Sky Bet Championship: The tightest league in the world?
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By Thomas Acres
Last Updated: 18/10/19 6:45pm
Liverpool's perfect start to the Premier League season and their eight-point lead at the top of the table have most fans believing it is already their title to lose – but things could not be any more different in the upper echelons of the Championship.
The top end of the second tier of English football is phenomenally congested, with a host of sides just one result away from either gate-crashing the play-off spots or tumbling out of them.
Indeed, Liverpool have double the cushion over second-placed Manchester City in the top flight than Championship front-runners West Brom have over Charlton in 10th.
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The tightest league in Europe?
It is the tightest state of affairs in the entire Football League and also more competitive than any of the top five European leagues.
There are just four points separating the top 10 in the Championship, compared to 13 in the Premier League, nine in League One and eight in League Two.
It is tighter than La Liga, where seven points split the 10 best teams, Ligue 1, where the difference is nine points, and Serie A, where it is 10.
The only top league to get close is the Bundesliga, where the top 10 have six points separating them.
Is it tighter than in past seasons?
The top of the Championship has not been this tight after 11 games for five years (since the 2014/15 campaign), when Norwich led the way but were just four points clear of Brentford in 10th.
This time last season, Leeds were at the summit with 22 points, while 10th-placed Bristol City had racked up 16.
Of course, Leeds fell short of promotion come the end of the season and the side that ended up winning promotion via the play-offs - Aston Villa - were well off the pace in 13th.
Championship after 11 games: Points gap between 1st and 10th
Eleven games in, and no one team has managed to keep a particularly firm hold of the baton.
Leeds were top after the first round of fixtures and Sheffield Wednesday after the second, before Marco Bielsa's side retook the lead and held it until game week six, when Swansea had a go.
West Brom didn't reach the summit until game week nine and gave it up immediately, falling back behind Swansea and Leeds before returning to the top.
As the season approaches its quarter-way mark, this Championship promotion battle is already shaping up to be one of the fiercest in recent memory.
Premier League drop-outs struggle to reassert themselves
Fulham, Cardiff and Huddersfield all have recent experience of the Championship but have each struggled to adapt to life back in the second tier.
Huddersfield were relegated from the Premier League in sorry fashion and their terrible form continued into this season under Jan Siewert, who was sacked after securing just one win in 19 games in charge at the John Smith's Stadium.
Danny Cowley took over from the beleaguered German boss and his side have won two on the bounce without conceding, but their terrible start means they are only outside the relegation zone on goal difference.
Cardiff have stuck with Neil Warnock but have failed to pull up any trees so far this season, despite romping to 90 points and promotion last time they were in the Championship. The Bluebirds have won just four from their first 11 games and sit 11th, with the second-worst defensive record in the top half.
Fulham, led by former player Scott Parker, are faring best of the three - the west Londoners are seventh with 19 points, helped by eight goals from the league's top scorer Aleksandar Mitrovic.
But they have struggled against some of their play-off rivals, beaten at home to Nottingham Forest and only managing a point against Charlton, West Brom and Sheffield Wednesday. They also fell to a 1-0 defeat to Barnsley, who are languishing just a point off the bottom.
Last year's nearly-rans
All of the sides who reached the play-offs last season made a strong case for promotion, but glory for eventual winners Aston Villa ultimately consigned Leeds, West Brom and Derby to at least one more year in the second tier.
Leeds, who finished third last season, made a blistering start to the new campaign with 13 points from the opening five matches. But they have just seven points and two wins from the last six - including defeats at Millwall, who were eight games without a win at the time, and Charlton.
Their inconsistent start is perhaps best summed up by the fact that one of those two wins came against leaders West Brom. The Baggies have been the most consistent of the three nearly-clubs from last season and have lost just once, but there are signs that old problems remain.
Last season saw them concede a whopping 62 goals, the most porous defensive record in the top half of the league, and Slaven Bilic's side have just one clean sheet from their first 11 games.
