Monday, April 11, 2011

The Shape of Premierships to Come

Although not a foregone conclusion, Manchester United seem to be waddling away with the Premiership - needing to not only stumble, but actually fall over to drop top spot - so perhaps it's worth taking a look at the possible shape of the Premiership next year by examining England's second tier, the Championship.

One level removed from the big bucks there's a fantastic promotion race. Only a month ago, league-leading Queens Park Rangers seemed assured of automatic promotion but now their chances depend almost solely on an FA disciplinary hearing set for May 3rd. The Londoners, led by the abrasive Neil Warnock and bankrolled by Formula One's Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore, sat a dozen points clear on top behind a miserly defence and the silkiness of Moroccan midfielder Adel Taarabt. Now, with their lead cut to nine, they face investigation into their acquisition of Argentine midfielder Alejandro Faurlin as sources suggest he was not signed from a club side, but from a third party.

Since the Carlos Tevez saga of 2006-07 which saw Sheffield United (managed by Warnock) relegated, the FA instituted rules about the purchase of players whose rights aren't owned by club sides. If it's found the Rs have acted in breach of league regulations they could face fines or even be stripped of points. Since this is the first alleged breach since the Tevez affair, no-one knows what form any potential punishment may take. Probably in order to beef up speculation and anticipation, the Football League has scheduled the hearing for three days before the last round of matches.

The peloton chasing is full of the usual suspects and clubs seeking redemption. Norwich City occupy second position and are chasing successive promotions under Paul Lambert, the brightest of bright young things in English football management. They play an exciting style based around the talents of make-good striker Grant Holt, who has found a home after being rejected by several lower-league clubs. Playoff constants Cardiff City lie directly behind them one point adrift of the Canaries' automatic promotion slot. Their nemesis - whoever they play in the Promotion Playoffs - could well be rivals Swansea City, equal on points and goal difference and reaping the benefit of a Chelsea connection: club-record signing Scott Sinclair and loanee Fabio Borini both arrived at the club through manager Brendan Rogers' contacts. Reading sit a further three points back.

A very even season in the Premiership - one in which any of twelve clubs could go down and all three promoted sides could survive - is mirrored in the second division as all three sides promoted from League One last year could make the Promotion Playoffs: Leeds United have 64 points and Millwall 60 after arriving from the third tier with Norwich City. As the Premiership becomes more even thanks to squad limits and the Global Financial Crisis, the Championship seems to be benefiting as clubs are able sign better quality players at cutdown prices simply because they don't have a squad position at their original teams, which can only serve to benefit English football.

So late in the season and with no evidence on which to decide on any potential punishment for QPR, let's hedge our bets and suggest that should they not receive a significant points sanction, they and Norwich will qualify for automatic promotion, leaving a battle between Welsh arch-rivals for the final promotion spot. Should Rangers lose over six points in sanctions, however, all bets are off. Cardiff have experience in these situations - and thus a huge amount of baggage . Past results favour the in-form and exuberant clubs like Blackpool, Burnley, Watford and Hull, suggesting Swansea City may have the edge over their Celtic rivals.

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