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The Battle For Promotion: Championship Playoff Contenders Assessed
Jake G
Jake G
April 10, 2018

The race for a 2017/18 Championship Play-off place is nearing it’s climax as seven contenders fight tooth an nail for chance to compete for Premier League promotion. As we reach the zenith of what’s been a ferociously competitive Championship campaign, dreams of eating at English football’s top table are starting to intensify.

While the financial rewards are obvious and substantial, players are also clamouring to swap trips to the Pirelli and KCOM Stadium for adventures at Anfield and Old Trafford. This is undoubtedly the most thrilling part of the season, where the work of an entire campaign can be undone in ninety minutes.

With Cardiff City and Aston Villa looking certain to claim the 3rd and 4th positions, Derby County, Millwall, Middlesbrough, Bristol City, Sheffield United, Brentford and Preston are left to compete for the remaining two Play-Off slots. There is only a five point spread between Derby in 5th and Brentford in 10th, and with a month of drama yet to unfold, there is everything still to play for.

In our Championship Play-off run down, we will evaluate each of the seven contender’s remaining fixtures, their key players, the potential pitfalls and ultimately, their chances of success.

Read the rest of our Championship predictions here.


Derby County Championship

Current Position: 5th

Points: 68

Games Left to Play: 5

Odds on Top 6 Finish: 1/7

Remaining Fixtures:

  • Burton (A)
  • Middlesbrough (H)
  • Cardiff (H)
  • Aston Villa (A)
  • Barnsley (H)

Prior to the Rams FA Cup meeting with Manchester United in January, Jose Mourinho labelled Derby “a Premier League team playing in the Championship” and looking at the make-up of their squad it’s easy to see why. Derby are in pole position to claim one of the remaining two Play-off places, though there still must be a tinge of disappointment in their ranks that they couldn’t push harder for an automatic promotion spot.

The Rams had rocky start to their 2017/18 campaign, winning only three of their opening ten Championship games. From October, Gary Rowett’s men went into overdrive, collecting maximum points in eleven of their fifteen league fixtures. Their form ensured they finished 2017 in second spot, though Derby have been unable to replicate those performances in the New Year.

Derby have won just four of their fifteen fixtures in 2018 during a sustained period of underperformance, and although their mid-week setback at Wolves was only their fourth defeat during that run, the Rams have been leaning heavily on their 2017 results to keep them in contention for the Play-Offs this year.

Even so, Derby remain in a great position, their 0-2 loss at Wolves was preceded by back-to-back wins over Preston and Bolton Wanderers. Those hugely important wins ended a run of eight without a victory for the Rams. Their 3-0 win over the Trotters was the first time in seven that Derby scored more than once in a game.

Crucially, Derby have a game in hand on the teams around them, with five games left to play compared to the four the rest still have to contest. Cardiff provide stiff opposition for that extra fixture but if Derby can secure even a point against the Welshmen, it could make all the difference in helping them cement their place in fifth.

Although it’s too much to expect Derby to match the thirteen point haul they secured in the reverse league games against them, we’re predicting that they will take eight points from their final fixtures against Burton, Middlesbrough, Cardiff, Aston Villa and Barnsley. That points total should ensure that they meet the Villains again in a Play-Off Semi Final double header.


Millwall Championship

Current Position: 6th

Points: 68

Games Left to Play: 4

Odds on Top 6 Finish: 11/8

Remaining Fixtures:

  • Sheffield United (A)
  • Fulham (H)
  • Middlesbrough (A)
  • Aston Villa (H)

With pre-season odds of around 40/1 for them to reach the Play-offs, Millwall are without doubt the surprise package of the Championship this year. Neil Harris’ unfancied Lions are in the midst of a sixteen match unbeaten run and the momentum they have generated during that fabulous sequence could play an integral role in the coming weeks.

Millwall have scored fewer goals this season than all but one of the other Play-off contenders, though their apparent lack of goal getting power hasn’t held them back. They have recorded victories in eleven of their last sixteen Championship fixtures, despite scoring more than twice on only one occasion.

