As we reach the final third of the 2021/22 season, the race for promotion from the Championship is warming up very nicely indeed.
Fulham currently lead the way, with Bournemouth close behind them in second, and Blackburn, QPR, Huddersfield and Middlesbrough occupying the remaining top-six places. Eight teams below them remain in contention, too.
Here, we assess the runners and riders, their form and their remaining fixtures as they bid to break free of the Championship’s clutches and reach the Premier League…
Games played: 30
Sky Bet promotion odds: Currently suspended
To say Fulham had taken the Championship by storm this season would be an understatement of the highest order. Last term ended in another gloomy relegation from the Premier League, with Scott Parker departing in the summer as a result. Player churn was kept to a minimum, with Harry Wilson, Rodrigo Muniz and Nathaniel Chalobah the only outfield incomings.
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The Cottagers’ squad was clearly seen as one that could compete and ensure their return to the second tier was short and sweet and Marco Silva – who replaced Parker on a three-year deal after 18 months out of management – has managed to successfully mould it to his needs.
It has not been perfect, and, at times, Fulham have shown they are not infallible – they were forced to navigate a tricky spell from September into early October and did not win any of their last five games in 2021.
Highlights of the Sky Bet Championship match between Hull City and Fulham.
But they have been top of the pile since November thanks to some crushing victories, including 7-0 triumphs away at Blackburn and Reading and successive 6-2 home wins against Bristol City and Birmingham just three days apart. At this point, given that Fulham are 17 points clear of seventh-placed Nottingham Forest and eight points clear at the summit, promotion seems an inevitability.
Now, they have the chance to make history. When Steve Coppell’s Reading side won the Championship in 2005/06, they scored a record 99 goals and earned a record 106 points; Fulham have scored 78 goals in 30 games and earned 64 points so far and, based on their current goals-per-game ratio and points-per-game ratio, that could become 120 goals and 98 points.
If that was not enough, star striker Aleksandar Mitrovic is just one goal away from setting a new record for the most goals scored in a Championship season since the rebrand in 2004. It is all looking pretty rosy in west London.
Key fixtures: Blackburn (H) (March 5, 12.30pm), West Brom (A) (March 15, 8pm), Nottingham Forest (H) (March 19, 8pm), QPR (A) (April 2, 3pm), Middlesbrough (A) (April 5, 7.45pm), Bournemouth (A) (April 23, 3pm)
Saturday 19th February 12:00pm Kick off 12:30pm
Games played: 30
Sky Bet promotion odds: 1/5
For what seemed like a lifetime throughout the 2020/21 season, Bournemouth looked nailed on to secure an immediate return to the Premier League. In the play-off positions from the first weekend, they had climbed into the top two by Christmas. But then a pretty disastrous start to the year knocked them off course and a six-game winning streak towards the end of the season could not prevent them finishing in the play-offs, where they were knocked out in the semi-final by Brentford.
Remarkably, there was no hangover when they got back under way in August under the guidance of Scott Parker. With 11 wins from their first 15 games and just eight goals conceded in that time, they stormed to the top of the league.
But history was soon repeating itself, to an extent. The Cherries lost 2-1 to Preston prior to the November international break and then dropped off top spot after a shock 3-2 defeat to Derby after its conclusion. The dip continued throughout December and into January, by which point they had dropped, briefly, down to third.
Highlights of the Sky Bet Championship match between Blackpool and AFC Bournemouth.
The club’s hierarchy then decided to draft in Deadline Day recruits in order to arrest the slump. Siriki Dembele and Kieffer Moore arrived on permanent deals, while Nat Phillips, Freddie Woodman and Todd Cantwell arrived on loan from Liverpool, Newcastle and Norwich respectively.
And it has been so far, so good since. They may have exited the FA Cup fourth round at the hands of non-League Boreham Wood, but the last three league games have all ended in victory and Bournemouth look to be back on track.
