Move over Premier League, the Sky Bet Championship title race is set to provide the real excitement

Celebrations for Patrick Bamford

The footballing world's eyes are, as ever, towards the top of the English league pyramid.

For the first time in a few years, we have a genuine title race in the Premier League with Liverpool and Manchester City battling it out for the top accolade.

City's 2017/18 campaign where they earned a remarkable 100 points should have set this up to be another runaway season. However, Liverpool have proven to be tough opponents and they find themselves just a single point behind as we approach the final run-in.

Is it exciting? Yes. Is it really that surprising? Well, no.

Manchester City and Liverpool were the two favourites in the betting pre-season. Check the outright previews in any media outlet and I will be confident in saying that the majority predicted the title going to either Anfield or the Etihad.

If one was picked for the title, the other was likely selected as the runner-up. While it may be a slight shock to see City failing to run away with it like their record-breaking season, it isn't a massive deal that it's Liverpool who are the main challengers.

I suppose we have to include Tottenham in all this (no, don't laugh). They are 10 points behind and it's a mathematical possibility that they do lift the title. That said, the 500/1 available with Sky Bet suggests otherwise.

The majority believe City will do it. They're 1/3 to secure back-to-back trophies, meaning it's worth looking elsewhere for the real excitement. And as luck would have it, you only have to step down one division to indulge in a genuine battle for top spot.

In shocking news, Manchester City might win the league again

There you'll find the hectic dash to reach the promised land of the Premier League and the riches that come with it. Whether it's through the nerve-racking route of the play-offs or sailing in with a top-two finish, you just want to get promoted.

Teams will gamble to achieve that. 'Financial Fair Play' is probably the most muttered phrase at this level, clubs aren't afraid to spend big and take risks in order to more than quadruple any initial investment.

It comes with the territory. When the prize on offer is so great, people are inclined to risk more to win it. We saw it last season with the big-spending Wolves, boosted by a relationship with super agent Jorge Mendes, gliding to the top-flight.

This year is different though. We have three teams at the top who have defied the odds and haven't had to throw a huge amount of money to achieve their goals. They've built the right foundations for success and with 11 games to go, each can make a case for finishing top of the pile.

Leeds, Norwich and Sheffield United have upset the apple cart this season. They were mentioned as 'maybes' for a top-six finish before the campaign got under way, but now one the trio is a definite for the Championship trophy.

Sheffield United brought in 'one of their own' to help them storm League One. They looked like achieving back-to-back promotions before dropping off last season, now they are back and looking the strongest they have for a number of years.

Daniel Farke was given time to build at Norwich too. His side finished 14th last season, but a second campaign in English football has allowed him to fully instil his philosophy.

Leeds provide arguably the biggest talking point. Marcelo Bielsa, worshipped as a god-like figure in sections of South America, has come in and turned a mid-table squad into a success story almost overnight.

One of those three managers will be pictured with the trophy in May. It's now March, and the fact that we have next to no idea who it will be underlines the situation the league is currently in.

The Bielsa revolution

Leeds boss Marcelo Bielsa

They aren't the favourites for top spot, but it's the story that has been the most eye-catching in a season full of incredible storylines.

Leeds have gone through a number of managers over previous seasons. Under Massimo Cellino's ownership, the man at the helm would likely last a few months maximum until dispensed with, the side typically languishing in mid-table.

Even under a new regime, Thomas Christiansen and Paul Heckingbottom were both dismissed last season with the club failing to live up to their top-six ambitions.

They may not have hit the heights required to keep either man in a job, but Leeds demonstrated a hunger for success in the summer with an approach for Bielsa. Most teams in this division wouldn't even ask the question; Leeds did, and after weeks of talks, they had the answer they wanted.

With the team finishing 13th and a squad with plenty of questions hanging over their heads, you'd imagine there would be a demand for a large transfer kitty. For him to come out in his first press conference and say that 14 players would leave and only three or four would come in was viewed, in the eyes of most supporters anyway, as a shock.

The big name signing of Patrick Bamford was funded by the sale of Ronaldo Vieira to Sampdoria. Barry Douglas came in for a bargain fee while Jamal Blackman, Izzy Brown and Jack Harrison were all loan additions.

Bamford has barely been at Bielsa's disposal due to injury. Brown, who won promotion with Huddersfield, has also faced a lengthy spell on the sidelines and played around ten minutes of senior football.

