Battle for the Premier League - Owls expert Dom Howson’s run-down on the top six

Wednesday will only get stronger when Barry Bannan returns from suspension.
Wednesday will only get stronger when Barry Bannan returns from suspension.
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What shape are your club in ahead of the run-in?

Dom Howson give his club-by-club gude to the top six -

Sean Dyche, manager of title favourites Burnley

Sean Dyche, manager of title favourites Burnley

Sheffield Wednesday

April 2: Huddersfield (A)

April 5: Blackburn (H)

April 9: Bristol City (A)

Hull City manager Steve Bruce. Photo: PA Wire

Hull City manager Steve Bruce. Photo: PA Wire

April 16: Ipswich (H)

April 19: MK Dons (H)

April 23: Derby (A)

April 30: Cardiff (H)

May 7: Wolves (A)

The expert’s view: Dom Howson, The Star, Sheffield newspaper

What shape are your club in ahead of the run-in?

Wednesday look in fine fettle after back-to-back victories before the international break. Boss Carlos Carvalhal has the luxury of virtually a fully fit squad to choose from and key players such as Fernando Forestieri and Gary Hooper are hitting top form just at the right time. Only leaders Burnley have found the back of the net more than Carvalhal’s side this term.

They will only get stronger when influential midfielder Barry Bannan returns to action following his three-match suspension. His dynamic, driving runs and diverse passing range from the centre of the park make him a vital component of the team.

Defensively the Owls have found a successful formula, racking up four clean sheets from their last five outings. Carvalhal has made them a tough side to beat, particularly on their own turf where they have suffered just two defeats all season.

Who will be the key men over the next six weeks?

It is imperative Tom Lees stays clear of any further injury problems. A hamstring knock ruled him out for two months earlier in the campaign and he was sorely missed at the heart of Wednesday’s rearguard. Lees is strong in the air and positionally excellent. He does the simple things well and is one of the first names on the team-sheet. On and off the pitch, the former Leeds United player leads by example.

Forestieri is an indispensable member of this Wednesday side and is enjoying arguably the best season of his career, notching 13 goals in 28 starts. He is unpredictable and adds an extra dimension to their forward line. Forestieri, a £3m signing from Watford last summer, can create something out of nothing and it is no coincidence that the Owls’ form dipped when he was out of the side.

How is your run-in looking?

Wednesday will fancy their prospects of securing a play-off berth. They have established a three-point cushion over seventh-placed Cardiff City, who they still have to play at Hillsborough. Their two home clashes with the Bluebirds and Ipswich Town could hold the key to the Owls finishing in the top-six.

Trips to Huddersfield Town and Bristol City, who are battling for survival, won’t be straight forward but Wednesday have recently improved their record on the road. More than four and a half hours have passed since they last conceded away from Hillsborough.

In eight of the past 10 Championship seasons, 72 points has been enough to guarantee a play-off place. While automatic promotion looks out of their reach, the Owls are well on course to surpass that figure. Momentum is on their side and and they will be looking to finish as high as they can.

Who will finish top two and who will end up in the play-offs?

Burnley are the best side in the division and have been in this situation before. They should win the league and Brighton will claim the second automatic promotion spot. Middlesbrough, Hull, Derby and Wednesday will end up in the play-offs.

* Burnley

April 2: Brighton (A)

April 5: Cardiff (H)

April 9: Leeds (H)

April 16: Birmingham (A)

April 19: Middlesbrough (H)

April 22: Preston (A)

May 2: QPR (H)

May 7: Charlton (A)

The expert’s view: Suzanne Geldard, Lancashire Telegraph

What shape are your club in ahead of the run-in?

Four points clear, unbeaten in 2016 (a grand total 15 Championship games) – Burnley could not wish to be in better shape. Except they could. There was a key moment on Saturday, when just after MK Dons missed the chance to equalise from the penalty spot the Clarets conceded a stoppage time equaliser to Wolves. A potential seven-point gap had become four. But it remains a healthy lead, and that is what Sean Dyche will make sure they focus on.

