Wolves will be playing Premier League soccer next season for the first time since 2012. They clinched their promotion this past weekend. At the end of the day, the league table doesn’t lie when we’re this far into the season. Wolves have a twelve-point lead over their nearest rivals, Cardiff, albeit having played a game more.
Former Valencia and Porto manager Nuno Espírito Santo has been an inspiration for the Chinese-backed side, which improved from last season’s 15th-placed finish. With recognized quality in the form of Rúben Neves, loanees Diogo Jota and Benik Afobe, and Carl Ikeme in goal, it’s safe to say Wolves have the pieces to put together a strong campaign next season.
The question is who joins them in the Premier League next season. It’s a battle between Fulham and Cardiff for the remaining automatic promotion spot, and I just about favor Fulham. The Den might be a difficult place to visit on Friday, given that Millwall are also chasing promotion, but Fulham seem to have more straightforward opponents that I think they’ll defeat than Cardiff, who play Nottingham Forest, Derby, Hull and Reading — teams that could give them a run for their money.
As many as eight teams are still mathematically in the hunt for the remaining three playoff spots. Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and Millwall currently hold those spots. I think Villa are more or less there, given their 10-point lead on Boro. They’ve got a very astute manager in Steve Bruce, who has been in these situations in the past with Birmingham City and Hull City. Boro likewise have a very experienced leader in Tony Pulis, but comparing squads, I fancy the talent in the Villa squad a bit more. They’ve got the better ball-players such as Robert Snodgrass and forward Ross McCormack, and an equally solid defense led by former Chelsea captain John Terry.
As things stand, I fancy Villa to win the promotion playoffs. I also think Derby County are more likely to overtake Millwall and claim the final spot. That’s no disrespect to Neil Harris and what he’s done with his Millwall team that were promoted to the Championship just this year. Write them off at your own peril — they won the playoffs last year to come up from League One and could very well do it again. Derby, though, just have that much more quality and know-how in the squad with former quality Premier League players like Tom Huddlestone, goalkeeper Scott Carson and Marcus Olsson. They have in their ranks current league-leading goalscorer Matej Vydra, who has been in a similar situation with Watford, as well as David Nugent, who has made his name scoring goals for fun in the Championship.
One final team to watch might just be Alex Neil’s Preston North End. Neil has done an excellent job since leaving Norwich City, and with young talent like Josh Harrop, they could still yet make a late push. With a few weeks to go, it’s still anybody’s game. For me, though, it’ll be Wolves, Fulham and perhaps one of Cardiff, Villa and Derby in England’s top flight next season.