Brighton edge Rafa Benitez and Newcastle in Prem promotion race
The Championship has reached its halfway stage, so we assess the main contenders for promotion to the Premier League ...
Chris Hughton's leaders have built upon their excellent 2015-16 season, when they looked good for automatic promotion but ran out of steam. Shrewdly, they chose to add a coat of paint in the summer rather than totally redecorating, bringing in ballast in the form of centre-back Shane Duffy and extra goals (15 so far) from Glenn Murray. Along with the likes of Anthony Knockaert, Dale Stephens and the returning Solly March, and you have an impressive set of tools at Hughton's disposal.
The really impressive thing is the intangibles, the sense they are a unit rather than a group of talents. This is a squad who are as one: when Knockaert's father died recently, the players and coaching staff went to Belgium for the funeral. Perhaps their togetherness is the reason they can pull wins from poor performances, as they did when two goals in a 2-1 win at Birmingham on Dec. 17 completed the turnaround, but mostly their play reflects what they are: one of the best teams in the division. Hughton's stately calmness guided them to the top last season, but they couldn't stay there. They look more likely to do so this term.
It hasn't been quite as easy as people thought for Newcastle. With a manager who was in charge of Real Madrid last season and a squad to rival any this division has ever seen, predictions for a historic points total abounded in the summer. That hasn't quite come to pass, and they're a point worse off than they were at the halfway stage of 2009-10, their last season at this level.
Nevertheless, they remain prohibitive favourites for promotion despite the odd blip that has seen them drop points to Blackburn and Nottingham Forest. The names on Rafael Benitez's bench some weeks wouldn't look out of place in the Premier League, and this is where their real strength lies: because of the Spaniard's penchant for rotation, his key men should be fresh enough to outlast everyone else in the long-run.
They're currently without suspended key man Jonjo Shelvey, but they still have Dwight Gayle up front, Matt Ritchie on the wing and myriad other talents to fill the gaps. They should still go up but at the moment the rest of the division is doing enough to keep it interesting.
Appointing Jaap Stam looked like a gamble. He had no management experience and his reputation as a coach in the Netherlands wasn't exactly stellar, partly because he left a coaching course halfway through, but the gamble is paying off so far.
Reading haven't been spectacular, but do everything well and have a few stars, although winger Garath McCleary has been their outstanding performer. One wrinkle could come with rumours of a potential takeover in the works, something Stam seemed to be in the dark about when asked recently, but could impact on his plans for the January transfer window. Stam said recently he wanted to bring in "winners" to augment his squad, and some judicious additions will be required if they are to keep up this surprising pace.
4. Huddersfield Town
A neat summation of how well things are going at Huddersfield this season came when manager David Wagner, formerly Jurgen Klopp's assistant at Borussia Dortmund, turned down the chance to manage Wolfsburg earlier this month.
The Bundesliga side aren't what they could be, but to reject a step up like that indicates the Huddersfield project is on course. Wagner has knitted together a collection of youngsters, loanees and Championship stalwarts to form a highly effective unit, for a fraction of the budget some competitors enjoy. The team is broadly centred around on-loan Manchester City midfielder Aaron Mooy, the man who keeps things ticking over, and German striker Elias Kachunga has been their main source of goals, but again this is a collective, a side built by Wagner.
5. Leeds United
Three games into the new season, Leeds had yet to record a win and chairman Massimo Cellino was reportedly considering dispensing with Garry Monk, appointed in the summer to be the latest manager charged making sense of this chaotic club.
Cellino repressed his natural instincts, a decision that seems to be paying off. This Leeds team is still a work in progress, but one that reached the top six in early November (for the first time in three years) and has stayed there. Monk has managed to get the best from previous under-performers, like striker Chris Wood, while Swedish central defender Pontus Jansson is already a cult hero at Elland Road. They have managed to prevent left-back Charlie Taylor from joining the procession of youngsters to leave the club in recent years, and if you want something to encapsulate how good a job Monk is doing, consider this: Leeds are fifth, despite having Rob Green in goal.
6. Sheffield Wednesday
It has been a slightly uneven season for Wednesday, who under Carlos Carvalhal haven't quite been able to replicate some of the terrific performances that saw them unexpectedly reach the playoffs last season. But they are buzzing around near the top of the table, and they got what could become a watershed result on Boxing Day, when they produced a brilliant performance to beat Newcastle.
Despite their inconsistencies, it was always likely they would come good soon enough. Kieran Westwood is one of the best keepers in the division, Fernando Forestieri one of its finest creators and in Sam Hutchinson -- who came through the ranks at Chelsea, retired aged 21 with a knee injury but came back -- they have one of the most tenacious midfielders. The disappointment of last season's playoff final defeat to Hull should inspire them to go a step further.
7. Derby County
Outside the playoff places, but still the most compelling team in the division, Derby's tendency to find new and creative ways to miss promotion means fans shouldn't get carried away.
But things are looking good at the moment. They've dropped just two points from the last available 27, and despite a calamitous start to the season when they won one of their first nine, they're contenders to go up once again. And all of this after another chaotic autumn, when they hired Nigel Pearson to manage their outrageously talented squad, but got rid of him by October when things started to go south. Reappointing Steve McClaren looked a risk, but the former England boss is adding a positive spike to his wildly fluctuating career. Derby fans have been burned far too many times to get excited, but there's no logical reason for them not to be at least near the top two in May.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.