29 year old striker Lee Gregory and 24 year old Northern Ireland international midfielder George Saville have provided a sizeable chunk of Millwall’s league goals in 2017/18,  netting ten goals each so far this term. Neil Harris will be hoping both players can maintain their productivity through April and early May.

Unfortunately for Harris, Millwall have a much tougher looking run in than any of their rivals for a top six finish. The Lions must travel to fellow promotion chasers Sheffield United and Middlesbrough, with home matches against automatic promotion favourites Fulham and Play-Off certainties Aston Villa to negotiate too.

Neil Harris will draw hope from his side’s excellent record in the reverse league fixtures against those clubs – Millwall collected seven points from a possible twelve from those contests, beating Sheffield United 3-1, Middlesbrough 2-1, drawing 0-0 Aston Villa and narrowly losing out 0-1 at Fulham.

However, with pressure mounting and intensity levels rising, playing a quartet of tough opponents in successive games might be too high a mountain to conquer for Millwall. We’re forecasting a return of approximately three points from those games, which could see the Lions missing out on a Play-Off spot by an inch.


Middlesbrough championship

Current Position: 7th

Points: 66

Games Left to Play: 4

Odds on Top 6 Finish: 6/5

Remaining Fixtures:

  • Bristol City (H)
  • Derby (A)
  • Millwall (H)
  • Ipswich (A)

Middlesbrough were among the favourites for automatic promotion last summer following their relegation from the Premier League, but a season of inconsistency and managerial upheaval put paid to any chances of Boro finishing in the division’s top two.

Gary Monk started the 2017/18 in the Middlesbrough hot seat, but he could only hold on to the reins until December 23rd when he was shown the door following Boro’s 2-1 win at Sheffield Wednesday. Merry Christmas. Tony Pulis was brought in to replace Monk, but after a positive start to 2018, Middlesbrough’s form has tailed off considerably over the past month.

When the going has gotten tough, Middlesbrough have wilted somewhat and their mid-week 2-1 defeat at Bramall Lane against fellow Play-off contenders Sheffield United felt like a decisive moment. Boro’s win over Nottingham Forest last week remains their only victory in five and it feels as though their chances of a top six place are slipping through their fingers.

Looking at their remaining games, Boro’s line-up looks just as daunting as Millwall’s. Next up at the Riverside, Middlesbrough take on 8th placed Bristol City. Three points against  the Robins are essential before they travel to Pride Park to do battle with 5th placed Derby County. The Lions themselves are the next visitors to the North East, before Boro finish up with a trip to Portman Road to pits their wits against Ipswich Town.

Worryingly for Tony Pulis, Middlebrough have already been beaten by Bristol City, Derby County and Millwall this season. However, if they claw their way to wins in both of their remaining fixtures at the Riverside, it should be enough to squeeze them over the line.


bristol city skybet championship

Current Position: 8th

Points: 65

Games Left to Play: 4

Odds on Top 6 Finish: 11/2

Remaining Fixtures:

  • Middlesbrough (A)
  • Hull City (H)
  • Nottingham Forest (A)
  • Sheffield United (H)

Having lost just one of their first eleven Championship games in 2017/18, Bristol City looked odds on to claim a Play-off place at the very least this season. In total, the Robins lost just three times in the league up until Boxing Day and their wonderful form carried over into the Carabao Cup, helping to drive City through a lengthy, reputation enhancing campaign.

Bristol City were the toast of the nation when they eliminated Man Utd at the Quarter Final stage of the competition, though from that point, their league form plummeted to disastrously low levels. Lee Johnson was quick to attribute the drop in performance levels to the inexperience in his squad, though from the outside at least, it looked as though his players were distracted by the prospect of a Semi Final double header against Pep Guardiola’s Man City side.

Bristol City won only one Championship game in January and February combined, a sequence that saw them overtaken by a clutch of promotion rivals. Fast forward to today and City’s form is still patchy at best. Their 3-1 triumph over relegation candidates Birmingham this week was just their second win in seven.

