Assessing the Top Six Championship Clubs: Can They Make it to the Premier League?

Last year at Christmas, Burnley, QPR and Leicester were the top three clubs in the league, with play-off final losers Derby fourth. As such, it seems a good time to assess the Championship's front-runners and whether they have what it takes to gain the prized promotion to the Premier League.

As ever, England's second tier has been incredibly competitive this season with only a few points separating the leading six teams at Christmas.

It almost seems disappointing that only three of these sides will make it into next year's Premier League, but such is life and three will be forced to miss out and fight it all out again next year.

Last year at Christmas, Burnley, QPR and Leicester were the top three clubs in the league, with play-off final losers Derby fourth.

As such, it seems a good time to assess the Championship's front-runners and whether they have what it takes to gain the prized promotion to the Premier League.

6. Watford

After a mad spell of managerial merry-go-round earlier in the season, where Watford had as many as four different managers in just 37 days, the Hertfordshire based club now seem to have found some much needed stability in Slaviša Jokanović.

Had it not been for a disastrous November in which the Hornets lost four out of their five league games, they would almost certainly have been right in the race for the Championship lead instead of just hanging on in the play-off zone.

They seem strong in almost every area, with the likes of Heurelho Gomes in goal and Troy Deeney and Matej Vydra up front, who have both proved to be 20 goal a season strikers at this level.

What they seem to need, however, is a bit more consistency. In the Championship they can beat anybody on their day, but seem prone to losing games in which they dominate - something they would quickly have to cut out if they want to gain promotion.

5. Derby County

Steve McLaren's Derby were made favourites by many to take this year's Championship crown after losing last year's play-off final to QPR, a game in which they completely dominated their opponents.

Nevertheless, after a brilliant start to the season they hit a demoralising period of inconsistency. They currently lie 9th in a 10-game Championship form table and four of their five league defeats have come in their last nine league outings.

Derby are still widely believed to be the best team in the league, a view recently voiced by Middlesbrough boss Aitor Karanka, though McLaren quickly needs to rectify the period of inconsistency that has blighted the side since the end of October.

Their recent run of poor results coincides with a relative dry spell for top scorer Chris Martin and McLaren will perhaps have to look into recruiting some more scoring power to support him in January.

4. Middlesbrough

After a few years of overspending on average players, Middlesbrough finally seem to have got their act together and have formed the core of a Premier League chasing side.

Much of their recent good form can be attributed to the appointment of Aitor Karanka as manager, who seems to have picked up a winning habit after previously working with Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid.

The Spaniard still has a good relationship with his old boss and has used this to his advantage in the transfer market. The snatching of Patrick Bamford on loan away from Derby (where he played last season) has to be one of the best pieces of Championship summer business, while bringing in Kenneth Omeruo was also evidence of shrewd dealing.

Karanka's relationship with Mourinho could be instrumental in 'Boro's promotion chase as they hope to extend Bamford's loan past its current expiration date. The 21-year-old has scored six goals in his last eight games and it would be a crying shame if he was taken from the side when he is just hitting his best form.

3. Brentford

Brentford's rise towards the upper echelons of the Championship is one of the stories of the season, given that they were only promoted from League One last campaign.

Manager Mark Warburton has deservedly received serious recognition for his side's form since he took over one year ago and the Bees will be hoping that they can keep hold of the 52-year-old should a bigger club come calling.

Their recent run of good form sees them lying third in the league, though earlier in the season they were prone to lapses in concentration. They have conceded six against Dagenham and Redbridge in the League Cup, four against Middlesbrough and three against Norwich in the league this term. More recently, however, their defence has shored up and this has led to an extended period of blazing form.

Although many will still argue that they are overachieving and may yet fall away, if they can continue on their current course then they will be in the mix for the play-offs and possibly even automatic promotion come the end of the season.

2. Ipswich Town

Mick McCarthy has performed another of his Championship miracles at Ipswich. Bottom of the table when he took over 13 months ago, the Blues are now second and fighting for the top at Christmas.

Although the Yorkshireman's Premier League managerial credentials are still doubted by many, there is little question that he knows his way around the Championship like no other.

31-year-old Daryl Murphy has been a big part of McCarthy's plans so far this season and has scored 14 of his side's 34 league goals. There has to be worries about what would happen to the side if Murphy suffered a long-term injury, though Ipswich's ability to grind out results this season has been incredibly impressive.

They made a clear statement of intent going into the new year with a comfortable 2-0 victory over promotion rivals Middlesbrough which will help to instil the belief that they can move up towards the Premier League.

1. Bournemouth

Bournemouth just can't stop scoring. In fact, they have only been shut out twice this season and that was against high-flying Derby and Middlesbrough.

What's even more encouraging, is that their goals are coming from all areas of the side. As many as six players have scored more than five goals for the Cherries this season, with Callum Wilson leading the way with 13 strikes (11 in the league).

Eddie Howe's side have not lost in the Championship since the end of September and although they were by no means favourites for promotion before the start of the season, not many will doubt their promotion credentials now.

They have also only conceded 25 goals in 22 games, which considering their scoring record and attacking mentality is all the more impressive.

Barring a spectacular dip in form or an injury crisis, Bournemouth will still be up there at the end of the season and may just surprise everybody and take the league title.

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