Football League: Six Championship play-off outsiders assessed

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THERE are six teams in the Championship who need to up their game to reach the Play-Off places but still have the potential to make it, so EFL connoisseur Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) analyses their chances.

Six Championship play-off outsiders assessed

Preston 

Why they could make it

Scott Sinclair, who signed from Celtic in January, has given North End a touch of quality in the final third, which is arguably what they have been missing in previous seasons.

We often associate North End with the tenacity of Ben Pearson, the drive of Alan Browne and the direct running of Tom Barkhuizen and all those players remain assets.

In the previous two seasons, though, Alex Neil’s side have been held back by a lack of composure and quality in the final third.

The signing of Scott Sinclair and January has gone part of the way to solving that problem; the experienced forward scored a lovely strike in the 1-1 draw with Swansea.

A more advanced role for technician Daniel Johnson has opened the kind of doors for PNE that used to stay shut.

Why they might not

Imbalanced squad. There is a lack of width on the left, as Neil likes his wide forwards cutting inside and left-back Joe Rafferty is a right-footed right-back by trade.

While there are plenty of wide and versatile forwards with ability, none of the players who have started up top this season – Sean Maguire, Jayden Stockley, David Nugent, Louis Moult, Barkhuizen and Sinclair – are without at least one significant drawback.

Verdict

May miss out yet again; they are not far off being a top six side but need to convincingly address at least two key areas in the summer.

Swansea

Why they could make it

Rhian Brewster has proved an excellent signing for Swansea.

They like to play patient, possession football often but having that young, quick, talented striker running in behind gives them a different dimension and Connor Gallagher, another January loan signing, can certainly pick him out.

Andre Ayew has played in the Premier League before and brings obvious quality, while accomplished shot stopper Freddie Woodman, intelligent right-back Connor Roberts, twinkle-toed Bersant Celina and deep-lying playmaker Matt Grimes are all assets.

Why they might not

Like North End, Swansea lack width on the left.

As good as Celina is, he likes to cut inside from that flank and while Jake Bidwell and Kyle Naughton are steady, neither are the types of left-back to attack the final third with much pace or quality.

While the Swans possess some good individual centre-backs when Mike van der Hoorn is absent – Marc Guehi along with Bens Cabango and Wilmot are all talented – they are short of senior experience.

That is not always a bad thing, of course, but cynics might suggest the fact 16 goals have been conceded in a winter period of seven away games in all competitions points to moments of naivety.

Verdict

Cooper’s young guns look the likeliest to find their way into the top six, although confidence would have been lower without the additions of Brewster and Gallagher.

Millwall

Why they could make it

The Lions have looked well organised under Gary Rowett, who has successfully implemented a 5-2-3 formation; just 18 goals were conceded in the former Birmingham boss’ 18 games in charge.

The Londoners took a highly respectable 31 points from those encounters with Shaun Hutchinson, Jake Cooper and Alex Pearce forming a solid defensive trio.

A key asset is right-sided forward Jed Wallace, who crucially stayed in January while Tom Bradshaw had 10 goals in all competitions going into February, leading the line well with selfless running; target man Matt Smith gives Rowett’s side the option to go more direct, too.

The signing of midfielder Ryan Woods was a coup and Mason Bennett, Rowett hopes, will give Millwall a much-needed outlet on the left.

Why they might not

Millwall possess the Championship’s smallest squad and that can lead to a lack of sharpness in the final third, as we saw in the recent 0-0 draw at Sheffield Wednesday.

The Lions have four more sequences of three games within a period of eight or nine days, including an arduous mid-March schedule which could, in worst case scenario, massively damage their chances.

Verdict

Lack of depth could see them miss out but, much like the plucky heroes of 2017-18, not without a fight.

Blackburn

Why they could make it

Blackburn’s Travis, at least, certainly didn’t lie when he was 17; 22-year-old Lewis is living up to his teenage billing at the heart of the Rovers midfield, showing impeccable tenacity and dynamism to establish himself as a regular fixture in Tony Mowbray’s XI.

Summer recruits Stewart Downing and Bradley Johnson have enhanced the midfield too, adding proven quality.

The Lancashire outfit are better defensively this year, too, with Tosin Adarabioyo adjusting better to senior football in his second loan spell, especially when partnered by the aggressive Darragh Lenihan.

Why they might not

Bradley Dack’s December injury was a big loss for Rovers and although Lewis Holtby hinted at filling the void with a positive month, he too is now sidelined along with Joe Rothwell.

Rovers continue to hunt for a long-term replacement for veteran Danny Graham; expensive recruits such as Ben Brereton and Sam Gallagher are yet to fire due to injuries and wasteful finishing respectively while Adam Armstrong tends to operate wide right.

Verdict

Collective improvement, but the regression in two key attacking areas means they are not quite strong enough to challenge for promotion. Attaining the pre-season target of top 10 would be a good achievement.

Sheffield Wednesday

Why they could make it

Steven Fletcher is arguably the most effective reference point in the Championship and the Scot, when back fit, will be a huge asset.

Kadeem Harris, meanwhile, is a direct winger who has impressed this season and Adam Reach, on the other flank, has obvious quality.

Organiser Julian Borner and athlete Dominic Iorfa, meanwhile, are arguably the best centre-backs Wednesday have signed permanently since Tom Lees joined in 2014.

If Barry Bannan can reach his usual standards in midfield and if mobile, withdrawn forward Josh Windass can be an instant hit playing off Fletcher, then they could be a tough team to stop.

Why they might not

There are question marks about the Owls in the full-back positions, where the likes of Liam Palmer and Moses Odubajo are arguably past their best.

Right-back Osaze Urhoghide has shown some promise but has not featured since being hauled off at half-time in the 5-0 home defeat to Blackburn.

Joey Pelupessy is dubiously favoured by Garry Monk over Sam Hutchinson in midfield, where Massimo Luongo’s injury was ill-timed.

Verdict

A 2-0 win at Leeds was Wednesday’s only victory between Christmas and early February – that run could cost them their Play-Off chances.

Cardiff

Why they could make it

The centre-back pairing of Sean Morrison, one of the best defenders in the Championship on his day and Curtis Nelson, who brings that extra dimension of pace and on-ball ability, allows Cardiff to successfully implement a high line better than they did in the first half of the season.

Neil Harris has also found a diamond formation that can allow his side to sustain pressure, as we saw in the second half of the 1-1 home draw with Reading.

Why they might not

Robert Glatzel has not quite lived up to his pre-season billing and while Danny Ward and Jamie Paterson are willing runners, they do not provide a genuine focal point to facilitate Neil Harris’ direct methods.

The squad is also on the old side – their first XI’s average age is 28 – and while this is not exclusively a problem, there does appear to be a growing trend of younger teams being broadly more successful at this level.

Verdict

Cardiff have seven of the eight most-used players from the 2017-18 promotion season on their books, but the same blueprint has not yielded the same results: Harris should be backed to re-shape the squad in the summer in order to build a top six side.

About Author

Gabriel discovered the betting world through his passion for English football; he had a mixed start in April 2014, landing a solid treble before being let down the week after by beleaguered Torquay winning at Bristol Rovers. Although he often follows his beloved Birmingham City, he also covers other teams in the Midlands and enjoys visiting new grounds further afield now and again. Quite likes sitcom Not Going Out, too.

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