Key fixtures: West Brom (A) (April 5, 8pm), Sheffield United (A) (April 9, 3pm), Middlesbrough (H) (April 15, 3pm), Fulham (H) (April 23, 3pm), Blackburn (A) (April 30, 3pm), Sheffield United (A) (May 7, 12.30pm)
Games played: 32
Sky Bet promotion odds: 7/2
Everyone loves an underdog, don’t they? Tony Mowbray’s men have certainly taken that label this season. There have been glimpses of their attacking capabilities over the last three campaigns, but two 15th-placed finishes and one 11th-placed finish were nothing to write home about, let alone enough to suggest a sustained promotion push.
Even until November, there was no real sign of what was to come, following an indifferent start. But a 7-0 defeat to Fulham at Ewood Park on November 2 caused a shift in momentum. Rovers went on to win eight of the next 10 games, conceding just three goals in the process, to firmly ensconce themselves in the top-two race.
There is no doubting that the evolution of run-of-the-mill Championship forward Ben Brereton into deadly No 9 and Chilean international Ben Brereton Diaz has been key in their exploits this season. The 22-year-old – who has become a cult hero in the South American country – has scored four goals in his 12 caps since his debut last June has gone on to hit 20 league goals for his club side so far.
Highlights of the Sky Bet Championship match between West Brom and Blackburn.
Since the turn of the year, however, victories have not been quite so forthcoming. Mowbray’s men – who were without Brereton Diaz for several matches due to an international call-up – have won two of their eight league games in 2022 and are now four points outside the top two after putting pressure on Fulham and Bournemouth for a lengthy period.
But there remains cause for optimism. With 32 games played, unlike other teams around them, they have no games to make up during midweek rounds of rearranged fixtures, an injury sustained by Brereton Diaz in the draw with West Brom is not as bad as first feared, meaning he is available to play this weekend, and the fixture list for the run-in looks relatively kind. This looks to be Blackburn’s best chance of returning to the Premier League after a decade away.
Key fixtures: Sheffield United (A) (February 23, 7.45pm), QPR (H) (February 26, 12.30pm), Fulham (A) (March 5, 12.30pm), Bournemouth (H) (April 30, 3pm)
Games played: 31
Sky Bet promotion odds: 9/1
Since QPR were relegated from the Premier League in May 2015, they have found it difficult to break into the top half of the Championship, meaning any chance of troubling the promotion picture has been extinguished fairly early. Under Mark Warburton, though, there has a project in place, which has brought year-on-year growth since his appointment in 2019.
In 2019/20, the Rs finished 13th and in 2020/21, they finished ninth, which represented their highest finish in six seasons. And so in the summer, there was some shrewd transfer business, which included the return of Charlie Austin to the Kiyan Prince Foundation Stadium.
Though QPR went unbeaten in their first six, there have been peaks and troughs throughout the campaign – with a notable blip through September and October – which sent signals out that they were on a play-off hunt as opposed to a quest to challenge local rivals Fulham for a top-two spot.
Highlights from the Sky Bet Championship match between Millwall and QPR.
Ever the entertainers, they had scored at least once in every single away game until last weekend, but a shock 1-0 defeat to basement club Barnsley at Oakwell put paid to any hopes of extending that enviable streak, three days before a 2-0 loss at Millwall on Tuesday.
Nonetheless, there is still a healthy gap of five points separating Rangers from the chasing pack outside the top six and they still boast the fifth best home record and the fifth best away record in the division.
Key fixtures: Blackburn (A) (February 26, 12.30pm), Nottingham Forest (A) (March 16, 7.45pm), Fulham (H) (April 2, 3pm), Sheffield United (A) (April 5, 7.45pm), Huddersfield (A) (April 15, 3pm), Sheffield United (H) (April 30, 3pm)
Games played: 32
Sky Bet promotion odds: 33/1
Much like the case of Blackburn, few would have foreseen Huddersfield challenging for promotion less than a year after retaining their status as a Championship team by just six points. Carlos Corberan – a former protege of Leeds boss Marcelo Bielsa, of course – did not enjoy the most successful debut season at the John Smith’s Stadium, but the board remained patient.
