As I mentioned at the beginning of the month, the interest for the rest of the season in the nPower Championship is in the battles for the second automatic promotion spot, qualification for the playoffs and avoiding relegation.
The top six are five points clear of Brighton and Burnley and I’ll be very surprised if at least one of the other clubs in the top six doesn’t get promoted. But here’s the interesting part – in four of the last five seasons, a club from outside the top six at the end of January has made a late run and has ended up in the Premier League, with three of those teams winning the playoff final. None of the current top eleven can be ruled out but if Brighton can start winning a few more games they could do very well over the next four months.
At the bottom, surprise wins for Bristol City and Barnsley this week have made things slightly more uncomfortable for the six clubs immediately in front of them – although there’s a four point gap between the bottom three and safety, the managerial changes at Ashton Gate and Oakwell seem to have had an immediate impact.
Looking back over the last five seasons, at least one club that was in the bottom three at the end of January has escaped relegation. Unfortunately for Peterborough, it’s never been the club that was rock bottom, so the law of averages indicates that either the Robins or the Tykes should escape relegation.
So who’s most at risk? Probably Huddersfield, Ipswich and Sheffield Wednesday although any of the teams from 16th place onwards could be in trouble with a string of bad results – and that includes Wolves, who play at Leicester this evening (Sky Sports 1, 7:45pm) in one of this weekend’s games that involves sides at both ends of the table. Incidentally, I’ve no idea why this game is tonight – my guess is it’s something to do with the Six Nations.
Leicester have been superb at home recently – three defeats in their last 20 games – and as Huddersfield, Derby and Ipswich fans can tell you, the Foxes are capable of overwhelming sub-par defences. Anthony Knockaert, Chris Wood and David Nugent have all been on the scoresheet at least once at the King Power Stadium since the start of December.
Wolves have only won one of their last ten league games at Leicester and the last time they won away from home this season was at Blackpool before Christmas. Four defeats in six games since then have set the alarm bells ringing and although Dean Saunders has experience of managing a struggling Championship team, I can’t imagine that he’d want to call on that experience so quickly into his tenure at Molineux.
The only other game that features a top v bottom match up is Middlesbrough’s trip to Ipswich. Both teams need points for different reasons: the Tractor boys have been better at home recently but haven’t won at Portman Road since the start of last month and are only a couple of poor results away from being dragged into a scrap at the bottom of the table. Boro are currently comfortable in sixth place but have lost five of their last six road trips and haven’t won at Ipswich for almost two decades.
As usual, I won’t be paying a huge amount of attention to transfer deadline day: the big deal is Wilfred Zaha’s move to Manchester United, but as Zaha will be playing for Crystal Palace until the end of the season, that’s neither here nor there. At time of writing, the only other confirmed move that features an impact player from the Championship is Luciano Becchio moving from Leeds to Norwich in return for Steve Morison: if anyone else makes a permanent move I’ll mention that next week.