It is tempting to view the title race as a rivalry between two Champions League-winning managers, Newcastle United’s Rafael Benítez and Aston Villa’s Roberto Di Matteo, with Benítez the clear favourite.
That, though, might do a disservice to Nigel Pearson – in many people’s eyes the real architect of Leicester City’s extraordinary Premier League title win – and Alex Neil. Pearson is now in charge of a talented Derby County squad, and Neil’s Norwich City players are strong, experienced and, in many cases, Championship battle-hardened.
Few observers had expected Benítez to stick around at St James’ Park once Newcastle were relegated but the former Liverpool, Chelsea and Real Madrid manager had fallen in love with the club and the city and is already plotting Tyneside’s eventual return to European competition.
First, England’s second tier must be escaped but local optimism is almost giddily high. Season-ticket sales are up on last year – 33,000 were sold very quickly earlier in the summer – and regular 52,000 sell-out crowds expected.
Benítez seems to have bought well – compensating for the loss of Andros Townsend to Crystal Palace by acquiring Matt Ritchie from Bournemouth and also recruiting, among others, Dwight Gayle (from Crystal Palace), Jesús Gámez (Atlético Madrid), Isaac Hayden (Arsenal) and Grant Hanley (Blackburn).
The highly erratic Georginio Wijnaldum – who tended to vanish in away games last season – has, astonishingly, been sold to Liverpool for almost double the £14.5m Newcastle paid for the Dutchman a year ago and France’s Moussa Sissoko also looks set to depart but confidence in the Rafa‑lution remains sky high.
If the Premier League will miss the men from St James’ Park, the same goes for Villa, who are kicking off a domestic season in the second tier for the first time since 1988.
A summertime changing of the guard at Villa Park has seen the increasingly unpopular former owner, Randy Lerner, sell the club to Tony Jiantong Xia, a Chinese businessman. Villa fans, who have yet the see quite how deep Xia’s pockets are, have welcomed Di Matteo and believe the former West Bromwich Albion and Chelsea manager can galvanise this particular fallen giant.
Much depends on how Rémi Garde’s old guard of predominantly French imports, who flopped so dismally last season, adapt to their new habitat but Di Matteo’s acquisition of the no-nonsense Tommy Elphick and Aaron Tshibola from Bournemouth and Reading respectively promises to help rebalance the dressing-room ecosystem, and the signing of Pierluigi Gollini from Hellas Verona has equipped Villa with a quality goalkeeper. The key recruit, though, is the goal machine otherwise known as Ross McCormack from Fulham for £12m.
Following a few near promotion misses, Derby County trust this will finally be their season. Pearson, who could only sit back and watch last season as Claudio Ranieri led his old players to the title, won promotion with Leicester and has reason for confidence – so long as he can retain individuals such as Will Hughes and Jeff Hendrick, and the key midfielder George Thorne – aka Derby’s Sergio Busquets – makes a good recovery from his latest serious injury.
Neil, too, has a Championship promotion on his CV, after leading Norwich into the elite in 2015. His squad’s British core could serve them well at this level, although Nathan Redmond – a recent departure to Southampton – will be much missed and the manager could do with keeping hold of the influential but much coveted Irishman Robbie Brady.
Arrivals have been sparse but the 19-year-old former Barcelona and Liverpool winger Sergi Canós promises excitement and, having impressed on loan at Brentford last season, is proven at this level. Neil, though, will be desperately disappointed not to have achieved his principal aim of securing McCormack.
Disappointed title contenders must face the dreaded play-off lottery where the competition, again, promises to be strong. After missing out so narrowly to Middlesbrough in the race for last season’s automatic promotion slot, the presence of such strong competition this time round suggests Brighton & Hove Albion may have to settle for further play-off drama.
Chris Hughton’s expertly managed side – tipped as relegation candidates this time last year – finished 15 points ahead of Sheffield Wednesday yet still lost to them in the play-off semi-finals. Desperate to put that shattering blow behind them, Brighton’s board have turned down bids for three of their best players, Anthony Knockaert, Lewis Dunk and Dale Stephens. Should Hughton be permitted to keep that trio beyond the end of August – and Newcastle are desperate to lure Knockaert – a side who began last season unbeaten in their first 21 games cannot be underestimated.
Resurgent Wednesday, beaten 1-0 by Hull in the play-off final, were in touching distance of the top tier and are determined to secure promotion this time around. After signing Steven Fletcher from Sunderland to partner their star striker Fernando Forestieri, Carlos Carvalhal’s well-supported side promise to do even better this term but, like Brighton, may have to settle for a top-six place.
Do not discount Birmingham City, either. Much improved under Gary Rowett’s astute management, they are capable of ensuring that Villa do not hog quite all the local headlines. Not to mention seriously spicing up this season’s second-city derbies.
Wolverhampton Wanderers, too, may be in the mix. After last season’s disappointments, Steve Morgan sold the club to Fosun International, a Chinese development company, for £45m and the former Italy goalkeeper Walter Zenga – Kenny Jackett’s replacement as manager – has been promised significant financial backing.
Newly promoted Burton Albion’s strictly limited budget dictates they are many people’s favourites to be relegated at the end of what will be their inaugural campaign in England’s second tier. Even so, Nigel Clough knows this division well from his Derby days and it would be rather wonderful if his team confounded the doubters.
If Gary Caldwell’s youthful, free‑flowing Wigan Athletic look too strong to struggle – and having bought well may even challenge towards the top end – another fresh arrival from League One, Paul Heckingbottom’s Barnsley, are confronting a sizeable challenge in what threatens to be a tricky campaign for South Yorkshire clubs.
Rotherham United certainly appear in danger of embroilment in an annual relegation dalliance so Alan Stubbs, their manager, will surely require the very best of luck after succeeding the architect of last spring’s last great escape, Neil Warnock.
Fulham appear to have an alarmingly weak squad following Moussa Dembélé’s defection to Celtic and the departure of McCormack, whose 21 goals kept this then struggling side in the second tier last season. Do not bet against Slavisa Jokanovic’s men slipping into League One next spring.
With the Frenchman Philippe Montanier newly in charge Nottingham Forest are an unknown quantity but Fawaz al-Hasawi has made it clear he wants to sell the club and a possible relegation dalliance cannot be discounted.
Three players to watch
Matt Ritchie (Newcastle United)
The pain of losing Andros Townsend to Crystal Palace has been assuaged by Benítez’s coup in luring Ritchie from Bournemouth. The Scotland winger with the priceless goalscoring knack and adhesive touch could easily have stayed in the Premier League and tends to look a cut above at this level. The sort of creator adored by Tynesiders, Ritchie will relish strutting his stuff on the St James’ Park stage.
Ross McCormack (Aston Villa)
A consistently prolific Championship marksmen, the Scotland forward with peerless movement and positional sense last season managed 21 second-tier goals for struggling Fulham, who would surely have been relegated without him. Best deployed as a deep-sitting, second striker, a No10 in a 4-2-3-1 or an attacking midfielder, McCormack is widely admired but Aston Villa have won the race to sign him.
Fernando Forestieri (Sheffield Wednesday)
Wednesday’s Argentinian/Italian star striker cum crowd favourite may be fond of diving but 15 goals in 35 Championship appearances last season were rewarded with a (losing) play-off final appearance against Hull. A big factor in the South Yorkshire team’s renaissance, Forestieri promises to prove even more dangerous this term, particularly as he now has Fletcher alongside him.
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