Race for the Premier League: Norwich, Brentford, Watford, Swansea, Reading, Bournemouth lead promotion chase
Every year, without fail, the race for promotion to the Premier League is packed full of drama and excitement – and this season is no different.
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While Norwich currently lead the pack, Brentford, Watford and Swansea are following behind with their own designs on a title tilt, while just nine points separate fifth-placed Reading and Bristol City down in 11th in the play-off push.
As the conclusion to the most unique of seasons approaches, we assess the contenders for promotion to the top flight…
Projected final table
Based on their current ratios for goals scored, conceded and points per game, Norwich would win this year’s Sky Bet Championship title, with Brentford joining them in the Premier League having pipped Swansea to the second automatic promotion place on goal difference. Joining the Swans in the play-offs would be Watford, Reading and Barnsley.
Norwich leading the way
With three of their last five Championship campaigns having ended in promotion, it is safe to say that, more often than not, Norwich know how to find their way out. Two years ago, with the end of Premier League parachute payments looming, Daniel Farke guided the Canaries to the title despite a rocky start – and it looks as though history is on course to repeat itself this time around, too.
Four points from the opening four games brought them back down to Earth with a bang and left them languishing in 17th during the first international break of the season. From there, Norwich kicked on and, while displays weren’t always necessarily easy on the eye, they managed to grind out the difficult results that define champions.
They have almost exclusively sat top since the end of November, with two five-game winning streaks along the way interspersed by the odd defeat to keep them grounded. A run of four games without scoring in all competitions from January into February afforded Brentford a brief flirtation with top spot and proved a timely reminder that nothing is guaranteed in this division.
In the summer leading up to their previous title triumph, Teemu Pukki and Emi Buendia arrived at Carrow Road, while a burgeoning talent by the name of Max Aarons made his first steps into senior football. Interest, notably for the latter pair, was high in the Premier League and it hasn’t faded since the return to the second tier. Crucially, the trio will remain at the club until the season reaches its conclusion, at least.
On Wednesday night, Farke’s men host Brentford in a highly-anticipated clash between the top two, live on Sky Sports. They could take a significant step towards lifting the trophy by extending their current seven-point gap to 10, or see it cut to just four. It promises to be a showdown not to be missed.
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Brentford back on track?
Brentford have a tendency to start seasons slowly and this campaign was no different, though having endured a gutting play-off final defeat to west London neighbours Fulham back in August, few could have blamed them. But it would do Thomas Frank’s men a disservice to say they had suffered a hangover, particularly given what followed a 3-2 defeat to Stoke in late October
Any lengthy unbeaten run is a feat to be applauded, but the Bees’ 21-game streak between October 24 and February 14 was quite remarkable by Championship standards. The first half was, admittedly, littered with a few too many draws, but a run of eight wins from the final nine tied in perfectly with a brief stutter by Norwich that saw them reach top spot.
The star of the show was – and continues to be – Ivan Toney. The 24-year-old – who joined from Peterborough as Ollie Watkins’ replacement – has hit 25 goals in 32 Championship appearances and, with 13 games still to play, is on course to break Glenn Murray’s record 30-goal haul, set in 2012/13.
Their stint at the summit was short-lived; as the Canaries regained their footing, Brentford lost theirs. Valentine’s Day was soured by a 2-0 loss to Barnsley, QPR edged the west London derby three days later, while a poor performance in a defeat to Coventry at St Andrew’s was later capped by the news that influential left-back Rico Henry’s hamstring injury will likely keep him out until April.
Subsequent wins over Sheffield Wednesday and Stoke seem to have put them on the right track again and even in spite of their brief slump, recent results elsewhere have gone in their favour to keep them inside the top two. With a record of nine failed play-off campaigns from nine attempts, that is exactly where they want to stay.
Swansea in among the favourites
Having sneaked in to the play-offs on goal difference alone last season, Steve Cooper set out to make it much less of a close call for his Swansea side this time around. Defensive solidity has been paramount during this push and the approach is paying dividends, despite the Joe Rodon-sized hole that was left in the backline when the homegrown Welsh international left for Tottenham in October.
The experienced Ryan Bennett was brought in on a free transfer from Wolves as his replacement and, alongside Marc Guehi – who re-joined on another loan deal from Chelsea – and 20-year-old Ben Cabango, has helped the Swans towards their tally of 17 clean sheets. In 31 league games this term, they have conceded just 22 goals, which equates to an average of 0.7 per game.
Heading into Wednesday’s meeting with Stoke at the bet365 Stadium, Swansea are fourth in the standings, just a point behind Watford in third and four behind second-placed Brentford, with the added bonus of two games in hand over each.
At this moment in time, two wins would lift them into second, yet it could have been more had they been on the right side of a 3-1 scoreline against Bristol City last weekend, in what is, historically, a tightly-contested fixture. The resounding 4-1 thumping away at Huddersfield on February 20 came as a surprise, too.
The January addition of Conor Hourihane was an inspired one, with the on-loan Aston Villa man scoring four goals and assisting another in his first seven appearances, but the responsibility cannot lie solely with him; Andre Ayew has scored just one goal from open play in 2021, while Jamal Lowe has drawn a blank in his last seven.
