season. To really cement one of the auto spots they may have to improve their record at the KC, but that won’t be a necessity if they can keep up their healthy points haul away from home.

Rating:           A

Prediction:    A good chance of an auto spot. Home record might drop them into the play-offs.

zaha

Crystal Palace

Definitely the surprise package of the division so far, Palace have defied the off-season doubters to be just off the top at the half-way point.  After a stuttering start with a trio of league defeats, the south Londoners burst into life and even a mid-term managerial change couldn’t disrupt their unexpectedly superb form. Excellent at coming from behind to win, they’ve picked up the most points from losing positions in the division, but perhaps need to fix a habit of conceding late equalisers, as they have in their last three fixtures. They bagged some excellent summer bargains, including Yannick Bolasie and Damien Delaney, but all the plaudits have gone to homegrown wonderkid Wilfried Zaha. Though Ian Holloway is adamant that his star man is going nowhere in January, there are sure to be plenty of top-level suitors willing to stretch the Eagles’ resolve. The big question about Palace is whether they have the strength in depth necessary for automatic promotion. January will be crucial for their prospects.

Rating:           A+

Prediction:    Maybe limping into the play-offs. Lacking the squad depth to push for autos.

Middlesbrough

Tony Mowbray has steadily shaped his squad since taking the reins at the Riverside, this year proving to be no exception. Andre Bike and George Friend have strengthened the ‘Boro defence alongside the return of the experienced Jonathan Woodgate. At the other end, Scott McDonald has bagged nine goals so far but Mowbray will want his other strikers to start weighing in with a few more goals. They’ve only been second to Palace in picking up points from a losing position but they also have a tendency to switch off at the back, conceding a few too many goals at the end of each half. Though their record against teams in the bottom half of the table is the best in the league, they really need to start taking points off the teams around them to mount a serious challenge for the top.

Rating:            B

Prediction:     Play-offs.

knockaert

Leicester

Leicester’s buy of the summer was Anthony Knockaert – the mazy winger is a thrill to watch. Their problem so far though has been an inability to take the points from games they’ve dominated, this trait clearly on display during their 0-1 defeat to Cardiff, the Foxes peppered the Cardiff goal but failed to find the net for the first time at home this season. They’ve been resolute in defence, conceding less than a goal a game so far – the best record in the division. It’s worth noting that they’re always in with a chance as they’re yet to lose by more than a single goal. This trait will stand them in good stead if they can improve on their performances at the other end of the pitch, either intensive finishing practise or, even better, a January addition will do wonders for them.

Rating:            B

Prediction:     If they can be a bit more clinical, they will be a threat to the top two. Autos/play-offs.

Watford

Following a takeover by the Pozzo family in the summer, Gianfranco Zola was swiftly installed at Vicarage road where he was joined by no less than fourteen loan players, mostly from the owners’ other clubs, Udinese and Granada. Surprisingly though, after such a tumultuous off-season, the Hornets have gone about their business relatively under the radar, recently creeping into the play-off spots. They’ve undoubtedly improved recently following a pretty mediocre start, but perhaps that was to be expected with so many new, temporary faces having to gel. If the owners can drop in some more quality in January they could be a threat to the play-off places, but Zola has got his work cut out to keep so many loan players happy and on form.

Rating:            B-

Prediction:     Play-offs a step too far? Depends on whether they can build on their recent form.

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