The Championship is often one of the most unpredictable divisions in Europe with any number of contenders for automatic promotion and a place in the play-offs.
The presence of several big clubs that have spent time in the Premier League and a mix of rising teams with top-flight ambitions usually ensures that the battle for promotion is fierce.
This time around, however, one team has stood clear of the rest and looks set to claim the Championship title with time to spare. A year ago, Wolves had dropped to 19th and were facing the prospect of a relegation battle, but 12 months on, they’re six points clear at the top, having led the way since October.
Have they already wrapped up the first automatic promotion spot? Bookmakers and football punters seem to think so. Anyone hoping to make a wager with Stakers.com on the Championship will find Wolves are available at a short price to win their remaining matches and are massively odds-on to beat off their challengers and clinch the title.
With the support of the Wolves owners, manager Nuno Espírito Santo has created an entire new team, with 12 players brought in during the summer and four more added in the January transfer window. They have been prolific going forward and have also done well defensively, and few teams have been able to live with them.
If Wolves have a weakness, it is their occasional inability to cope with physically aggressive opponents. Cardiff, Sheffield United and QPR have all been able to bully the Wolves line-up to a degree and taken points off them, and most recently Fulham were able to secure a 2-0 victory over the men in old gold and black, cutting their lead at the top of the Championship table from nine to six points.
Another factor that could cause a Wolves wobble is their fixture list, which pits them against promotion rivals Cardiff, Aston Villa and Derby – the teams that currently occupy second, third and fourth position in the table. Can Wolves be caught?
After steering Cardiff to safety last season, Neil Warnock has turned them into tough opponents. They haven’t been out of the top four all season, and have the best defensive record in the division, though they will be pressed hard by Villa in the final weeks.
Steve Bruce’s squad looks better on paper than those of the other promotion contenders, and after a stuttering start, Villa have improved steadily throughout the season. They’ve hit top form in 2018 thanks to a defensive unit led by John Terry that is even more impressive than Cardiff’s. Not only do Villa have a stronger squad than Cardiff, but they will also play the Bluebirds, along with Derby and Wolves, at Villa Park in the closing weeks of the season, and should be able to grab the second automatic promotion spot.
Derby have a sad recent history of getting within touching distance of the Premier League only to fail at the business end of the season, and as 2017 turned into 2018, Gary Rowett’s side began to show familiar signs of nerves. They went into the New Year in second spot but have won only two games so far in 2018, drawing six and slipping out of automatic promotion contention. There is a real danger that Derby will slip out of the play-off places unless Rowett can find the answer quickly, though in their favour is the fact that many of the other contenders for a play-off spot are also struggling.
Like Villa, Fulham have hit form at the right time, recovering from a patchy start to put together a 12-game unbeaten run that has taken them up to fifth. Only Wolves have scored more often than the Cottagers this season, and their free-flowing style of play would be well-suited to the Premier League, though with a gap of 14 points between them and the leaders, a Fulham promotion will have to come via the play-offs.
City fans have enjoyed a scarcely believable 2017-18, with their team in the play-off places for most of the campaign, but there are signs that the long campaign is starting to take a toll on their limited squad. They’ve managed just one win in nine in 2018, and it seems likely that they will soon by overtaken in the race for the top six.
A combination of the vastly experienced Tony Pulis and one of the largest transfer budgets in the Championship should be a recipe for success, but it hasn’t quite worked out like that. Pulis has not been able to get a consistent string of results out of the team, and they have lost key games to Derby, Cardiff and Fulham, slipping out of the play-offs. If they do make the top six, it is likely to be by the skin of their teeth, and other teams have more momentum.
Although the gap at the top of the table has narrowed slightly, Wolves have the depth of resources to ensure that they finish the job and should be able to clinch the title, with Aston Villa slight favourites to grab the second automatic promotion spot. Cardiff will have to settle for the play-offs, along with Fulham, while Derby might just hang on in the top six and Middlesbrough can snatch the final play-off spot ahead of Bristol City.