Championship team-by-team guide to race for promotion

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Our team-by-team guide to the Championship promotion race including Opta stats, betting odds, key men and expert views…

It was another topsy-turvy week in the Championship promotion race. On Tuesday, Bournemouth ended a five-game winless streak by beating a Wolves team that had won three on the bounce. Then on Wednesday, Norwich’s run of six successive victories came to an abrupt end at home to lowly Wigan.

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Our guide to the Championship promotion race featuring the seven players that could make the difference during the coming months

With just nine points separating the top eight teams in the division, it promises to be a fascinating finale as clubs battle for their place in the Premier League and the riches that it brings. Here’s our team-by-team guide to the run-in complete with Opta stats, Sky Bet odds, key men and the views of our resident Football League expert Peter Beagrie…

MIDDLESBROUGH
Position: 1st
Points: 66
Form: WDLWLW
Up next: Nottingham Forest (a)
Sky Bet promotion odds: 8/15

Key man: Patrick Bamford

Bamford reaffirmed his intention to enjoy a long career at Chelsea this week but the loanee has business to attend to in the Championship first, namely firing Middlesbrough into the Premier League. The 21-year-old forward ended a three-game run without a goal by netting the opener in a 3-0 win over Millwall in midweek and Aitor Karanka will need him on form for the run-in. A repeat of the form that saw him score in six games out of seven late last year would do much to boost his side’s automatic promotion hopes.

Patrick Bamford celebrates
Image: Patrick Bamford needs to maintain his form for Middlesbrough

Beagrie’s expert view

Boro have one of the top three squads in the division with a brilliant manager, who I think will go on to be a top manager in European football. They got back on track with a win in midweek and it was good for them to see the strikers getting goals, which has been a problem because they have always been one of the lowest scorers in the top of the division with the best defence. There’s no doubt that they are genuine automatic hopefuls.

Opta stat: Middlesbrough have conceded the fewest goals (24) and recorded the most clean sheets (16) in the Championship this season

DERBY
Position: 2nd
Points: 65
Form: DDWWLL
Up next: Birmingham (h)
Sky Bet promotion odds: 8/15

Key man: Tom Ince

When Ince scored twice on his Derby debut in a 4-1 win over Bolton – the team’s seventh victory in eight games – it seemed as though the Hull loanee would be the man to fire the Rams back to the Premier League. But despite netting five times in his first three games, Derby have stuttered since Ince’s arrival. The challenge for Steve McClaren is to rediscover the right blend once more, while continuing to get the best out of the talented former England Under-21 international.

Derby's Tom Ince celebrates
Image: Tom Ince made an immediate impact upon his arrival at Derby

Beagrie’s expert view

Derby are looking to go one better than last year. Generally they have responded to setbacks by going on little runs and they have to do that again. Steve McClaren made fantastic acquisitions in the loan market to cover, initially, Chris Martin’s injury with Darren Bent and Tom Ince, both of whom have scored and created goals. There is a problem now, though, with Bent injured and it is pivotal how they replace him. Derby’s automatic chances could succeed or fail on the next part of their recruitment.

Opta stat: The Rams have the best Championship shot conversion rate in 2014/15, 19.6 per cent

WATFORD
Position: 3rd
Points: 65
Form: WWLWWW
Up next: Wolves (a)
Sky Bet promotion odds: 5/4

Key man: Troy Deeney

It was Odion Ighalo’s extraordinary scoring streak of 14 goals in 10 games that propelled Watford forwards in 2015 so when the Nigerian striker was injured against Rotherham it might have damaged their hopes. Instead Deeney has taken on the mantle, leading the comeback against Leeds by powering between two defenders and then following up by netting the only goal of the game in Tuesday’s 1-0 win over Fulham. He’s now scored in the last three games to help the Hornets maintain momentum.