In total, Leeds have had to deal with over 45 injuries this season. They had to go through December with pretty much a bench of youth players. The home win over Bristol City saw goalkeeper Will Huffer and defender Aapo Halme make their senior debuts, and not only did they win, but they also kept a clean sheet.

Leif Davis, a summer addition to the youth squad from Morecambe, was given just three minutes to prepare for his debut away at Aston Villa. Leeds went on to win the game 3-2.

Some might question why Leeds aren't higher still with a coach of Bielsa's stature. The fact is that with the number of injuries they've had to contend with this season, they probably shouldn't be anywhere near the top-six.

It shows the impact of the coach and his staff and how they have been able to draw the best out of every player. Try to picture Liverpool without Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Virgil van Dijk, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold for large parts of the season - this is what Leeds have had to deal with.

Give a manager time

Delight for Norwich City boss Daniel Farke after their win at Millwall

The demand for promotion in this league is huge, so much so that managers sometimes fail to survive a full season, let alone stay for a second.

That's particularly the case for sides sitting in mid-table who didn't quite live up to expectations and it applied to Norwich at the end of the 2017/18 season, but, unlike others, they opted to give Farke time to make things work.

The truth is that the previous campaign was one of laying the foundations. It allowed certain players who have come in to establish themselves as first-team regulars, but it also gave existing squad members a chance to prove they can work in a new system.

It even took part of this season to get things going. A 3-0 defeat to Leeds at the end of August saw them sitting in 18th, nine points off the top, and you'd have been hard pressed then to make them title challengers.

It's rare that a potential title-winning manager's future was under scrutiny in the same season they would achieve success, but that's the situation with Farke. A quick Twitter search shows the demand from sections of the Norwich faithful for a change as early as August.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. The #FarkeOut hashtag is used as a joke among Canaries fans now, but at the time there was serious intent behind it. It's fine to be one of those fans though; it just shows the demand for success at this level.

The questions about Teemu Pukki playing as a sole striker have been answered with 25 goals in all competitions. The suggestions that the team is 'boring to watch' have been quashed by an increased emphasis on attack.

Norwich are now one of the most entertaining sides in England. A prolific goalscorer has an interchangeable, influential attacking midfield trio behind him and they're just so dangerous.

The attack is wonderful, but so too is the defence and the arrogance of youth that comes with an almost all-teenage back four. Christoph Zimmerman is the senior figure, with youngster Jamal Lewis, Ben Godfrey and Max Aarons lining up alongside him.

It's a bold move, especially for a club in Norwich's position, but it's one that is working. The development of youngsters comes alongside shrewd additions in the transfer market.

The Canaries haven't had to buy their way to the top, they've earned it.

The underdogs

Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder

Sheffield United like to be the underdogs in this situation, and given that there was a feeling that they'd be stuck in the third tier forever just a few seasons ago, it's not a surprise.

With Leeds and Norwich looking to the continent for their coaches, the Blades have looked closer to home. "He's one of our own" is the chant that rings around Bramall Lane every week, and Wilder is a Blade at heart.

They hit the 100-point mark in his first season in League One and nearly reached the top-six in their first spell back in the Championship. They've continued to build and are a club firmly on the right track.

They've seemingly gone under the radar just a little given despite their current position. Bielsa's appointment at Leeds is followed week in, week out - not only in England but around the world, too; United, meanwhile, continue out of the spotlight.

That means that Sheffield United can play to their underdog tag and it's probably at least in part why they are picking up points every week. Like the two sides they are competing against, they haven't had to throw money at it.

In fact it's the opposite, they've recruited players not on reputation but on their suitability to the system. That system is one that we haven't really seen at this level before, and it provides the freedom for every player to contribute going forward.

That means we often see centre-backs playing on the left-wing, central midfielders driving forward and full-backs ending up next to the strikers. It's total football and it's catching a lot of teams out.

Bielsa, who inspired the likes of Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino on their managerial adventures at top clubs in England, was intrigued by Sheffield United's style before their meeting in December. They play with bravery and want to be on the front foot throughout.

It's thrown a spanner into the works with some thinking that they would drop off once again. Now, with a meeting against Leeds just around the corner, they could be in the automatic promotion spots as we approach the conclusion.

This will take some explaining...

