English League Championship: Battle for EPL Promotion

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English League Championship: Battle for EPL Promotion
Tom Dulat/Getty Images
Manager George "Malky" Mackay has Cardiff City atop the npower championship and on the cusp of a birth into the top flight of English football for the first time in over a half-century.

With all its history and continued glory, the Barclays (English) Premier League has always been hailed as the “top domestic” league in the world. For a variety of reasons, including the world-class talent displayed on the pitch and the global reach of England’s top football clubs, many people consider the Barclays Premier League (BPL) to be the class of domestic leagues.

Perhaps the best way to judge a domestic league is to analyze the talent, not just at the top, but at the bottom. From the top of the standings to the bottom, and from the second-tier leagues to the highest divisions, it would be hard to find any other professional football leagues that have the depth featured in the English game.  

Year after year, newly promoted teams often fare well in the BPL in their first year and tend to avoid relegation back to the English second-tier league, the npower Championship. Interestingly, the teams that are relegated from the BPL rarely win promotion back to the top flight the following year because of that end-to-end depth.

So far, the 2012-2013 campaign is keeping that trend alive, while continuing to show the depth of the English game.

Promotion Battle in the English Championship:

It would seem logical that teams relegated to a lower division usually have a good chance to gain promotion back the same year. Even with the expected departure of players coming with the demotion, those teams still would seem to have the best shot to gain promotion, as they just played in the more competitive league a few months prior.

While that might be true in other leagues across the world, that theory does not hold up when dealing with the English leagues. This year’s English npower Championship is a perfect example.

Wolverhampton Wanderers, Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers were all relegated to the Championship less than a year ago, but even with their talent, coming from the top flight has not meant success for any of the three teams. Wolves and Bolton both sit just a few points in front of the relegation zone, in 21st and 20th place respectively, in the 24-team Championship league. Blackburn has not disappointed to the level of Wolves and Bolton, but the Rovers have not experienced much success either, as the club sits in 13th with 40 points.

Sounds like teams that are relegated need to change their names from “wanderers” and “rovers” since that is what they seem to be doing.

So with these teams fighting to avoid dropping even another division, the BPL will almost certainly receive three “newer” teams.

Promotion in the English lower divisions works differently than relegation, as the top two teams automatically get promoted. That third is more difficult to come by, as teams that finish 3-6 in the standings go to a playoff to determine the final promotion spot.

Here are my predictions as to which three teams will be putting that BPL logo on their sleeve next season.

Promotion Prediction: Cardiff City

The English Premier League might have to re-work their name in the three months before the start of the 2013-2014 campaign to the English/Welsh Premier League. Cardiff City sits atop the npower Championship through 29 games with a 10-point advantage and look to be a sure lock to gain promotion. The Wales-based club hails from the west of England, just like Swansea City, which is already in the top flight. They also look a solid bet to remain in the BPL next season.

Ben Hoskins/Getty Images
Despite a complete "club" makeover, midfielder Peter Whittingham and his teammates have Cardiff City close to the EPL.

It has been quite a year for the “most-supported” club in Wales. After newly-appointed manager Malky Mackay guided the squad to a promotion playoff spot a year ago, the club was bought by two Malaysian businessmen. Before the start of the current campaign, the new owners gave the club a complete makeover and changed the colors of the crest. The Cardiff City nickname of “The Bluebirds” remained intact, but it would be hard to find a hint of blue in their new logo.

Despite all the change the club has seen, the Bluebirds have responded this year with a resounding 20W-3D-6L record heading into the weekend.

Without a “superstar” playmaker, Cardiff has used a goal-by-association technique to guide them to the top spot. Icelandic striker Heidar Helguson and English midfielder Peter Whittingham lead the team with seven goals apiece, well off the mark for the top goal scorer in the Championship, which belongs to Glenn Murray of Crystal Palace with 24. The play-making abilities for the club have fallen to 25-year-old Craig Noone, who starts the weekend tied for third in assists with nine.

Unless Cardiff has a brutal collapse, especially at home, where they are 12-1-1, expect to see the new-look Bluebirds in the BPL for the first time since the early 1960’s.

Promotion Prediction: Leicester City  

Aside from Cardiff, there is no clear separation among the chasing teams. Leicester City currently sits in second place with 53 points, tied with Hull City, but possess a superior goal differential to hold the second-automatic promotion spot. Watford sits in fourth with 52 points, followed closely by Crystal Palace (51) and Middlesbrough (47).

Michael Regan/Getty Images
The play of English-striker David Nugent (14 goals) is a big reason why Leicester City currently hold the final automatic promotion spot.

Heading into the weekend fixtures, these five teams are the clear favorites to battle for that final automatic promotion spot.

Leicester’s goal differential is a whopping plus-27. They have been almost as dominant as Cardiff at home with an 11W-2D-2L record but have struggled on the road, losing more than they have won.

The plus for Leicester comes in the form of their stout defense, the best in the League Championship so far. The back line for the Foxes has only let up 24 goals heading into the weekend. That is good news for manager Nigel Pearson, who can focus on the challenge of scoring more goals on the road, as his squad has only scored 16 of its 51 goals away from King Power Stadium.

While the points will be tight until the end, Leicester’s superior goal differential and unforgiving defense should be enough to keep them in the second spot and earn them promotion back to the Premier League.

Promotion Prediction (Playoff): Watford

The best way to predict this final promotion spot via the four-team playoff might be to flip a four-sided coin. If any of the four teams hit their form at the right time, they could very well win the playoff and earn a spot in the BPL next season.

It is not unheard of for the team that sneaks into the final playoff spot to win promotion, as Blackpool was the latest squad to do that just a few years ago.

Ben Hoskins/Getty Images
Chelsea legend Gianfranco Zola has Watford right in the middle of the promotion battle with 16 league fixtures remaining.

The promotion playoff structure will consist of a semifinal with two legs (home-and-home series) and then one final game at London’s Wembley Stadium for the semifinal winners. Like we see in every two-leg fixture across the globe, away goals are a vital part of the aggregate score.

Hull City and Watford have the two best away records heading into the weekend, and while Watford has struggled on the defensive end so far this season, they have scored the most goals in the Championship at week’s end with 58 in 30 games.

Much of that attacking strength can be credited to their Italian manager and Chelsea legend Gianfranco Zola, who had no trouble finding the back of the net in his playing days. Maybe more impressive for Watford is their 8W-2D-5L away record, which will be a big boost for them come playoff semifinal time.

The questions for Watford moving forward will continue to focus on their defensive play, but there will be no questioning their goal-scoring abilities with players like Matej Vydra and Troy Deeney, who have scored 19 and 12 goals respectively for the Hornets heading into weekend play.

Who will ultimately win the playoff will depend largely on the draws for the four teams that make it. While Watford at the moment look the best-suited to win the final promotion spot, Hull City, Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace all have the squads to earn promotion.

With no clear favorite and much of the season still left, anything can happen. And that is what makes it so exciting.

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