The EFL Championship is, it seems fair to say, all set to be a highly competitive division this year. If you want proof of that, look at the table, which even after three-and-a-half rounds of action features precisely zero teams with a 100% record. Although Stoke City currently sit bottom with a single point, they could overhaul Millwall in sixth with a couple of wins. So making definitive predictions as to which sides are headed for promotion would, at this stage, be a fool’s errand.
Nonetheless, the side most widely backed to escape this division through the skylight would surely be Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds side. They spent much of last season in the top two and were well-backed to win automatic promotion. A shaky final few weeks saw them drop to third, and in the play-off semi-finals they were knocked out by Derby. That kind of experience can affect a team in one of two ways – the following season they fall away, and are a pale imitation of the high-achievers from the campaign before; or they redouble efforts and go again.
Leeds, who face Brentford in tonight’s standout Championship game, look very much like a side about to do the latter. Seven points from the opening three games have them in second place, with a game in hand on leaders Sheffield Wednesday. Brentford, meanwhile, have solidified their place in the division over five seasons since promotion from League One, and have become a launch pad for young players with designs on reaching the top. They start as underdogs here, but will give the Lilywhites a testing time.
One for the footballing purists
Although it’s something of a cliche to say it, these are two clubs who have a reputation for seeking to do things “the right way”. In Bielsa, Leeds have a manager who studies the game in incredible detail and insists on putting out sides to play attractive football. He is cited as a profound influence by such managers as Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino. Brentford, meanwhile, have adopted a data-driven approach to the game that echoes Bielsa’s detail-oriented way of doing things. As well as a link-up with Danish club Midtjylland, they appointed coach Thomas Frank from that same country, letting him learn the ropes as an assistant before Dean Smith left for Aston Villa, and promoting Frank to ensure continuity.
Both sides have a pleasing, possession-based approach to the game, and focus on getting the ball into attacking areas of the pitch, which should ensure that tonight’s game is an entertaining battle. In that light, we’d highlight William Hill’s odds of 6/4 that both sides will score and there will not be a draw. We would expect Leeds, who have recruited well to augment an already-impressive squad, to run out winners in the end, but it will be a thrilling match either way.
Leeds have goalscorers all over the pitch
There pretty much hasn’t ever been a Bielsa side that doesn’t focus on getting the ball forward in wide areas and looking to overwhelm the opponent with its use of space. When Leeds foundered on the rocks in the final weeks of last season, it wasn’t because they weren’t creating chances. They were struggling to convert them when it mattered, but the addition on loan of Arsenal’s Eddie Nketiah has both given them another source of goals and lit a fire under the talented, but inconsistent, Patrick Bamford. The former Chelsea trainee has hit the ground running this season, getting both goals as the Lilywhites defeated Wigan 2-0 at the weekend.
Bamford and Nketiah are two potential avenues for goals on the home side tonight, albeit the latter will likely start on the bench this evening. Leeds can also call upon wingers such as Pablo Hernandez, Jack Harrison and Jack Clarke – the latter being such a prospect that he has been signed for a large fee by Spurs, who have loaned him back to Leeds to ensure regular first-team action. There’s also Kalvin Phillips, who anchors the midfield and plays a huge defensive role, but is also dangerous from attacking set-pieces. It’s Bamford who is the most likely to hit the net this evening, however, and 888’s odds of 6/1 that he’ll do it at least twice are certainly worth a look.
Home side to win convincingly
After last season ended disappointingly, Bielsa could have been forced into making hasty changes. What he has done instead is strengthen the squad in key areas, aware that by the end of last season, the number of games played by key players had taken its toll. Tonight, he could well freshen up his side by bringing in any one of a number of talented players – his system will, however, remain the same, and it’s been working so far. Leeds have notched eight goals so far in three games, and they have everything they need to keep finding the net against the Bees. While Thomas Frank’s men may well have a part to play in the play-off race, we see them coming off second-best tonight.
Bamford will likely get the nod to start this game, as any striker who has scored twice in the previous game should be kept in the side to harness their growing confidence. Add in the fact that Leeds are well-stocked on the bench, and we see 3-1 as a reasonable prediction for this match. That’s priced at 11/1 by 138.com, which is a punt worth taking given the hosts’ positive start to the season, especially as Brentford will not sit back and could get at least one on the counter.
Bets of the Day
Both sides to score, no draw (William Hill, 6/4); Bamford to score at least two (888, 6/1); Leeds to win 3-1 (138.com, 11/1)