Race for Premier League promotion could be tightest yet
This season's Championship is shaping up to be the most closely fought for some time.
Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sheffield United, Cardiff City, Bristol City and Aston Villa are currently well positioned. All five teams will fancy their chances of gaining an automatic promotion spot. Only nine points separate first, Wolves, from fifth, Villa. In England's second tier such margins can be quickly reduced. The fiercely competitive league often ruthlessly destroys Premier League dreams while also handing unfancied teams golden opportunities.
This may be football's oldest cliche, but it's true regarding the Championship: anyone can beat anyone. It makes for an alluring contest this campaign, especially between the top five. For example, Cardiff have already beaten Wolves away, the Blades at home, Villa at home, but lost to Bristol away in a heated Severnside derby.
Top five contenders for promotion
Wolves will feel they can leave the chasing pack behind. That assertion would be correct. They possess the potential to steamroll the competition. Under Nuno Espirito Santo's savvy, tactical brain, the league leaders are playing a slick, fluid and captivating brand of football.
Ruben Neves, a £15 million summer signing, orchestrates the band from midfield. Santo also boasts several bright, vibrant attackers to complement his expansive ideological approach.
Sheffield United, under Chris Wilder, constantly strive for three points, not content to sit back and grind out a draw. 12 wins, 5 defeats in 17 matches attest to that refreshing attitude.
Wilder has built a tough, solid and disciplined side. To reduce it to just that would be folly, though, as they play quick, purposeful football when in possession. Few look forward to a contest against the Blades.
Neil Warnock has revitalised Cardiff City; a club which was slipping into irrelevancy. They made a thunderous start to the season, emerging with positive results against three of the top five sides.
The Bluebirds don't shy away from a battle. The best defensive record in the league suggests a team predicated on defence, but the attractive, potent attacking play City fans are often greeted with can't be ignored.
Bristol City has lost the fewest games in the Championship. Although they're clearly a tough team to beat, seven draws have held them back slightly. More victories are needed to challenge for automatic promotion. If they achieve that, the Robins could storm to the summit of the table.
A professional and convincing 2-1 win over rivals Cardiff before the international break demonstrated Bristol's quality. They will now consider obtaining Premier League status a realistic target.
The richest - judging by finance and quality - squad in the Championship is Aston Villa. They should top the league. Steve Bruce has ensured performances and results have improved, steadying a ship that looked like sinking earlier in the season.
If Villa begin to hit their stride, they will be formidable opposition.
The top five Championship sides all possess the quality to push for promotion. It is that competitiveness which makes the pursuit so entertaining. I for one cannot wait to see how the race progresses. It would be foolish to predict how it will end, though.