The Sky Bet Championship: where everyone beats everyone

Right, this is where we see what a bizarre league the Sky Bet Championship is.

Leeds' 4-1 hammering of Derby in just their second game of the season signalled that they were title candidates. Derby bounced back with a 4-1 victory over West Brom at The Hawthorns in October. Two weeks later, West Brom recovered with a 4-1 victory over Leeds.

However, Leeds then beat West Brom 4-0 last time out at Elland Road to move back into the automatic promotion places. That's despite a 3-1 home defeat to Norwich just a couple of weeks earlier. Oh, Leeds also beat Norwich 3-0 at the start of the season.

Sheffield United won by a 4-1 scoreline against Aston Villa at the beginning of September. They then held a three-goal lead in their trip to Villa Park last month, before conceding three late goals and ending up drawing 3-3.

Norwich managed to score three late goals in their Boxing Day draw with Nottingham Forest, as Onel Hernandez struck in the 94th and 98th minute to earn the home side a point.

Three days later, they would concede two late goals themselves to end up losing 4-3 to Derby - only after a floodlight failure.

Leeds scored three goals in the second-half to beat Aston Villa in their meeting just before Christmas. On Boxing Day, Charlie Mulgrew's free-kick put Blackburn 2-1 up in the 89th minute, but Leeds would win the game 3-2.

Despite that they would then lose their next three games before a dominating performance against Derby, where Leeds won 2-0. Sorry, no time for Spygate here.

Kalvin Phillips scored an equaliser for Leeds in the 101st minute to avoid defeat at Middlesbrough, which came after Middlesbrough netted a 90th minute penalty in the home league game prior against Millwall.

West Brom also needed a 94th minute goal from Jake Livermore to snatch all three points away at QPR. That's despite a 7-1 hammering of the R's at the Hawthorns, six of those goals came in the second-half.

Ipswich, who have barely won this season, stole a point from Stoke after Will Keane equalised in the 92nd minute. A week later, they would have two points taken off them thanks to Joe Garner's 91st minute equaliser for Wigan.

A week after that, Mo Barrow scored a 90th minute winner for Reading as Ipswich lost 2-1 in front of their own supporters. That also ended a run of three consecutive 1-1 draws. Talk about mixed fortunes.

Simple, really.

Who wins it?

Norwich and Leeds are the title front runners

I once got on a bus in York and asked the driver how long it would take to get to the place I was going to, on the basis that I'm not from York and have never been to the city more than a handful of times.

The driver replied "how long is a piece of string?" - which always confused me because they work to a timetable that tells you how long it takes to get to their destinations.

I've never really understood that response. It's right there in front of him, all laid out explaining exactly how it should go. Now, after seeing this Championship title race unravel the way it has, I get it.

On paper, Norwich should lift the trophy based on their current position and remaining fixtures. However, what that doesn't factor in is slip-ups along the way. Could Rotherham, Wigan and Reading all snatch maximum points in their quest for survival? Will Middlesbrough, Sheffield Wednesday and Hull grab victory as they look for the top-six?

It should take the bus, let's say, 30 minutes to reach the destination. But what about the traffic? Are there any roadworks? What about potential diversions that we didn't know about?

That's pretty much what we're dealing with here. Norwich are the favourites but there are undoubtedly going to be bumps in the road along the way that wouldn't have been predicted.

When you look at the fixture list, they should win every game on an individual basis. Football doesn't work like that though, even the very best teams slip-up and that's something that has been accepted as part of the sport.

In the Championship, there are two other teams waiting for that opportunity. It's not so much a case of who wins the most, but who drops the fewest points.

Whatever happens, we're set for excitement that will go right down to the wire. The top-flight has thrown up a race between the two favourites, but what we're looking at here is a race that would have been, on the basis of pre-season odds, a title battle between Tottenham, Crystal Palace and Brighton.

Manchester City would be floating around 14th place, while Liverpool have a top-four finish as their best hope. Newcastle are going for Europe alongside Cardiff's fight for the Champions League.

Sounds ridiculous, right? Well that's what we're dealing with in the Championship this season. It's impossible to call who wins the title, let alone finishes in the top-two.

The main focus will be on the top of the Premier League, but England's second-tier is where you'll find the real excitement at the final hurdle.

Odds correct at 1800 GMT (05/03/19)

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