The race to beat the drop: Middlesbrough, Hull and Huddersfield involved in Championship relegation battle
Watch Middlesbrough vs Nottingham Forest live on Sky Sports Football from 7.30pm on Monday; kick off is at 7.45pm
By Dan Long
Last Updated: 02/03/20 1:38pm
With the Championship's bottom three starting to fight for their lives to avoid starting next season in Sky Bet League One, the relegation battle is starting to hot up.
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Once Monday's clash between Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest has rounded off the weekend's action, there will be just 10 games left to play in the second tier; just 11 points separate Luton at the foot of the table and Reading in 16th, so it goes without saying that there is plenty still to play for.
Who will be part of the unfortunate trio to lose their Championship status? We take a look...
Luton picking up momentum
First things first, it must be said that it's quite the achievement the Hatters are still in with a shout of staying in the division given their vastly inferior playing budget to those of their peers. In fact, it's still admirable they are in the division whatsoever after rising back to the EFL after winning the Conference in 2014.
Appointing Graeme Jones as manager back in May no doubt aided their cause. The former Belgium assistant was part of Darren Moore's West Brom coaching staff during their promotion bid towards the end of last term and gained extensive EFL experience with Doncaster and Wigan throughout the 1990s as a player.
Starting the season with a high-octane 3-3 draw against Middlesbrough at Kenilworth Road allayed fears of an immediate struggle, but five straight defeats during October and November started a run of 16 games where Jones' side picked up just seven of a possible 48 points on offer.
That said, they have far from disgraced themselves. Barring a forgettable 7-0 reverse against Brentford at Griffin Park on November 30, Luton haven't shipped more than three goals in any of their 35 other league outings.
On New Year's Day, they dropped to the bottom of the table for the first time but since mid-February, things have changed. A James Collins strike earned a 1-0 win against Sheffield Wednesday on February 12, before Ryan Tunnicliffe scored the only goal of the game away at Middlesbrough three days later.
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A 3-1 defeat to Charlton at The Valley last weekend denied them a third straight victory, but a coupon-busting 2-1 win against Brentford last Tuesday and a 1-1 draw at home to Stoke has filled Hatters fans with belief. The great escape might just be on.
Barnsley on the rampage
Having been relegated in 2018, the Tykes were promoted back to the Championship alongside Luton at the end of last term, hoping to better their 22nd-place finish. Yet with just one win in the opening 18 games of the season, they seemed to be heading for the worst.
During that time, manager Daniel Stendel was relieved of his duties at Oakwell before the club were dragged further into the mire. There was a meticulous, protracted search for his successor and in late November, 43-year-old Austrian Gerhard Struber signed a two-year deal take over.
The road that lie ahead of him looked rocky, to say the least. He opened with narrow defeats to Blackburn and Middlesbrough but the pivotal festive period brought five points from nine games offering hope, though that was quickly shot down during a pretty miserable January.
Now, though, Barnsley are on the rampage. Their first win of the season came on the opening day against Fulham and they served up a thoroughly professional performance to win 3-0 and complete the double at Craven Cottage on February 15, ahead of successive 1-0 wins over Middlesbrough and Hull.
They were beaten 2-0 by Reading last time out, but the pivotal time in their season is set to be the first two weeks of April. On Saturday, April 4 they face Stoke at the bet365 Stadium, before travelling to Kenilworth Road to face Luton on Good Friday. What could be a blockbuster clash at home to Wigan awaits on Easter Monday.
While those fixtures have the potential to define the season, picking up some decent results could ease the pressure of facing Leeds, Nottingham Forest and Brentford on the final three matchdays.
Wigan, Charlton following closely behind
Wigan struggled to an 18th-place finish last year and this term has been no different. But much like the 2018/19 campaign, there has been a real confidence to their play over the last month, with just one defeat in their last seven.
Goalscorers capable of Championship success are few and far between, but it appears that is a component that has contributed to their struggles; top scorer Kieffer Moore has six so far, but three of those have come in his last four.
