Who’s in pole position in race for the Premier League? The men in the know have their say
PUBLISHED: 15:53 08 March 2019 | UPDATED: 17:12 08 March 2019
The race for the Premier League is reaching its crescendo so we asked the club correspondents with hopes of the top-flight who they expect to be popping the champagne come the start of May
• LEEDS UNITED – BEREN CROSS, LEEDS LIVE
Summarise Leeds’ promotion chances in a sentence: Looking much rosier after that morale-boosting demolition of West Brom.
How do you assess the season so far? This is the closest they have come to a return to the Premier League in 15 years, so it’s hard to say anything other than excellent. It has been an exciting, entertaining tale following Marcelo Bielsa throughout the campaign.
The club has never gone more than three matches without a win, which underlines the consistency they have had.
A rip-roaring start to the season set expectations high before a seven-match winning streak at the end of 2018 formed the foundation for this promotion tilt. Toss in the injuries which have savaged Bielsa’s squad all season and it makes the achievement all the more remarkable.
How does the run-in look? The visit of Sheffield United to Elland Road on March 16 jumps out as the season-defining fixture, a traditional six-pointer at the top of the table. Beyond that obvious game, this weekend’s trip to Bristol City will prove a stern follow-up to Friday’s thrashing. Brentford are one of the division’s form teams at home, but by April 22 they are sure to have little left to play for.
Millwall and Sheffield Wednesday at Elland Road look challenging on paper too with survival and a slim chance of the play-offs to play for respectively.
Who will be United’s key figures in final months of season? Bielsa has been the star man all season after turning this mid-table squad into title contenders. Beyond the head coach, Patrick Bamford’s goals will be crucial in Kemar Roofe’s absence while Kalvin Phillips and Pablo Hernandez are critical in getting the team playing.
Who are your picks for top two and play-off winners? Top two: Norwich and Leeds. Play-off winners: Sheffield United.
• SHEFFIELD UNITED – DANNY HALL, SHEFFIELD STAR
Summarise Sheffield United’s promotion chances in a sentence: Very much alive - especially after recent results at Norwich and West Brom showed they have the talent, character and belief to be a serious contender this time
How do you assess the season so far? Superb to watch, playing positive football no matter the opposition and enjoying more highs than lows.
Crucially, they’ve bounced back from the rare lows quickly which has been one of the most impressive things for me
How does the run-in look? The Leeds game looms large in the near future and it’s hard to overstate how important that could be. But United know - cliche alert - that there are no easy games in this league and there’ll be plenty of twists and turns to come before May 5
Who will be Sheff United’s key figures in final months of season? Billy Sharp has led the way in terms of goals and Oliver Norwood pulls the strings in midfield but one of the strengths of United is that there is no stand-out player.
At the minute, 6/7 could win the player of the season award - if not more!
Who are your picks for top two and play-off winners? I’ve got to back the Blades haven’t I? If I had to stick my neck out, with a mixture of head and heart, I’d say Norwich will win the league with Leeds and United joining them in the Premier League - however that may happen!
They’ve been the best three teams this season so it would be justified. If only football worked like that!
• WEST BROMWICH ALBION – PAUL SUART, BIRMINGHAM LIVE
Summarise West Brom’s promotion chances in a sentence: Big-match wobbles and stuttering home form likely equates to heartbreak in the play-offs.
How do you assess the season so far? Before the season, most fans would have taken the position Albion find themselves in with 11 games to play. But expectation levels have risen with every passing week. To the point where (even after successive defeats) the play-offs are now viewed as the bare minimum for one of the strongest squads in the Championship.
How does the run-in look? The Baggies were always likely to lose ground on their promotion rivals during an incredibly challenging period between February 2 and March 1. Albion played four of the top nine as well as a local derby at Aston Villa and awkward fixtures at Stoke and QPR. So the run-in appears far friendlier. Eighth-placed Birmingham are the highest-ranked team to visit across Albion’s final six games at The Hawthorns.
And the Baggies have a number of fixtures on the road that don’t appear too onerous for a team with the division’s second-best away record.
Who will be West Brom’s key figures in final months of season? That’s a tough one! Taking one player from defence, midfield and attack - I’d say Mason Holgate, Gareth Barry and Dwight Gayle.