As for Derby, new boss Phillip Cocu has struggled to get any consistency out of his side since taking over from Frank Lampard. The Rams have only three league wins to their name so far and while his side have only lost twice, they have been held six times.
The resurgence of Swansea
It seems a long time ago that Brendan Rodgers had Swansea City playing pretty patterns in the Premier League, ditto Michael Laudrup lifting the League Cup at Wembley.
The Welsh club were relegated from the top flight at the end of the 2017/18 season and finished in mid-table in their first year back in the Championship, well off the play-off places.
But under Steve Cooper, who had only managed at youth level before this season, two unlikely heroes have emerged to help fire the Swans into fourth place. Spanish striker Borja Baston was a club-record signing from Atletico Madrid in 2016, arriving for £15.5m, but struggled to adapt to life in the Premier League and has spent two years out on loan at Malaga and then Alaves.
Three years after he first arrived at the Liberty Stadium and he is finally making an impact, with six goals and an assist so far this season.
Another somewhat-forgotten man, Andre Ayew, has also made headlines. He seemed destined to leave the club permanently in the summer after a disappointing loan spell with Fenerbahce in Turkey, but has played his way back into contention at Swansea and scored the winner in a crucial 2-1 win at Charlton last month.
New bosses lead the way
West Brom and Nottingham Forest are first and second in the table, both with 22 points and both led by new managers in Bilic and Sabri Lamouchi.
The pair are managing in the Championship for the first time and appear to have made an immediate impact, with Lamouchi being named manager of the month for September.
Forest will hope this is the year that the investment from owner Evangelos Marinakis bears fruit, with plenty of new faces having arrived in the last few transfer windows.
Who will prevail?
So who will finish in the top two? According to Sky Bet, Leeds (4/9) and West Brom (Evens) are favourites to finish in the top two, while Fulham (6/5), Swansea (10/3) and Preston (4/1) are close behind.
Sky Bet Championship promotion odds
West Brom (Evens)
Nottingham Forest (9/2)
Sheffield Wednesday (5/1)
Bristol City (7/1)
*all odds correct on October 17, 2019
Championship fixtures coming up live on Sky Sports
Fri 18: Cardiff vs Sheffield Wednesday, 7.45pm
Sat 19: Blackburn vs Huddersfield, 12.30pm
Sun 20: Wigan vs Nottingham Forest, 2pm
Tues 22: QPR vs Reading, 7.45pm, Sheffield Wednesday vs Stoke, 7.45pm
Wed 23: Huddersfield vs Middlesbrough, 7.45pm
Sat 26: Sheffield Wednesday vs Leeds, 12.30pm
Sun 27: Swansea vs Cardiff, 12pm
Mon 28: QPR vs Brentford, 7.45pm
Fri 1: Barnsley vs Bristol City, 7.45pm
Sat 2: Wigan vs Swansea, 12.30pm
Sun 3: Charlton vs Preston, 12pm
Mon 4: Stoke vs West Brom, 7.45pm
Sat 9: Nottingham Forest vs Derby, 12.30pm
Sun 10: Cardiff vs Bristol City, 12pm
Fri 22: Fulham vs QPR, 7.45pm
Sat 23: Charlton vs Cardiff, 12.30pm
Sun 24: Middlesbrough vs Hull, 12pm
Tues 26: Reading vs Leeds, 8pm
Wed 27: QPR vs Nottingham Forest, 7.45pm; West Brom vs Bristol City, 8pm
Fri 29: Swansea vs Fulham, 7.45pm
Sat 30: Charlton vs Sheffield Wednesday, 12.30pm
Mon 2: Preston vs West Brom, 8pm
Fri 6: Millwall vs Nottingham Forest, 7.45pm
Sat 7: Huddersfield vs Leeds, 12.30pm
Sun 8: West Brom vs Swansea, 12pm