Championship Focus: Norwich, Watford set for PL return, but who joins them?
With the 2020-21 Premier League season heading into the home stretch, three clubs are set to depart via relegation, opening the door for three EFL Championship sides to take their place via promotion.
Between now and the end of the season, PST will have you covered on the latest goings-on in the second division of English football, as the likes of Norwich City, Watford, Swansea City, Brentford battle for automatic promotion, all the while a potential USMNT star of the future leads Barnsley to the unlikeliest of playoff pushes…
Norwich City headed for title, PL return on first try
Norwich’s Pukki Party looks all but certain to return to the Premier League at the first time of asking, thanks in very large part to the namesake himself, Teemu Pukki. Asfter scoring 29 goals in the EFL Champions two seasons ago, Pukki bagged 11 in the Premier League as the Canaries sped toward relegation and finished the season with 10 straight defeats. The 31-year-old Finnish striker was undeterred, though, as he remained at the club following the drop, and he’s once again in contention for the Golden Boot with 22 goals this season.
The real star, however — and those who watched Norwich last season won’t find this at all surprising — is Emi Buendia, whose 10 goals and 12 assists (on 3.4 key passes per game, identical to Premier League leader Jack Grealish’s average) make him a strong contender for Player of the Season. The best player on the league’s best team always has a strong claim to such awards, and Buendia has done more than his fair share to ensure his return to the Premier League.
Under the guidance of Daniel Farke, who also remained in his same position as manager, Norwich have lost just five out of 38 games and they continue to pull away from the chasing pack with their best run of results all season — 9W-1D-0L in their last 10 games.
Watford wasting little time getting back to PL, too
The Hornets had effectively made themselves a part of the Premier League furniture over five seasons spent in the top flight before their very sudden and somewhat surprising relegation (after finishing 11th the campaign prior) last season. Life in the Championship got off to a slightly rocky start with yet another manager Vladimir Ivic being fired not long into the new season — Ivic lasted just 20 games (9W-7D-4L) over four months.
Xisco Munoz was hired as Ivic’s replacement on Dec. 21, and all Watford have done is win a league-best 41 points to climb comfortably into 2nd place during Xisco’s 18 games in charge.
Ismaila Sarr remained at the club following the relegation, and the 23-year-old Senegalese winger has 9 goals and 4 assists in Championship action. Joao Pedro also stuck around Watford despite losing Premier League status, and the 19-year-old Brazilian forward has chipped in with 9 goals of his own this season. Troy Deeney was once again leading the Hornets in the goal-scoring charts (7 from 18 appearances) before suffering an achilles injury in early February; the 32-year-old captain has missed Watford’s last 10 league games, during which time Xisco’s side has won 9 and lost just once.
Swansea, Brentford falling away down the stretch
This is season no. 3 back in the Championship for Swansea City, and it’s undeniably their best chance at a return to the top flight. Steve Cooper is 41 years old and receiving rave reviews just two years into his first appointment as a first-team manager.
The Swans sit 3rd in the table, six points behind Watford with a game in hand, ahead of the return from the international break. Andre Ayew leads the way with 14 goals, followed by 9 from summer signing Jamal Lowe.
And then there’s Brentford, who reached the promotion playoff final last season and suffered a heartbreaking defeat to west London rivals Fulham at Wembley. For the third straight season, the Bees have hit pay dirt on an under-the-radar striker signing as Ivan Toney (28 goals in Brentford’s first 37 games) smashes the recent records of Neal Maupay and Ollie Watkins, who took their talents to the Premier League in back-to-back seasons for 27 and $36 million, respectively. One way or another, the 25-year-old, who was signed from Peterborough United for $7 million (plus add-ons) last summer, looks destined for the Premier League in 2021-22.
Thomas Frank’s side got off to a roaring start to the season, including a run to the League Cup semifinals where they were knocked out by Tottenham, en route to topping the table as recently as Feb. 12. Since then, though, effectively operating with an 18-man squad has taken its toll and seen the Bees lose four of their last nine in league play as they tumbled down to 4th.
Dike, Barnsley soaring up the table
When Daryl Dike signed for Barnsley on Feb. 1, the Tykes sat 12th in the Championship table, six points out of the playoff places. Fast-forward nearly two months, and the USMNT forward has five goals in 11 appearances for Barnsley and the club is now 5th in the Championship with five points between themselves and 7th place. Like Toney, Dike is increasingly likely to be playing in the Premier League next season — it’s only a matter of whether he will do so by promotion or transfer.
The battle for 6th place — and the final playoff place — looks like it’ll be between Barnsley (64 points, 38 games played), 6th-place Reading (62 points, 38 games played) and last season’s other relegated side, Bournemouth (59 points, 37 games played).