As for the squad, Ashley Barnes is on his way back from cruciate knee ligament damage and could even feature in the squad against old club Brighton in their next game. As the old cliché goes, the striker will be like a new signing, and he scored key goals in their last promotion campaign, while Dean Marney – another cruciate casualty - has returned to full match fitness in time for the run-in.

Who will be the key men over the next six weeks?

It is hard to look beyond the strike partnership of Andre Gray and Sam Vokes, with Gray’s longevity at the top of the Championship goal charts and Vokes hitting a rich vein of form (10 goals in his last 14 games). It is reminiscent of Vokes’ duo with Danny Ings which fired Burnley to promotion in 2013/14.

Behind them Joey Barton pulls the strings alongside David Jones, while they are well supported by the centre half pairing of Michael Keane and Ben Mee, who has been a revelation since making the switch from left back in late December. With 15 clean sheets for goalkeeper Tom Heaton, the Clarets have a strong spine.

Potentially the aforementioned Barnes could play an important role, even just from the bench, but that is largely dependent on his match fitness.

How is your run-in looking?

Out of the top six Burnley’s is arguably the toughest run-in, with six top 11 teams to play in the remaining eight games – three of them serious promotion contenders, starting with the Seagulls on Saturday. It promises to be the type of game which should suit them.

The Clarets have a 100 per cent record against the bottom eight teams so far, with Charlton to play on the final day. They need to replicate that winning mentality against the division’s big hitters, and are capable of doing so.

Who will finish top two and who will end up in the play-offs?

Burnley have such a strong mentality, and a way of winning games, that I cannot see them surrendering top spot, despite the difficult games to come. Middlesbrough and Hull have got their games in hand, but have both been too hit and miss. Brighton have come good at the right time, and I expect them to finish runners-up regardless of the outcome of Saturday’s game. Boro, Hull, Sheffield Wednesday and Derby will end up in the play-offs.

*Brighton and Hove Albion

April 2: Burnley (H)

April 5: Birmingham (A)

April 11: Nottingham Forest (A)

April 15: Fulham (H)

April 19: QPR (H)

April 23: Charlton (A)

May 1: Derby County (H)

May 7: Middlesbrough (A)

The expert’s view: Andy Naylor, The Argus, Brighton

What shape are tour club in ahead of the run-in?

They are in fine fettle. The long-term injury list has been abbreviated to German back-up centre-half Uwe Huenemeier and England under-21 winger Solly March, who is out for the season. The versatile Liam Rosenior, first choice left-back Gaetan Bong, explosive left-winger Kazenga LuaLua and striker Sam Baldock are all back in the frame after extensive absences. They have recovered from a winless seven-match run in December and January with one defeat in 12. The revival, aside from resounding 4-0 victories away to Bristol City and at home to Leeds, has maintained the pattern of finding a way to get the job done. Sixteen of their 19 wins have been by the odd goal, a useful attribute approaching squeaky bum time.

Who will be the key men over the next six weeks?

Everybody. There are no obvious stars. The foundation of the promotion challenge has been different players making key contributions at different times. The player-of-the-season award is consequently more competitive than usual, with several candidates to choose from. David Stockdale has made result-affecting saves, veteran Spanish right-back and stand-in skipper Bruno has been outstanding. He has played in every game, not bad for a 35-year-old. Connor Goldson, a summer signing from Shrewsbury, is keeping out regular captain Gordon Greer as part of a defence which has conceded just once in six matches. In central midfield, Beram Kayal and Dale Stephens have been effective all season. Any combination of LuaLua, Jamie Murphy, Anthony Knockaert and Jiri Skalak are capable on their day of providing penetrative width. Israeli striker Tomer Hemed is up to 13 goals now in his debut campaign in English football. Manchester United loanee James Wilson, Baldock and Bobby Zamora (when he is fit) offer assistance and competition up front.

How is your run-in looking?

