Championship Preview: Big hitters, big surprises and big Egyptian strikers

They say it's the toughest league in the world to predict, which is bad news for Joe Brewin, who we're asking to have a stab...

While London swoons after its shiny Olympics, Batman beats up Bane and the world clambers for a punch-up with Piers Morgan, clubs in one of the most fascinating leagues in the world have been quietly going about their business.

And there’s plenty to get excited about. Who will be this year’s Southampton, grasping-and-a-gruelling their way up from the third tier in just two seasons? Or those surprising rascals you just can’t help but admire? Our water-treaders? Drop-dodgers? They’re all here and ready for an action-packed season in England’s second tier.

TITLE CONTENDERSWe start with the league’s big hitters. The bookmakers have installed Bolton as favourites but after Owen Coyle’s summer clear-out (no fewer than seven high-earners were released), this is a fresher side. Promising striker Benik Afobe has arrived on loan from Arsenal, while proven campaigners Matt Mills, Keith Andrews (above) and Andy Lonergan have all joined.

Cardiff were handed a huge boost with the permanent addition of Craig Bellamy - we’ll stick our neck out and suggest he's probably better than the outgoing Jon Parkin. Also arriving are Jordan Mutch, Heidar Helguson, Joe Lewis and South Korea international Kim Bo-Kyung, all of whom should add to an already talented squad. Can these perennial play-off victims avoid the need for the end of season tension-fest this time around?

And what of Wolves? We aren’t sure whether it's more ludicrous that Sunderland offered £12 million for Steven Fletcher, or that the West Midlands outfit rejected it. Either way, this will be a quite different side to the one seen under Mick McCarthy 12 months ago. Michael Kightly has already fled to Stoke, and few would bet against Matt Jarvis making a swift getaway too. Ståle Solbakken has found quick replacements in Rennes’ Tongo Doumbia, Icelandic midfielder Bjorn Sigurdarson and Cologne winger Slawomir Peszko.

PROMOTION CANDIDATESNext up are last season’s big disappointments, Leicester. Nigel Pearson has washed his hands of the defence which shipped 55 goals last season, shifting Mills, Sol Bamba and Lee Peltier off the books. In come Ritchie De Laet, former Liverpool man Zak Whitbread, Matty James, Marko Futacs and exciting France youth international Anthony Knockaert. Their most intriguing acquisition is that of Fleetwood Town striker Jamie Vardy, who joins after a prolific year in the Conference National with the Trawlermen. It’s been no summer of lavish spending, but Pearson may well require a strong start.

Completing the recently-relegated trio, Blackburn harbour hopes of a quick return to the big time. "We want people who can run, we are not here to entertain big names,” said global advisor Shebby Singh, after the signings of Nuno Gomes (above) and Danny Murphy at the ripe ages of 36 and 35 respectively. “This is why teams fail. If this club wants to move forward, you need energy and vigour." Oh. Leon Best, signed from Newcastle for £3 million, will spend the first six months on the sidelines.

Lee Clark’s Birmingham have been shrewd, bringing on board Darren Ambrose, Peter Lovenkrands and new bad-boy-on-the-block Ravel Morrison. The nucleus of last season’s squad is there with Jack Butland, Curtis Davies, Nathan Redmond and Marlon King all looking to continue where they left off.

Business at Hull has earned them a smattering of early admirers, after Steve Bruce wasted no time bringing in Abdoulaye Faye and Rangers’ Sone Aluko. Of course it’s been a family affair too, with defender Alex Bruce tagging along for the ride. Striker Nick Proschwitz, signed from SC Paderbon 07, is a particularly interesting prospect.

PLAY-OFF HOPEFULSSouth coast high-risers Brighton have turned to former Valencia star Bruno Saltor on a free transfer, adding golf’s Wayne Bridge (above) on loan, midfielder Andrew Crofts and goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak. You’d be forgiven for casting interested glances towards Gus Poyet’s men.

Rent-a-quote Ian Holloway has been oddly mute at Blackpool this summer with a string of unassuming deals, landing midfielders Scott Robertson and Isaiah Osbourne from Dundee United and Hibernian respectively. But the sharp Bristolian has a knack for a bargain. Matt Phillips and Tom Ince have both stuck around, while Kevin Phillips has locked away the zimoframe for at least another season.

