Who will win the Championship battle?

THIS is the time of the year when all football clubs see their glass half full, and their fans surround themselves in a glow of positive optimism.

Elvin King

THIS is the time of the year when all football clubs see their glass half full, and their fans surround themselves in a glow of positive optimism.

But success is limited to a precious few - and there is no more lucrative prize in football than winning promotion to the Premier League. ELVIN KING gives his views on this season's Coca-Cola Championship.

THE battle to finish in the top three of the Coca-Cola Championship will again be a long and arduous one with every point - every goal even - keenly fought for.

After missing out on the play-offs by just one point last season, how highly should Ipswich Town's chances be rated this time around?

Will this be a tougher league to climb out of than the one that saw a fancied West Brom and totally unfancied Stoke and Hull move on to claim the riches of the Premier League that will produce for them a minimum of £60million?

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Much will depend on how much Blues boss Jim Magilton has improved his squad from last season.

At the time of writing the Blues boss had signed up four new players - and dispensed with six who were available to him in 2007/08.

Of the players who have departed ex-skipper Jason De Vos will be the biggest loss. Not just because of his solid and reliable defensive duties, but also because of his leadership qualities.

Fabian Wilnis gave Ipswich magnificent service over ten seasons, but coming up to 38 his best was behind him, while Sylvain Legwinski had also reached the end of his shelf life.

Sito Castro, to be honest, defended as well as anybody after his surprise recall to the team last winter. But Magilton did not think he was worth keeping and the Spaniard has rather reluctantly returned to his home country to continue his career.

Gavin Williams, rated by former Town boss Joe Royle as the best midfielder in the Championship, was unable to show his best in an injury-ravaged last two years, while Gary Roberts' early promise after his surprise signing from Accrington did not materialise into any long-term consistency.

Roberts lost his confidence and any winger who cannot go round his marker has his main weapon blunted.

Will the introduction of Gareth McAuley, Richard Wright, Kevin Lisbie and Pim Balkestein for the above six make the Blues stronger?

Time will tell, and the gut feeling is that it will. But there are a number of hurdles to cross first.

Can McAuley fill the boots of De Vos both as a player and possible captain? It will be quite a big ask comparing a seasoned international with bags of experience with a Northern Ireland international who was with a relegated side last season.

Magilton has faith in McAuley - targeting the defender with the same fervour he did David Norris before signing the midfielder from Plymouth in January.

Wright can prove the trump card. If he recaptures the form that impressed one and all at Portman Road - including Magilton - during his first stint with the Blues, the keeper will form a considerable barrier between the sticks.

An Ipswich lad there is much to suggest he will perform well in his own back yard - and if so Town will surely concede fewer goals than in recent years.

But if Wright is unable to overcome the doubts that he has shown during his rather barren years with Arsenal, Everton and West Ham then Town will be no better served than they were with the reliable Neil Alexander this time last year.

Kevin Lisbie had an exceptional season with Colchester United last term and his confidence will be high and his appetite enhanced.

Scoring more goals away from home is paramount to any success that might come Town's way - and Lisbie has the pedigree to do this.

Cynics will say that Lisbie's goal output was regularly in single figures before he joined Colchester, and that he is injury prone.

But he looks a smart signing, which brings us to young Dutch defender Balkestein. Having impressed in a trial at the end of last season, Balkestein will do well to make a quick jump from a fringe player in Holland to the Championship.

Magilton is convinced that he will, and along with home-grown Tommy Smith, Balkestein will hopefully reach a level that sees him pushing the more experienced defenders all the way.

What could turn Town from an above average side into a serious contender for an automatic promotion place is the gelling in of players signed during last winter's transfer window.

Norris, Alan Quinn and Veliche Shumulikoski will benefit from an extra six months at the Playford Road training ground, while youngsters like Owen Garvan, Danny Haynes, Jaime Peters and Jordan Rhodes will be expected to push on and up their game even further.

The key to it all however could be Magilton's ability to make his side harder to beat away from home. It was their dismal showing away from Portman Road that was Town's downfall last term.

When Marcus Evans took over Town and £12million was placed into the manager's kitty (since added to) it would be fair to say that most Ipswich fans were expecting more high profile signings than the manager has made.

But he has now got a younger squad - and apart from Garvan and Alan Lee basically his own choice of players.

Whether he can mould into a winning unit will be the key.

A retention of the wonderful home form, more steel and goals away and a play-off place is certainly obtainable.

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WHO will be the Coca-Cola Championship front runners in 2008/09?

Which teams are likely to give Ipswich Town the toughest opposition in their quest for promotion?

The three teams who come down are obviously a danger as they come equipped with the Premier League £millions in the form of parachute payments.

But Derby County, who will surely take a while to recover from the bruising their ego took last season, can surely be discarded.

Birmingham certainly can't, and it could well depend on what sort of start Reading get whether the Berkshire side will make a serious assault on an immediate return to the top flight.

A shaky opening few weeks and Royals boss Steve Coppell may lose heart - and this would only spell bad news for Reading.

A good start and Coppell could rekindle the sparkle he found in 2005/06 and 2006/07.

Sheffield United would have reached the play-offs last season if Kevin Blackwell had taken over from Bryan Robson a couple of weeks earlier.

They will be a threat, and so will Crystal Palace with Neil Warnock knowing his way into the top flight.

Queens Park Rangers have money to spend aplenty and this will give them extra hope, while Watford, Wolves and possible Charlton will be there or thereabouts again.

There will be at least one surprise packet - possible Burnley - but Ipswich look well equipped to fight it out for honours among this favoured bunch.

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