After months of waiting the Sky Bet Championship finally gets underway again this weekend. Love Island was entertaining, cricket came home and even the Sun made a brief appearance this summer but there’s nothing quite like the football season.
Therefore, fans will be delighted that the 2019/20 EFL season kicks off on Friday night, when Middlesbrough head to Kenilworth Road to face Sky Bet League One champions Luton Town
Predicting the Championship has become something of a fool’s game. This was reflected last season when Norwich City and Sheffield United pipped Leeds United to automatic promotion. Three teams who finished in midtable the previous campaign.
The only thing predictable about England’s second tier is its unpredictability, which is why it is revered as one of the most exciting leagues in the world. The division of ‘sleeping giants’ is home to 19 former Premier League clubs and with only three places up for grabs to the promised land, it’s set to be as competitive as ever.
Leeds United and Fulham are the bookie’s favourites this time around, but as last season’s picks Middlesbrough and Stoke City found out, it doesn’t guarantee success.
The Title Challengers
Leeds have pulled off a coup in adding Helder Costa to their ranks. The lively Portuguese forward has been loaned from Wolves with an option to buy him next summer, but the signing of the season came back in May when Marco Bielsa decided to stay at Elland Road. ‘El Loco’ was a breath of fresh air. He revolutionised a club seemingly super-glued to 15th every season and even caused his fair share of controversy. He couldn’t shake off the accusations of the “Bielsa burnout” however, as a late collapse saw United miss out on promotion. This year he’ll be looking to go one better. Besides, if he can’t bring Premier League football back to Leeds then, surely, no one can.
Fulham spent big last year but came crashing back down, perhaps showing that evolution over revolution is probably the way forward after promotion. The Cottagers have trimmed down their big-money squad and like Leeds have fetched in an exciting winger from Wolves, securing the signature of Ivan Cavalero. Anthony Knockaert has also joined for the season and he’ll be hoping to add a third promotion from this division to his CV after achieving the feat with Leicester City and parent-club Brighton and Hove Albion. Alexander Mitrovic is also sticking around after agreeing to a new 5-year-deal, so expect the Serbian striker to bag at least 20 goals. Can Scott Parker achieve promotion in his first full season as a manager? That remains to be seen, but he certainly has the talent at his disposal to do so.
There’s no way of guaranteeing promotion but having Neil Warnock in charge is about as close as it gets. Alongside leading Cardiff City up two seasons ago, he’s also reached the top-flight with Notts County, Sheffield United and Queens Park Rangers. The 70-year-old has added another weapon to his armoury in the shape of all-action midfielder Will Vaulks. He was brought in from Rotherham United and possess an almighty long throw, so expect Cardiff to be a threat from set-pieces. Despite relegation, Warnock’s side certainly didn’t lack fight or spirit. Only a brave (or foolish) punter would back against him adding a record-breaking ninth EFL promotion with the Blue Birds.
If Warnock is to achieve that coveted promotion, he’ll have to do it without striker Kenneth Zohore. The 25-year-old striker has opted to join promotion rivals West Bromwich Albion. New manager Slaven Bilic has certainly been on the hunt for bargains this summer with the further additions of Semi Ajayi and Romain Sawyers from Rotherham and Brentford respectively. However, the Croatian has his work cut out if he’s to make the Baggies serious contenders. Albion have lost 45 goals from their side in the form of strikers Jay Rodriguez and Dwight Gayle, so could probably do with another forward. Another challenge for Bilic will be tightening a defence that conceded the joint-most goals in the top-ten last campaign.
The Play-Off Contenders
Stoke City were heavily backed for the title last year but failed miserably, so maybe going under the radar this time won’t be such a bad thing. The Potters haven’t spent the earth but have done some very smart business with five of their seven summer signings arriving on a free. On paper, Nathan Jones has one of the best squads in the league at his disposal. Now he just needs to build on the three wins since his arrival, the 22 draws and the fewest goals scored outside of the bottom three last year.
Like Stoke, Middlesbrough failed to live up to their pre-season billing after narrowly missing out on a play-off spot. Goals were hard to come by for ‘Boro and fans were pretty pleased when Tony Pulis left. Club legend Jonathan Woodgate has replaced him, and he’ll surely need to dip his toes into the transfer market soon to mount a serious promotion challenge.
Woodgate will be hoping he can emulate the success of Frank Lampard’s first season in management. Derby County must go again after losing their manager, the play-off final and their loan stars. Rams’ fans will be hoping former PSV Eindhoven manager Phillip Cocu can finally give them the Dutch Courage they need for promotion. The loan signing of Everton midfielder Kieran Dowell is a good start.
Bristol City flirted with the play-offs last year but lacked consistency. This year they’ve managed to make some of their loan signings permanent, paying a club-record fee to Chelsea for defender Thomas Kalas. Manager Lee Johnson has gradually improved the Robins every season since joining his boyhood club, so expect more of the same.
Nottingham Forest have shaken up their squad after another disappointing season left them stuck in midtable. Martin O’Neil has made way for Sabri Lamouchi and the Reds have managed to keep a hold of their top talents, including Joe Lolley. Forest are tough to predict but certainly have the talent to challenge, provided they don’t press the self-destruct button yet again.
Brentford arguably have the most exciting frontline in the league in the form of Neal Maupay, Ollie Watkins and Said Benrahma, whether they can keep hold of them is a different matter entirely. One man who will certainly be at Griffin Park next season is Swedish international Pontus Janson after his move from Leeds. The Bees play exciting football but were accused of lacking a backbone last season, maybe the 28-year-old defender can provide it.
