Queens Park Rangers are adrift of the Championship’s top six but their manager, Steve McClaren, had a close enough eye on it to see a hierarchy falling into place last weekend.
McClaren picked out the first eight clubs – from leaders Norwich City down to Aston Villa – as the teams in the mix for promotion and predicted that Stoke City could emerge from the chasing pack after belatedly hitting form under Gary Rowett.
“You’re starting to see six, seven eight teams coming through,” McClaren said.
“Aston Villa being one of them, and I expect Stoke as well – a lot of big clubs and only three can go up so there’ll be a lot of disappointed clubs at the end of the season, clubs with big expectations who won’t make it.
It’s who handles the pressure the best now, not just in terms of management but in terms of the players too. Leeds are going to be up there without a shadow of a doubt but there are going to be four or five over the Christmas period who pull away.”
The Championship schedule will throw Leeds United and the teams around them into a spate of four matches in less than two weeks around Christmas and the division has the potential to shift significantly by the end of the New Year’s Day matches. This is how the fixture list looks for the main contenders:
Norwich City (1st, 43 points)
Norwich’s form has been impossible to eclipse so far and crucial late goals contributed to their streak of 12 wins in 15 games. Consistency like that is rarely seen in the Championship and Norwich will be well on the way to promotion if they move past 50 points by the first week of the January. Three of their next five games are away from home but the crunch fixtures take place at Carrow Road: Derby County on Boxing Day and Nottingham Forest three days later. The Championship’s other promotion candidates, including Leeds, will hope to profit from points dropped in those.
Fixtures: Dec 15 - Bristol City (a); Dec 22 - Blackburn Rovers (a); Dec 26 - Nottm Forest (h); Dec 29 - Derby County (h); Jan 1 - Brentford (a).
Leeds United (2nd, 42 points)
It would be naive given the volatile nature of the league to suggest that Leeds have it easy over Christmas but Marcelo Bielsa’s side will go through the festive schedule without playing any of the current top six. That said, they meet a form team in Aston Villa in Birmingham two days before Christmas and New Year’s Day takes United to Nottingham Forest, whose record under Aitor Karanka has been typically tight. The opportunity to take pressure off the second of those games comes in back-to-back home meetings with Blackburn on December 26 and Hull City on December 29.
Fixtures: Dec 15 - Bolton (a); Dec 23 - Aston Villa (a); Dec 26 - Blackburn Rovers (h); Dec 29 - Hull City (h); Jan 1 - Nottm Forest (a).
Sheffield United (3rd, 37 points)
The contests which should interest Leeds most are this Friday’s trip to West Brom and a Boxing Day clash with Derby at Bramall Lane. Those are matches between sides lodged in the play-off places and Leeds, in second, already have a five-point advantage over Sheffield United in third. Chris Wilder’s side rarely drop points at home – Leeds’ recent victory at Bramall Lane was only the second away win there this season - and three of the Blades’ next five matches take place in Sheffield. December 22 sends them to Ipswich, who are shipping points to everyone.
Fixtures: Dec 14 - West Brom (h); Dec 22 - Ipswich Town (a); Dec 26 - Derby County (h); Dec 29 - Blackburn Rovers (h); Jan 1 - Wigan Athletic (a).
Derby County (4th, 37 points)
Derby face by far the biggest challenge of any side in the top eight and the three weeks ahead are pivotal for them. Make the most of this period and County will be firmly in contention for a top-two place. Drop points too regularly and the division will turn against them quickly. In the space of five games they play Nottingham Forest, Sheffield United, Norwich City and Middlesbrough, all of them direct rivals with the same ambition and intent. Frank Lampard knows what Christmas was like as a player. Now he gets to see what it does to a manager.
Fixtures: Dec 17 - Nottm Forest (h); Dec 22 - Bristol City (h); Dec 26 - Sheff Utd (a); Dec 29 - Norwich City (a); Jan 1 - Middlesbrough (h).
West Bromwich Albion (5th, 36 points)
Friday’s trip to Bramall Lane is a big one for West Brom. There’s a sense that with their squad and their potential they could still dictate the race for automatic promotion and three of the teams facing them over Christmas are in the bottom half of the Championship: Rotherham United, Sheffield Wednesday and Wigan Athletic. There is little scope for Albion to pinch points from clubs around them but Darren Moore should be happy with the way the fixtures have fallen.
Fixtures: Dec 14 - Sheff Utd (a); Dec 22 - Rotherham (a); Dec 26 - Wigan Athletic (h); Dec 29 - Sheff Wed (h); Jan 1 - Blackburn Rovers (a).
Middlesbrough (6th, 36 points)
Are cup competitions a hindrance when the league season intensifies? Ask Tony Pulis after Middlesbrough contest a League Cup quarter-final at home to Burton Albion next week, in between long trips to QPR and Reading. The match is televised and offers a route to the last four, against a League One outfit, so Pulis will be wary of disregarding it but the scheduling means that Boro will play six times in 17 days. Amongst their opponents, only Derby County are in the top six.
Fixtures: Dec 15 - QPR (a); Dec 18 (League Cup) - Burton Albion (h); Dec 22 - Reading (a); Dec 26 - Sheff Wed (h); Dec 29 - Ipswich Town (h); Jan 1 - Derby County (a).
Nottingham Forest (7th, 34 points)
A team who are lurking quietly in seventh, not quite hitting blistering form but ticking over nicely under Aitor Karanka and blessed with a coach who knows his way out of the division. Derby away next Monday would be an important match in any circumstances but Karanka will not want to slip six points behind County – or any farther behind the top two – at this stage. With Norwich on Boxing Day and Leeds on January 1 to come, their backbone is about to be tested.
Fixtures: Dec 17 - Derby County (a); Dec 22 - QPR (h); Dec 26 - Norwich City (a); Dec 29 - Millwall (a); Jan 1 - Leeds United (h).
Aston Villa (8th, 32 points)
This is where the pressure is coming from. But for an injury-time equaliser converted with an arm by Jay Rodriguez at West Brom last Saturday, Villa would be on the shoulder of the top six with five wins from six matches. Christmas will not be easy for them, though. Saturday’s match at home to Stoke City is one which Stoke need to win and Villa’s December 23 meeting with Leeds is followed by a Boxing Day trip to Swansea City. But they are full of goals and a side who no-one in the Championship will be desperate to play.
Fixtures: Dec 15 - Stoke City (h); Dec 23 - Leeds United (h); Dec 26 - Swansea City (a); Dec 29 - Preston North End (a); Jan 1 - QPR (h).