We’re just a couple of days away from the start of the Football League season and as ever, the ante-post markets look tricky to solve.
The start of the series begins with a look at the Championship with both ends of the table summed up.
The Championship conundrum usually begins with the three relegated Premier League clubs and it is Stoke who are the favourites to take top spot come May and regain their Premier League status.
Gary Rowett has taken the reigns in the Potteries and in his coaching staff he has bought with him a number of familiar faces to Potters fans, including Mark Sale and former favourite Rory Delap.
That has helped win over the fans, as has the new contract signed by Joe Allen and the fact Jack Butland has remained at the club following the conclusion of the World Cup.
Tying Allen down to a new deal could prove pivotal to Stoke’s chances with his energy in the middle of the park and he’ll likely feature alongside Oghenekaro Etebo, who signed from Portuguese outfit Feirense prior to the World Cup.
The Nigerian international impressed in his matches in Russia and it could turn out to be shrewd business from the Potters hierarchy to have got him in early.
Xherdan Shaqiri did his best in trying to retain the Potters Premier League status but unsurprisingly he’s moved to pastures new and his fee has been used to bring in some decent players at this level.
Tom Ince and James McClean will offer Stoke plenty of threat in wide areas while Benik Afobe, who joins on an initial loan, will give them firepower – something that has been lacking for a few seasons.
However, you can say the centre-back pairing of Ryan Shawcross and Bruno Martins Indi is an aging one and will be vulnerable to quick centre-forwards, which is the first negative.
Then there is a concern over squad depth. If Allen or Etebo picks up a long-term injury then they’ll likely to have to turn to Charlie Adam or Darren Fletcher as things stand with Gianelli Imbula likely to be on his way out.
There is plenty of experience in this Stoke squad but as it stands there is a lack of strength in depth. Up front, Peter Crouch and Saido Berahino are the back-up forwards and the latter has scored in two years, so Kevin Phillips will have his work out in training to motivate and coach the £18 million signing.
Rowett will know he has to do business for the transfer window shuts because they could find themselves bare during this full-on campaign.
West Brom are next in the betting and appointed Darren Moore on a permanent basis following the successes he had at the back end of last season despite failing to beat the drop.
Last season had a ‘nothing to lose’ feeling for Moore’s men but with more at stake, this time around there has to be a concern that the honeymoon period will soon end after a couple of defeats.
Problems behind the scenes saw a number of players refuse to go on their pre-season camp to force moves, which have since happened.
They released plenty of their aging and more experienced players in Gareth McAuley, James Morrison and Claudio Yacob.
They did release keeper Boaz Myhill but have since re-signed him on a 12-month contract but £6.5 million signing Sam Johnstone is likely to be the first choice after completing his move from Manchester United and he impressed while on loan at Midlands rivals Aston Villa last season.
Kyle Bartley will prove a useful acquisition, as will Dwight Gayle if he makes up part of the deal that sees Salomon Rondon going to Newcastle.
If they get Gayle firing like he did during Newcastle’s promotion campaign then they could have a successful season but for me, I just don’t think the Moore effect from last season will be seen to full effect and they’ll be down in mid-table come the end of the season.
Swansea were the other side to drop out of the top flight and they have also undergone a change of manager with Graham Potter given the job after the success he had in Sweden with Ostersunds.
This could well be a transitional season for the Swans as Potter imparts his footballing philosophy onto his players.
They’ve lost a number of their better players. Lukasz Fabianski has gone to West Ham, Ki Sung-Yueng to Newcastle, Kyle Bartley to West Brom and Andre Ayew to Fenerbahçe but you can argue if the latter would score enough to justify his high fee and wages.
It sounds like the Welsh outfit are resigned to losing Alfie Mawson before the window slams shut, so Potter could have his hands full in trying to replace what he’s lost.
Joel Asoro has joined, as has Barry McKay from Nottingham Forest and they are closing in on Ryan Woods but they don’t scream inspirational signings.
