Sunday, 2 August 2009

Championship Preview

With two days to go until kick off, its time to assess the competition. Unlike the stagnant top flight, this season Boro will be taking part in a hugely competitive division that has chewed up and spat out plenty of Premier League alumni in recent years.

Pushing for promotion

Gareth Southgate will be aiming for promotion but there are plenty of teams hopeful of napping one of the automatic promotion spots or at least a place in the play-offs. West Brom may have finished bottom of the Premier League but look well equipped for a promotion push. New boss Roberto Di Matteo enjoyed relative successive in his first year taking the MK dollar, while new striker Simon Cox was hugely prolific for Swinon last term.

Last year's play-off finalists and Friday's opponents Sheffield United will also expect to put up a strong challenge. The Tevez money should offset the end of parachute payments and several solid signings should offset the loss of Kyle Naughton to Spurs and Paddy Kenny to the naughty step. Cardiff will also expect to be around the top six if they can put last season's late collapse behind them. Reading will be feeling more nervous having lost their manager and several players, including Marcus Hahnemann, Kevin Doyle and Boro new boy Leroy Lita. New boss Brendan Rogers needs a good start.

Roy Keane's changes at Ipswich Town have been relatively low key so far but the millions of elusive chairman Marcus Evans should bolster a stronger challenge from Suffolk. Derby County will also be hoping for to push for the top six in the first full season for their owners and manager Nigel Clough.

Newcastle have to be considered as potential promotion candidates despite the farcical summer on Tyneside if Mike Ashley abandons his one-man mission to take the club to new depths of ridicule. The resources should be there to win this division but big changes need to come fast if the Geordies are not to suffer another year of embarrassment.

Loitering in the middle

There are several teams who could emulate Burnley's unexpected run to promotion last season. Crystal Palace have struggled to achieve consistency for much of Neil Warnock's reign but have made some promising signings such as West Ham youngster Freddie Sears. Preston North End will fancy their chances of troubling the play-off places again, despite adding only Paul Parry to their squad. After a summer of extensive recruitment, Billy Davies will expect to guide Nottingham Forest back towards the top end of the table. Having raised expectations with by reaching the play-off final in Bristol City's first season in the Championship, Gary Johnson will be expect to challenge again.

Since Flavio Briatore became QPR chairman, the focus has been more on extravagant ticket prices and the new owners' plans to build a "boutique club" than any solid results. The appointment of Jim Magilton and the summer's transfer dealings have done little to remove doubts over whether Rangers are ready for a promotion push.

Sheffield Wednesday can begin to look the future after the arrival of new chairman Lee Strafford in January but are unlikely to put up as strong a challenge as their city rivals. Local rivals Doncaster Rovers put a slow start behind them last season and will be hoping for a more comfortable mid-table finish.

Former Boro skipper Nigel Pearson led Leicester City to the League One title last time out and will be hoping the likes of Matty Fryatt can keep up that form. Peterborough United joined the Foxes in the promotion spots last year and have momentum from successive promotions under the stewardship of Darren Ferguson.

Battling the drop

There's no such optimism at Coventry City where Chris Coleman faces a tough task coping with the loss of key players like Scott Dann and Danny Fox. Swansea City earned a reputation for their passing football last year but face similar difficulties having lost manager Roberto Martinez, Spanish loanee Jordi Gomez and top scorer Jason Scotland to Wigan.

Having defied expectation to maintain Championship status even after the departure of Simon Grayson, Blackpool will again be amongst the favourites for the drop.

With money tight and a new, inexperienced manager, Watford face a gruelling season. Perennial strugglers Barnsley and Plymouth Argyle will also be wary of the drop.

League One play-off winners Scunthorpe United earned the thanks of many neutrals by emergy from an unholy pool of semi-finalists including Leeds, Millwall and Milton Keynes. However, it will take a concerted effort from Nigel Adkins' team if this season isn't to end the way of the Irons' last, brief, stay in the Championship.

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