Why Stoke Are Still A Good Bet For Championship Promotion

Britannia Stadium” (CC BY 2.0) by yellow book

Many early season predictions from fans and commentators pointed to Stoke City getting promotion from the Championship and regaining their place back in the Premier League.

But after a poor start to the season, even the Staffordshire club’s own fans have started to think the worst.

There’s even some bemoaning Stoke’s high-paid but currently poor-performing players could lead the Potters to another relegation. But that’s the sort of short-sighted thinking that follows a disappointing result.

Stoke City still have a very good chance of finishing the season in the play-off spots or earning automatic promotion. And here’s why. For starters, the relegated Midlands club, which spent a decade in the Premier League having won promotion in 2008, were the early season favourites with bookies to top the league. Manager Gary Rowett has accomplished some astute business in the transfer market, while retaining a number of players with Premier League experience, including veteran striker Peter Crouch.

They’ve importantly still got Welshman Joe Allen in the heart of midfield. He’s Premier League class and could quite easily fit into most squads in the top division. He did, of course, play for Liverpool for four years. Prior to that, he was a regular for Swansea, while he was a crucial part of Wales’ successful run to the Euro 2016 semi-finals. A hard-working midfielder who always wants the ball, Allen is the sort of intelligent first-teamer who will help Stoke dominate possession while providing solidarity when the Potters don’t have the ball.

No Ambition.” (CC BY 2.0) by domfell

Rowett has been backed with the funds to improve the squad by owners who covet England’s lucrative top division. This has seen the club build the Championship’s best squad with plenty of talent in depth. Veterans like former Manchester United favourite Darren Fletcher and attacker Tom Ince, who played for Premier League survivalists Huddersfield Town last year, add guile and flair to the midfield.

Championship betting might have seen the club become a popular outside punt at 40/1 as relegation fodder given the high return after a disappointing start to the season. But Stoke still possess an experienced nucleus to their squad that should see them enjoy success over the long-term. We mustn’t forget they’ve got a top international keeper who went to the World Cup in Jack Butland and some excellent central defenders such as Ryan Shawcross.

And while Rowett is still relying on 37-year-old striker Peter Crouch, Saido Berahino is tipped to come good this season in a new deeper role. If the player who scored 23 goals in 105 appearances for former club West Brom could go from being a “one goal in four” player to a “one goal in three”, Stoke’s early-season fortunes will drastically change.

Stoke have dug themselves a hole they’ll need to emerge from but there are still reasons to be optimistic for Potters fans. They’ve got a strong squad, a decent defence and the potential to score plenty of goals. Swansea City, West Brom, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough will be in the mix but the smart money has to remain on Stoke.

Abel Hernandez is a Free Agent – Who Will he Sign For?

Source: Abel Hernandez via Facebook 

It’s not often that a prolific Championship poacher is available for cheap these days, with Leeds United’s sale of Chris Wood to Burnley last season for £15 million illustrating that fact. It’s even less frequent that these renowned strikers are on offer for free, and when they do they are snatched up faster than a vacuum collecting dust. With this in mind, the vultures will be circling around Abel Hernandez as the former Hull City striker is now out of contract and looking for a new club.

Hernandez has made a name for himself as an elite forward at Championship level, and has scored 29 goals in 52 games in the second tier. Last season with the Tigers, the Uruguayan hitman was plagued with injury and only managed to appear in 10 Championship games for the Yorkshire outfit. However, in this time, he was able to put away eight goals and register an assist. These are incredible attacking returns, and if he’d stayed fit throughout the campaign, Hull’s season would have turned out a lot differently.

The 27-year-old is one of the few Championship players who is also well-capped at international level. The former Palermo man made his debut for Uruguay in 2010 and has appeared for his country 27 times since then. He has scored 11 goals for La Celeste, and considering that Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani also compete for places in Uruguay’s attack, this is highly impressive.

At the time of writing, there are rumours suggesting that Leeds may be about to offer Hernandez a job at Elland Road. The Whites have been desperate for a regular goalscorer since losing Wood to the Premier League, and last season’s loan player Pierre-Michel Lasogga has returned to Germany. The free agent would surely demand higher wages than many of the other United regulars, but this would be offset by the money saved from not having to pay a transfer fee.

At the time of writing, the West Yorkshire outfit are considered outsiders to win the league at 14/1 in the Championship betting, but a few shrewd acquisitions in the summer could have Leeds dreaming of a long-awaited return to the top flight. The most exciting news for the three-time Division One champions is the possibility that tactical genius Marcelo Bielsa may be about to take Paul Heckingbottom’s old job in the Elland Road hot seat. If the Argentine does make the anticipated move to Leeds, players like Hernandez will surely be tempted by the prospect of working with one of the most respected managers in the game.