Fortunately, that has gone hand-in-hand with the aforementioned spike in form. Brushing Reading aside on their own patch earned the Latics their biggest winning margin of the season to date, before they upset the applecart at the opposite end of the table days later, beating leaders West Brom to cut their advantage over Leeds to just one point. It couldn't have come at a much better time.
Who could forget the brilliant start Charlton had? They rose as high as second ahead of the first international break of the season, going six unbeaten in their first Championship campaign since 2015/16 but an ill-timed injury to talismanic striker Lyle Taylor coincided with a real struggle for form over the next few months.
Not only did he missed three months of action, Addicks boss Lee Bowyer was forced to deal with an injury crisis that saw youngsters Albie Morgan and Alfie Doughty prematurely recalled from non-league loan spells. Taylor has since returned to action and is back among the goals, but because there's nothing like knocking someone when they are down, the team is now struggling for consistency.
It's been a case of winning one week, losing the next throughout the entirety of the month and they now sit two points above the black line, after a 4-0 mauling at the hands of Huddersfield.
Former top-flight sides scrambling for their lives
Given the fact each of these three teams - Middlesbrough, Stoke and Huddersfield - have been in the Premier League inside the last five years, being in this situation was, by all accounts, never part of the plan.
Middlesbrough's bold appointment of Jonathan Woodgate as Tony Pulis' successor on Teesside hasn't been without its tribulations. Boro fans had grown tired of the direct approach and the former England defender promised sweeping changes, though he was forced to adapt plans of free-flowing attacking play when the results failed to follow.
In all honesty, the club's outlook might well have been different had they improved their performances on the road. Seventeen away games to date have produced two wins - they beat West Brom and Preston in the final week of 2020.
Meanwhile, Stoke have been touted as title favourites in both of their seasons since relegation from the Premier League and have twice struggled to match expectations, in spite of the raft of talent in their squad. There's no doubt Nathan Jones' doomed spell in charge played a significant part in determining their current league position.
Michael O'Neill took on the job, while balancing his job as Northern Ireland boss, in November and has played a key role in bringing 20-year-old Tyrese Campbell to the forefront of the Potters' survival bid. More prominently, the 50-year-old is beginning to repair the deep-set confidence issues of the past few years. Thus, they enter the final stage of the season in markedly improved form, having kept five clean sheets in 11 league games so far this year.
Huddersfield sit just two points above the drop zone having followed up the fabled new manager 'bounce' with a mixed, but largely poor, start to the year.
Taking advantage of his first transfer window in the job, Danny Cowley bolstered his squad with Richard Stearman and Harry Toffolo on permanent deals, in addition to five loans - including those of Arsenal starlet Emile Smith Rowe and ex-Gunner Chris Willock.
Even so, in a division as challenging as the Championship, stringing a run together is a hard task and after an inconsistent couple of months, the Terriers are still yet to win more than one game on the bounce since November.
The outsiders - but for how long?
Sitting just a little further towards safety are Hull and Reading. First, to the Tigers. Before Christmas, a play-off push wasn't beyond the realms of possibility, particularly with Jarrod Bowen and Kamil Grosicki still on the books at the KCOM.
Yet even their dynamic duo couldn't prevent them from losing three of their first four in 2020 and on Deadline Day, they departed; Bowen to West Ham, Grosicki to West Brom. It was, effectively a knockout blow. A 5-1 thumping at the hands of Brentford rounded off a disastrous week on Humberside, midway through a run of 10 league outings without victory that continues ahead of next weekend's trip to Stoke.
It's a similar story for Mark Bowen's Reading. After vacating his sporting director role to replace Jose Gomes in October, the Welshman gradually steered the Royals away from the bottom three to a mid-table standing.
They remain there or thereabouts, but have slumped to three defeats in their last five Championship games and have won just two games since the turn of the year, meaning the nerves appear to have, ever so slightly, crept back in.
Who will be relegated to League One?
In spite of their recent upturn, Luton are priced at 1/8 with Sky Bet to return to League One at the first time of asking, with Barnsley priced at 1/4 to follow them back to the third tier. Though they are two points off the bottom three at present, Charlton are third favourites (6/5).