The race for promotion – and what do they need?

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The Championship went from about a fifteen horse race to a one horse title race within the space of two months.

Nuno Espirito Santo has led his Wolves pack to the helm of the table, sitting pretty with a twelve point lead over second-placed Derby County. The Black Country outfit have brought in the Portuguese (-speaking)) flair and spent big to almost certify their place in the Premier League next season.

The second tier’s Manchester City, they turned to pastures new in search of a well-credited boss to lead them to the promised land. Step forward Nuno, who parted the sea of Championship opposition like Moses. Biblical comparisons aside, with the title all but gone, it is the scrap for second that could prove to be the most interesting.

A place in the top flight is at stake, along with millions upon millions in TV monies to be earned. Derby County lead the way, pursued furiously by the chasing pack of League Cup heroes Bristol City and Neil Warnock’s rejuvenated Cardiff City. At the time of writing, Aston Villa and early pacesetters Sheffield United make up the rest of the top six, with Thomas Christiansen’s Leeds United and initial promotion favourites Middlesbrough hot on their heels.

So, as we near the middle of a frantic flurry of transfer dealings, what do those promotion hunters need? Gary Rowett’s Derby side have been bolstered by their thwarting of Stoke’s efforts to lure Gary Rowett away from Pride Park, and arguably his signature could be the Rams’ most important that they capture this season. The former Burton and Birmingham man has masterminded battered playoff hopefuls from the start of the season to automatic promotion challengers, and they seem to be the best placed to go up automatically. Die hard defenders Jason Shackell, Richard Keogh and Curtis Davies have allowed for a solid record at the back, and inspirational goalkeeping from former England international Scott Carson has buoyed the Rams’ strike force, giving them the confidence to exploit their pace on the counter and break with numbers.

Tom Lawrence is beginning to show his brilliance that was seen at Portman Road last term, while Czech goal machine Matej Vydra has decided to dust off his shooting boots and sail to second in the scoring charts, with fourteen goals to his name. Add on the sturdiness and composure of Premier League midfielders like Tom Huddlestone and Joe Ledley and suddenly it is not surprising to see them in contention. It is hard to find fault with the Derby squad, as they have one of the largest and most talented squads in the division.

However, they could improve their options under the aging Carson, with youngster Jonathan Mitchell edging ahead of Kelle Roos, who’s time at Derby seems to be up after numerous loan spells. Potentially a top ‘keeper from League One or Two; like Colchester’s Sam Walker or ex-Bayern man Lukas Raeder from Bradford City.

Meanwhile, the shock of the season has to be Cardiff and Bristol City. Both endangered with relegation last campaign, managers Warnock and Johnson have turned their respective sides into proper promotion forces. Both have relied on resurged back lines that are no-nonsense. Bruno Ecuele Manga, Sol Bamba and Sean Morrison are known for their old-boy styles; no airy-fairy playing out from the back, while Nathan Baker, Aden Flint and Bailey Wright are just the same.

Yet no team would be at the right end of the table without a creative and goal scoring force, and the Robins have successfully replaced Tammy Abraham’s goals of last season with Famara Diedhiou netting six in thirteen games, while Bobby Reid has added more goals and assists to his creative game. The Bluebirds have many to thank for their goal glut, with great Dane Kenneth Zohore the main man up top, and in form forwards like Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and Omar Bogle alongside him have helped Warnock haul his side up the table.

In terms of improvements, it is again hard to pick players that wouldn’t upset the balance; breaking the team spirit. Perhaps if Cardiff were to get one more twenty-goal-a-season frontman – Jack Marriott of Peterborough perhaps – to potentially pair with Zohore or Bogle and play off either of them, using pace to run onto flick ons. Bristol City could possibly look for more width within their side. They have fantastic central midfield depth, yet not many are suited to the wider areas. Maybe bringing back Luke Freeman from QPR not only for his crossing ability but for his versatility, or even Florian Jozefzoon or Romaine Sawyers from Brentford to give Diedhiou, Reid and Matty Taylor more service.

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In the chasing pack, Aston Villa have been buoyed by the return of Jonathan Kodija’s form, and the ex-Bristol City man is hungry for automatic promotion. Good depth in the heart of defence is impressive, particularly with John Terry’s age and injury record taken into account.

Perhaps Steve Bruce could look to strengthen between the sticks and out wide defensively; potentially recalling Pierluigi Gollini from his loan spell at Atalanta or delving into the market and buying afresh to give Sam Johnstone more competition for a start. If Tony Xia is willing to spend big, Udinese’s Simone Scuffet is renowned for being one of Europe’s best up-and-coming ‘keepers and has been linked with the likes of Manchester United and Everton in the past. If Bruce was given a large transfer kitty, Scuffet could turn out to be the ideal rival for Sam Johnstone.

