Championship Predictions 2017/18 (Part 4/4)
Having waited three months, English football fans can finally look forward to their weekends being filled with the game they love once again, with the Football League kicking off tonight, and the Premier League only a week away.
After previewing side’s 24-7, the focus in the fourth and final part of my Championship predictions will place those left - the top six - with just hours remaining until we get a first glimpse of how the division’s biggest sides will fare in a league that promises to be as competitive as ever.
Aston Villa's Villa Park
6th - Derby County
A side that consistently finishes just short of where they want and even expect to be, Derby will again be pushing for a place in the Championship Play-offs this season, with new manager Gary Rowett sure to have recognised that is what the club’s lack of firepower that proved to be their underdoing last season.
The Rams netted the fewest goals of any side in the top half last time out, with Tom Ince and Darren Bent their only two players to come even close to double figures, celebrating 28 times between them.
One man who did achieve that feat was striker Chris Martin, who enjoyed a fruitful loan spell with Fulham last season, even if it did become rather toxic at times; the big forward will be a welcome addition back at Pride Park this season.
Moreover, with Rowett yet to sign an attacking player - even after Ince left for the Premier League’s newest club Huddersfield - he appears to have faith in Martin to produce just as he has done in the past.
The loss of Will Hughes and Cyrus Christie could also harm Derby’s chances of promotion. However, the permanent signings of Andre Wisdom alongside Hull’s Davies and Huddlestone look promising.
5th - Brentford
A club that has only moved in the right direction since their promotion to the Championship as League One runners-up in 2013/14, do not be surprised to see one of the division’s smallest clubs do just that again this year.
A solid mid-table finish should be the very least of manager Dean Smith’s expectations, with the former Walsall boss strengthening an already very talented squad over the summer months.
The Bees have gained a reputation for their free-flowing style of play since winning promotion to English football’s second division, and their attacking prowess is only likely to improve with the addition of last season’s EFL Young Player of the Year, Ollie Watkins. The 21-year-old could be one to keep an eye on this season.
Joining Watkins through the door are fellow striker and French U21 international Neal Maupay from St Etienne, along with Danish full back Henrik Dalsgaard and Mokotjo Kamokelo, with the latter pair brought in to strengthen a defence that has been guilty of conceding cheap goals in the past.
4th - Fulham
Defeat in May’s Championship Play-off semi-finals after an exceptional – and largely unexpected – campaign would have hurt former UEFA Cup finalists Fulham, a feeling that would have deepened when Scott Malone’s transfer to Huddersfield Town was confirmed just weeks later.
Malone’s exit is one of several in what has been a very busy transfer window for boss Slavisa Jokanovic thus far, with the Serbian admitting his frustration at the difficulty he has faced in bringing players in to Craven Cottage.
However, one piece of business that cannot be underestimated was Jokanovic’s work to convince the outstanding England youth player Ryan Sessegnon to sign his first professional deal that will keep the 17-year-old at the club until June 2020, and Fulham’s ability to fend off interest for midfielder Tom Cairney is another clear indication of the club’s intentions.
The joint top-scorers in the division last time out, Fulham have further increased their attacking threat with the addition of 22-year-old forward Aboubakar Camara Ligue 1 side Amiens, brought in to fill the void left by Chris Martin, who returns to parent club Derby.
Fulham have kept hold of 17-year-old England starlet Ryan Sessegnon
3rd - Sheffield Wednesday
Another side who look only to be on the way up. Carlos Carvalhal guided Sheffield Wednesday to fourth-place last year, only to fall at the play-off semi-final stage to a Huddersfield side who went on to win promotion with victory over Reading in the final.
Wednesday had one of the staunchest defences in the division last time out, conceding just 45 times in 46 league fixtures, and Carvalhal has managed to keep his trusted backline together as the Portuguese looks to go that bit further with the club this season.
A side with ample quality at the other end, The Owls have only improved in that department over what has been a relatively quiet summer, adding a player in Jordan Rhodes who has shown his ability to score goals at this level time and time again.
Playing just behind Rhodes could be another new addition, George Boyd, who joins the club on a free transfer that could prove to be one of the signings of the season.
2nd - Aston Villa
Two words for Aston Villa based on their campaign last season are ‘must improve’. With last season used by manager Steve Bruce as one to steady a sinking ship that came down from the Premier League the year before with just three wins and even less fight to their name.
Villa found their first ever season outside of England’s top flight to be more difficult than even manager Bruce is likely to admit, finishing the campaign in the Championship’s bottom half.
However, after several of their January signings will now be settled in the Midlands and in one of football’s toughest divisions, the club have dominated the headlines this summer with the addition of former England and Chelsea captain John Terry, who has immediately become Villa’s new skipper.
Joining Terry through the door is a wealth of experience in English football, with former Hull and Blackburn men Ahmed Elmohamady and Chris Samba likely to be two other members of a strong back four that will be shielded by Glenn Whelan, with the Ireland international leaving Stoke for £2m.
There are no guarantees in football, but Villa are unlikely to have many better chances of returning to the Premier League.
John Terry's move to Aston Villa has made the headlines this summer
1st - Middlesbrough
One of three clubs from the North East who fell out of the world’s richest league last season, Middlesbrough certainly look the most likely of those sides to make a swift return to where they will believe they should be.
With new manager, Garry Monk joining on the back of the exceptional job he has done with both Swansea and Leeds in recent years, a squad that has gone from strength-to-strength over the summer, and relative stability behind-the-scenes, anything but automatic promotion should be viewed as a failure for the ‘Boro this season.
Goals were a major issue last season, with Alvaro Negredo the only player to net more than five times, but £30m has been spent on strikers alone to ensure a repeat of that problem does not surface.
Marquee signing Britt Assombalonga makes up almost half of that spend at £14m, and is joined by Ashley Fletcher and Martin Braithwaite at the Riverside.
Should Monk keep hold of England international defender Ben Gibson and get the best out of what is potentially the strongest squad in the division, then ‘Boro supporters have every right to expect big things over the next nine months.
Britt Assombalonga has become Middlesbrough's record signing
That brings an end to this four-part series of Championship predictions. Now it is time to see how the country’s most unpredictable division pans out as the action gets underway.