It goes without saying that Wolverhampton Wanderers are odds-on for promotion (33/1 on at their shortest price) and it will not take much to close that book. The most even of Championship fields they called this in August but the pace of the division is stretching it out. Wolves’ results after 19 games were better than any club’s after 20 last season. Thirty-one points commandeered sixth place a year ago but Derby County are there with 35.
Eighty were needed to take the league’s last play-off position in May and the final table was skewed by Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday finishing like trains as Leeds United dropped off a cliff. It went down as a freak – the first time the top six had pushed the required tally of points so high – but the same impetus is there again. December, as it often does, now carries the risk of clubs cutting others adrift.
Some, like Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday, are already a distance behind and Fulham’s powers of recovery are about to be examined again. Leeds, after 20 matches, occupy a greyer area; a short run of form away from cutting a five-point gap to Derby, but another wobble away from losing touch. Their position heightens the significance of the December schedule, setting up the month to turn their season one way or the other.
The old saying about easy games in the Championship, of which there are few, does not change the fact that the league takes a more definite shape at this time of year. Nor does it change the reality of Leeds’ results since August or the nature of the sides they have beaten. It was apparent as United outclassed Barnsley at Oakwell that Thomas Christiansen’s side have a low-water mark in the Championship, a level which his squad have no excuse for dropping below.
The issue of whether these players are cut out for a top-six finish is open to debate but Leeds as a team are better than seven defeats in nine.
They are unquestionably better than a certain portion of the league and, in that respect, the fixtures between now and the turn of the year have fallen nicely.
United’s results show a trend of Christiansen profiting against the lower rungs of the division. Six of their nine wins were recorded against clubs who sit in the bottom half and five against clubs in the bottom six. Leeds on the whole have not struggled with games where the odds fall clear in their favour and the deficit to Derby is as much a result of their form against the top six: six matches played, four points accrued including one against Aston Villa last Friday.
The chance to redress that record will come in the second half of the season and much before then rests on Leeds’ ability to mop up some of the division’s stragglers. Christiansen would not dare describe it as a favourable run but the next three weeks are critical in keeping the door to the play-offs open.
First up a Queens Park Rangers side with no wins in five and then a Norwich City squad with no wins in seven. Hull City are managerless after finally driving Leonid Slutsky to the gallows and last recorded a victory on October 21.
Burton Albion are doing what Burton Albion are liable to do in the Championship – bottom of the table after losing eight in 11 – and Birmingham City cannot fish themselves out of the bottom three. It all leads up to a New Year’s Day game at home to Nottingham Forest, whose away record shows seven losses in 10.
Worked out on the back of a cigarette packet, Leeds are either beyond 40 points by early January or the club are nowhere with more than half the season gone.
Christiansen was cruising with APOEL at Christmas last year, top of the Cypriot league and a few days into of a two-week winter break, but English football promises to keep him at the coal face.
Leeds, nonetheless, arrive at a crucial juncture with a perked-up demeanour. They also arrive at it with injuries in the background. Christiansen was optimistic that all of his worries – Eunan O’Kane, Stuart Dallas, Pierre-Michel Lasogga and Pablo Hernandez – would be fit to travel to QPR on Saturday and a full complement of players is needed. United’s competitive performance against Villa last Friday was tempered by the realisation that it was Steve Bruce who had the bench he needed to alter the balance of the game by introducing Jack Grealish and Henri Lansbury. An injury list featuring John Terry, Jonathan Kodjia and Mile Jedinak has barely bitten Villa’s boss. Leeds are attempting to punch above their weight again, in amongst some serious financial clout, but this glut of matches is the right time to start letting their hands go.