As far as supporting acts go, the Championship is just about as good as it gets. English soccer’s second tier is ferociously competitive, home to a host of upcoming young players and bristling with sides beset on making it to the promised land of the top flight and all the riches that accompany it.
The current campaign has been an especially enthralling spectacle. Ahead of this weekend’s round, the top four teams in the division are only separated by goal difference, with Bournemouth, Derby County, Watford and Middlesbrough all locked on 66 points; Norwich City are in fifth spot on 65.
The end of the season should yield an incomparably enthralling climax and for the division, that’s indisputably wonderful. So often this competition has been witness to instances of high drama in the final embers of the campaign, but with so many teams in the hunt for promotion this season, there’s a sense this run-in could top the lot for sheer entertainment.
Bournemouth currently lead the way by the narrowest of margins and Eddie Howe’s side definitely represent the surprise package of the season. The fresh-faced young manager is currently in the midst of his second spell in charge of the Cherries and during his two tenures in charge of the club he’s taken them from the depths of the fourth tier to the brink of the Premier League.
Programming note: Watch Middlesbrough vs Ipswich (Sat, 8:10am ET) and Norwich against Derby County (Sat, 11am ET) this weekend on beIN SPORTS. If you don’t get beIN SPORTS, sign up for a free 14-day trial to fuboTV PRO to watch the games live and online.
They’re a modest team and their humble stadium Dean Court holds circa 10,500 spectators. But Howe has this group operating with a swagger, an incision and they’re a team that seem to have the requisite poise needed to go all the way in this promotion race.
But there are some classy clubs in close pursuit. Derby County are in second spot and Steve McLaren arguably has the best squad in the division at his disposal. In Darren Bent, the former England manager has a thoroughbred goalscorer too and after losing the playoff final in such unfortunate circumstances last season, that heartache will surely be driving them on this time round.
SEE ALSO — Championship TV and Internet schedule for USA residents
Watford will be hopeful of taking their place amongst English football’s elite for the first time in eight years by securing automatic promotion this season. Slavisa Jokanovic is the Hornets’ sixth manager in three season, but he seems to have struck the right note with these players; in Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo they have the division’s most potent strike duo too.
The team with the best defensive record in the division is Middlesbrough and they’ve showcased all the fortitude needed for a promotion race. Aitor Karanka’s team are extremely difficult to break down—as Manchester City will attest to after losing to the North East club in the FA Cup—and will fancy their chances of going anywhere to pick up positive results when the pressure bites.
However, arguably the team that looks to have the strongest shout for the title at the moment is Norwich. They took sizeable gamble by appointing Alex Neil from Hamilton Academical after the departure of Neil Adams, but the new boss has helped rejuvenate their hopes of bouncing back to the Premier League at the first time of asking.
They have a group that is bristling not only with players capable of cutting it in the top flight, but young stars keen to forge a reputation for themselves. Carrow Road also represents a very difficult venue to take points from.
If a five-way race for promotion wasn’t quite crazy enough for you, there are a couple of other sides that still remain in the hunt for the Premier League promised land. Mark Warburton has done a magnificent job at Brentford and although he’s poised to leave the Bees at the end of the current campaign, they’re just three points off the top spot.
Just a point further back are Ipswich Town, who have a manager in Mick McCarthy that knows what it takes to push a team into the Premier League and the hottest striker in the division in 22-goal Daryl Murphy.
With seven teams separated by five points, there are guaranteed thrills to come in the final weeks of the season. Indeed, it’s remarkable to think that one of these excellent sides won’t even make it into the playoff shake-up, such is the competitiveness at the top of this burgeoning division.
But getting promotion into the top flight could be so significant for the teams involved in this rat-race, especially for the traditionally smaller sides like Bournemouth and Brentford. The lucky teams this season will get to sample a slice of the stellar £5 billion television deal that has been signed by the Premier League recently and with it comes a fine chance of cementing their respective statuses as a top flight club.
Follow Matt on Twitter @MattJFootball
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