have very distinctly set about forming a third tier in the chase for promotion to the Premier League. There’s a long way to go – but for now (and long may it stay this way) it’s us, those chasing us and those battling for the Play-Off places. Healthy, would be a reasonable definition of our current state of play - without taking anything for granted.Cardiff CityIn opening a ten point lead at the summit of the nPower Championship,
How critical a month could February prove to be? A third of Malky Mackay’s side’s remaining eighteen fixtures fall during those twenty-eight days, three home and three away. We start at Leeds, travel to Huddersfield, return to face Leicester, Bristol City and Brighton at Cardiff City Stadium and finish with a trip to Wolves. Plenty of points on offer, most would say.
are the teams to watch, the Foxes in particular following their acquisition of striker Chris Wood and last Friday’s 1-0 win over fellow promotion hopefuls Middlesbrough. Leicester have won their last four Championship fixtures, scoring twelve in the process and conceding just one. That’s mightily impressive. A home derby with Wolves and tricky trip to Peterborough are next on the cards.Hull City and Steve Bruce’s Leicester CityBut what about that second band - those sides determined to gun down the City and cement themselves in the top two? For now many would argue that Nigel Pearson’s
Hull, meanwhile, have enjoyed a resurgence this season under Steve Bruce. Having flirted with the top-six since their relegation from the Premier League in 2010, the Tigers have failed to put up a genuine promotion fight; this year, that looks like changing.
Boss Bruce picked up the December Manager of the Month gong for guiding his side to five wins and a draw through the last weeks of 2012 and though they’ve failed to win since the turn of the year (two draws and one defeat), they’ll be hoping to reassert themselves with two upcoming away games at Millwall and Brighton at the start of February. An F.A. Cup replay with Leyton Orient has brought about a fourth round fixture with Barnsley on the weekend, though arguably this Cup involvement has scuppered their recent good form.
. Palace’s form has been patchy since Ian Holloway took charge in the autumn – in fact they’ve only won twice in their last eleven games, turning them from Championship favourites into hopefuls. The Eagles host Charlton next up after going out of the F.A. Cup in round three to Stoke. Another London(ish) derby at Watford the following weekend could tell a lot about how their season will pan out. As to whether or not they’ll hold on to the seemingly Manchester United-bound Wilfried Zaha would be another key consideration.Watford and surprise package Middlesbrough sleeping giants Crystal Palace,Below Hull and Leicester (each of whom are on fifty points), sit former pace-setters
Tony Mowbray’s Middlesbrough have been Championship favourites since their relegation from the Premier League in 2009. They’ve enjoyed little success, with crowds at the Riverside poor, although in Mowbray they have one of the division’s best managers, who’s sculpting a team that look more capable than ever of returning to the top-flight. Boro enjoyed some fantastic form at earlier stages of the season, though again look like a team distracted by Cup competition having lost back to back League fixtures to Watford and Leicester following their third round conquering of Hastings United. A fourth round hosting of Aldershot this weekend stands in the way of preparations for their ‘end of the earth’ trip to Ipswich on February 2nd!
Completing the top-six then is the very watchable Watford, now under the alluring but calculated stewardship of Gianfranco Zola. The Hornets have quietly gone about their business this season racking up forty-six points to date, although their success has been patchy with winning runs backed by losses eliminating consistency. Having gone out of the F.A. Cup in round three to Manchester City, Zola’s lads have beaten Middlesbrough and Huddersfield Town. Next up they travel to lowly Bristol City before hosting floundering Bolton the following week. How much will we learn about their Play-Off credentials in the next month?
, all on forty-one.Leeds United and Brighton, Millwall, Nottingham Forest on forty-two points followed by the quadrant of BurnleyThere’s always one though apparently. Always one side that creeps into the Play-Offs or smashes their way to automatic promotion. Mackay, Pearson, Bruce, Holloway, Mowbray and Zola will hope that this is not so in 2013 – although sitting just outside the Play-Off zone as it stands are the Charlie Austin-led
There’s no two ways about it – this division is as chillingly unpredictable as ever. But for once there’s daylight in our favour at the summit that we have to embrace.