And doing so has paid off. Other than three straight wins before the September international break, there was no real rhythm to the way things were panning out and until November, almost every other result was a defeat, yet the Terriers never dropped below 11th.
Highlights of the Sky Bet Championship match between Huddersfield Town and Sheffield United.
Heading into Saturday’s clash with leaders Fulham at Craven Cottage, however, Corberan has steered his side to a 12-game unbeaten run. As a result, they have the third-best away form in the league over the last six matches and have not lost on the road since November 24.
Key fixtures: West Brom (A) (March 11, 8pm), Bournemouth (H) (March 19, 3pm), QPR (H) (April 15, 3pm), Middlesbrough (A) (April 18, 3pm)
Games played: 30
Sky Bet promotion odds: 7/2
Shortly after guiding Middlesbrough towards the play-offs following an indifferent start, Neil Warnock broke the record for the most games managed in English professional football in November and then, within days, left the Riverside.
It was clearly not a snap decision, as Chris Wilder was installed as his successor the very next day. The former Sheffield United boss had the November international break in which to get his methods across and, despite a draw and a loss in his first two games, soon had Boro ticking along nicely.
Highlights of the Sky Bet Championship match between Middlesbrough and Derby County.
In the 13 league games since he took charge, Boro have taken 26 of the 39 points on offer, scored 19 goals and kept five clean sheets; in the 17 games Warnock oversaw, they earned 22 points from the 51 on offer, scored 19 and kept six clean sheets. Things are clearly heading in the right direction.
With the permanent signings of Caolan Boyd-Munce and Riley McGree adding to the loan captures of Folarin Balogun from Arsenal and Aaron Connolly from Brighton, an already strong squad that has performed admirably over the past few months looks capable of keeping Boro in the promotion mix for some time to come.
Key fixtures: West Brom (H) (February 22, 7.45pm), Sheffield United (A) (March 8, 7.45pm), Fulham (A) (April 5, 7.45pm), Bournemouth (A) (April 15, 3pm), Huddersfield (H) (April 18, 3pm)
The chasing pack
It would not be a regular Championship season if there was not a ridiculously congested promotion picture, would it? The top six have been covered, but there are plenty of teams just outside the play-off places vying to break through.
Firstly, there’s Nottingham Forest, who were inexplicably sat bottom of the Championship for much of the first month of the season. Chris Hughton was then replaced by former Swansea boss Steve Cooper, who has drastically transformed their fortunes; they lost just one of his first 15 games in charge and have won four of the last six.
The Reds even crept into the top six after a 2-0 win at Blackburn on February 9, only to be swiftly replaced when they drew 2-2 with Stoke three days later.
Meanwhile, West Brom started well on their return to the second tier, but became inconsistent from October onwards, which ultimately led to Valerien Ismael losing his job. Five of the Frenchman’s final seven games in charge in all competitions ended in defeat, with the Baggies dropping out of the top six for the first time all season when they lost 2-0 at Millwall
Sheffield United‘s story is similar to that of Nottingham Forest. There was plenty of promise when Slavisa Jokanovic was handed the reins at Bramall Lane, but there were few signs the Blades were capable of launching a promotion and the Serbian was sacked on November 25.
Paul Heckingbottom was promoted from his role as U23 manager shortly afterwards and has since lost just one of his 11 league games in charge and lifted his side into the top 10 for the first time this season, with the help of veteran frontman Billy Sharp, who has scored seven of his 12 goals since Heckingbottom took charge.
Luton and Preston remain in touch, while, Coventry – who occupied a play-off spot from the start of the season until late November – are five points off the top six on 44 points. Both Stoke and Millwall – the latter of whom missed out on the play-offs by three points in 2017/18 and two points in 2019/20 – retain a keen interest just a point behind.
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