In this article…
The Championship is back, and with 37 goals across the opening round of 12 fixtures, there was no shortage of entertainment on its return.
EFL pundit Gab Sutton picks out five top performers, as Millwall made moves at Middlesbrough, Blackburn put a summer of uncertainty behind them, Stoke’s new-look side hit the ground running, Cardiff earned a valuable point at Elland Road, and Plymouth Argyle celebrated their Championship return in style.
Some of the musings from the opening weekend have inspired Championship betting tips, one priced at 2.40 for gameweek 2.
Millwall: It’s a yes for Esse
Millwall were 3.50 outsiders for victory at Middlesbrough who, after reaching the play-offs last season with fantastic form under Michael Carrick, are expected to challenge strongly for promotion this time around.
It might have been a case of catching Boro at the right time, though, as the Teessiders were without a proven, out-and-out centre-forward and were arguably short in full-back areas too.
Nonetheless, the Lions’ transitional play was at times outstanding, and they created numerous chances on the counter-attack, whilst limiting their opponents to few opportunities themselves – the hosts had a mere two shots on target. The real stand-out, though, was Romain Esse. The 18-year-old, who came from the South Bermondsey outfit’s academy, looks to be building on 13 appearances in the previous campaign, having made a stunning impact from the bench, capping it with a sumptuous first-time finish which proved to be the winner.
The former England U18s star runs at players, pressurises them and forces them into a foul or a mistake, but while he has a suitably rogue attitude on the pitch, off it he’s calm and mature for his age. After Matija Sarkic signed from Wolves to address the goalkeeping concerns, Millwall have a reliable core: experienced defenders Shaun Hutchinson, Jake Cooper and Murray Wallace, protected by solid midfielder Casper De Norre, and dependable wing-backs in Dan McNamara and Joe Bryan.
If midfield star Billy Mitchell can stay fit, and Esse can bring some alternative craft to take part of the burden away from Zian Flemming after a stunning first season, Gary Rowett’s men look like serious play-off contenders once again.
They’ll hope to prove their credentials against Bristol City in their first home league game – and can be backed at 1.75 with Paddy Power to start with back-to-back wins – but four consecutive finishes between eighth and 11th suggests they won’t be far away.
Blackburn: Harry Leonard shines on first start as Rovers begin with win
Despite a respectable eighth-placed finish last season, Blackburn were priced as 3.00 outsiders for victory over West Brom, after an uncertain summer. Blackburn fans were expecting a strong start from prodigy Adam Wharton, but the 19-year-old midfielder only managed 31 minutes from the bench as it was his fellow academy graduate, Harry Leonard, who grabbed the opening day headlines.
Supporters were baying for a proven goalscorer to come in this summer, but it’s possible the Lancashire club has had one under their nose the whole time as Leonard caught the eye with his energy, link-up play and eye for goal. His strike, and that of Dilan Markanday, came from transitional attacks, something Blackburn specialised in last season: aggressive, incisive play before a ruthless, tight-angled finish.
Jon Dahl Tomasson’s side also had the means to control the ball, as well, reaching 59% in this game, limiting their visitors to a mere 14 efforts at goal. The performance seems especially impressive considering mixed reports on Rovers’ financial situation: the indications are that Tomasson wanted more from the club’s summer transfer business, leaving speculation that the Dane may consider leaving over those differences.
That uncertainty, though, had no bearing on performance as the hosts were quick out of the blocks, and the attacking quartet of Markanday, Leonard, Sammie Szmodicz, and Tyrhys Dolan looks one to watch, though questions remain over depth with a youthful bench.
Rovers will want to end their hoodoo at the New York Stadium next week: they haven’t won at Rotherham in any of their previous four visits, including when the Millers recorded the lowest post-war second-tier points tally in 2016-17, and were thumped 4-0 on that ground last season – Tomasson’s side are 2.40 with Paddy Power to take revenge.
Stoke: new-look side gelled from the off
Stoke were odds-on favourites to beat Rotherham at home at 1.60, but it’s hard not to be impressed with how quickly their new-look team has amalgamated. Nine of the 20-man squad that thrashed the Millers 4-1 were new to the club, another three were recent academy graduates, while a further two were returning after just over three months at the end of last season.
