While Newcastle, Aston Villa and Sunderland fret over the prospect of escaping the relegation zone of the EPL table, clubs one level below them are eager to snap up places in the most lucrative league in the world.
Escaping from the 24-team Championship is notoriously difficult. Just ask recently demoted Premier League sides Fulham (18th), Queens Park Rangers (15th) and Cardiff City (10th) how tough it is to bounce back up.
With 46 matches on the schedule, trying to pick favorites early is an exercise in futility. But halfway through that marathon of a fixture list, three teams have begun to show signs that a return to the EPL could be in the cards for them this season.
Let’s take a look at the top three teams in the Championship table, and assess their chances of earning promotion:
Middlesbrough — Managed by Aitor Karanka, who coached under Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid, The Boro just missed out on promotion last season, falling 2-0 to Norwich City in the playoff final. Karanka’s side has bounced back well, topping the table with 49 points with a game in hand over all of their main rivals.
Boro thrives on its balanced attack, with six players chipping in with at least three goals this season — paced by Cristhian Stuani’s six. There is plenty of talent in the side, with Kike, Stewart Downing, David Nugent and Diego Fabbrini grabbing most of the headlines.
Like you might expect from a Mourinho disciple, Boro have allowed a league-low 12 goals in 23 matches this season. That stingy defense, along with the talent and experience in the team, make Middlesbrough a clear favorite to grab an automatic promotion spot.
Derby County — It’s been eight long years since Derby County posted the worst season (11 points) in Premier League history as relegation was assured for them in March. Last season, the Rams spent most of the season near the top of the Championship, but picked up only two points in its last 13 matches to finish eighth, costing them a playoff spot and manager Steve McClaren his job.
Enter Paul Clement, another former Real Madrid coach under Carlo Ancelotti, who has led the Rams to a second-place spot in the standings as the calendar flips to 2016.
Chris Martin (9) and Thomas Ince (8) have combined for 17 goals so far this season, and that firepower, coupled with the league’s second-best defense, have led to 48 points, a plus-22 goal difference and some real optimism for a return to the top flight.
Hull City — Unlike the other two teams on this list, the Tigers have only recently joined the Championship after finishing 18th in the EPL last season.
Manager Steve Bruce is still patrolling the technical area, and Abel Hernandez is providing the scoring punch with nine goals so far this season. The Tigers will need to shore up their road form — they have five losses in 12 road matches already — to remain in the mix for a playoff place.
Include teams like Brighton & Hove Albion, Burnley and Ipswich Town, who are also in the playoff hunt, this is going to be a season that will go down to the wire.