Race for Championship title heats up as clubs vie for promotion to Premier League

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Given Leicester City were the winners of English football’s Championship in the 2013-14 season, the second tier, while always an absorbing and enthralling sideshow to the Premier League, has been viewed with an added degree of scrutiny this term.

After all, with the top flight set be enriched by a money-spinning television deal this summer, swelling the bank balance of the 20 teams involved, there is a chance for those sides involved in the promotion race at the moment to follow the Foxes’ blueprint.

They’re factors that’ll make the end to this campaign especially intriguing, with a clutch of teams currently vying for spots in the top two positions, thus guaranteeing their spot in the Premier League, and the playoff places, which, while always lucrative for the victor, will see extraordinary riches at stake.

With that in mind, here’s a look at the sides currently in the hunt for a guaranteed return to the top flight, as well a selection of teams who have a chance of mounting a late surge up the table.

1. Burnley (Played 37, Points 74) – The New Leicester?

For spells in the Premier League last season, Burnley looked set to defy the narrative many had laid out for them and stay afloat in the top flight. And while the Clarets were unable to preserve their Premier League status in the end, this season they look much better for the experience.

Indeed, Sean Dyche’s men have hit a purple patch of form at almost exactly the right time, trailblazing their way to the summit of the table. They’ve won their last six matches in succession and haven’t lost in 14, a run which has allowed them to establish a six-point buffer at the top of the second tier.

SEE MORE: Schedule of Championship games on US TV and live streaming

There’s a lot to enjoy about the way this outfit goes about their business too. As anyone who watched the Clarets in the top flight last season will remember, Dyche’s sides are always tenacious off the ball, hard-working and adaptable to playing in different styles; it’s a method the Foxes executed superbly under Nigel Pearson and continue to do so under Claudio Ranieri.

Although some of the teams chasing them down have a game in hand, points on the board is vital at this late stage. It means Burnley look primed for an immediate return to the top flight and given a second go at the Premier League, Dyche will be in a much better position to keep them there.

2. Brighton & Hove Albion (Played 37, Points 68) – The Potential Newcomers

After a stunning beginning to the season, which saw Brighton & Hove Albion go 21 games unbeaten, Chris Houghton’s team sagged back down the Championship table and seemed to be out of the running for promotion.

But they’ve rediscovered their swagger in the last 11 games, with seven wins and three draws secured. After a 1-0 win over Reading on Tuesday, they’re back in the top two and seem to be peaking at an ideal time. The Seagulls play an aesthetic brand of football too, counter-attacking with endeavour and defending with aggression.

In Houghton they have a manager who has been here before. When he was in charge of Newcastle United during their stint in the Championship, they kept their head brilliantly in critical contests to confirm promotion and the popular boss seems to have got Brighton over their mid-season wobble superbly.

Burnley may well be too far ahead to reel in with nine games remaining, but for Brighton, who have not played in the top flight since 1982 and therefore never featured in the Premier League, this season represents a brilliant opportunity to enter the promised land.

2. Middlesbrough (Played 36, Points 67) – The Flawed Favorites

Over the course of the past couple of seasons Middlesbrough have stood out as the best side in the Championship and while they looked on course for automatic promotion this season, some intriguing goings on at the club have threatened to derail their campaign.

Their manager, Aitor Karanka, was not in the dugout following the team’s loss to Charlton Athletic in their last outing following a reported row with his playing staff. He’s since been reinstalled to the delight of the Boro supporters and after falling out of the top two following Brighton’s victory on Tuesday, the club will want to regroup in their final 10 games.

SEE MORE: Karanka returns to Middlesbrough after turbulent week

Boro were six points clear at the top of the table in January and seemed set to run away with the division due to their underpinning cohesion. Now, with three losses in their last four games, Karanka is a manager who has a huge job on his hands if the north-east side are to get back into the automatic spots.

Having lost in the playoff final last year, Boro fans will be concerned this team is going to let impetus slip once again in pursuit of the Premier League. After all the unrest that’s engulfed the club as of late, the top two may well be beyond them; the remaining games will certainly be a big test of Karanka’s managerial mettle.

4. Hull City (Played 36, Points 66) – The Experienced Outfit

After their relegation last term Hull City are eyeing an immediate return to the Premier League and have arguably the most experienced squad in the division.

Indeed, manager Steve Bruce was able to preserve a core of players following their relegation last term, with Curtis Davies and Michael Dawson excelling at the back to give Hull the best defensive record in the division. Additionally, the attacking class of players like Abel Hernandez and Robert Snodgrass has allowed them to nick tight games.

An FA Cup tie and replay with Arsenal clogged up Hull’s fixture list recently and as a result they’re a team which has looked a little jaded in their past league outings, with no win in five now. But their elimination to the Gunners means Bruce can get these players focused on what should be an exciting end to the season.

They face Middlesbrough on Friday in a vital game; the loser, you suspect, will find it difficult to raise themselves for a tilt at the top two.

Playoff Hopefuls and Outsiders

Derby County have long been viewed as the Championship’s big underachievers and currently trail Brighton by seven points. Darren Wassall has taken over from the underperforming Paul Clement and with exciting young players like George Thorne, Cyrus Christie and Tom Ince at his disposal, the Rams shouldn’t be ruled out yet.

In sixth are Sheffield Wednesday, who are a very dangerous outfit on their day, but not quite consistent enough to challenge the division’s best teams. Still, manager Carlos Carvalhal has arguably the most energetic squad in the league at his disposal and that’ll stand them in good stead for what is always a draining period at the end of the term.

Currently on the outside of the playoffs looking in are Cardiff City and Ipswich Town, who occupy seventh and eighth, respectively; they’re each on 58 points, just one back from the Owls.

The former only trail Burnley in the form table at the moment, with an impressive four wins in their last six, including a 4-1 demolition of second place Brighton. Ipswich will fancy their chances of forcing their way into the Playoffs for the second successive campaign and will be seeking to eradicate the heartache of losing to local rivals Norwich City at that stage in 2014-15.

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