A league of their own: The Championship is as thrilling as the top flight… and here's why
22:00 GMT, 25 December 2012
The Barclays Premier League may be seen by many as the best in the world but as tens of thousands of people will testify on Boxing day, there is plenty of life outside the top flight. Stadiums will be packed throughout the country in the Football League, too, with all 72 teams still having plenty to fight for.
The Championship, in particular, is chaotic, with bottom-of-the-table Peterborough recently winning at leaders Cardiff. Here, Neil Moxley takes us through the scrap for promotion and the battle to survive ahead of Wednesday's bonanza.
Thriller: Wilfried Zaha is just one of many players who light up the Championship
THE BATTLE FOR THE TOP TWO
FIVE YOUNG STARS TO WATCH
Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace)
Widely tipped for a January transfer, the winger has pace, can play on either flank and is capable of turning defence into attack in the blink of an eye. Catch him while you can in the Championship, as the Palace flier is destined for greater glories.
Danny Drinkwater (Leicester City)
A product of Manchester United’s Academy. The midfielder struggled to settle last season but has established himself as the driving force in Leicester’s engine-room.
Will Hughes (Derby County)
It did not take long for the Premier League’s big guns to start sniffing around this 17 year-old once Nigel Clough promoted him to the first team. Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool are keeping close tabs on the midfielder who has since been promoted to England’s Under 21 side.
James Chester (Hull City)
Another Manchester United old boy who is flourishing under Steve Bruce’s tutorship at the KC Stadium. The centre half is another who should step up into the big league next term, irrespective of whether Hull are promoted.
Charlie Austin (Burnley)
The 23-year-old forward broke a club record when he claimed his 20th goal of the season on his 17th appearance last month. His ratio is better than one in two. The Premier League is on red alert.
Last season, Southampton were promoted on the back of a tremendous home record.
And if one team are following that formula, it’s Cardiff City. The change of their traditional colour from blue to red heralded a phenomenal run of form, as Malky Mackay’s side clocked up 10 wins on the spin.
With Craig Bellamy to call upon, Peter Whittingham in midfield and Mark Hudson at the back, the spine of Cardiff’s side is solid.
But what has proved their undoing in seasons past is the strength of their squad. When injuries have bitten, they have bitten hard.
With 10 points separating the top seven sides, none those clubs can be considering automatic promotion with any great confidence.
Crystal Palace will suffer if Wilfried Zaha moves on, though Ian Holloway is already backing himself to plug that considerable gap. Kenny Jackett has performed wonders at the New Den but his Millwall squad too may be short on quality.
Of the rest, Middlesbrough need Jonathan Woodgate to declare his fitness more often than not. The Teessiders look a different proposition with him shoring up their backline.
The other dark horses are Steve Bruce’s Hull City. The Manchester United double-winner has twice tasted promotion at this level with Birmingham City and knows exactly what this race entails.
But what should tip the balance in the coming months is the ability to add numbers. And Leicester City, who already boast one of the biggest wage bills in the league, are well positioned to add further.
Prediction: Cardiff City and Leicester City to be promoted automatically.
Going up: Leicester City's Anthony Knockaert (right) and Cardiff City's Peter Whittingham
BATTLE FOR THE PLAY-OFFS
It would take a brave — or foolish — man to predict this, but here goes.
Only nine points separate Leicester in fifth and Charlton in 18th. Over the course of half-a-season, that tally could be made up inside little more than a week.
Of the top seven, Millwall have enjoyed an incredible run and will need a dose of good fortune if they are to keep their squad intact and finish in the play-offs, particularly if someone takes a gamble on highly-rated midfielder Liam Trotter.
The romantics may like to see Gianfranco Zola’s return to the big time with Watford. The takeover by the Pozzo family raised a few eyebrows but the genial Italian has pushed the Hornets into contention.
Over at the City Ground, Sean O’Driscoll has a distinct footballing philosophy. Whether Nottingham Forest’s Kuwaiti owners allow him to put into practice that which served him so well at Doncaster is another matter. They are another club that could spend big come the turn of the year.
