Friday, 5 August 2011

Championship Preview

The off-season in the Championship has been one of move and counter move, with many clubs changing upwards of eight first team players from last season. Whether this can be considered upgrading the side or downgrading is very much in the eye of the beholder, however it is certainly leading to yet another season of mystery in England's second division.

Immediate favourites after relegation were Birmingham City who were a surprising side to have ended up in the drop zone. The side had won the League Cup, beating Arsenal, and were built on solid fundamental defence that had seen them finish in the top half the season before. Ultimately it was a lack of goals which was the sides undoing scoring just 37 (less than one a game) and least of all Premier League clubs that season. Although this has been addressed to some degree with the addition of Marlon King (from Coventry City) and Adam Rooney (Inverness Caledonian Thistle), the loss of key midfielders Craig Gardner, Sebastian Larsson (Sunderland) and Barry Ferguson (Blackpool) has taken the core from the side which could prove to be their Achilles heel this season.

Replacing Birmingham as favourites in many quarters is the heavy spending Leicester City who have splashed the cash on several proven championship players that can only improve their promotion chances. Managed by former England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, it is being seen very much as an all or nothing season for Leicester as the wages the club are reputed to be paying do not appear to be sustainable at Championship level. There is little doubt that Leicester will be strong defensively with the addition of goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel (Leeds United) and centerback Matt Mills (Reading) however there are questions about where the goals could come from. Both new signing David Nugent (Portsmouth) and Darius Vassell are confidence strikers who have had both good and bad goal scoring runs in their careers while last seasons top goalscorer Steve Howard goes into the season at the age of 35 which could lead to a down turn in form.

Another former England manager Steve McClaren will look to lead his new Nottingham Forest side to the promised land after two consecutive play-off disappointments. Unusually for the Championship this season, Forest have made few moves outside three notable midfielders including Jonathan Greening (Fulham) who could well be brought in to mentor several talented youngsters. Where Forest are definitely weaker is up front with the loss of both Nathan Tyson (Derby) and Robert Earnshaw (Cardiff City) which will put more pressure on the talented Joe Garner who is likely to spearhead the attack.

One side that could benefit from clever transfer moves are Derby County. There capture of Frank Fielding instantly gives them one of the best goalkeepers in the league, even if many fans are unaware of his talents. While bringing in Theo Robinson (Millwall) and Nathan Tyson (Nottingham Forest) will add a lot of pace to the side which was missing last time out. The retirement of Robbie Savage may also help take the pressure off the club as they will be out of the media spotlight. Certainly a play off contender.  

Another relegated team that will look for just a one year stop in the Championship will be West Ham United who have released a large amount of overpaid players. This culling will be great for the future of the club however it would look like, up to this point at least, that they have been able to keep key players like Rob Green, Mark Noble and Carlton Cole. The Hammers also pulled of the biggest coup of the transfer window with the capture of Kevin Nolan from Newcastle in a move that blind sided many people and could propel them up the league.

Leeds United are a side that have had a good summer by retaining the core of their squad who finished just outside the play-offs last season and losses have been replaced by intelligent selections. This can be seen by replacing want away goalkeeper Kasper Schmiechel (Leicester City) with Andy Lonergan (Preston North End) who could use this opportunity to finally realize his potential. The limitation which may come back to haunt Leeds is the lack of strength in depth in some areas which if injuries start to pile up could scupper play-off hopes.

One side that could surprise this season is Ipswich Town who have quietly brought together a number of quality players that should upgrade them across the park. Strikers Michael Chopra (Cardiff City) and Nathan Ellington (Watford) could potentially come together make up for the loss of reputed wonderkid Connor Wickham who has moved on to Sunderland. Lee Bowyer (Birmingham City) will add steel to the midfield while Ivar Ingimarsson (Reading) will marshal the defence. Possible a dark horse for automatic promotion.

Perennial play-off chasers Cardiff City have had a difficult pre-season with several long term players leaving the club and worries about the financial situation.limiting the transfer funds. Losing Jay Bothroyd (QPR) and Michael Chopra (Ipswich) has left a whole up front which has been filled by Scotish international Kenny Miller (Bursapor) and Welsh international Robert Earnshaw (Nottingham Forest) who haven't been in the goals for a few seasons now. A drop down the league looks inevitable.  

Another team that may be on the slide is Coventry City who have lost key players Keiren Westwood (Sunderland) and Marlon King (Birmingham) and have been very quiet in the transfer window. There has been a real lack of ambition around the club with survival appearing to be their main aim however relegation dog fight could be on the cards.