City are currently three points off 6th spot, though they have an inferior goal difference to each of the clubs above them. The Robins do face two promotion rivals in their final four fixtures, which gives them a chance to do some real damage to the teams around them while simultaneously strengthening their own hand. Bobby Reid’s eighteen Championship goals from midfield have been key, though the 25 year old has only scored once in his last seven appearances.

Bristol City face four clubs they have already beaten in 2017/18 and even though all four victories were secured by narrow single goal margins (Middlesbrough 2-1, Hull City 3-2, Nottingham Forest 2-1, Sheffield United 2-1), the results should ensure confidence is at decent levels ahead of the run in.

City are capable of picking up a substantial points haul from those games and we are predicting they take seven points from the twelve available. It’s unclear whether that would be enough to see off their rivals, but at 11/2 it’s certainly worth a flutter.


Sheffield United Championship

Current Position: 9th

Points: 65

Games Left to Play: 4

Odds on Top 6 Finish: 11/2

Remaining Fixtures:

  • Millwall (H)
  • Birmingham (A)
  • Preston (H)
  • Bristol City (A)

In the early exchanges of the 2017/18 campaign, Sheffield United looked like matching Wolves stride for stride as they contested the leadership at the top of the Championship table. It was a remarkable start to the season for the Blades who looked on course to win back-to-back promotions following their successful League One crusade last year.

However, at the end of January, United started to lose some of their zeal and following successive defeats to Aston Villa and Wolves, the Blades went on a “win one, lose one” run, winning three and drawing three of their next six games through until early March. They have won just two from seven since, though their 2-1 win over Middlesbrough during the week could prove to be a huge turning point.

Chris Wilder has performed miracles as the man in charge at Bramall Lane and even if they fall short now, United look in great shape to make a more sustained challenge for a Play-off spot next year. That’s not to say they should throw in the towel now. Another win this week at home to 6th placed Millwall will thrust them near the head of the queue for a Play-Off position.

After that, United travel to play a Birmingham City side fighting for their lives. Sheffield United close out the campaign with fixtures against two other of our featured seven clubs, with Preston visiting Bramall Lane on April 28th, followed by a final away fixture at Bristol City a week later.  United collected just one point from the twelve available from their fixtures against those teams earlier in the season.

United have lost ten of their twenty one away matches in 2017/18 and with just one win from their most recent eight away trips, Chris Wilder will be sweating about his players’ ability to carve out positive results at St. Andrew’s and Ashton Gate.

With that considered, we’re forecasting a points return of five points from those tricky remaining games, a total that will almost certainly see the Blades miss out on the top six.


Brentford Championship

Current Position: 10th

Points: 64

Games Left to Play: 4

Odds on Top 6 Finish: 9/1

Remaining Fixtures:

  • Fulham (A)
  • QPR (H)
  • Barnsley (A)
  • Hull City (H)

With a gap of four points to 6th spot to try to claw back, it’s no surprise to see Brentford ranked as outsiders in the bookmakers to make the Championship Play-offs. However, the Bees have an advantage that the rest of the competing teams don’t, in that they don’t play any of their direct rivals in their final four fixtures.

Brentford can concentrate on putting points on the board while their rivals take points off each other. That could allow the Bees to slip in through the back door and into 6th come May.  In terms of recent form, Brentford have hit a rich vein. They have racked up nine points from their last three Championship games, eking past Bristol City, Ipswich and Nottingham Forest in a succession of 1-0 wins.

The Bees have stretched their unbeaten run to five, though their average of a goal per game over that period means that their matches are all too often on a knife edge. Brentford face the daunting task of facing a rampant Fulham side at Craven Cottage this weekend, but after that things look a little rosier.

Brentford play mid-table QPR and Hull City sides will little to play in their remaining matches at Griffin Park, while there is a good chance Barnsley will be relegated by the time they travel to Oakwell in the away contest sandwiched in between.

