By Jonny Tiplady
With the halfway point already crossed in this year’s EFL Championship season, the race for promotion to English football’s promised land is in full flow.
It is often said that the Championship is one of the world’s toughest leagues, with such a hotly contested title race year on year, and this season is shaping up just the same.
With recently relegated sides competing with clubs deeply rooted in English football’s history, this title race is proving to be one of the most captivating in recent years.
At the time of writing, Leeds United were setting the pace in England’s second division, having completed two remarkable comebacks – both 3-2 thrillers – in the space of three days, only to be humbled at home by Hull City to end the year.
The club has come close to making serious pushes for promotion in recent years, but found themselves lacking the consistency needed for that final stretch.
The Whites are rejuvenated this year under the tutelage of ‘El Loco’ Marcelo Bielsa, who, as well as mentoring Zinedine Zidane and Mauricio Pochettino, was also the man who taught Pep Guardiola what he knows.
And after the success of Manchester City last year, Leeds fans have good reason to hold high hopes.
The team have played with an intensity that has seen them blow their league away. The mixture of ‘gegenpressen’ and ‘tiki-taka’-style football is what Bielsa is famous for, and has used to good effect to restore the fans’ faith.
However, the risk remains that Bielsa’s ruthless intensity could be a double-edged sword for the Yorkshire side.
The Argentine preferred a smaller squad to begin with, and with the packed festive period and his high demands taking their toll, the squad will undoubtedly thin as injuries plague the side.
They already have six players sidelined from the twenty-five used in the League this season. It remains to be seen whether Bielsa’s squad can last the pace or if they will fall late on, like his Bilbao and Marseille sides of old.
Their nearest challengers at this point in time are Norwich City, who are themselves experiencing a resurgence under Daniel Farke.
After a lacklustre first season under the German, the Canaries have impressed this year with a similar style of high tempo football to that of Leeds.
Spearheaded by Jordan Rhodes and the surprise package Teemu Pukki and gifted with newly-blooded youngsters in Max Aarons and Jamal Lewis, Norwich fans are dreaming of Premier League football once again.
More remarkable still is their low expenditure compared to their rivals, the most expensive signing of their summer being Ben Marshall at £1.5 million, a drop in the ocean for many sides nowadays.
Their achievements on what can be called a shoestring budget are amazing. One cannot help but draw comparisons with David Wagner’s achievements with Huddersfield two years ago, a compatriot of Farke’s with a similar footballing philosophy.
However, questions still remain about City’s defence, having conceded the second most in the top half of the Championship.
Whether or not this side can sustain their current form and continue riding their wave remains to be seen. The defeat against Derby gave them a taste of their own medicine and demonstrated that they won’t have the luck all their way this season.
The two sides’ recent defeats could provide encouragement for the league’s other heavyweights in the pack below. West Bromwich Albion have been snapping at the heels of the top two for much of the season so far.
They lead the league in goals so far, and with finishers proven at this level in Dwight Gayle and Jay Rodriguez, Baggies supporters can rest assured that the goals won’t dry up.
With much of the squad left from their Premier League season, they should be confident in their pedigree. The clash between Albion and Norwich next month could be crucial to determining the automatic promotion places come May.
Any side currently in the playoff places could prove a thorn in the side of the league’s top two.
Derby County have been perennial promotion challengers for the past five seasons, and this year is proving no different.
With Frank Lampard at the helm, using his Premier League connections, they have acquired two of the division’s now most scintillating youngsters in Harry Wilson and Mason Mount, the latter even rewarded for his form with an England squad place.
Chris Wilder will be looking to restore his beloved Blades to the home of English football’s elite. And with Billy Sharp firing on all cylinders, these dreams could finally become a reality after an eleven-year absence.
Overreliance is a potential issue, but with David McGoldrick and Leon Clarke waiting in the wings, the goals have another source if need be.
Just beneath the play off places sit a whole host of teams eagerly waiting to pounce on any slip up from those above them.
Stoke City, many bookmakers’ pre-season favourites for promotion could overcome their rocky start to Championship football. Aston Villa, with all their financial clout, could yet fire themselves into the promotion equation.
The two surprise packages of QPR, where Steve McClaren rebuilds his reputation, and Birmingham City, bottom of the league going into 2018, could continue their upward momentum. The league really is only becoming more and more competitive every year.
Can Marcelo Bielsa put an end to 15 years of misery for Leeds United? Will Daniel Farke’s Canaries be soaring into the top division come May?
Or perhaps another side will rise from the ashes of 2018 into a fruitful promotion challenge in the New Year. There is still so much to play for.
At this stage last year Fulham were twelfth in the league, about to mount an extraordinary unbeaten run which saw them only one win away from automatic promotion.
So anything could happen between now and the end of the season. Strap yourselves in, with many bumps and hitches on the way, this promotion race is only just getting started.
Photograph: Graham Hogg via Geograph