Potter fits the Swansea footballing mold and he has the bare of bones with some potential if able to hold onto Leroy Fer, Tom Carroll and Sam Clucas in midfield while if keeping Wilfried Bony fit then they have a potential 20+ goals a season striker at this level.
Oliver McBurnie proved a hit at this level last season when on loan with relegated Barnsley. The 22-year-old netted nine in 17 games and he could be one to watch this season.
It could take time for Swansea to come good and you’d imagine they’d be floating around the mid-table region.
The Championship then has its perennial sides towards the top that haven’t seen it out in recent seasons.
Middlesbrough were in last season’s play-off’s but despite losing the first leg at home to Aston Villa, they still failed to register a shot on target in the second leg.
That’s the Tony Pulis way I suppose and he’ll build them on solid foundations without being pretty on the eye.
Patrick Bamford was scoring towards the end of last season but he’s been sold to Leeds while their most creative player Adama Traore is continually linked with a move away from the Riverside and if they lost him it’ll be a huge blow.
They’ll threaten from set-pieces with Stewart Downing’s delivery and tall players. Daniel Ayala scored seven goals last season and he’ll be partnered by summer signing Aden Flint this campaign.
Britt Assombalonga got 15 last season, which was one better than his 2016/17 campaign but he featured in 12 more games in last year’s campaign but if he fires then he could easily hit 20 but that’s if he can stay injury-free.
If given a chance Martin Braithwaite could prove a useful asset. He was sent out on loan at the back end of last year to Bordeaux where he scored four and assisted three goals in 14 appearances.
The Dane is one of a number of potential quality attacking names that Boro have but they could be a little short in midfield as it stands.
Derby County have had a summer of change after losing out once more in the play-off’s. Frank Lampard was appointed following Rowett’s exit and the Rams fans are buoyant after a solid pre-season.
Last season’s Championship top scorer still remains at the club while Lampard has been shrewd in his business by recruiting younger players proven at this level or lower.
Jack Marriott top scored in League One last year, Mason Mount thrived in Eredivisie and Florian Jozefzoon shone for Brentford.
That trio straightaway marks them down as contenders, especially when factoring in the spine of the squad that Lampard inherited.
Scott Carson in goal, Curtis Davies and Tom Huddlestone are adept at this level and their experience to guide the younger players such as loanees Mount and Harry Wilson.
If they can put past failures out of their memories then the Rams look solid contenders on paper this time around.
Leeds United underwhelmed last season finishing down in 13th and that put pay to Paul Heckingbottom’s short reign in what turned out to be a rushed and botched appointment.
There doesn’t seem that worry this time around with Marcelo Bielsa leading the Yorkshire club into this campaign.
Bielsa can be a temperamental character and with him being at Leeds it could go one of two ways but given his summer signings that you have to expect a bold showing from Leeds this time around.
Given the squad he has inherited with the likes of Luke Ayling, returning from injury, Pablo Hernandez and Samuel Saiz then there is already the bare bones of something to build on.
Throw into the mix the transfer window with Jamaal Blackman, coming in to sort out the goalkeeper issue, Barry Douglas, who thrived for Wolves last season, the exciting prospect of Jack Harrison and now Patrick Bamford then it is understandable that Leeds fans are excited.
It might take a bit of time for the players to get hang of his fluid footballing approach but once it clicks there could be an upturn of fortune at Elland Road.
Then Brentford enter the mix on the back of their ninth-placed finish last season and with it came rumours of approaches for manager Dean Smith.
Smith remains at Griffin Park and it could be another fine campaign for the Bees and I was reading some interesting stats on how they performed last season.
At Christmas, they were just one point behind Fulham but the Bees failed to sign a proven scorer to fire them into the play-off’s.
They took the most shots in the league and with that came most shots on target of any side along with the most shots blocked. That proves they were creating chances last season and having had 240 shots on target yet scoring 62 shows they lacked that clinical presence.