To have any chance of success, Dean Smith will need left winger Ollie Watkins to find his shooting boots again. Despite hitting an impressive ten goals overall for the season so far, Watkins is without a goal in seven. Similarly, his team-mate on the opposite flank Florian Jozefzoon has just two goals and one assist in his last eleven. Both Wakins and Jozefzoon need to up their game to aid central striker Neal Maupay who has scored two of Brentford’s last three goals.

Having evaluated their opponents, we’re predicting that Brentford can take at least seven points from twelve, a total that makes them a tempting shot as an outside bet at 9/1.


Preston North End Championship

Current Position: 11th

Points: 63

Games Left to Play: 4

Odds on Top 6 Finish: 16/1

Remaining Fixtures:

  • QPR (A)
  • Norwich City (H)
  • Sheffield United (A)
  • Burton (H)

Drawing similarities with Brentford above them in 10th, Preston North End’s run-in largely keeps them away from the other Play-off chasers. Their trip to Bramall Lane in the penultimate round of Championship fixtures sticks out as the biggest potential banana skin, with the other games in their schedule looking far more winnable.

However, that extra point that Preston need to make up could make all the difference. North End are five points below Millwall in 6th and will need a late-season miracle to pull themselves up the table into contention. Really, Preston have been architects of their own demise, with their performances unravelling badly over the last month.

Preston had lost three matches on the spin before their 3-1 win at home to Leeds on Tuesday evening at Deepdale. That victory enhanced their Play-Off chances only marginally however, though Alex Neil will still be keen to finish as high as possible ahead of his preparations for next season.

Preston have drawn an incredible fifteen times in 2017/18, a figure only matched by Sunderland. Those numbers suggest that Preston have provided stern opposition for most teams this season, as does their superb away record, which stands as the 4th best in the Championship behind Wolves, Fulham and Derby.

Three of Preston’s final four opponents reside in the bottom half of the division, though winning against all three of them feels like a big ask. However, six points from twelve is an achievable target and that’s the total we’re backing them to collect.

Final Predictions

Having evaluated the seven Play-off contender’s remaining fixtures and analysed the various permutations and possible outcomes, we’re backing Derby County to remain in their current position of 5th with Middlesbrough in line to steal in ahead of Millwall to claim the final spot in the Championship top six. Derby’s game in hand should prove pivotal and even if the Rams can only squeeze two wins out of their remaining five fixtures, their points total of seventy four would put them out of reach of the chasing pack. A victory at bottom club Burton this weekend would set them well on their way.

With Millwall’s run-in looking decidedly more difficult than their rivals, the door opens for Middlesbrough just below them in 7th to push their way past the Lions and into the final Play-off position. The clubs’ meeting at the Riverside on April 28th will be key, but Boro will be favourites with the backing of the home crowd. If Middlesbrough can hold their nerve on the final day away at out of sorts Ipswich Town, then 6th place should be secured.

By finishing 5th, Derby County will set up an intriguing Semi Final against 4th placed Aston Villa. The fixture list has already conspired to pit the clubs against each other in the second last weekend of the regular Championship season and that clash at Villa Park looks set to be the first of a sensational triple header between the sides. Derby beat Villa 2-0 in their encounter earlier in the season at the iPro Stadium, which sets them up nicely for the new battles with them on the horizon.

That means Middlesbrough will be left to lock horns with Cardiff or Fulham in the other Semi Final, though at present it’s extremely difficult to forecast which of the automatic promotion chasers it will be. Even if Boro had a choice on who to play, settling on a preferred opponent would still be tricky.

Boro lost 1-0 both home and away to Cardiff in their two league meetings this season, and though they took a decent point from Fulham back in September, the Cottagers came out on top at the Riverside in their second bout in January. It did take a 95th minute penalty from Oliver Norwood to separate the teams however. Whatever way you look at it, Middlesbrough face a difficult route to Wembley.

In terms of reaching the Final itself, Derby have to be considered the more likely candidate between them and Middlesbrough, though anything can happen in the unpredictable chaos of the Championship Play-offs.

Our Championship match previews contribute heavily to our Saturday accumulators and weekend football predictions so make sure you follow us to beat the bookies!

Jake G
Jake G

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