Championship promotion race: Andy Hinchcliffe assesses the contenders battling to reach Premier League

The race for promotion in the Sky Bet Championship is starting to take shape as we approach the business end of the season.

Wolves may be running away with the title, but there's a huge battle taking place below them for the second automatic promotion spot and a place in the play-offs.

Here, Andy Hinchcliffe assesses each of the contenders and how they could strengthen in the January transfer window to boost their bids to reach the Premier League...

Championship table - Top 10 as it stands

Team Pl GD Pts
1) Wolves 26 30 61
2) Derby 26 18 49
3) Cardiff 26 11 47
4) Bristol City 26 9 47
5) Aston Villa 26 14 44
6) Leeds 26 9 43
7) Sheff Utd 26 9 42
8) Middlesbrough 26 9 41
9) Preston 26 4 40
10) Fulham 26 5 39
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Wolves

I don't think it could have gone much better for Wolves than it has this season. They're so far ahead of the rest and if they keep everyone fit they should win the title by at least 10 points. The balance of the squad is excellent and they just have to keep doing what they're doing.

Maybe Derby can push them a little bit but it would still take a complete implosion and an extraordinary turnaround for that to happen. For me everyone else is looking at second and the play-offs.

Where can they strengthen?

Cover up front for Leo Bonatini was maybe the one area where they were slightly lacking, and they've already addressed that by bringing in Rafa Mir from Valencia.

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They've got the luxury now of picking and choosing their signings in January as players know they'll be in the Premier League next season. But they're not desperate for anyone.

Promotion odds: (1/100 with Sky Bet)

Wolverhampton Wanderers' Leo Bonatini (front left) celebrates scoring his side's second goal of the game
Image: Wolves are 12 points clear at the top of the table

Derby

I'm so pleased for Gary Rowett with how he's done at Derby. He was so poorly treated by Birmingham and you only have to look at where they are now to see how poor a decision it was to get rid of him.

You wondered at the start of the season whether he could build a real promotion push in his first full campaign, especially after the indifferent start they made, but their team is stronger now and they're moving in the right direction. For me they're the favourites to finish second.

Where can they strengthen?

They've got good depth, goals up front and a solid defence so there's no real need to go crazy with recruitment in January. Any player who arrives will have to compliment what they have already.

Promotion odds: (6/5 with Sky Bet)

DERBY, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 02: Richard Keogh (L) and Sam Winnall (R) of Derby County celebrates with Johnny Russell after he scores the winning goal during
Image: Andy Hinchcliffe believes Derby are favourites to finish second

Cardiff

It was a dreadful festive period for Cardiff, there's no two ways about it. But you still have to remember where Neil Warnock has taken them from in the last 12 months to see what an extraordinary job he has done.

At the start of the season he would have been happy with a play-off spot and I don't think that's changed too much. Kenneth Zohore is back from injury now and they need him to start scoring regularly again, while he'll want the likes of Sol Bamba and Junior Hoilett to keep up their performances. That will be crucial for them if they want to stay in the top six.

Where can they strengthen?

Looking past the recent poor run they've been solid in defence and midfield all season, so maybe Warnock can tap into the loan market to bring in another striker and a winger to help add some goals to his side.

Promotion odds: (3/1 with Sky Bet)

Sol Bamba celebrates his goal against Hull City during the Sky Bet Championship match at the Cardiff City Stadium
Image: Cardiff lost four games in a row during the festive period

Bristol City

Has the Carabao Cup run started to hinder Bristol City's league form? They tend to play the same side in every competition and it looked like they'd completely run out of legs against Aston Villa.

Whatever happens, though, they've had an excellent season as no one really expected them to be anywhere near the play-offs, let alone the top two. They could, however, do with getting Famara Diedhiou back fit as well to take some of the goalscoring pressure off Bobby Reid.

Where can they strengthen?

Adding depth to their squad is vital if Lee Johnson's side are to cope with the second half of the season. But the cup run has brought them plenty of attention and that should help out with recruitment.

Promotion odds: (2/1 with Sky Bet)

Bristol City's defender Joe Bryan celebrates with teammates, scoring the team's first goal during the English League Cup quarter-final football match
Image: Bristol City have been one of the stories of the season so far

Aston Villa

Villa are in the play-offs but you'd still argue they've underperformed this season. In terms of quality and experience they've got one of the best squads the Championship has ever seen, but they still haven't really threatened the top two yet.

John Terry has been a big loss in defence and they've missed Jonathan Kodjia for large chunks of the campaign, but the win against Bristol City felt like the first time they've really clicked this season and they should kick on from here. They're battling hefty expectation but they should still be one of the sides who really press Derby.

Where can they strengthen?