Neil Warnock’s been a busy bee at Leeds. Robert Snodgrass was finally sold to Norwich – but have no fear, El Hadj Diouf is here. Remember this? “I was going to call him a sewer rat but that might be insulting the sewer rats,” said Warnock on his new signing just last year. “I think he’s the lowest of the low.” Get in line, Carlos Tevez. More incomings have seen the aforementioned Peltier, Paddy Kenny, David Norris and Jason Pearce arrive, to name but a few.

Nottingham Forest will hope new ownership can improve last season’s hideous campaign – and the early signs look promising. New manager Sean O’Driscoll has snapped up last season’s successful loanee Adlene Guedioura, Greg Halford, Dan Harding and Liverpool youngster Daniel Ayala on loan.

Newly-promoted Huddersfield are hanging onto star man Jordan Rhodes for dear life and have done much to encourage a stay for the young striker. Adam Clayton, Sean Scannell, Oliver Norwood and Paul Dixon are just four of Simon Grayson’s notable captures.

Tony Mowbray’s Middlesbrough have ripped up the manual and started again, swooping for hometown sick note Jonathan Woodgate, highly-rated winger Mustapha Carayol and Grant Leadbitter on a shoestring budget. It’s been a quiet summer at Ipswich, meanwhile, who have bolstered their permeable backline with the additions of Scott Loach and centre back Luke Chambers.

WATER-TREADERSBurnley have been forced to cope with the loss of talismanic striker Jay Rodriguez but look to have made one of the signings of the summer in centre back Jason Shackell from Derby, who themselves have enjoyed a busy summer. The Rams have added Richard Keogh, James O’Connor and exciting winger Michael Jacobs to the ranks.

At Vicarage Road, Watford appear to have gone slightly mad. New ownership under the Pozzo family saw manager Sean Dyche chopped (harshly), making way for Gianfranco Zola. The family, who also own Udinese and Granada, have signed up several of the two clubs’ most promising young talents on loan. Adrian Mariappa’s departure to Reading was significant but Fitz Hall and Manuel Almunia (above) appear to be useful pieces of business.

Joel Ward, Peter Ramage and Aaron Wilbraham have arrived at Crystal Palace, while Sheffield Wednesday have landed last season’s loanee Michail Antonio from Reading after a hugely promising spell at Hillsborough. It’s been a busy one for Dave Jones, who has also snared Chris Kirkland, Joe Mattock and Chris Maguire alongside foreign imports Nejc Pecnik and Diogo Amado.

DROP-DODGERSBristol City have captured Tom Heaton, Paul Anderson and former Manchester City left back Greg Cunningham, while leaky Peterborough will need to get it right at the back after another generous campaign. In comes Torquay goalkeeper Bobby Olejnik, while Danny Swanson, Michael Bostwick, Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and young striker Jonson Clarke-Harris all provide new options further forward.

QPR’s Danny Shittu has blown away the cobwebs to join Millwall. Financial constraints at Charlton have forced a quiet summer on manager Chris Powell, although former Rangers man Salim Kerkar has joined, alongside Lawrie Wilson and youngster Jordan Cook.

Finally, it could be a season of struggle for relegation favourites Barnsley. The Tykes raised plenty of chuckles with the free-transfer capture 'big' Egyptian striker, Mido, who is already sidelined after rupturing a hamstring. The loss of Jacob Butterfield will be felt, although Tomasz Cywka, Toni Silva and Kelvin Etuhu have arrived.

But what do we know? This is the unpredictable melee of the Championship, where anything goes. Apparently there’s even the possibility of some football breaking out.

TITLE ODDS from FourFourTwo's betting partner, CoralBolton 11/2 Leicester 8/1 Wolves 8/1 Cardiff 10/1 Blackburn 12/1 Leeds 12/1 Nottm Forest 14/1 Blackpool 16/1 Brighton 16/1 Birmingham 18/1 Middlesbrough 22/1 Hull 25/1 Ipswich 28/1 Sheff Wed 28/1 Watford 28/1 Charlton 33/1 Burnley 40/1 Derby 40/1 Huddersfield 40/1 Millwall 50/1 Bristol City 80/1 C.Palace 80/1 Peterborough 150/1 Barnsley 200/1  Get a free £10 bet with Coral and FFT

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