Troy Deeney of Watford during a Sky Bet Championship match at Vicarage Road
Image: Troy Deeney has picked up where Odion Ighalo left off for Watford

Beagrie’s expert view

Slavisa Jokanovic has definitely made a difference since he has come in. There were questions asked about him because it didn’t happen overnight but he has, at times, managed to shoehorn three of the top strikers into the side. It’s risk and reward with Watford, they play a brilliant brand of counter-attacking football and at one stage they had played 14, won seven and lost seven. That’s the way they play and at the moment it’s very rewarding. They are in position for an assault on an automatic place and they are better equipped than most to deal with the pressure because it’s not on them as much as it is Middlesbrough, Derby and Norwich, with the bigger squads.

Opta stat: Championship top scorers Watford also have the highest shooting accuracy of 50.3 per cent

BOURNEMOUTH
Position: 4th
Points: 63
Form: DDLLDW
Up next: Fulham (a)
Sky Bet promotion odds: Evens

Key man: Matt Ritchie

Ritchie’s creativity has been a feature of Bournemouth’s free-flowing game this season with his tally of 12 assists putting him clear of every other player in the Championship. The last of those came against Huddersfield last month and it’s telling that the Cherries’ recent struggles have coincided with their winger’s quiet patch. With Ritchie rested from the starting line-up against Blackburn, his team failed to score for the first time at home all season, but he was back as they returned to winning ways against Wolves on Tuesday.

BLACKPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 20:  Matt Ritchie of AFC Bournemouth celebrates his second goal during the Sky Bet Championship match between Blackpool and B
Image: Bournemouth's Matt Ritchie tops the Championship assists charts

Beagrie’s expert view

They are not used to the pressure that has been on them but their performance levels have been outstanding considering where they have come from. It’s a case of dealing with the pressure and expectations of their own crowd. It was disappointing to hear some boos in the draw with Blackburn when they failed to score for the first time at home this season. It was a big test to see if the fans were with them and they have to stay with them. It’s fractions with Bournemouth, the difference between them winning and drawing is not being clinical with their chances because they do create. Whatever happens it has been an incredible season but Eddie Howe won’t want it to slip away.

Opta stat: Bournemouth have won 250 corners in the league this season, a Championship high

NORWICH
Position: 5th
Points: 62
Form: WWWWWL
Up next: Millwall (a)
Sky Bet promotion odds: 8/11

Key man: Bradley Johnson

Johnson might not be the most talented member of Norwich’s strong squad but his hard work has typified what was required on the club’s return to the Championship. The midfielder is enjoying the best goalscoring season of his career having reached double figures with his stunning opener in the recent derby win over Ipswich and the 27-year-old’s leadership qualities could play a significant part in carrying Alex Neil’s men back into the top flight.  

Bradley Johnson celebrates
Image: Bradley Johnson was the derby-day hero for Norwich against Ipswich

Beagrie’s expert view

Norwich were on a great run of six wins on the spin and it’s been incredible. Alex Neil has got them defending well and working hard but in midweek maybe they were a bit tired and off the pace. Who would have said Wigan would have enough to beat Norwich at home with their stellar squad? It’s just a case of regrouping now because this division is all about how you react. Wes Hoolahan wasn’t playing in midweek and he is pivotal for them. He dictates the tempo, he is the one in the midfield areas exploiting the space. Lewis Grabban is a big loss for the team at this stage of the season so Cameron Jerome and Gary Hooper have chances to step up and take centre stage.

Opta stat: The Canaries have conceded the fewest corners in the Championship this term (157)

BRENTFORD
Position: 6th
Points: 61
Form: LLWWLW
Up next: Ipswich (a)
Sky Bet promotion odds: 11/2

Key man: Alex Pritchard

The youngster on loan from Tottenham has been an important player for Mark Warburton’s side this season, contributing eight goals and six assists for the Bees. His neat use of the ball in the final third has been impressive and the 73 chances he has created from short passes is a Championship high. Pritchard is also the only outfield player to feature in all 35 of Brentford’s league games so they will need him to stay fit or risk losing their way without his influence.

