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6th July 2020

In_pictures Championship returns: Who will hold their nerve at both ends of table?

In_pictures Championship returns: Who will hold their nerve at both ends of table?


in_pictures Marcelo Bielsa waves

Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United were top of the Championship when the season was halted in March

The league often dubbed “the most exciting in the world” returns on Saturday when the Championship comes out of its three-month hiatus.

Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion resume in pole position to secure automatic promotion to the Premier League, but in the division where “anybody can beat anybody on their day” is a heavily used cliche, do not rule out a surprise name either breaking into the play-off positions or being sucked into the relegation zone.

With more than 100 matches still to be played in just over a month, it all gets back under way with 11 fixtures on Saturday, including big games at both ends of the table.

Will Leeds and Bielsa get the last laugh?

Arguably, nobody else would have been looking forward to returning to action more than Leeds boss Marcelo Bielsa.

“I’ve got this vision of Bielsa being a bit like a detective in one of those old television shows,” Championship video blogger Benjamin Bloom told BBC Sport.

“He’s living in a dimly-lit, hum drum apartment with a wall plastered with lots of pictures and documents all joined together with long bits of string and arrows showing all the possible links and (Fulham striker) Aleksandar Mitrovic’s face circled in the corner of the wall.”

The Argentine is certainly hoping to make amends for falling at the play-off semi-final stage last season and guide Leeds back to the Premier League for the first time in 16 years.

Before the season was suspended, his side went on a run of five successive wins to return to the top and with nine games to play, they have a seven-point cushion over third-placed Fulham.

There could, however, still be obstacles in the way of them winning promotion. They start with a visit to Cardiff on Sunday, before a home game against the aforementioned Fulham, with trips to play-off chasing Blackburn and old enemies Derby as well as home games against all of the current bottom three in Luton, Barnsley and Charlton.

Bielsa, himself, knows nothing can be taken for granted.

“It’s been an incredible effort so far from the players, but the football we’re going to play now will not be the same as the football we played before,” the 64-year-old said.

“It’s going to be important for the way these matches will be played, that we analyse all our performances closely.”

The former Argentina and Chile coach is well-known for his meticulous attention to detail on the analysis front – even during a hectic regular season.

But the behind-closed-doors factor may be one element all of Bielsa’s hours of analysis will not be able to prepare for despite his confidence in his players.

“It’s going to be tough for their mental preparation to shift,” he said. “Presence of supporters is important for football in general.

“Every team and everyone in the Championship will have to adapt to it.”

A new start for those fighting the drop?

While it looks like a two-horse race for automatic promotion, the picture is less clear towards the bottom.

Middlesbrough picked up a huge victory at fellow strugglers Charlton before the suspension of the season to move above the Addicks and two points clear of the drop zone. But Boro manager Jonathan Woodgate knows his side will have to start afresh in more ways than one.

“It’s a nine-game season now and you have to get as many wins on the board as quickly as possible,” he told BBC Radio Tees.

“The players will have to find the mental strength from somewhere to get themselves through these games in a short period of time without fans in the stadium.”

Jonathan Woodgate has spent a year in charge of Middlesbrough

Despite being seven points adrift of safety with nine games to play, Barnsley manager Gerhard Struber believes his squad are full of energy and focus.

“We’ve waited so long to get going and right now we’ve got that chance to go out there and put in some good performances,” the Austrian told BBC Radio Sheffield.

“I think we’re ready to play with good intensity and this is going to be key to get the right results.”

The Tykes will certainly need wins on the board quickly, starting at QPR on Saturday. They will hope to still be in the survival fight when they face fellow strugglers Luton and Wigan in July.

While Struber sounds buoyant, Hull City manager Grant McCann might be forgiven for feeling a bit of trepidation.

On Saturday they face Charlton, who are just a place and two points below them.

The Tigers, horribly out of form before the season was halted, were hit with a blow as four first-team players failed to agree contract extensions beyond the end of June, but McCann is maintaining focus on the players who will be available.

“It’s been nice to have a fully fit and available squad out on the training pitch,” he said. “It gives me some tough decisions to make selection-wise.

“It’s irrelevant what happened before the break. It’s been longer than a usual pre-season and we’re going to approach these games as best we can and see if we can get the positive results.

“We’re under no illusions there will be injuries with so many games in a short period. But we have to be mindful the players recover well and we get them right for games.”

The play-off picture

Will Nottingham Forest boss Sabri Lamouchi be celebrating come the end of the season?

The Championship always throws up an intriguing race to get into the play-off places.

It could be a similar story this time, with just three points separating six teams between sixth and 11th.

“I think you look at the managers and their tactical approaches when it comes to a cup tie like the play-offs,” Bloom said.

“I quite fancy Nottingham Forest under Sabri Lamouchi. I think he’ll organise his team well.

“But over the course of a tie, you’d back Fulham to be able to keep the ball while you’d also fancy Brentford to be able to score at least two or three goals over two legs.

“Preston (currently in sixth) would be the worry for me with no fans at games.

“They’ve got a smaller budget and squad and they would want to have a home leg at a packed Deepdale first up, where you can make it uncomfortable for the visitors and maybe roar your team into making a fast start and taking an early lead.

“I think we might see that sixth place change hands quite a few times. Millwall, Bristol City and maybe Blackburn could capitalise on that.”


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