The Midtable Safety
Steve Bruce got Sheffield Wednesday firing after taking over in February, but he’s ditched the Owls for Newcastle United. This has disrupted their pre-season plans and they are yet to make a permanent appointment. Wednesday have a good squad of players for this level and are certainly too good to be dragged into a relegation battle, however with all this upheaval the play-offs might be a step too far.
Huddersfield Town are back in the second tier after comfortably finishing bottom of the topflight. A side boasting the likes of Aaron Mooy, Alex Pritchard and promising youngster Karlan Grant shouldn’t be underestimated but a season of transition looks likely.
Blackburn Rovers finally look to have some stability after a solid first season back at this level. The addition of Stuart Downing brings added experience to Tony Mowbray’s side, while Sam Gallagher looks like a good signing.
A club who could do with some stability of their own are Birmingham City. The Blues were hit with a points deduction at the end of last season and sacked Garry Monk in the summer. New boss Pep Clotet has made some astute signings, but the Spaniard is untested at this level.
Preston have lost star-striker Callum Robinson to Sheffield United, but still have enough quality to avoid a relegation fight. Their best bit of business has been keeping hold of manager Alex Neal who should oversee a steady campaign.
Plenty of players have come and gone at Reading this summer. A soft transfer embargo has probably dented their hopes of a play-off push, but there are plenty of teams far worse than the Royals.
Barnsley have lost some key players from last season’s promotion campaign but have replaced them well. Daniel Stendel’s high-pressing Reds could surprise many this season and strikers Keiffer Moore and Cauley Woodrow should provide goals.
After back-to-back promotions Luton Town are back in the Championship for the first time since 2007. Like Barnsley they should catch a few teams off-guard, the only doubt hanging over the Hatters is whether new boss Graeme Jones can make the step-up from being an assistant.
The Relegation Candidates
Keeping hold of Jarrod Bowen and Kamil Grosicki will be key to Hull City’s chances, but it’s difficult to see why Nigel Adkins lost his job. Grant McCann did well at Doncaster Rovers last season and is a positive appointment given the circumstances. Not only are there problems on the pitch, but the continued unhappiness towards the ownership won’t help a manager with limited experience.
Queens Park Rangers were lucky not to be dragged into a relegation scrap last season, but they may not be so fortunate this time around after losing some key players. Loan signings have been brought in to sure up the squad, but new manager Mark Warburton will be looking over his shoulder.
Millwall are another side who were lucky to keep their heads above water last time out and like Rangers it wouldn’t be a surprise if they drop this time. They’ve lost Lee Gregory to Stoke and the Lions’ summer business has done nothing to suggest they won’t be involved in another survival fight. If they are to avoid the drop, they need to make The Den a fortress again. Millwall had the fifth-worst home record last term, winning just seven times.
Losing their lightning bolt Daniel James to Manchester United will hurt Swansea City, while some other high earners have also been allowed to leave. Fans will rightly be concerned with lack of players coming in and with former manager Graham Potter leaving for Brighton, they could struggle. New head coach Steve Cooper is well regarded in youth football but managing in the Championship is a different proposition.
Nick Powell is a big loss for Wigan Athletic and their summer business hasn’t exactly been inspired. Chelsea loanee Reece James was their standout performer and they’ll certainly struggle to replace his quality. Paul Cook is a good manager and with him in charge, the Latics will certainly be up for the scrap, but it’s difficult to see where the goals are going to come from.
Things are never simple at Charlton Athletic. Popular manager Lee Bowyer defied the off-the-pitch turmoil to lead the Addicks to promotion via the play-offs, so the club duly haggled over his contract, forcing him to leave before reinstating him a day later. Charlton have a chance of survival but only if they allow their talented boss to get on with his job.
Three Players to Watch
Many were shocked to see Aleksander Mitrovic sign a new five-year contract to stay at Fulham, despite their relegation from the Premier League. ‘Mitro’ netted 12 times in 20 appearances as he fired the Cottagers to promotion in 2018, before making his loan from Newcastle permanent. He went on to find the net 11 times in the topflight during 2018/19, an impressive tally for a side who were frankly hopeless. With the attacking options he has around him and the benefit of having a settled home, it really isn’t beyond the realms of possibility to suggest he could reach the 30-goal-mark.
The man tasked with tightening West Brom’s leaky defence is 25-year-old defender Semi Ajayi. The Nigerian international had an impressive season in the second tier with relegated Rotherham, prompting the Baggies to part with £1.5 million to secure his signature. Ajayi was a standout performer for the Millers, playing every minute of the campaign and scoring a remarkable 8 goals. He has unfinished business too after narrowly missing the cut for Nigeria’s African Cup of Nations squad last summer. The defender possesses great strength, balance and speed. His ability in both boxes will make him a real asset to Slaven Bilic’s side.
After a traumatic end to a memorable campaign, Leeds fans have every right to be excited by the signing of Helder Costa. The Portuguese international scored his first goal for his country as recently as October and netted for Wolves during their 3-1 win over Tottenham at Wembley in December. This was his only Premier League goal last season, after being limited to substitute appearances in a side that secured a Europa League spot. If he can rediscover the form that saw him finish as Wolves’ top scorer during his first season in English football, he could be the catalyst for Leeds’ long-awaited return to the Premier League.