The biggest league in Europe in terms of number of teams and one that attracts bigger crowds than Serie A, returns this weekend with no shortage of big names.
The headline side in the Championship this season is Newcastle and the woes of the Toon will no doubt be lapped up by rival teams. Fellow relegated sides Middlesbrough and West Brom add to the intrigue whilst the likes of QPR (the richest team in the world) and Ipswich (managed by Roy Keane) ensure that it is likely to be another fine campaign in England’s second division.
The three favourites to win the Championship are the relegated teams West Brom (5/1), Middlesbrough (6/1) and Newcastle (6/1). It is easy to pick holes in all three sides and not one of them is likely to start the campaign in blistering form.
Although the Baggies received their plaudits last season in the Premier League, the loss of Tony Mowbray should not be under-estimated. The new Celtic boss was at the Hawthorns for three seasons and there is bound to be a hangover from Mowbray’s departure. Roberto Di Matteo’s progress will be watched keenly and much will depend on Simon Cox’s ability to score goals in the Black Country. Cox is 16/1 to be the Championship’s top goalscorer.)
Middlesbrough will also be looking to bounce back following a dismal campaign last season. Steve Gibson continues to stick by Gareth Southgate and this long-term stability could be key. Stewart Downing’s departure to Aston Villa means Adam Johnson should show why he has been linked with the likes of Real Madrid and Chelsea whilst the Boro youth academy is overflowing with talent which should see them promoted, but not necessarily in first place.
Joint second favourites Newcastle are just as likely to go down to League One than be celebrating a return to the Promised Land in May. The Toon are still a shambles with Chris Hughton installed as caretaker manager and Mike Ashley still waiting for the right offer.
Strikers Michael Owen and Obafemi Martins have moved on to bigger and better things, to the champions of England and Germany respectively, and whether the likes of Damien Duff, Kevin Nolan and Jonas Gutierrez have the stomach for the fight is still a debatable topic.
There are no shortage of teams who could also put a run together early doors and establish themselves as the team to beat. Roy Keane was instantly successful at this level with Sunderland but the Tractor Boys were well short of a play-off position at the end of last season.
Nottingham Forest (9/2 to go up) may be the best bet as they have invested heavily this summer, especially up front. Rivals Derby (15/2 to go up) may also surprise a lot of people under the stewardship of Nigel Clough. Sheffield United (7/2 to go up) may well have the hunger following their play-off final defeat to Burnley last season and like Reading, Cardiff and Crystal Palace they possess a lot of experience in this division.
Without exaggerating the point, this division is set to be one of the closest in Europe, which is perhaps why it puts so many bums on seats. To add to the mix, promoted teams usually fare well and despite their season in League One, Leicester are a big team in the Championship.
101gg predicts (with almost no likelihood of being correct):
Champions: Middlesbrough (6/1)
Runners-up: Ipswich (11/4 to go up)
*** Newcastle are a very attractive 10/1 to be relegated***