Predicting the unpredictable: Who will make the Championship playoffs?

Things are beginning to shape up in the Championship...

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Even at this stage of the campaign, predicting the final Championship table is about as easy as getting Donald Trump to admit that climate change is real.

This season is even harder than usual to predict and only six points separate West Brom in 5th and Stoke City in 14th.

With that in mind, we’re still going to try and predict the six clubs that will be in the promotion shake-up at the end of season.

Based on the trends of previous seasons, these are the clubs that have history on their side.

West Brom (champions)

West Brom are by far the best placed of last season’s relegated clubs to make an immediate return to the Premier League, and they could even do it as champions.

In Darren Moore they have a manager that gets the best out of his players, and he has made a number of shrewd summer acquisitions. Dwight Gayle is a Championship goal machine, and he has already fired in nine of them, while Harvey Barnes (on loan from Leicester) has already contributed six goals from midfield.

The Baggies have overcome a wobbly start to the season, typical for relegated clubs growing accustomed to life in the Championship, and now look at home in the second tier. Their most recent result, a 4-1 hammering of Leeds, was a huge statement of intent from the Midlands club.

West Brom were the epitome of a yo-yo club in the noughties, when they were relegated from the Premier League three times between 2003 and 2009. Every time they bounced back. And they will again.

Middlesbrough

Middlesbrough were close to immediately returning to the Premier League last season but were ultimately beaten by Aston Villa in the play-off semi-finals. In recent years there has been a trend of a team missing out in the play-offs one season and then being promoted the following season.

Boro themselves did it in 2016 after they had lost the play-off final in 2015, while Brighton and Fulham have both been dumped out of the play-offs in recent seasons before securing promotion in the subsequent year. Boro look poised to be that side again this season.

Like it or not, Tony Pulis is a very good manager, and his style of football is practically made for the Championship.

Pulis only took over at Christmas last season, so this is his first full season with his squad. Even in his half season last year he converted Boro from a mid-table side at Christmas to a play-off side in May.

So far this season, Middlesbrough bear all the hallmarks of a Pulisteam, conceding just eight goals in 17 games, but only scoring 19. Goals may prove to be a problem for Boro but with Britt Assombalonga and Martin Braithwaite up top they will always carry a threat and, with such a miserly defence, one goal will be enough to win most games. They have kept an astounding 11 clean sheets from just 17 games already.

With Pulis at the helm, Boro can secure automatic promotion and banish last year’s demons.

Leeds United

Leeds’ absence from the Premier League stretches all the way back to 2004 and will cover at least 15 years. For a club of Leeds’ magnitude, such an exile from the top flight is simply unacceptable. In recent seasons, the Yorkshire club have made a habit of starting seasons strongly, giving their fans hope, and then promptly suffering a capitulation of epic proportions.

In 2017, Leeds held an 11-point buffer over 7th placed Fulham with just eight games left and were caught on the last day. Last year, Leeds topped the Championship at the end of September, but subsequently lost six of their next seven games and completely imploded, finishing 13th. Leeds have become the Tottenham of the Championship and were it not for Tottenham’s notorious habit of bottling things, the term ‘Leedsy’ might be used to describe a bottle job.

Leeds have gone through more managers than you’ve had hot dinners this decade, but in Marcelo Bielsa they seem to have at last found the right one. The Argentine has enjoyed a successful start to life at Elland Road and Leeds have flirted with top spot since the start of the season. They hammered Derby at the start of season to lay down a marker, and also easily overcame Norwich at Carrow Road.

They are currently in the middle of a mild blip and just lost 4-1 to West Brom before the international break. Leeds fans will hope that this is not the tell-tale sign of an impending implosion, but this season feels different. Bielsa’s side have dominated the majority of their games and are more comfortable on the ball than anyone else in the Championship. They are strong in every position and the likes of Mateusz Klich, Pablo Hernandez and Kemar Roofe ooze class.

They are, however, too inconsistent and may just miss out on automatic promotion.

Norwich City

Every year, an average side defies expectations and breaks into the top six. Cardiff were last year’s example and Huddersfield were by far the most average side in 2017, while Brentford and Ipswich both made the play-offs in 2015. Norwich are this year’s average side. The Canaries currently sit top of the Championship and have won their last five games.

It is absolutely staggering that they are where they are. Fourteenth in last year’s Championship, Norwich sold their most prized asset James Maddison to Leicester City this summer. Maddison top scored for Norwich last season with 14 league goals and replaced him with Celtic flop Teemu Pukki. No one could have foreseen that Pukki would hit the back of the net nine times inside his first three months with the club to fire them to the top of the Championship.

Momentum such as Norwich’s is hard to break, and they are now well placed to push for promotion. However, they may just miss out on automatic promotion to sides with far more quality.

Nottingham Forest

The two-time European champions have been in limbo in the second tier, without promotion or relegation, since 2008. During that time they’ve had more ups and downs than Andy Goram, suffering play-off heartbreak twice before more recently avoiding relegation by the skin of their teeth. Forest haven’t really threatened the top six since 2013, but there is a sense that this year is different for the reds.

A change of ownership from the disastrous Fawaz regime to a Greek consortium has brought with it an influx of promising signings. Lewis Grabban has been on fire up front so far and Joao Carvalho has shown flashes of brilliance but has thus far failed to live up to his £13 million fee. The likes of Joe Lolley and Matty Cash have been excellent for Forest and they seem to have found a star have become increasingly resilient since Aitor Karanka took over in January. Karanka has been there and worn the t-shirt when he led Middlesbrough to promotion in 2016 and his experience will be vital if Forest are to emulate his Boro side.

Forest are currently 7th in the table but should be a lot higher, having dropped eight points in the last ten minutes of games this season.

Derby County

Like their East Midlands rivals, Derby have languished in the Championship since 2008 when they were infamously relegated as the worst Premier League team of all time. Derby have also had their fair share of play-off heartbreak, missing out in 2014, 2016 and 2018. With the inexperienced Frank Lampard taking charge, Derby were something of an unknown quantity at the start of the season, but Lampard has so far proved himself as a tactically astute manager.

Derby have gone to Manchester United and Chelsea in the League Cup and proved to be a match for both. Alright, it’s the League Cup but it’s still impressive from a Championship side. Derby have one of the best squads in the Championship and the additions of Harry Wilson and Mason Mount have brought youthful exuberance to the squad.

They were one of the early season favourites for promotion, but their form has been patchy of late with their hugely impressive 4-1 victory at West Brom being undone by a humbling 3-0 loss at home to Aston Villa.  A tricky run of fixtures awaits Derby after the international break and it could make or break their promotion bid.

They should, however, sneak into the play-offs at least.

The period between now and New Year’s Day is a crucial stage of the season, with nine games coming in just over a month. Whichever sides can put a consistent run together in this period will put themselves in contention for a place in the Premier League.

All things considered, there is every chance that this top six will bear absolutely no resemblance to the final top six. Fulham were 17th at this stage of the season last year and put together a remarkable 28 game unbeaten run to finish 3rd. Aston Villa might look to emulate them this season as they have turned a corner under new manager Dean Smith. It is, however, impossible to pinpoint which team will come from nowhere and the six clubs represent the most likely promotion candidates.

Find the latest Championship odds over at paddypower.com