Holgate has really ingratiated himself since joining on loan from Everton in January. He’s tenacious in the tackle and his deliveries into the box, when venturing forward from right-back, have become a key component in the Albion attack. He might be 38, but Barry is still incredibly valuable. When his form dips, so does the team’s, as has proved the case over the past fortnight. If he can rediscover his best form in the final few weeks, West Brom will be a lot better for it.
Gayle is the club’s most natural finisher, but is playing out wide where he just isn’t get enough chances. Darren Moore is considering a tactical change to move Gayle into a central area. If that happens, the goals will surely come and it can only benefit the Baggies.
Who are your picks for top two and play-off winners? Now you’ve put me on the spot! I’ve changed my mind so many times this season, and probably will again during the run-in. At this stage my picks for top two would be Norwich - whose blip just never seems to arrive - and Leeds after the way they destroyed Albion last week. For the play-offs, I’d love to go with West Brom, but just think Middlesbrough could be the trickiest proposition. They have the experience of last season to fall back on and a manager who knows exactly how to grind out important results.
• MIDDLESBROUGH – DOMINIC SHAW, TEESSIDE LIVE
Summarise Boro’s promotion chances in a sentence: It’d take a collapse to miss out on the top six and a flawless run to reach the top two. As has been the case throughout the season, Boro hardly concede but don’t score enough.
How do you assess the season so far? It’s been something of an odd season. Boro haven’t been outside the top six since the opening day of the season but rarely has the mood surrounding the club felt particularly buoyant - in part due to average home form. That Boro aren’t in the top two is because of a lack of goals and attacking spark.
That they have rarely looked like slipping out of the picture entirely is down to how solid and organised Boro are. Blips have been a couple of games without a win - they haven’t lost two on the bounce all season. The January signing of John Obi Mikel could turn out to be pivotal. He’s been immaculate.
How does the run-in look? Kind. They only face two sides currently in the top six - Norwich and Bristol City - and they’re both at home. They’ve still got to play three of the bottom four and the season finishes with games against Reading and Rotherham.
Who will be Boro’s key figures in final months of season? The aforementioned Mikel has been crucial. Eyebrows were raised when he signed. Boro have plenty of centre-midfielders and was the fire still burning for a player who’s won it all and spent a year or so in China? Those questions have been answered emphatically. He’s slotted into the holding midfielder role and has improved the players around him, with former non-league player Lewis Wing one of those to benefit.
Pulis has tinkered with the system the last few weeks and it’s resulted in Boro posing much more of an attacking threat while maintaining their solidity. Finding that balance has been tough this season. Top scorer Britt Assombalonga is finally getting the run in the side that he’s craved. He has to keep scoring if Boro are to stand any chance of going up.
Who are your picks for top two and play-off winners? Norwich to win it. I’m confident of that. This time last week I would have said Sheffield United for second but after that Leeds win against West Brom I’m now swaying towards them for the second automatic spot.
Boro’s record against the teams in the top six has been excellent this season - they’ve beaten West Brom twice, Sheffield United once, Bristol City away and drawn home and away with Leeds - so I’m talking myself into backing them for the play-offs.
• BRISTOL CITY – GREGOR MCGREGOR, BRISTOL LIVE
Summarise City’s play-off and promotion chances in a sentence: In their own hands but with tough, tough games to come (and will likely depend on their home form).
How do you assess the season so far? It’s been a good one for the Robins, especially given last summer’s trading when several key players moved on. Hopefully the current side can hold on to a top six position and pick up their reward for some good consistency.
How does the run-in look?
Tough. No other side in the top eight teams has a tougher run judging by points won per game on average.
Who will be City’s key figures in final months of season?
The forwards who need to score more to help get the results that will keep City in the top six. Namely: Famara Diedhiou, Jamie Paterson, Matty Taylor, Callum O’Dowda and Antoine Semenyo.
Who are your picks for top two and play-off winners?
Definitely Norwich City, then Leeds United for the other automatic spot and I’ll go with West Brom given their firepower.
• DERBY COUNTY – STEVE NICHOLSON, DERBYSHIRE LIVE
Summarise Derby’s play-off and promotion chances in a sentence: They have as good a chance of making the play-offs as any of the clutch of clubs just below them and the two just above them, and once in the play offs anything is possible, as Derby have discovered in three of the last five seasons.
