The first weekend in August is fast approaching which means that 24 clubs are getting ready to launch an assault on the Sky Bet Championship with the 2023-24 campaign beginning in the second tier on Friday evening.
Burnley made an immediate return to the Premier League by coasting to the title last season and it will be interesting to see if one of Leicester City, Leeds United or Southampton can emulate them or a team already in the division claims the top spot.
2022-23 – Burnley
2021-22 – Fulham
2020-21 – Norwich City
2019-20 – Leeds United
2018-19 – Norwich City
2017-18 – Wolverhampton Wanderers
2016-17 – Newcastle United
2015-16 – Burnley
2014-15 – Bournemouth
2013-14 – Leicester City
Usually the title favourites in the Sky Bet Championship are the three teams who departed the Premier League and that is no different this term. Leicester City are the 4/1 favourites on the best prices ahead of the off. A lot has changed at the King Power Stadium since the end of last season though. Manchester City assistant manager Enzo Maresca was recruited as head coach and a large turnover of players has taken place with the likes of James Maddison, Youri Tielemans, Harvey Barnes, Caglar Soyuncu and Jonny Evans have all departed and while Harry Winks and Conor Coady have come in you wonder exactly how strong the Foxes are man for man. They feel a tough short as we approach the start of the season.
Leeds United were an absolute mess in the Premier League last season and mismanagement on and off the pitch cost them badly. They are now under new ownership and have recruited Daniel Farke who twice got Norwich out of the Championship to lead their attempt at promotion at the first extent. Leeds haven’t lost too many eye catching players but that might be because they didn’t have enough of them in the first place. Rodrigo, Max Wober and Robin Koch are among those to have left. Importantly, Farke has solved the goalkeeper situation with the acquisition of Karl Darlow but the real question over this side is whether they will be good enough defensively, something Farke sides are often guilty of not being. Leeds are 7/1 but they’re not for me.
The other relegated side were Southampton and it might be that given they knew they were going down as early as they did that they are the best placed team for an immediate return to the Premier League. At the time of writing they still have the influential James Ward-Prowse and if he is still at St Mary’s midway through September that will be significant because if they are going well they will take the chance of keeping hold of him in January. Saints put together a young side which lacked experience in the Premier League last season but what they lacked in nous and experience they certainly don’t lack for talent and it might be that at the level below the elite that talent can thrive under new boss Russell Martin. Southampton will have a lot of the ball so that talent could well be significant. They are 15/2 to win the title.
Middlesbrough looked like they were powering home to sneak second place last season but ultimately failed and then couldn’t extend their campaign to the play-off final. They are 10/1 to win the title and while there was undoubted improvement under Michael Carrick, the way they slumped when the pressure arrived would be a huge concern for me. Since last term they have lost the services of loan players such as Ryan Giles, Cameron Archer and Aaron Ramsay. You would imagine Carrick will need to get hold of the Steve Gibson chequebook before the end of August if Boro are going to win the title, although the goals of Chuba Akpom could keep them competitive.
Ipswich Town were a League One side last season but such was the impression they made under Kieran McKenna in the second half of the campaign in particular, they are just 16/1 to go on and win the Championship title. I don’t think that is necessarily a realistic proposition on the basis that if they couldn’t overcome Plymouth in the race for the League One title the chances are they’ll find at least one too good at the top end of the Championship. They are top six candidates though for sure.
Norwich City were one of the biggest disappointments in the division last season and really need a massive improvement under David Wagner. Teemu Pukki is a thing of the past but Ashley Barnes has plenty of top level experience but even despite the addition of him and Jack Stacey the Canaries are likely to need a bit more if they are going to be title contenders. On the face of it they don’t look a great deal stronger than last season and given the gap between those and the teams still in the division, let alone the ones coming down, they just don’t do it for me.
Sunderland finished in the top six last season but wilted under an intense atmosphere at Kenilworth Road in the play-offs. They are 20/1 to win the title but I’m not convinced they are much better than they were last season. Amad Diallo was a huge part of what they did and he has gone back to Manchester United and we saw a lack of squad depth brutally exposed by Luton in that semi-final. They have enough clout to be in and around the top six once again but unless literally everything goes their way I don’t really see them as title challengers.
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Best of the Rest
Watford were the other disappointments in the Championship last term, going through another three managers on their way to a nothing finish. Valerien Ismael is the starter in the hotseat this term which is an interesting appointment given his direct style is a complete contrast to the three managers they had a year ago. They have lost Joao Pedro and Ismaila Sarr and if Tom Ince is the replacement for either they might have a few problems. Everything needs to go right but Ismael has to prove he isn’t a one season wonder in this league and at 20/1 they are not for me.
Coventry City were spot kicks away from being a Premier League club this season and now they are 25/1 to win the Championship. They need to bounce back from that disappointment but will need to do it without leading marksman Viktor Gyokeres who has departed for Sporting Lisbon. If Gustavo Hamer leaves too then even allowing for a decent spend it is hard to see how the Sky Blues better last season, if they can even match it. They might be successful in some other markets but the title looks beyond them.
Stoke City have had a large turnover of players as they bid to even be a factor in a promotion challenge let alone actually secure a Premier League return. There have been plenty of false dawns at the Bet365 Stadium but you sense recruitment has been sensible and unmotivated high earners have come off the wage bill. Alex Neil knows how to get a team out of this division so you can understand why there is optimism among the Potters’ fans. They should improve but I don’t see them as title contenders.
Usually there is an outsider who pushes for the top three in this division. In the last two seasons we have had Huddersfield Town and Luton Town finishing third at big prices and if I was picking a candidate this season I might chance my arm at Bristol City but before I get too involved in them I would want to know that Alex Scott either stays or the money they recoup is spent wisely because the rest of their squad looks much improved.
In the shorter term though the team I like are Southampton. They are going to lose Romeo Lavia but heading into the season there are still no guarantees that James Ward-Prowse is going and if he stays he will surely be the value commodity in the Championship this season. Up front there are definitely goals in this Southampton team with plenty of pace in wide areas and two decent finishers in the middle and with Ryan Manning coming in to solve the weakness of the left-back position there is a lot to like about Southampton even were Ward-Prowse to leave, as long as he goes early enough to be replaced. I still have one or two doubts about the manager but the players he has at Southampton will be much more comfortable on the ball than any he has managed in the past. At 15/2 I think Saints are the value for Championship glory.
Back Southampton to win Sky Bet Championship (e/w) for a 1.5/10 stake at 8.50 with Sky Bet (1/5 1-4)
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