The season starts with Hull City verses relegated Blackpool, with both sides almost unrecognisable compared to the sides that finished the previous season. Blackpool have suffered from a tight wage budget that has not allowed them to retain a number of players who have gone to other clubs including talismanic midfielder Charlie Adam who went to Liverpool and David Vaughan (Sunderland). Hull have concentrated on getting younger, taking opportunity to sign several released players from premier League clubs while releasing some elder statesman. One player that could make a big difference for them is defender Jack Hobbs (Leicester) who is a commanding center back with good awareness. Managers Nigel Pearson and Ian Holloway are always good for a quote but this may be a season where rebuilding comes before any realistic promotion push.

One side that is making waves pre-season due to their style of play are Barnsley who have come out playing a passing game more reminiscent with the European game than the traditional English style. Bringing in Craig Davies from Chesterfield could be a brilliant move as he has always had the potential to play at a higher level if his mind is in the right place. A team to keep a careful eye on.

Two sides who seem to have stayed still in the Championship pecking order are Middlesborough and Millwall although both have lost key strikers. Leroy Lita (Swansea) offered pace up front that has not been replaced by manager Tony Mowbray, which will take space away from the midfield. While Steve Morison move to Norwich leaves new boy Darius Henderson to take over the big striker role at Millwall. Both clubs will sniff a play off place but both will ultimately miss out.

After being knocked out of the first round of the playoffs last season, Reading have been relatively quiet in the off season with the notable departure of Matt Mills (Leicester) replaced with Mikele Leigertwood being a like for like swap at the back. It may be argued that keeping Shane Long who scored 23 league goals last time around as a major achievement considering how many other championship sides lost key figures butif Long's form doesn't hold, they may find themselves lost in the mix.

Two sides who may be more worried about the drop zone than promotion are Watford and Portsmouth, both who have money issues in the last few years after runs in the Premiership. Watford have lost Danny Graham who's goals were the difference between staying up and relegation last season but the 3.5 million offered for his services was just too good to turn down. A lot of faith his going to be put onto veteran Chris Iwelumo to replace him as there does not seem to be another player within the squad who can step up and score the goals to avoid relegation. Portsmouth who are still financially unstable after their high profile issues two seasons ago have also cashed in on assets or looked to move on high earners leaving them with a very small but high quality squad. If injuries catch up with them it may be very hard for them to fight of relegation.

All three promoted sides stand a very good chance of staying up. Brighton and Hove Albion move into their new home at Falmer will look to carry forward their momentum as League 1 champions. Gus Poyet's men were a class above the rest of the field for the majority of last season and should have little problem stepping up to the new challenge. The addition of Craig Mackail-Smith (Peterborough United) will add another good striker which could lead them to and outside chance of a playoff run.

Mackail-Smith's departure is an equally big blow for Peterborough United who made it through the playoffs last season by defeating Huddersfield Town 3-0 in the final. Losing their leading striker does ask questions over the strength of their squad but so far keeping George Boyd means they should have enough quality to steer clear of relegation. Losing Boyd would make them relegation favourites though. Finally Southampton who finished just behind Brighton come into the higher division with a fully formed Championship calibre squad already assembled. Little activity in the transfer window is testament to this and most fans will expect mid table obscurity which is most likely what they will get.  

Burnley are a side, like Portsmouth, that could really struggle due to a lack of squad strength. Eddie Howe did wonders as manager of Bournemouth however a squad that has continued to thin out since relegation from the Premier League is looking threadbare. With questions marks over both the defence and offence, this could mean it will be a long season for The Clarets. One side that had a bad start to the season last time around was Bristol City, only drawing away from relegation zone in the last few months. There has not been the big name signings this season so they will hope that Nicky Maynard and Brett Pittman can stay fit and David James has another season in him to keep them clear of the drop.

The two teams that stand out as most likely to face relegation are Crystal Palace and Doncaster Rovers.

Palace have tried to improve the squad but few players stand out although midfielder Darren Ambrose has the potential to lift the players around him. Several youth team players have graduated into the first team so their biggest hope is some of these young men grab the opportunity. Doncaster, who finished one place above the relegation zone last season are in a similar position. The good news for them is that they have not lost anyone significant and brought in one time prospect Giles Barnes and Tommy Spur from Sheffield Wednesday to bolster their midfield. Unfortunately for them, more improvements still look to be needed if they are going to survive another season.

Predictions For The Upcoming Season

Champions: West Ham United
Promotion: Leicester City

Playoffs: Birmingham City; Ipswich Town; Derby County; Nottingham Forest

Relegation: Peterborough United; Crystal Palace; Doncaster Rovers

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