NORWICH MAY BE PREMIER LEAGUE BOUND, BUT THE CHAMPIONSHIP PROMOTION RACE STILL HAS PLENTY TO OFFER
Norwich’s plan of keeping Daniel Farke at the club to guide them straight back to the Premier League looks to be working a treat, with the Canaries ten points clear at the top of the Championship after another win at the weekend.
That season in the top flight last year wasn’t what they’d have hoped after an electric start. However, keeping hold of Emi Buendía, arguably the Championship player of the season so far, as well as the likes of Todd Cantwell, Max Aarons, Teemu Pukki and bringing in talented youngster Oliver Skipp on loan from Spurs has seen them run away with what will be a second Championship title in three years.
If we assume Norwich are up, that only leaves one automatic place up for grabs, but the race is set to be a thrilling one, as is the battle for the play-off spots, with a couple of surprise packages making their mark in the last few weeks.
The three clubs in the hunt for 2nd all won this weekend, but all very narrowly, which is something they may have to become masters at given the fatigue they’ll be feeling after the inflated number of midweek games this season.
2nd-placed Watford have really improved of late under Xisco Muñoz, and beat in-form Cardiff on Saturday.
The Welsh capital club were unbeaten in 11 until Adam Masina’s last-gasp free-kick extended the visitors’ impressive run instead. The Hornets have now won eight of their last nine.
It’s no coincidence that this upturn in form has come with the return of Will Hughes from injury, and if the 25-year-old midfielder can stay fit along with the likes of impressive centre-back William Troost-Ekong and mercurial winger Ismaïla Sarr, it could be an immediate return to the Premier League for Watford.
For a change, Swansea didn’t have to rely on a controversial penalty against Luton, winning 1-0 courtesy of an early Conor Hourihane goal.
However, once again, Steve Cooper’s men were below par and will have to improve to keep with the pace at the top.
Hourihane has been excellent since arriving on loan from Aston Villa and without him, the Swans would almost certainly be adrift from the automatic places.
Last season’s play-off runners-up, Brentford, secured a 1-0 success against Blackburn on Friday to continue their recovery from a slight dip where they lost three on the spin.
As has become so very familiar, Ivan Toney was the difference at Ewood Park, and will surely be playing in the Premier League next season whether it be with the Bees or someone else.
Danish midfielder Christian Nørgaard returned from injury recently, and with the attacking options that Brentford’s innovative recruitment strategy has given them, the west London club have a great chance of promotion once again.
With Swansea’s poor performances unlikely to continue yielding three points, it may be a battle between Watford and Brentford for that second automatic place.
Below the very top, Barnsley’s incredible run has transformed them into a realistic promotion contender, their 11-game unbeaten streak in the league made even more remarkable by the fact that they only survived relegation to League One on the final day of last season.
The interim appointment of Jonathan Woodgate at Bournemouth always looked a risky one, and it’s proved that way with the Tykes having leapfrogged the Cherries into the top-six, and there’s now a five-point buffer after the match between the two clubs at the weekend went Barnsley’s way.
Reading fill the other space in the top-six, and although the Royals are far from the side they were at the start of the season, the likes of Michael Olise and Lucas João can produce a moment of magic at any time.
Barring a significant Bournemouth resurgence, Veljko Paunović’s side should have enough to stay where they are.
Middlesbrough arguably have an outside shot, but Cardiff are probably the only other club who can force themselves into it.
With two more rounds of fixtures before the international break and then eight more after that, the Championship should still have plenty of drama in store as ever despite a ten-point gap at the top of the division.