Every game counts at this stage, but there are three stand-outs. Burnley are next up at the Amex for a top-of-the-table clash. Chris Hughton’s side finish at home to Derby and (for the second season running) away to Middlesbrough. These matches will go a long way to deciding whether they go up automatically or are in the play-offs for the third time in four seasons. It is preferable to be up against teams with nothing to play for, particularly if you can get in front. Nottingham Forest away and QPR at home fit the category, Charlton could be down by the time they go there. Birmingham away and Fulham at home will be tricky for different reasons. They all are, with so much at stake.

Who will finish top two and who will end up in the play-offs?

Burnley and Brighton automatic. Boro, Hull, Derby and Sheffield Wednesday play-offs.

* Middlesbrough

April 1: QPR (a)

April 5: Huddersfield (h)

April 9: Preston (h)

April 12: Reading (h)

April 16: Bolton (a)

April 19: Burnley (a)

April 23: Ipswich (h)

April 29: Birmingham (a)

May 7: Brighton (h)

The expert’s view: Jonathon Taylor, The Gazette

What shape are your club in ahead of the run-in?

The victory against Hull before the international break was absolutely crucial, and it ended a pretty turbulent week on Teesside. Aitor Karanka’s future was shrouded in doubt following a reported bust-up with some of his players, and the club’s promotion push appeared to be on the brink of implosion. But credit has to go to chairman Steve Gibson, the players and the staff for managing to rebuild bridges at the eleventh hour. The win over Hull could well prove to be a watershed moment in the season, and seemed to unite the club again. Boro will need to find an added spark up front in the coming weeks , and finding a way to get the likes of Jordan Rhodes and Stewart Downing firing has to be a priority. But with the joint-best defence in the Football League, you feel that Boro will always have a chance of edging tight games.

Who will be the key men over the next six weeks?

Getting Daniel Ayala back to full fitness is an absolute must. The Spanish defender has been sidelined with an ankle injury since February 6, and since then Boro have won only four out of 10, a shaky run that included drab defeats at Blackburn, Rotherham and Charlton. When Ayala plays well, Boro tend to play well - and it’s hard to think of a better centre-half outside of the top-flight. At the other end of the pitch, Boro need to find goals. They are the lowest scorers in the top seven, and that was something that proved costly in the run-in last season. To that end, £9m January recruit Jordan Rhodes and David Nugent must shoulder the responsibility of providing the ammunition to push Boro over the line. Both have been playing well enough of late, but it’s goals which will ultimately decide who clinch promotion and who miss out this season. The pair cost a combined transfer fee of £13m - and now would be the perfect time to start repaying that sum.

How is your run-in looking?

Aitor Karanka believes Boro have a gentler run-in than last season, when they had to go to Bournemouth, Watford, Norwich, Derby and Fulham in the last couple of months. On paper, you’d have to say that’s the case - Boro have nine games left, with five coming at the Riverside. The showdown at Turf Moor in mid-April obviously jumps out, but before then Boro have three consecutive home games, followed by a trip to Bolton. A big points return during that spell is crucial, before a tricky final four games where Boro face promotion rivals Burnley and Brighton, as well as play-off hopefuls Ipswich and Birmingham. Boro have tended to do well against the top teams this season, but it’s against those in the bottom third of the table when they have often come unstuck.

Who will finish top two and who will end up in the play-offs?

I can’t see beyond Burnley winning the league, but think Boro will have enough to secure second place and go up automatically. For the play-offs, Hull, Brighton, Derby and Wednesday.

* Hull City

April 2: Bristol City (H)

April 5: Derby County (A)

April 9: Huddersfield (A)

April 15: Wolves (H)

April 19: Reading (A)

April 23: Leeds United (H)

April 26: Brentford (H)

April 30: Bolton (A)

May 7: Rotherham (H)

The expert’s view: Philip Buckingham, Hull Daily Mail

What shape are your club in ahead of the run-in?

