Can City exploit weaknesses in promotion rivals?

Norwich City know the Championship chasers are closing in as the promotion race enters the decisive stage

Norwich City know the Championship chasers are closing in as the promotion race enters the decisive stage - Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

Brentford and Swansea are now in striking distance after Norwich City’s recent dry spell, in a battle for promotion that has so many moving parts. Paddy Davitt assesses the challenge from the chasing pack.

2nd Brentford (54 points)

Strengths: A 20-match unbeaten league run is currently the best in English football. That underlines a phenomenal level of consistency from Thomas Frank’s side. The most potent team in the division, led by 22-goal Championship top scorer Ivan Toney.

The Bees have notched four more goals at home and two more away than any other club in the Championship. Fast, dynamic, aggressive passing with attack-minded full backs set up to service Toney. They can dominate possession or hit on the counter. Norwich conceded from their own throw in when Toney slotted at the far post in a devastating burst in October’s 1-1 draw. 

Brentford is the form side in England after a 20-match unbeaten run in the Championship

Brentford is the form side in England after a 20-match unbeaten run in the Championship - Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Limited

Weaknesses: Although current evidence might suggest the contrary, the manner they spectacularly blew promotion to the Premier League must leave scars on the vast majority of the same squad.

The Bees only needed to beat lowly Barnsley at home on the final day of last year's regular season to pip West Brom. That loss and a losing play-off final to Fulham raises  justifiable questions about their ability to handle the pressure. We will only discover the answers from here on. Getting into position again is one thing. Sealing the deal is entirely another. 

3rd Swansea City (53 points)

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Strengths: Ridiculously mean defence woven around the experience of former Norwich defender Ryan Bennett. The Canaries found out to their cost last week Swansea is the last side you would choose to cough up cheap goals and try to haul them back in. 

Steve Cooper’s squad have conceded only six all season on home soil, nine away and in total five fewer than the next best side in the Championship. Kyle Naughton and Marc Guehi appear to be the perfect foils for Bennett, with a settled four across midfield offering another layer of defensive protection. 

Weaknesses: Cooper was quick to remind those tipping the Swans to last the pace after beating Norwich they do not have resources of any other club in the top 10. To this point they have largely been able to field a settled side.

If injuries and suspension bite deeper it will be interesting to see what impact that has on their impressive defensive solidity. Heavily reliant on Andre Ayew and Jamal Lowe for goals, but neither are in double figures for the season. 

4th Reading (48 points) 

Strengths: No pressure and no expectation on the Royals. A huge testament to the work of Veljko Paunovic they have maintained a stunning start to the Championship, and recovered their poise, after a blip that brought four consecutive league defeats in late October.

Norwich witnessed first hand, despite a 2-1 away win in mid-December, how dangerous the likes of Ovie Ejara and the highly-rated Michael Olise are in a cohesive, well-coached attacking side. 

Weaknesses: That youthful naivety in key areas of the pitch appears to have been an asset thus far but it may expose their inexperience as the season reaches a climax. Reading have lost more games than any other team in the top six.

When they are good, they can put teams away. But will they be able to dig in and grind out results down the stretch? A key requisite for any team harbouring genuine promotion ambitions. 

5th Watford (48 points)

Strengths: Vastly experienced squad when you look at Ben Foster right the way through to Troy Deeney at the top end of the pitch. In a one-off game, or a pair of play-off tussles perhaps, you would back Watford against any other side in the top six.

The manner they suffocated Norwich’s attacking threat and then hit them on the counter in a 1-0 Boxing Day league defeat underlined they cannot be discounted. Despite the difficulties that ultimately ended in a festive managerial change. Particularly when they can call on one of the Championship’s best attacking assets in Ismaila Sarr. 

Ismaila Sarr is a key man if Watford are to get back to the Premier League

Ismaila Sarr is a key man if Watford are to get back to the Premier League - Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Limited

Weaknesses: You can lay the same accusations at the Hornets right now as you might the Canaries. One goal in the last three league games, and that was a Deeney penalty in a home defeat to QPR. Coventry were full value for a goalless draw last weekend.

Experience and defensive nous keeps them in games at this level but Deeney is their top scorer with just seven in the Championship – remarkably all bar one of those coming from the penalty spot. 

6th Bournemouth (45 points)

Strengths: An attacking mix as good as any on their day in the Championship. Junior Stanislas has been a huge miss for the past month with an ankle injury but returned to the squad for last Saturday’s 3-2 league win against Birmingham. The former West Ham attacker has nine goals in his last 12 Championship appearances. 

Plus Welsh international David Brooks stayed on the south-coast after being heavily touted with a January move to Aston Villa. If the Cherries’ click they can rival Brentford for the most potent side in the second tier. 

Weaknesses: Very simple. They need to get the current managerial appointment spot on. There really is no time for a new coach to bed in this season with the Cherries well off the pace in the battle for the top two and needing to shore up their position in the play-offs in the short term. Squad must be short on confidence after just one league win since January 2.  

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