In Brighton, the myth that Gus Poyet plays devil-may-care football is betrayed by his team’s defensive record. Only Leicester have conceded fewer goals. They are likely to be in with a shout.
Of the rest, would it be wise to bet against Neil Warnock achieving his eighth promotion with Leeds United now their takeover has been confirmed
If any club can generate a head of steam, it is the Yorkshire side.
Prediction: Crystal Palace, Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough and Leeds.
Play-off potential: Can Lee Peltier of Leeds (right) skipper the side up to the Premier League
THE BATTLE TO SURVIVE
Given Dave Jones’s excellent pedigree, it is surprising to see Sheffield Wednesday struggling. The Owls have conceded two goals per game at Hillsborough, and the man who ended Wolves’ 19-year wait for Premier League football will know that statistic has to change.
Likewise, Keith Hill at Barnsley has a problem on his own turf. His issue is finding the net, a paltry eight goals at Oakwell being a startling statistic.
Bristol City’s squad has some decent individuals at this level. But there are not enough of them.
And Peterborough, who put four players on the transfer-list last month following a late-night town centre fracas, will be lucky to survive if they replicate last season’s form, which saw them win only four matches from the turn of the year to the end of the campaign.
Prediction: Peterborough, Bristol City and Barnsley relegated.
Danger of the drop: Peterborough must do better than last season after the turn of the year
The top of the table is dominated by managers who were once strikers. Ronnie Moore, Uwe Rosler and Dean Saunders knew where the net was as players.
They are halfway to meeting their goal as bosses this season, too. Sheffield United’s Danny Wilson breaks up this glut of forward-looking managers in a division just as tight as the Championship.
The top 11 are separated by only nine points. In second place is that cagey old-timer Moore with Tranmere Rovers, the season’s surprise package, having set the pace for most of the season.
Rosler has reached the third round of the FA Cup with Brentford. Saunders has done well to lift Doncaster out of their post-relegation gloom and they are well placed for a tilt, as are MK Dons who must hope Karl Robinson can deliver what he has promised for so long after play-off semi-final defeat to Huddersfield.
The division’s top scorer, however, is David McGoldrick. Signing the forward permanently remains new Coventry boss Mark Robins’ priority. With Nottingham Forest poised to spend in the New Year, it would be a perfect present for the division’s in-form side.
While Coventry have improved, what of Portsmouth who suffered relegation alongside them last season
Manager Michael Appleton has left for Blackpool and the 2008 FA Cup winners are facing the prospect of ending a depressing 12 months in the relegation zone.
At least Pompey have a chance of surviving. It would take a miracle if Hartlepool, with just nine points, escape the bottom.
On the hop: Michael Appleton left strugglers Portsmouth for Blackpool
Going Dutch: Barnet have the undoubted star of League Two fighting their corner
There was a time when Martin Allen revelled in the nickname ‘Mad Dog.’ Perhaps if he can extend Gillingham’s fine start over the second half, his managerial credentials will be taken far more seriously.
Gillingham lead the way from Port Vale, who have put their money worries behind them after a takeover last month. Nineteen goals from Tom Pope have helped, too.
Micky Adams has managed in all four divisions of English football, though he failed in the job he most coveted, in Sheffield with his beloved Blades, but home appears to be in the Potteries.
Another frontrunner, and another good guy, is Paul Sturrock, in charge at Southend. Phil Parkinson has got Bradford moving upwards, as Arsenal found out. Of the rest, it would be hard to claim Steve Evans would court as much goodwill.
But he can point to a sterling job with Crawley and promising start with Rotherham. The table always makes sorry reading for those clubs staring into the abyss of non-league football.
Edgar Davids’ playing pedigree is without question but the north Londoners have only just moved off the foot of the table despite his arrival two months ago in a blaze of publicity.
Mark McGhee has just lost his job at Bristol Rovers (why can’t either club in that city get it right) and Wimbledon completethe sorry trio hoping that 2013 brings better fortune.