Things could soon get snug at the summit but, for now, leaders Norwich have a four-point advantage over Swansea, where Steve Cooper continues to work minor miracles. For Daniel Farke the good news is that in 11 of the past 12 seasons, the team top at Christmas have clinched promotion. The bad news? For their rivals, it is that they are not yet at full tilt. Norwich have the same manager and almost an identical team to the one that secured this crown two years ago – the Tottenham loanee Oliver Skipp has slotted into midfield – but it is largely a tried and trusted formula; Tim Krul in goal, Max Aarons marauding into the box, Emi Buendía pulling off preposterous passes, and Teemu Pukki putting the ball in the net.
Bournemouth, too, seem to have plenty left in the tank and in a revitalised Dominic Solanke they are also able to lean on a goalscorer who is into double figures. Brentford are purring and a meaningful charge from a team hungry to go one better after losing at Wembley in August appears inevitable, although they will have to utilise games in hand following a Covid-19 outbreak. Ivan Toney, the division’s joint-top scorer and Josh Dasilva have been among the league’s standout performers, while Vitaly Janelt has proven a typically shrewd acquisition. Swansea attack with a punch fuelled by the wing-backs Jake Bidwell and Connor Roberts – one of three outfield players to have not missed a league minute – but also boast the meanest defence, despite the sale of Joe Rodon to Tottenham in October. Last season Rhian Brewster arrived on loan to help Swansea gatecrash the play-offs and, although Jamal Lowe has risen to the task of leading the line and André Ayew has been selfless, another goalscorer may be required to help them over the line.
When Veljko Paunovic took his first Reading training session four days before the season, a club that had lost its way seemed destined to fail. But after a flawless start and a winter blip, they are poised to continue an unlikely promotion push, propelled by Lucas João and Michael Olise, a teenage midfielder with an eye for a killer pass. The presence of Neil Warnock on the edge of the top six is not so surprising – the wily 72-year-old has stimulated a sorry-looking Middlesbrough since rescuing them last summer. Duncan Watmore has been a revelation since signing in November. Warnock couldn’t rack up a record ninth promotion, could he?
Watford are a beacon of instability but the spine of the team, now led by the former Valencia winger Xisco, remains familiar. Ben Foster, Tom Cleverley and Troy Deeney should ensure they go close, and the arrival of Philip Zinckernagel, who scored 19 goals to help Bodo/Glimt to the Norwegian title, will surely augment an underperforming attack. Stoke need Rabbi Matondo to fill the void left by the injured Tyrese Campbell to sustain their push, while Blackburn, recently boosted by the return of Bradley Dack, have no problems finding the net but have been inconsistent.
Cardiff are 15th under Neil Harris and probably the lowest-placed team with genuine play-off aspirations but belief is fading and pressure mounting before Norwich visit on Saturday, after four defeats in five matches. Valérien Ismaël has hoisted a youthful and buccaneering Barnsley from above one dotted line to the brink of another but the Yorkshire club must hold on to Alex Mowatt, Callum Styles and Cauley Woodrow to have a chance of maintaining their surge. On Saturday Preston and Bristol City meet at Ashton Gate hoping to signal their ambitions of going the distance after collapsing in recent years; Alex Neil’s side won two of their final 12 matches last season and the Robins two of 14.
This time last year Wayne Rooney was acclimatising to life in the Derby midfield but, after appearing to knock the quarterback role on the head for good, he is cutting his coaching teeth at the sharp end and trying to prevent them from dropping into League One. Rooney has dragged Derby off the bottom since taking interim charge but they remain light in attack – no Football League team have fewer goals – and a protracted takeover and unpaid wages undermine signs of progress.
Sheffield Wednesday have been beset by more boardroom fireworks either side of having their 12-point deduction halved – they have had more managers than away wins – but, like Nottingham Forest, have enough to stride clear of danger. The return of Charlie Austin, who needed only 39 minutes to strike in Tuesday’s victory at Luton, coupled with the craft of Ilias Chair and the electric Bright Osayi-Samuel should cure Queens Park Rangers’ attacking woes but they have been frail for some time and had taken eight points from the previous available 36. Birmingham, who have flirted with relegation for the past five years, are on a rotten run of six defeats in seven. Aitor Karanka must address their soft centre to arrest the slide, starting at former club Boro.
Rotherham won more hearts after taking Everton to extra time in the FA Cup but have again found the going tough in the second tier. Wycombe are bottom but not adrift under Gareth Ainsworth, whose wardrobe extends to a Guns ’N’ Roses face mask and whose squad includes a Zimbabwe international with Admiral Muskwe on loan from Leicester. “We really believe we’re not far off having a side that can win enough points to keep us in the division,” says Ainsworth.