Ahmed Elmohamady is consistent and solid, as too his right back rival Alan Hutton. But with both aging and losing their pace, conceivably it may be time to look for pastures new. Ritchie de Laet is in place as first choice, but is known for being inconsistent. Moses Odubajo is great and with Hull struggling. The pacey and powerful full back could be ideal for Steve Bruce to re-energise his aged back line. Their lack of depth at left back could expose them in terms of the promotion race, with Neil Taylor the only recognisable name on the left side of defence. Andy Yiadom of Barnsley has been linked with a Premier League move, similar to Scuffet, but if Villa were to swoop in they would have a full back full of energy and flexible; able to play on both sides of defence.

Creative wizard Henri Lansbury faces deep competition for a place in the middle of midfield, where more defensive names like Mile Jedinak, Glenn Whelan and Aaron Tshibola compete for a start. On the flanks, Robert Snodgrass brings Premier League quality alongside wonderkid Jack Grealish, Josh Onomah and Albert Adomah.

In terms of the fight for sixth, Middlesbrough spent big over the summer, bringing in big names (literally) like Britt Assombalonga and Martin Braithwaite to add more goals to what was a scary-looking attack at the opening of the campaign. Yet a managerial casualty later, Tony Pulis mans the ship, and whether he will get any funds to bolster the Boro’s promotion push is unknown.

The former West Brom gaffer seems content with his squad, but perhaps a midfield battler, better than captain Grant Leadbitter, to replace the departed Marten de Roon. Perhaps a loan deal for a Kante-esque ball-winning midfielder. Someone youthful and energetic, like Gedson Fernandes at Benfica or Julian Chicco from Boca Juniors. Another promising youngster from the famous Anderlecht academy is Idrissa Doumbia, with the Ivorian labelled the new Yaya Toure; sitting deep and starting counter attacks.

Sheffield United have continued their title-winning form that saw them crowned League One champions by a country mile last term, and Chris Wilder is cooking up what could be the recipe for a shock playoff assault. Leon Clarke, love him or hate him, tops the scoring charts, ahead of Vydra and Wolves’ Leo Bonatini, and the target man has lead the line superbly for the Blades this season, linking and holding up play, bringing team mates into the fray. Billy Sharp’s goal scoring antics have dried up, and veteran Clayton Donaldson has taken full advantage; lining up alongside Clarke to form a formidable partnership. The former Birmingham man has settled well in Yorkshire and his share of goals and assists has been pivotal in their push.

It is incredibly challenging to pick out a weakness in their side, with their squad depth exceptional (proven by the recent loan acquisition of James Wilson from Manchester United), but Wilder’s signing of Wilson showcased his desire to add a bit of pace to his frontline. His backline, filled with experienced battlers from the lower reaches of the footballing pyramid, have stayed strong and sturdy and given Jamal Blackman reliable protection in front of the goalmouth.

Maybe they could improve their backup ‘keeper situation with possibly Ben Garratt from Crewe or another loanee from a Premier League club could help ensure the full depth of the squad. Simon Moore is the current understudy.

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Leeds started unbelievably, but tailed off before and after Christmas. Former APOEL boss Thomas Christiansen has a job on his hands to get them into the playoffs, but with the German and Austrian talent that he’s brought in like Pierre-Michel Lassogga up top and Felix Wiedwald in net, along with Macedonian wing wonder Ezgjan Alioski tying defenders in knots, the Yorkshiremen also have the squad depth that could set them on the up.

Pontus Jansson as ever is their rock at the back, but with Burnley eyeing the Swede up as a potential replacement for in-demand James Tarkowski, the Elland Road outfit may have a tough job on their hands to keep their star man on the books. If he were to depart, Leeds would be looking at prospective alternates. Jerry St Juste of Feyenoord could be a quality capture, with the likes of Ajax circling around the young gun. A ball-playing defender, the Dutchman has rapid pace and is able to bring the able out from the back with ease; a trait Thomas Christiansen encourages and employed at APOEL. Tobias Figueiredo has also been linked with the Whites, and could be a more likely candidate to replace Jansson if he does leave.

If Fulham are to push for that last playoff place, then Slavisa Jokanovic will need to ensure he keeps starlet Ryan Sessegnon for the remainder of the season, and then deciding on a big payday at the end of the campaign. They’ve been linked with a loan move for Southampton’s Matt Targett, and a deal could go through as early as tomorrow. Elsewhere, Jokanovic could renew his summer interest in Newcastle forward Dwight Gayle, with the striker not performing to Benitez’s Premier League standards.

With Fulham never properly replacing goal scorers Ross McCormack and Moussa Dembele, it seems almost imperative that Jokanovic adds at least one hitman to bolster his attacking options.

Preston, Brentford and Ipswich are in hot pursuit, but too many draws for Alex Neil and Dean Smith, along with twelve defeats already for Mick McCarthy has dented any realistic chance of a top six finish. If those three were to tighten up their defences somewhat and not throw away winning positions, then a playoff place would be almost certain.