It’s been a summer of widespread change for the Potters, right through the club, and a lot of the business has been completed within two-and-a-half weeks of the season starting. Despite all this, there’s a synergy and cohesion in evidence straight away, which allowed wide forward André Vidigal to make an instant impact with two goals, and chances to complete his hat-trick.
Recruited from Marítimo, Vidigal had represented Portugal at every age group from U18s to U21s, and is hoping to rediscover that potential in the Potteries at 24. Quick, creative, and described by former Portugal and Porto midfielder Costinha as having “magic in his feet”, Vidigal could be one to watch.
Stoke also have a core of experienced British players, though, in centre-back Michael Rose, left-back Enda Stevens and ball-winner Ben Pearson to complement Vidigal’s flair, as the domestic trio helped limit the visitors to 29% possession, and a mere six shots all afternoon.
No conclusive judgements can be drawn after one game, of course, but if they can put in a positive performance next week at newly-promoted Ipswich – where they’re 4/5 with UniBet to avoid defeat – the early indications will be that boss Alex Neil has got the balance right.
Cardiff: Bluebirds battle for unlikely point
Cardiff were 2.60 to avoid defeat at Leeds on the opening day, but Erol Bulut’s side pulled off a shock – they earned a point, and it could so nearly have been all three. The Bluebirds fought gallantly with 28% possession, and at times a barrage of pressure came against them, especially in the second half, as 17-year-old prodigy Archie Gray shone in midfield for the hosts.
Nonetheless, the visitors struck twice against the run of play through wing-back Josh Bowler and striker Ike Ugbo, both on debut, in the first half thanks to ruthless counter-attacking play. Bowler is out to recapture the form that saw him light up this league with Blackpool in 2021-22, while Ugbo, on loan from Troyes, intends to rediscover the shooting boots with which he scored 16 goals in 32 games for Cercle Brugge in 2020-21.
It shaped up to be a nervy second half when Liam Cooper headed home early on in it to halve the deficit, and the visitors needed some brave, dogged last-ditch defending including 28 blocks – five from centre-back Mark McGuinness alone – to keep their lead intact.
They came so close, but in the last attack, Luis Sinisterra’s shot from outside the box was blocked by McGuinness, allowing Crysencio Summerville to turn home with a firm volley.
Despite the heartache of missing out on all three points so late, Bulut can take huge encouragement from his side’s organisation on day one against a team expected to challenge, especially with Greece international Dimitrios Goutas battling brilliantly in defence on his competitive debut.
If Cardiff defend that well against most teams in the Championship, they’ll steer themselves clear of safety, but victory next week at home to beleaguered QPR – 1.87 with Paddy Power – is a must.
Plymouth Argyle: Mumba flourishes as Pilgrims return with a bang
Back in the Championship after 13 years away, and a tumultuous journey in that time, to say the least, it was a party atmosphere at Home Park. Plymouth Argyle might be the smallest club of the three coming up, in terms of size of fanbase, but they did win the League One title last season with a whopping 101 points and aren’t to be underestimated.
Steven Schumacher’s side have retained key loanees from 2022-23, with Finn Azaz, Morgan Whittaker and Bali Mumba all returning, the latter two permanently – in Mumba’s case, he could be the Championship’s signing of the season. It came as a surprise when Norwich were prepared to let the 21-year-old leave for a modest fee, and the fact one of the Championship’s brightest prospects signed a four-year contract with the Pilgrims highlights his belief in the project.
Mumba began his permanent stint with a bang, scoring an outstanding individual goal against Huddersfield, which along with a close-range effort from Whittaker and a one-on-one finish from striker Ryan Hardie, saw Argyle to a 3-1 victory over Huddersfield.
Schumacher has had the courage, in pre-season, to go away from a wing-back system, which has been a mainstay in the club’s incredible rise over the last four years, and towards a 4-3-3 – but if there’s one manager, and one club, to be backed to make brave, intelligent calls and get them right, it’s him and Argyle.
They’re back in the Championship – and while 50 points is very much their modus operandi, they’ll be determined to show at Watford next week, where they’re 2.00 to avoid defeat with Paddy Power – that they’re not here to simply make up the numbers.
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