How do you assess the season so far? To be challenging for a top-six finish is an achievement given the big changes at the club last summer. Frank Lampard, a new manager new to management, was appointed along with a new backroom team. Nine signings arrived, top scorer Matej Vydra was sold, the average age of the team was lowered significantly and a new style of play was implemented.
Lampard’s arrival gave the place a much-needed lift and he quickly bonded with the fans, who have applauded him for injecting younger legs and more pace into the team. A season of transition was expected and this lowered expectation, but Derby are in the mix.
How does the run-in look? Derby recorded a much-needed win against Wigan on Tuesday night to halt a run of three successive league defeats and their next three games are all at home, offering an opportunity to put more points on the board. If they can secure a healthy haul from those matches it should put them in a good position.
Derby’s game away to Swansea has been rearranged because of the Welsh club’s involvement in the FA Cup and will now be played in the final week of the season which means a potentially taxing/demanding run of Bristol City (a), Swansea (a) and West Bromwich Albion (h).
Who will be Derby’s key figures in final months of season? Harry Wilson is top scorer, but his form has dipped of late. If he can repeat the level of performance he was showing then he can be a threat to opponents. Attacking midfielder Mason Mount has missed the last eight games due to a hamstring injury and his absence has been a blow.
Derby are hoping to have him back after the international break and if striker Jack Marriott can regain his sharpness after a spell out then the former Peterborough United man has shown he is capable of scoring goals.
Who are your picks for top two and play-off winners? Norwich and Leeds for the top two, Sheffield United play-off winners
• BIRMINGHAM CITY – BRIAN DICK, BIRMINGHAM LIVE
Summarise Birmingham’s play-off and promotion chances in a sentence: Profoundly uncertain, the EFL could kill them off, they could fail themselves - or they could mount the most unlikely of charges.
How do you assess the season so far? It’s been a welcome relief after a couple of years of going nowhere fast and with the spectre of relegation hanging over the club. Problems still remain off the pitch - with talk of a points deduction - but on it Garry Monk has build a high-octane team in the image of its fanbase, hard-working, committed and proud.
How does the run-in look? A little bit of everything. Obviously beating Aston Villa for the first time in more than eight years this Sunday would be a wonderful gift to the long-suffering supporters.
After that there are tricky trips to Preston and West Brom - and some difficult home matches against Leeds and Sheffield United. If Blues could pass the 65-point mark that would represent a fantastic return.
Who will be Birmingham’s key figures in final months of season? Che Adams is in the form of his life and will be aiming for the 25-goal mark this term. He’s already in territory no Blues player has trod for more than two decades.
David Davis is working his way back from a lengthy lay-off following a pre-season injury and will hopefully get back to his best.
Who are your picks for top two and play-off winners?
I said Leeds, Boro and Stoke to go up at the start of the season. I’ll stick with Leeds for one automatic spot, clearly Norwich are favourites for another. Through the play-offs - the Pulis factor and Boro.
• NOTTINGHAM FOREST – PAUL TAYLOR, NOTTINGHAMSHIRE LIVE
Summarise Forest’s play-off and promotion chances in a sentence: There is still hope… and Forest have been improving steadily in recent weeks. But they need to put together the kind of run they have not managed all season to gatecrash the party now.
How do you assess the season so far? The fact that there has been significant improvement has been overlooked by many, because of the failure to mount a sustained push for the top six. Forest have gone from a side fighting relegation last season, to one that is competing at the right end of the table – just not quite as high as many would like. The squad has quality and there has been an element of both underachievement and inconsistency. But Forest are moving in the right direction.
How does the run-in look? The next five games in particular will be telling, because Forest need to put together a run of wins soon – and the last time they even won two on the bounce was in September. But they have home games against Hull, Aston Villa and Swansea – who have all been hugely inconsistent in recent times – and away games at Ipswich and Rotherham, who are both fighting relegation, coming up next.
If they do not find good, consistent form in those games, the promotion ship will probably have sailed.
Who will be Forest’s key figures in final months of season? Joe Lolley is Forest’s most creative, destructive force, whether he plays as a number 10 or as an out-and-out winger. If he plays well, Forest tend to as well.