This should be a quiet window for Steve Bruce. They've had a huge turnover of players since their relegation and they could do with more time for everyone to gel. There's no reason why their current squad isn't enough to win promotion.

Promotion odds: (5/2 with Sky Bet)

Conor Hourihane celebrates with team-mate Robert Snodgrass after scoring Aston Villa's fifth goal
Image: Hinchcliffe believes Aston Villa have one of the best squads ever in the Championship

Leeds

Leeds have been interesting this season. Their attacking midfield is up there with the best in the Championship but they've really lacked a reliable striker. Pierre-Michel Lasogga was supposed to replace Chris Wood but he hasn't really done it for me so far.

They've also been too inconsistent and that's why they're sixth now rather than still challenging for the top two. They're also still quite a young team and I think making the play-offs represents a good season for them.

Where can they strengthen?

Do they wait for Lasogga to come good or try and find another striker? He doesn't seem to want to be physical and they need that for the likes of Samu Saiz and Ezgjan Alioski to do their best work. They've also had some issues in goal with Felix Wiedwald struggling at times, but I feel like it's too soon to replace him.

Promotion odds: (13/2 with Sky Bet)

Pablo Hernandez of Leeds United celebrates scoring the first Leeds goal with Pontus Jansson during the Carabao Cup clash v Leicester, 24 October 2017
Image: Inconsistency has hindered Leeds so far this season

Sheffield United

I've been so impressed with Sheffield United this season. They're not up where they were a month or so ago but they undoubtedly would have taken this position right now at the start of the campaign.

Chris Wilder has enormous faith in his system and his players and he doesn't make a lot of changes, but on their day they're capable of beating anyone and they're still very much in the shake-up for the play-offs. The Steel City derby on Friday night is where they could properly get back on track.

Where can they strengthen?

Keeping Leon Clarke, who has been nothing short of a revelation this season, is as vital to them as bringing in any players. Losing Paul Coutts was a real blow to them as well and they could do with strengthening in central midfield. But it'll have to be someone who fits into their style.

Promotion odds: (5/1 with Sky Bet)

Leon Clarke celebrates scoring his fourth goal
Image: Leon Clarke is the top scorer in the Championship this season

Middlesbrough

It was disappointing to see Garry Monk go, but it wasn't too much of a surprise considering how public Middlesbrough made their ambitions for this season. He was backed with plenty of money and there's no doubt they were underachieving.

That's why they've gone for Tony Pulis, and the fact they're on the cusp of the play-offs despite being nowhere near their best bodes very well for him. If they can get to the level where they should be they can still challenge for the top two, because for me they're more of a threat to Derby than any of the sides above them, except maybe Villa.

Where can they strengthen?

Their squad is very good and it's hard to see where they could improve right now. Pulis will want to bring in some experience to suit his style, which is undoubtedly different to the philosophy of Monk, and he'll expect backing this month to get to where they need to be.

Promotion odds: (10/3 with Sky Bet)

Middlesbrough's Britt Assombalonga reacts after a missed chance at goal during the Sky Bet Championship match at the Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough.
Image: Britt Assombalonga in action for Middlesbrough

Preston

Alex Neil has done one of the outstanding jobs of the season so far in the Championship, especially when you consider the players they've had missing. They started well then had a dip, but they've recovered well since and are now an outside shot to make the top six again.

Tom Clarke has made a huge difference since returning and their back four looks far more settled now. You only have to look at some of the teams they're currently above to see how well Neil has done.

Where can they strengthen?

Preston are generally good at picking up players from the lower leagues, such as Tom Barkhuizen, who arrived from Morecambe last January, and Billy Bodin from Bristol Rovers already this month.

It will be interesting to see what happens with Jordan Hugill, who has been linked with a move away in previous windows, and whether they can hold onto him.

Promotion odds: (10/1 with Sky Bet)

Tom Clarke celebrates scoring for Preston against Cardiff
Image: Tom Clarke celebrates scoring for Preston against Cardiff

Fulham

Fulham have spent most of the season in the bottom half but they've risen up now and I think they're a very good bet to reach the play-offs. Their season has yet to really blossom and there's plenty more to come from them.

The gap to Derby in second might be a little bit too big for them but there will be plenty of teams looking over their shoulders at Fulham and be very worried about them.

Where can they strengthen?

They've not had a true centre forward all season and that has been a problem for Slavisa Jokanovic's side. Getting someone in to link their play, like Chris Martin did last season, would make a huge difference.

It's also important that they hold on to the likes of Tom Cairney and Ryan Sessegnon, who will have Premier League clubs sniffing around them again.

Promotion odds: (15/2 with Sky Bet)

Fulham's Ryan Sessegnon (left) celebrates after putting the Cottagers 3-2 ahead
Image: Fulham are a good bet for the play-offs, according to Hinchcliffe

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