“It was a one-sided affair,” said Cooper after the Bristol City defeat. “We went 1-0 up but we did not handle it well, which is something we have done really well this year. It was unlike us.” While there is no reason for doom and gloom in South Wales, an improvement on their defensive principles is needed.
Bournemouth and Watford battling for an immediate return
Once teams drop back into the Championship, the countdown is on to get out at the earliest opportunity and the fact both Bournemouth and Watford have made managerial changes since the start of the campaign illustrates just how little margin for error there is for whichever man might be in charge.
Everything seemed to be going swimmingly for Cherries legend Jason Tindall until mid-December. The cracks started to show when they only managed to snatch a 1-0 win over Wycombe after Alex Pattison’s red card and when they started the year with four defeats from six, Tindall was swiftly replaced on a caretaker basis by Jonathan Woodgate, who had arrived at the club only days earlier.
The former Middlesbrough boss – who has since been appointed until the end of the season – has turned results around in his first month in charge – including taking the club to the FA Cup quarter-finals – but with many of the teams below them on the charge, a top six place that once looked assured is now very much under threat, despite the recent 1-0 win over the Hornets.
Being eight points better off and just three outside the top two means there is a whole different outlook for Watford. They have rarely been out of the top six since the season started with Vladimir Ivic at the helm and are now on an upward trajectory under Xisco Munoz, with the cheerful Spaniard having picked up nine wins from his first 14 games in charge.
An upturn in fortunes on the road has been key to keeping the club in the race for promotion; under Ivic, the record read: P10 W2 D5 L3, while under Munoz, it is P7 W3 D2 L2, with the two defeats coming against Swansea and Bournemouth and settled by just a one-goal margin.
It is the run-in that could prove problematic for Munoz and Co, however. In their final six games, they face four of the other five teams that currently make up the top six: Reading, Norwich, Brentford and Swansea. As dramatic as it sounds, the way they approach those four games could make or break the season.
Reading still in touch
Just four years ago, under Jaap Stam, Reading earned their best chance at returning to the top flight when they lined up against Huddersfield in the play-off final, only to agonisingly miss out in a penalty shootout at Wembley. Three seasons of mediocrity followed, which made their start to the current campaign all the more surprising, yet refreshing, in equal measure.
It started in bizarre circumstances, when Veljko Paunovic was announced as the club’s new manager two days before Mark Bowen’s departure from the helm was confirmed. Quarantine rules on arrival to the UK forced his absence from the Royals’ EFL Cup win over Colchester on September 5, but he was in place in the dugout for the Championship curtain-raiser seven days later.
For the best part of a month-and-a-half, they blazed a trail at the top of the league and even opened up a seven-point gap on second-placed Swansea at one point. The bubble burst in November, when they picked up just one win from five outings, but a resurgence from Boxing Day into the New Year lifted them back to fourth.
Consistency is a valued commodity in this division and it is something that is being shown in patches in Berkshire, though four defeats from seven in February – including a shock 1-0 loss to basement club Wycombe – show there is work to be done to make sure a play-off spot doesn’t slip from their grasp.
The chasing pack
At this point, it should come as no surprise that the battle to reach the play-off places is heating up. That said, some of the leading contenders in the chasing pack have started to hit form at just the right moment – most notably Barnsley, who survived by the skin of their teeth last season and were in the relegation zone as recently as October, when Gerhard Struber departed for the New York Red Bulls.
That all changed when Valerien Ismael took over shortly afterwards. The Frenchman picked up four wins from his first five league games and had lifted the Tykes into the top half by mid-December. Defeats to Norwich, Swansea and Watford slowed momentum at the start of the year yet, heading into Wednesday’s trip to QPR, they sit seventh after five straight victories, with a game in hand, to boot.
It is a similar story for Cardiff, whose slump in form resulted in Neil Harris’ sacking on January 21. The greatly experienced Mick McCarthy succeeded him a day later, drew his first two games and was then only denied an unprecedented seventh straight win to complete a perfect February by Paddy McNair’s late equaliser for Middlesbrough last weekend.
Speaking of which, Neil Warnock – for whom McCarthy was once an apprentice at Barnsley – has kept Boro within touching distance of the top six for most of the season, even though consistency has been an issue. Stoke follow closely behind, but without injured talisman Tyrese Campbell, it is generally accepted that stability is the priority this term.
Meanwhile, with an untimely injury crisis having hindered Bristol City from December onwards, they looked to have run out of steam last month, with some suggesting a gloomy slide would follow. The arrival of Nigel Pearson as Dean Holden’s successor appears to have rejuvenated the Robins, however, and two straight wins have put them right back in the hunt.
Who are the favourites, then?
Norwich are the frontrunners for the title, according to Sky Bet, who currently have the Canaries priced at 1/4 to lift the trophy and 1/25 to achieve automatic promotion, with Brentford a 5/1 title shot and 2/5 to finish inside the top two.
Watford are third-favourites to return to the Premier League at the first time of asking at 10/11, with Swansea 13/8, Bournemouth 9/2 and Barnsley and Reading both priced at 13/2.
Despite their improvement since McCarthy’s arrival, Cardiff appear to be outsiders at 8/1 but less so than Middlesbrough (25/1) and Stoke (40/1).
The final stretch is now in sight, but nothing is decided in, arguably, the most unpredictable league in world football. What is certain is that a thrilling couple of months lie ahead.
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