The Premier League season may still be a week away, but for the rest of the football league it starts this weekend. It feels like it’s been a long time coming, and we can finally start to get stuck into competitive league action again.
We’ll have regular tips in the Championship, England’s second tier, this season and regular readers will remember plenty of profitable weeks last year. As ever this season promises to be hugely competitive, and any number of clubs will believe they can make the step up to the Premier League and earn promotion. We have the three relegated clubs in Newcastle, Norwich and Aston Villa – each a big club with big ambitions. Then there’s the play off contenders of last season, Derby, Sheffield Wednesday and Brighton; while the likes of QPR, Leeds, Wolves, Reading, Wigan and Cardiff have all been in the top flight in the not too distant past.
It all gets underway on Friday night when Fulham host Newcastle at Craven Cottage, and the Geordies have pulled off a masterstroke by persuading Rafa Benitez to stay on as manager. They have the squad and the depth of quality to bounce back at the first time of asking, but they will have to prove it week in, week out over a long season. Meanwhile, Brighton – who we won with plenty of times last season – face a tough start at promotion rivals Derby; and Roberto Di Matteo starts life as Aston Villa manager with an away trip to Sheffield Wednesday.
Fulham v Newcastle
The news that Fulham have agreed terms with Aston Villa for star striker Ross McCormack comes at the worst possible time for the Cottagers, and is bound to interrupt preparations for the new season. The club has had five managers over the course of the last two seasons in the Championship, but none have been able to oversee a change in fortunes. They flirted with relegation last term, eventually finishing 20th, just 11 points above the drop zone.
This is probably as tough a test as Fulham will have all season, and after coming in late last year, Rafa Benitez has had time to shape his squad. Yes he has lost the likes of Townsend and Wijnaldum, but he has retained the services of quality players such as Shelvey, Colback, Tiote and Mitrovic. He has also added Diame from Hull, Clark from Villa, and Gayle from Crystal Palace, and the capture of Atletico Madrid full-back Gamez looks a shrewd move.
The Magpies showed great improvement after Benitez replaced Steve McClaren last year, but it was too little too late to keep them up. They’ve continued the good form in pre-season, and this looks like a great opportunity to get off to the perfect start.
Derby v Brighton
Brighton or Draw is a fair price at -120 with Bet365 when they make the trip to Derby.
Nigel Pearson has returned to football management with Derby, and he has been tasked with achieving promotion after two close calls in the last two seasons. Having qualified for the play offs last term, they capitulated 3-0 at home to Hull in the first leg of the semi final. A spirited display in the second leg saw them win 2-0 but they were unable to undo the damage. One could argue it was their home form that cost them a title challenge last season, as they only managed to win 12 of 23 games in front of their own fans.
Brighton were similarly unfortunate in the play offs, losing 2-0 away to Sheffield Wednesday in a game which saw them lose four players to injury. They were also unable to turn it round in the second leg, and face another year in the Championship despite leading the table for the bulk of the season. We made plenty of cash with Brighton last year as they were consistently underestimated by the bookies, and they were only beaten twice in 23 away games all season. If Chris Hughton has his players equally prepared this time around they’re good value to claim at least a point against a Derby side that appears to suffer from nerves in front of their home support.
Sheffield Wednesday v Aston Villa
Villa or draw at -125 with Bet365 is another value call, as they look overpriced for the visit to Sheffield Wednesday.
This may take a leap of faith for punters who remember how woeful the Villians were on their travels last season, but the Premier League is a different level. Under Roberto Di Matteo they’ve been winning road games in preseason and this is a chance for the club to start afresh.
Having completed the signing of Fulham striker Ross McCormack for what is the club’s second highest transfer fee, one suspects he will be thrown straight into the action, and that kind of signing will give the whole squad a boost. They still have the likes of Gestede (who was prolific in the Championship with Blackburn), Ayew, Richards and Lescott, so should be more than competitive in this division.
Wednesday were perhaps surprise contenders in last seasons play off final, and indeed were unlucky to fall to a late Diame goal and lose 1-0 to Hull at Wembley. They will have to go again, and the signing of experienced Scottish striker Steven Fletcher will be a boost. Whether they will be quite good enough to compete at the top again remains to be seen.
Newcastle to beat Fulham
Friday 5th August, 19:45 GMT
Brighton or Draw
Saturday 6th August, 15:00 GMT
Aston Villa or Draw
Sunday 7th August, 16:30