Alex Pritchard celebrates scoring his sides second goal
Image: Alex Pritchard has shown himself to be a quality performer for Brentford

Beagrie’s expert view

Brentford are in with a shout still. They have had a brilliant season. They have some wonderful individuals and can be very proud of where they are at the moment. They have had a taste of being right up there and want to maintain the charge. Brentford have a lovely blend of youth and experience and they seem to have responded well to the ridiculous statement coming out about Mark Warburton leaving in the summer. They will be looking to guarantee he leaves with a smile on his face.

Opta stat: A total of 37 of Brentford’s league goals this term have come from midfield, more than any other team in the Championship

IPSWICH
Position: 7th
Points: 60
Form: WWLWLL
Up next: Brentford (h)
Sky Bet promotion odds: 6/1

Key man: Daryl Murphy

Murphy’s renaissance under his old Sunderland boss Mick McCarthy has been truly astonishing and with 21 Championship goals so far this season, he looks certain to be the division’s top scorer. Almost half of those goals have come as part of five braces with Brentford and Wolves among his victims and while the fact that Ipswich recently scored four against Birmingham without him getting on the scoresheet might be seen as encouraging, Murphy’s missed penalty against Leeds on Wednesday was a huge blow. His streak must surely continue if Ipswich are to maintain their push.

Daryl Murphy of Ipswich (C) celebrates with teammates Freddie Sears (L) and Christophe Berra (R)
Image: Daryl Murphy needs to keep scoring if Ipswich are to gain promotion

Beagrie’s expert view

Ipswich have had injuries to important players. Losing David McGoldrick was a bad one and Noel Hunt is out as well. They have had a season of overachievement, looking at their side. At the start of the season I thought they would finish in the top 10 because of the lack of funds – their side cost about £50,000 – but it’s been a phenomenal achievement. It’s hard not to get disappointed when you have been rubbing shoulders with the top teams but there are times when players become tired, squads get exposed and the gaps between the have and the have nots are glaring. That can change in an instant, though, there are still a lot of points to be played for.

Opta stat: Daryl Murphy has had the most shots in the Championship this season, 102

WOLVES
Position: 8th
Points: 57
Form: WLWWWL
Up next: Watford (h)
Sky Bet promotion odds: 12/1

Key man: Bakary Sako

Sako is in the final year of his contract so it was something of a gamble for Wolves to reject reported interest and elect to hold onto the Mali winger in January – especially given his Africa Cup of Nations sojourn. However, the decision will be more than justified if the 26-year-old can conjure up promotion. Sako has netted four goals in his last four games to take his Championship tally to 11 and if his mercurial left foot can hit a hot streak then it could yet carry Wolves into the top six.

Bakary Sako Wolverhampton Wanderers celebrates with Dave Edwards
Image: Bakary Sako could hold the key if Wolves are to make a late run

Beagrie’s expert view

Wolves made an inspirational signing in Benik Afobe, who has the individualism, power and pace and is also working in the framework of the team alongside Nouha Dicko. Both of them can run rampage with Bakary Sako on one wing and the likes of James Henry and Rajiv van La Parra on the other. They are a match for anybody. Kenny has looked at the situation and, like Watford, went with risk and reward and trusted the midfield two rather than make it a three. They play 4-4-2 with two strikers to try to outscore the opposition. The keeper was outstanding at the start of the season, then they went through a dodgy spell and they have come back again.

Opta stat: Kevin McDonald is the most prolific passer in this season’s Championship – he has attempted 2,439 passes

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Beagrie’s conclusion

It’s very exciting and very competitive. Who can hold their nerve and who can play in the most relaxed manner? Will it be the teams with the more experience or the younger lads who don’t know fear as such? The dressing rooms with the most belief, not just the most ability will be the ones that are successful.

The weekend action kicks off with Fulham v Bournemouth live on Sky Sports 1 HD on Friday from 7.30pm

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