Getting Lewis Grabban fit again will be vital, as they have missed his instincts in front of goal since he has been sidelined with an Achilles problem that has troubled him all season. And, while he may not grab as many headlines, Jack Colback’s influence is no less significant. He just makes Forest tick in the centre of the pitch.
Who are your picks for top two and play-off winners? Things change so quickly – I was asked this question only a week or two ago and came up with a different answer...
Right now I’d go for Norwich, Leeds and Sheffield United. But please don’t take that answer to mean I’m ruling out Forest making a late push for the top six just yet…
• HULL CITY – PHILIP BUCKINGHAM, HULL LIVE
Summarise Hull’s play-off and promotion chances in a sentence: Slim, entirely unexpected but a long, long way from impossible.
How do you assess the season so far? It’s been remarkable, in truth. To be bottom of the Championship in the middle of October yet only be four points adrift of the play-offs in early March demonstrates just what a revival it’s been under Nigel Adkins. The purple patch around Christmas was when things really came together and though there was an inevitable dip last month, the back-to-back wins over Millwall and Birmingham have quickly raised excitement levels again.
There’s no pressure on this team – not a bit - so this run-in can be embraced. Anything beyond survival this season will be a lovely bonus.
How does the run-in look? Tough but with opportunities to make up ground. City face away games at Nottingham Forest, Norwich, Middlesbrough and West Brom, while there’s also home games against Sheffield United and Bristol City. There’s chances to take points off rivals if you’re being optimistic but you’d much prefer a few more home games like the ones they’ve got to come against QPR, Wigan and Reading.
Who will be Hull’s key figures in final months of season?
They’re very much a team under Adkins but the form of Jarrod Bowen and Kamil Grosicki has made the difference. Bowen has been directly involved in 17 goals in the last 16 games, while Grosicki keeps on tormenting full-backs with his pace. There’ll always be chances of winning games if those two can stay fit and in form.
Who are your picks for top two and play-off winners?
I’m going to lean towards Leeds United and Norwich City for the top two and then Sheffield United in the play-offs. All three of those have been consistently very good this season.
• ASTON VILLA – MAT KENDRICK, BIRMINGHAM LIVE
Summarise Villa’s play-off and promotion chances in a sentence: Slim. So much so that Dean Smith has banned himself from talking about the top six because he is wary of more false dawns.
How do you assess the season so far?
Classic Villa. There’s been hope. There’s been despair. There’s been some absolute dross and some absolute class. Gatecrashing the play-offs against the odds would be great, but the key objective is to build some optimism and give Dean Smith the breathing space to implement his ideas and build for next season.
How does the run-in look?
Tricky. Villa must still play fierce rivals Birmingham City, promotion-chasing Leeds and Norwich and play-off wannabes Boro and Bristol City. Villa just need to generate some positive momentum and see where that takes them rather than fretting too much about the top six.
Who will be Villa’s key figures in final months of season?
Jack Grealish. When he returned from a three month lay-off on Saturday Villa looked like a different team. He provides the swagger, he commands the attention of opponents, giving his team-mates confidence and space to play.
Who are your picks for top two and play-off winners? It’s hard to look beyond the current top three to go up - but I’m not sure in what order!
• PRESTON NORTH END – ADAM LORD, LANCASHIRE EVENING POST
Summarise Preston’s play-off and promotion chances in a sentence: They are an outside bet for sure, a nine-game unbeaten run in 2019 the reason they are in the hunt.
How do you assess the season so far?
Probably best described as frustrating as the Lilywhites looked to build on seventh last season. A poor start saw them bottom of the table at the start of October before a recovery was halted by a mammoth injury list. But with players coming back and some new arrivals, Alex Neil’s side have shown how good they can be since the turn of the year.
How does the run-in look?
A real mixed bag. They face Middlesbrough, Leeds, Sheffield United and West Brom who are in the thick of the promotion race but also come up against sides fighting for their Championship lives. PNE have something of a free hit between now and the end of the season and will go for broke more often than not.
Who will be Preston’s key figures in final months of season?
Player of the year Alan Browne has already surpassed his goals total for last season with 11 from midfield. North End will also hope Ben Pearson can stay out of trouble. His current suspension takes him to 10 games banned in this campaign alone but the former Manchester United man is vital to how Neil wants to play.
Who are your picks for top two and play-off winners? Top two - Norwich, Leeds. Play-offs - Middlesbrough.