A semblance of order threatens to break out amid the delightful chaos that is the championship.
Norwich and Watford, with their deep squads and the luxury of parachute payments at a time when the gates are closed and money tight, seem strong and healthy at the top.
Middlesbrough boss Neil Warnock called it that at Christmas. “They have more consistency because they have more choices when they lose players,” said 72-year-old Warnock, veteran of eight promotions.
Aside from a last-minute disaster, Norwich should be promoter at the end of the season
Watford in second also looks strong and will bounce back the first time he asks
“Look at the size of the squads they have and the inconsistencies with the parachute payments, they haven’t really had to sell their best players.”
Norwich, eight points clear at the top and 14 points clear in third place, has been rewarded for holding on to their courage and confidence in manager Daniel Farke after promotion and relegation.
Teemu Pukki, the championship’s top scorer two years ago, has scored 22 goals this season and only Ivan Toney at Brentford has more.
Watford stayed true to their rent-and-fire model.
Vladimir Ivic was gone in December and his replacement Xisco Munoz secured nine wins in the last 10 games, scoring goals from a team full of household names, including £ 35 million record signings from Ismaila Sarr and England internationals Nathaniel Chalobah and Tom. Cleverley.
“I’m very lucky,” smiled Xisco ahead of Friday’s match against Sheffield Wednesday. ‘It is a very good team and they have a good ambition, but it is important to have respect for other teams.
‘The championship is world famous as a very tough competition with many games and completely different from Spanish football. Everyone has the same ambition. It’s perfect for me.
‘We work very hard. The first goal is to be in the playoffs, then to be second and then to take the top because we want the best for our club. ‘
Watford has a team of household names and has benefited from parachute payments
Brentford’s promotional expense is led by the championship’s top scorer, Ivan Toney
Bouncing back straight has become more difficult, but the benefit of the £ 40 million parachute payment has been bolstered by a schedule more overloaded than ever, random elements of the pandemic – such as testing and quarantine – and the nagging financial pressure on rivals.
Bournemouth, the third of the relegated teams, is just outside the playoffs for the Easter games, the traditional home turn in the promotion race.
With game in hand at Barnsley and Reading just above them, a full set of three going up in the rebound isn’t out of the question, although their first campaign of the post-Eddie Howe era hasn’t gone smoothly. Bournemouth did lose players – including Callum Wilson, Josh King, Aaron Ramsdale and Nathan Ake – and suffered more disruption when Jason Tindall was fired in February.
They’ve won five out of ten since Jonathan Woodgate took over and the goal is clear.
“ If they’re big-game players, this is a big-game scenario we’re in, ” Woodgate said as he prepared to meet his beloved Boro, where Warnock will still be watching the playoffs . Since this is the championship, there are bound to be twists and turns.
Johnathan Woodgate has insisted that Bournemouth’s goal is to finish in the top six
Both Swansea and Brentford are still competing for an automatic promotion spot
Swansea and Brentford hope to regain lost form and make last month uncomfortable for Watford, who rounds out the campaign with matches against the Bees and the Swans. It’s been three years since Swansea was relegated from the Premier League and Steve Cooper started last season when his team made a late wave to make it to the playoffs.
It has been 74 years since Brentford was last in the league and last season they blew their chance twice: first with a home defeat to Barnsley when the victory would automatically have led to promotion; then by defeat in the play-off final against Fulham.
Thomas Frank’s attractive team continues to draw admirers but must learn to cope with pressure at a time when the club’s acclaimed recruiting strategy must adapt to Brexit and new work permit rules.
Reading and Barnsley were the surprising challengers. Barnsley’s run of 28 points from 10 games has propelled them through a team tipped to make it to the playoffs. They are direct and intense under Valerien Ismael, but Sheffield Wednesday stopped the winning run before the international break.
On Wednesday, six points deducted for financial irregularities, they are in a desperate battle to escape the decline in League One, along with several iconic clubs of yesteryear.
Surprise play-off challengers Reading (left) and Barnsley (right) on Friday night
Birmingham City, now under Lee Bowyer, is deep in the mire and Derby, led by Wayne Rooney, is back in trouble.
Nottingham Forest has not won in six and Huddersfield has only won twice in 2021. Both should survive, although Huddersfield has a daunting run-in with five of the top seven to play, starting with Brentford on Saturday and Norwich on Tuesday .
The shock factor may be lurking and Rotherham has the key in his hands. No second-tier team has been hit harder by positive Covid tests, and they’ll be playing a dozen games in just over a month, starting with Millwall on Friday. A run of five games in a fortnight includes six pointers against Wycombe, Huddersfield, Coventry and Birmingham.
Wycombe are 11 points from safety and their first foray into the championship looks set to end in a quick return to League One.
No surprise there maybe. Predictability fights back in the land of the unexpected.
On the other side of the table, Sheffield Wednesday has a mountain to climb to stay on
Wayne Rooney’s Derby must also be careful not to get into a relegation fight