Ollie Watkins will once again have to be in prime form for the Bees this season if they want to be up and around the play-off’s once more.
Losing Jozefzoon to Derby was a blow and they could also lose Ryan Woods, who is in talks with Swansea, so it hasn’t been an ideal off-season for them.
Smith has a fairly young squad to utilise and he’s signed some unknown quantities at this level with Algerian Said Benrahma one of them arriving from Nice to help the attacking burden.
Preston missed out on the play-off’s by two points and Alex Neil is a man to respect at this level.
The Scot has helped to improve this side and he’s got to prove last season wasn’t a flash in the pan with this fairly young side.
Ryan Ledson is a signing to note for the Deepdale outfit because he can play in a range of positions in the centre of the pitch that will help balance the side out.
Ben Pearson remains at the club and adds bite to the midfield while they have goals in this squad with Louis Moult, Sean Maguire and Eoin Doyle all able to fire in the required goals.
There is plenty of quality and the Lilywhites should be expecting a positive outcome to this season with the likes of Tom Barkhuizen and Callum Robinson being injury-free.
This young, hungry squad is one that could surprise a few under a manger that knows this league well.
Stoke are too short to back in either market given their lack of depth during a hard-fought campaign while I don’t think either of the other two relegated clubs will bounce back up at the first attempt.
That leaves it wide open for those that have had a few campaigns in the Championship and despite employing a rookie manager there is no scar tissue of previous disappointments at Derby.
I like their recruitment on top of what was already there at Pride Park, so for me, they are one side I’d want to have on side during the season.
While Preston can put last season’s disappointment behind them and go one better in securing a top-six berth, so the two bets towards the top end of the Championship are:
Derby to be Promoted: 9/2 – Sky Bet
Preston to Finish Top 6: 4/1 – Bet365/Boylesports
Three places for the dreaded drop and I want to be straight in there with QPR, who finished safe enough in 15th last season.
Ian Holloway left at the end of the season and has been replaced by Steve McClaren – an appointment that has had a mixed response.
The problem the former England manager faces is that the club is under a transfer embargo and can’t add to their limited squad following the £42 million fine to the EFL for breaking Financial Fair Play regulations.
First choice keeper Alex Smithies has left for Cardiff, the experienced defensive pair of Nedum Onuoha and James Perch both released while Jack Robinson and Jamie Mackie have both left for pastures new.
The only incoming player is centre-back Toni Leistner from Union Berlin but the cupboard looks bare for McClaren.
A saving grace is that it isn’t an old squad with just Alex Baptiste at 32 and Joel Lynch at 30, so they should have the legs to play a footballing brand that McClaren will want to.
Part of the problem with QPR last season was that only Smith reached double figures with 11 goals then it was Idrissa Sylla next best with seven.
In midfield, they were reliant on Luke Freeman’s creativity and it saw him claim 12 assists with only Barry Douglas and Robert Snodgrass providing more.
But then you look at the back and see 70 goals conceded and if they concede a similar amount this season then they are bang in trouble.
Leistner alone isn’t going to tighten up the defence and with just three centre-backs to choose from, it could be a long season if one picks up a long-term injury.
In goal, the choice is likely to be between 24-year-old Matt Ingram with six Championship appearances, after featuring on loan for Northampton last season, or 23-year-old Joe Lumley, who has three Championship appearances, after being on loan at Blackpool last season.
There has to be genuine concern over the managerial appointment made by Tony Fernandes plus the players he has at his disposal. It all looks rather limited and they look a value pick to face the drop.
Both Rotherham and Bolton are around the EVS mark for relegation and they are a pair who it is easy to make a case for.
Rotherham were promoted from the League One play-off final and despite being a hard working side there probably isn’t enough quality at this level in Paul Warne’s squad.
The signing of Billy Jones is a sound one with the 31-year-old still having the legs to compete and bringing experience into the dressing room.