Hernandez is likely to be seeking a return to the English top flight, but he will also be looking for regular team action. For this reason, the sought-after player will aim to join a team that he believes can achieve promotion. The recently relegated clubs will be in the running for his signature, but the opportunity to work under Bielsa at Leeds could be too tempting for the goal hungry forward to turn down.

Annual Premier League Survival Battle Has Taken Its Toll On Sunderland

“Rotherham v Sunderland” (CC BY 2.0) by Chris

Just a few months after being relegated from the Premier League, Sunderland find themselves faced with the realistic prospect of dropping divisions for a second consecutive season. The clubs are currently sat second-bottom of the Championship table, having won just one of their 11 games.

During their time in the top flight, the Black Cats were regular candidates for relegation from the top tier and from the outset were just 4/1 to be relegated in last season’s Premier League betting relegation odds. Pressure at the bottom isn’t strange to them, then, but life is looking anything but rosy at current and dropping down another tier could, of course, cause them serious financial harm. Economically, the northeast club were one of the worst performing clubs during their time in the top flight with only two of the league’s richest club’s (Manchester City and Chelsea) making less profit since 2008.

As a result, the club are ill-prepared for the financial commitments required to haul themselves back to the top flight at the first attempt. For fans of the club who were perhaps hoping that relegation would offer a chance to regroup and come back stronger, their illusions have already been shattered. And new boss Simon Grayson has done little so far to suggest that the club can at least consolidate their position in the second tier with any ease.

The club’s epic struggle to survive in the top flight has taken its toll on a club whose owner has seemingly lost interest and whose better players have moved on to pastures new. Last year’s decision to hand responsibility for survival to David Moyes proved to be a misguided one as the club sunk to a new level of despair and negativity.

“Villa Park” (CC BY-ND 2.0) by jwillier2

With no funds to compete with the Championship’s new breed of big spenders, the future does not look good at the Stadium of Light. Even former Premier League regulars Aston Villa could only manage a 13th-place finish in the Championship last term, despite spending £72m during the two transfer windows. This year, the Midland side are improving slowly but they have plenty of experience in their side and a boss who knows what it takes to get out of this league. If teams like Villa have found it tough going, Sunderland may be left wondering just what hope there is left for them.

The recent international break may have come at just the right time for Grayson and his men, who would have been desperate to get back on the training ground after their recent draw against Preston North End. If they are going to break their nine-game winless streak and haul themselves out of the drop zone then they will need to make the most of the talent they have available. With three of their next four matches at home and on-loan striker Lewis Grabban and highly-rated youngster Josh Maja set to return, October could be a crucial month for the Mackems.

If there is no sign of improvement during this period, Grayson’s future will surely be debated. Although it is hard to imagine who else would want to take on what looks increasingly like a thankless task.

Market Reports: December

Before I start on the market reports, last weekend provided some eventful moments, starting with Newcastle losing at Nottingham Forest and culminating in the three red cards at Sheffield Wednesday. If you’ve not already seen the highlights, here they are – although the incident that lead to Jermaine Beckford and Eoin Doyle being sent off for fighting each other isn’t that clear:

In the promotion market, Newcastle’s recent blip has had no impact whatsoever and if the bookies are correct, both they and Brighton are already as good as playing in the Premier League.

Despite beating Brentford 5-0 last weekend, after five consecutive defeats Norwich not only dropped out of the top six but have also drifted back to the price for promotion that they were before the season began. There are a couple of clubs that might be worth investing in now, but there’s a ‘buyer beware’ warning for both of them: last season’s play off final losers Sheffield Wednesday have remained consistently around the 4/1 mark since the start of the season. If Derby continue their revival under Steve McClaren then the 9/2 available now might look generous in a couple of months time, but as we’ve seen in previous seasons, if there’s one club that is almost guaranteed to blow it at completely the wrong time, it’s the Rams. Of the other contenders, Leeds currently look like legitimate dark horses for promotion. Aston Villa still look overrated to me.

The situation hasn’t changed that much at the bottom. Rotherham could lift themselves off the bottom of the table by Boxing Day, but it’s a long shot and I think it’s wise to assume that the Millers have had it. The remaining question is who will join them, but a new team has joined the contest over the last month. QPR have shortened for the drop since the start of last month and it’s not hard to see why: they don’t seem to be any better under Ian Holloway than they were when Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was in charge.