City are flagging, no doubt about it, but Steve Bruce will hope the international break has arrived at a good time. Two wins in the last nine and none in the last five does not point towards a team coming good at the right time and in that run there have been some damaging defeats away to Burnley, Birmingham and Middlesbrough. The biggest concern is the lack of goals. Since demolishing Charlton 6-0 in the middle of January, it’s been just six goals in the last 10 games. Bruce has to hope he can tap into the form that took his team to the top of the table. Around the turn of the year it was seven wins from nine games and a similar string of results between now and May 7 could be enough.

Who will be the key men over the next six weeks?

The spine of the team has to be strong for City. In Michael Dawson they’ve got arguably the best central defender in the Championship and then in midfield Jake Livermore has often been the heartbeat of this team on its best days. Abel Hernandez has to come good, too. As the £10m club-record signing, a failure to add to his 16 goals over recent weeks has hurt the side. Perhaps the most important figure in the dressing room, though, will be Steve Bruce. As a manager he’s won promotion out of the Championship three times and that experience could yet prove key when it comes down to the final weeks of reckoning.

How is your run-in looking?

Other than a trip to Derby County, you’d have to say it’s a pretty generous string of games. After travelling to Huddersfield and Reading, two clubs with little to play for, the final away game is a doomed Bolton. But it’s at home where City will look to come good again. Only Derby have won at the KC Stadium all season and there’s five home games to come that all look winnable. Bristol City, Wolves and Leeds have to be targeted for a win before the potentially vital game in hand comes with the visit of Brentford on April 26. A home date with Rotherham United finishes things off on a final day that could yet see champagne corks popping at the KC.

Who will finish top two and who will end up in the play-offs?

Burnley look a tough act to catch but Hull City can still reclaim second spot. Middlesbrough, Brighton, Derby and Sheffield Wednesday.

* Derby County:

April 2: Cardiff City (A)

April 5: Hull City (H)

April 9: Bolton (H)

April 16: Charlton (A)

April 19: Bristol City (A)

April 23: Sheff Wed (H)

May 2: Brighton (A)

May 7: Ipswich (H)

The expert’s view: Steve Nicholson, Derby Telegraph

What shape are your club in ahead of the run-in?

Derby are slowly finding their feet again after a poor start to 2016. They went seven league games without a win from the turn of the year and head coach Paul Clement was shown the door after only eight months in charge. Academy Director Darren Wassall was handed the head-coach reigns for the rest of the season and his eight games have brought four wins, three defeats and a painful draw at Rotherham where Derby squandered a three-goal lead in the final 10 minutes to finish 3-3. The hope is that the hard-fought victory over rivals Nottingham Forest last time out will provide a timely lift for the run-in and how much influence the experienced Harry Redknapp has as the club’s newly-appointed football advisor remains to be seen.

Who will be the key men over the next six weeks?

As Middlesbrough (one goal in their last three games) and Hull (three in their last six) are finding right now, you need goals. Chris Martin remains Derby’s most likely source. The striker top scored in the past two seasons and he is leading the way again this season on 13. He has scored four in his last seven games after a barren spell (one goal in 18 appearances) and the Rams will need him to keep finding the net. The return to the side of midfielder Craig Bryson is also key. The Scot has endured a frustrating season due to injury but his energy drives Derby on. The centre-back pairing of Richard Keogh and Jason Shackell will also be crucial. The Rams have kept three clean sheets in their last six matches, a most welcome habit.

How is your run-in looking?

Run-ins are impossible to judge because most teams are fighting for points for different reasons. Add the unpredictability factor and it becomes more difficult to call. Look at some recent results - Boro lost to Bristol City, Rotherham and Charlton; Hull failed to beat MK Dons and Forest at home; Derby lost to MK Dons and were held by Rotherham; Sheffield Wednesday stumbled at home to Rotherham. Cue the cliche ... there are no easy games. Derby still have to play five of the top eight in Cardiff, Hull, Sheffield Wednesday, Brighton and Ipswich. They also have to face the bottom two clubs, Bolton and Charlton.

Who will finish top two and who will end up in the play-offs?

Burnley and Middlesbrough top two; play offs Hull, Brighton, Derby and Sheffield Wednesday.