But you have to wonder where the goals will come from. David Ball has four goals in 22 Championship appearances when at Peterborough and Jamie Proctor has one in six when featuring for Preston at this level.
They’ve bought in Kyle Vassell, who is yet to play in the second tier, and the same can be said about Michael Smith, so there isn’t much know how in forward areas at this level.
I’m looking forward to seeing how Joe Newell acquits himself in midfield and he will be the key asset to this Millers side but it looks like it could be a slog for them in general.
Bolton survived on the final day last season with a 3-2 win over Nottingham Forest with two goals in the last four minutes to secure their Championship status.
However, Phil Parkinson will have his hands full in trying to replicate that achievement this time around with the club in yet more trouble behind the scenes.
It’s easy to make the case for Bolton dropping to the third tier. Last season they scored just 39 goals, only Burton and Birmingham scored fewer, while they conceded 74 goals, only relegated pair of Burton and Sunderland let more in.
Straight away that screams problems and so does the player turnover in the off-season, even though it could be for the better.
Ten new faces have entered the Wanderers squad with the impressive Erhun Oztumer joining from League One Walsall in what could prove shrewd business while proven goal scorer at this level Clayton Donaldson has joined on a free.
That pairing could forge a useful partnership to fire in the goals while Marc Wilson and Jack Hobbs have been bought in to strengthen the backline while Yanic Wildschut will offer some steel in midfield.
They haven’t got much to spend but they seem to have recruited quite well and there isn’t much value in their price to back them to go down despite what happened last season and the current state behind the scenes.
Parkinson will motivate his squad, get them well drilled and working hard, so this Bolton side could be one harder to beat this time around.
The other side where there is a bit of value to back to be relegated is Reading. The Royals had a troubled end to the season and from the turn of the year, they won just three of their 21 league games.
That trio of wins came against relegated Burton plus two 1-0 home wins over QPR and Preston.
Part of that run saw the end of Jaap Stam’s reign, which saw them lose in the play-off final in the 16/17 season and he paid the price for that overachievement.
Paul Clement came in and his record reads P8, W2, D3, L5. In those eight games, they scored just four goals, which all came at home at the Madjeski Stadium, and kept three clean sheets.
Clement will want to bring across his footballing philosophy but that didn’t end too brilliantly for him at Swansea and I would be surprised if he saw out the season in truth.
Ten players have been moved on while experienced players like John O’Shea and David Meyler have been bought in.
Marc McNulty could help to sort out their goals problem from last season with him bagging 25 for Coventry in League Two and Sam Baldock has done all right at this level in the past too.
It was a similar story to Bolton’s in terms of didn’t score enough and let in too many but we can see that Clement has been trying to address the goalscoring problems but the concerns would be those additions to the back.
The fact that Liam Moore wants out is a worry too. He is probably their best defender and if he went they’d be short.
O’Shea (37) and Paul McShane (32) are knocking on and aren’t going to have the legs in games against quick forwards while Darren Sidoel, who has joined from Ajax will still be developing and learning his trade.
There has to be fears about this Reading side and there is enough in the price to back them to go down.
Promoted pair Blackburn and Wigan should both have enough. Rovers have been more stable in recent times under Tony Mowbray and there are players with quality in that side to see them survive.
Similar can be said about Wigan, who will give Paul Cook the chance to operate at this level. Nick Powell remaining fit is the key component with his creative influence in helping Will Grigg fire in the goals.
Christian Walton had an excellent season between the sticks and could be a goalkeeper to look out for because he has the potential for a big move given time.
The Lancastrian pair look on paper to have enough for steady mid-table campaigns but last season’s overachievers Millwall might be one other side to struggle.
Neil Harris got a tune out of his side but another year on it could see them slip further down the league given their lack of strengthening.
Ben Amos is a solid goalkeeper they’ve managed to capture the signature of while Murray Wallace will offer something at the back.