As luck would have it, the top current top six are playing each other this weekend:

Only three of the nine games between them so far this season have ended in home wins (Newcastle beat Brighton and Reading): that might not look like good news for the hosts, but neither Leeds nor Sheffield Wednesday are at home this weekend. The Yorkshire duo haven’t won any of the four games in this category that they’ve hosted.

Brighton v Leeds (7:45pm this evening, Sky Sports 1)

Leeds’ last win at Brighton in a League Game was in a League One encounter at the very much unloved Withdean Stadium in November 2009: the visitors last goal at Brighton was was four years ago. Over the past year, Brighton have only lost four home games in the Championship: this might be more competitive than recent encounters, but if Leeds win it’ll be a surprise.

Newcastle v Birmingham

After losing at home to Huddersfield in mid-August, the Toon reeled off five consecutive wins, so it’ll be interesting to see how they respond to last weekend’s defeat at Nottingham Forest. Birmingham’s win at Brentford at the end of last month was their first away victory since mid-September, but their surprise reverse at home to Barnsley last weekend wasn’t ideal preparation for their trip to St. James’ Park – where they haven’t won a league game since August 2003.

Reading v Sheffield Wednesday

Aston Villa are the only club to have won a league game at the Mad House this season, but the Royals have only scored more than two goals at home in one match in 2016/17. Wednesday have only lost three away games this season and haven’t been beaten since the start of November, but since the turn of the century they’ve only won once in Berkshire: in February 2014, Reading played 80 minutes with ten men after Alex Pearce was sent off and Wednesday won 2-0.

There’s a local rivalry theme to the remaining televised games this weekend: Preston entertain Blackburn at tea-time tomorrow (Sky Sports 1, 5:30pm kick off) and on Sunday it’s the East Midlands showdown between Derby and Nottingham Forest (noon kick off, Sky Sports 1). I don’t expect that either manager will lose his job if his team loses, but you never know…

Back on Tuesday for a quick look at the midweek programme, then it’s this year’s Christmas post next Friday.

Never A Dull Moment

Last weekend I found myself wondering exactly how much longer the Championship would last without a major story line. I didn’t have to wait too long for the answer: when I starting putting this post together on Thursday, the following events had taken place:

  • Nigel Pearson was suspended by Derby before Tuesday’s game at Cardiff, allegedly because of an argument with the club owner Mel Morris.
  • Tommy Wright (who was eventually sacked by Barnsley) and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink of QPR being included in the Daily Telegraph investigation into alleged corruption that made Sam Allardyce’s position as England manager untenable. Oh and Mr. Cellino of Leeds is also apparently involved.
  •  Newcastle beating Norwich in dramatic fashion on Wednesday:

So there you go. The games to keep an eye on tomorrow are a pair of matches in a top six/bottom six double bill: Brentford v Wigan and Rotherham v Newcastle. The televised game is Norwich against Wolves (SS2, 5:30pm)

Anyway, I promised that the second part of the market reports series would feature this week, so here it is:

It won’t come as much of a surprise to read that Newcastle, Norwich and Brighton have all seen their odds for promotion shorten over the last month, something that’s underlined by the fact that the three of them are the clear favourites in the ‘Top Six Finish’ markets.

After that, it starts to get interesting: Huddersfield are still available at 4/1 for promotion, but they aren’t really a decent proposition in the ‘Top Six’ market. Surprisingly, despite their recent form the bookies are still very unsure about Sheffield Wednesday: the Owls odds for promotion drifted between after the season began, but are now the same  – 4/1 – as they were at the start of July.

At the bottom, Rotherham have been cut to 3/10 for the drop, which is – to put it in laymen’s terms – a 75% chance of relegation. The Millers are a classic case of a poor team performing at an ever lower level than they did last season and although there’s still three quarters of the season left, at this point it’s difficult to make a case for them staying up. Oddly enough, the best strategy for the Millers might be to lay them for relegation on the exchanges and then trade out if Alan Stubbs’ side puts a decent run together.

Over the last four weeks, Derby, Fulham and QPR have all had their odds for relegation slashed. However, there appear to be different reasons for this. Derby have been poor and QPR were probably overrated before the season started but Fulham have actually been performing at a slightly better level than they were this time last season. The most interesting move has been Cardiff: my current projection has them relegated on goal difference along with Blackburn and Rotherham.

I’d perhaps wait until after the international break if you’re thinking about betting on some of these markets. One of the rumours doing the rounds on social media is that David Wagner may move from Huddersfield to Derby, which would not only be a questionable career move but would also have implications for both clubs. Then there’s the situation at Cardiff if Paul Trollope gets the chop, which is also possible.

I’ll be back in a couple of weeks, unless anything dramatic happens. And by dramatic, I mean really dramatic, like the discovery of football on Mars or something.