But you worry they may have been a little too reliant on George Saville popping up from midfield to score, as he was joint-top scorer with ten alongside Lee Gregory.
Sides know how they’ll play, so this season is a case of them potentially being found out.
Reading to be Relegated: 4/1 - Various
QPR to be Relegated: 5/1 - Various
Not a market I generally get too involved in given it is wide-open nature plus you don’t know who is going to remain fit for a season to give you the best chance.
Matej Vydra top scored in the league last season with 21 for Derby and that was the lowest tally since Peter Whittingham and Nicky Maynard shared the accolade back in 2009-10 with 20 goals.
Benik Afobe is the favourite following his loan move to Stoke. The 25-year-old has 32 goals in 102 Championship appearances and a rate of a goal every two games, which isn’t too bad.
He’ll link up with Tom Ince and James McClean, who’ll provide the width in this Potters set-up and if Bojan is given the opportunity then we could see plenty of chances for Afobe but I’ll pass him over.
Lewis Grabban is next in the betting and he finished just a goal behind Vydra last season with 20 for Aston Villa but he’s moved across the Midlands to join Nottingham Forest.
Aitor Karanka has signed well and it might take a bit of time for them to gel but there are players who’ll link up well with Grabban, including Algerian signing Hillel Soudani.
That could be a shrewd piece of business with Soudani giving them width down the right and he’s the sort of player that could prove too good for the Championship.
Soudani got 17 goals in 28 games for Dinamo Zagreb in the Croatian top flight plus nine assists, so he’ll be a constant thorn in the side to defences and he could feature high on the scoring charts alongside his teammate.
You then start scrolling down the list and see players who have done well in lower leagues. Jack Marriott scored 27 goals in League One for Peterborough last season and comes into a Derby side that looks to have plenty of attacking threat on paper and the 23-year-old could well just pick up from where he left off.
It looks harder for Mark McNulty to have an impact in this Reading set-up but he did bag 25 in League Two for Coventry, so he is another to look out for.
There is one player who has moved from League Two that could be worth chancing at a three-figure price.
Mohamed Eisa has switched Robins and jumped a couple of leagues in the process. In League Two, he scored 23 goals at a rate of a goal per 163 minutes.
It was his goals that helped the Cheltenham to League 2 survival last season and unsurprisingly a team has taken a chance on the 24-year-old.
If Lee Johnson can get the best out of him alongside the likes of Andreas Weimann and Famara Diedhiou then this Bristol City attack could be one to fear, so Eisa is worth banking on scoring in the high teens.
Looking elsewhere then Daniel Farke moves into his second season at Norwich and is building what looks to be a useful side.
Ben Marshall joining in midfield along with Emiliano Buendia means Farke is laying out his blueprint for the Canaries plans.
He’s added to Nelson Oliveria’s attacking presence by signing Teemu Pukki from Brondby and capturing the signature of Jordan Rhodes on loan from Sheffield Wednesday.
Over in Denmark, Pukki scored 45 times in 111 games for Brondby and given the strength of the players in behind him then he’ll get opportunities to bag a high amount while Rhodes has had the odd injury problem in recent seasons.
His spell at Sheffield Wednesday hasn’t really worked out, so the change of scenery will hopefully get him back to his best.
The 28-year-old had three seasons in a row at Blackburn where he scored 20+ goals – 26 in 2012/13, 25 in 2013/14 and 21 in 2014/15, so we know he’s got the calibre.
If Farke can motivate him and keep him fit then he is one of the most likely candidates to back in this market given his previous track record.
The Norwich centre-forwards are worth monitoring this season with rotation likely to feature but with both Rhodes and Pukki they could excel and score plenty.
NOTE: For this market, all firms go ¼ the odds with four places on offer for each-way bets.
Jordan Rhodes 25/1 – Bet365
Mohamed Eisa 100/1 – William Hill
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