Championship 2016-17: Can anyone stop Newcastle United?
Magpies tipped for glory, but watch out for Derby, Birmingham and Wigan – and who could be for the drop?
The English domestic football season officially kicks off this evening with Newcastle United's visit to Fulham - and the Friday night starts means the Championship will be underway before the Olympics even begin in Rio.
But although events in Brazil will dominate the sporting agenda for the next fortnight, the football season will still be going strong in nine months' time.
So which teams will begin the marathon season dreaming of joining the Premier League elite and whose main aim will be survival? Here are the teams to keep an eye on this term.
Aiming for glory:
The Championship may be the second tier of English football, but it is one of the most competitive in the continent and is awash with big name clubs. It boasts more European Cup winners than the French top flight and this year there will be two Champions League-winning coaches in the division.
Unsurprisingly, Rafa Benitez's Newcastle and Roberto di Matteo's Aston Villa are both tipped for an immediate return to the top flight, along with Norwich, the third team relegated last season.
Persuading Benitez to stay at St James' Park was a coup for Newcastle United and they are huge favourites for the title. "Local optimism is almost giddily high," says Louise Taylor of The Guardian. "Season-ticket sales are up on last year – 33,000 were sold very quickly earlier in the summer – and regular 52,000 sell-out crowds expected."
Having spent £40m over the summer, Benitez has "a squad better suited to this division than the one that took them down", says John Wardle of The Times, adding that for most observers, the big question this year is: "Which club are going to claim second place behind Newcastle United?"
The obvious answer to that is Aston Villa. "With new Chinese owner Dr Tony Xia in place and Roberto di Matteo installed as manager, there is an opportunity for a fresh start at Villa Park as they prepare for their first year outside the top flight since 1987-88," says Phil Cartwright of the BBC, which notes that Di Matteo took West Brom up in 2010.
Norwich City will also be confident of a top-two finish. "Alex Neil will have learned a lot last season and Norwich will get stronger. If they find a goalscorer they could easily go up automatically," says Ian Holloway of Sky Sports.
The joker in the pack could be Derby County under new manager Nigel Pearson, who is credited with laying the foundations of Leicester City's famous Premier League title last season. He already has a good squad and "there's no doubt he'll have The Rams challenging at the top end of the table", says Footy Accumulators.
Pushing for the play-offs:
Last season's hard-luck story belonged to Brighton & Hove Albion, who were denied automatic promotion on the last day of the season by Middlesbrough and then lost in the play-offs. Relegation candidates at the start of last season, they are being tipped for another top-six finish this season after Chris Hughton strengthened his squad over the summer.
Sheffield Wednesday broke Brighton's hearts in the play-offs despite finishing 15 points behind the Sussex side. This season, though, they could be challenging the top teams. "They'll have to deal with more expectation, but I can see them growing as a football club," says Sky Sports's Holloway.
He also likes the look of Cardiff City under Paul Trollope, saying: "The Bluebirds should be confident about securing a play-off place this season but the quality of teams coming down from the Premier League means automatic will be a big ask."
One thing the Championship does not lack this season is teams from the Midlands - and several of them could be pushing for top six places. "Do not discount Birmingham City," says Taylor of the Guardian. "Much improved under Gary Rowett's astute management, they are capable of ensuring that Villa do not hog quite all the local headlines. Not to mention seriously spicing up this season’s second-city derbies."
She also suggests Wolves could mount a challenge this season after their £45m takeover by Chinese development company Fosun International.
The Championship is regarded as possibly the toughest division to escape in Europe because the teams are so closely matched, as unfancied Brighton and Sheffield Wednesday proved last season.
It is also awash with sides who once dined at the top table. The likes of Leeds, Forest, QPR and, for those with long memories, Preston all hanker after a return to the big time.
They will do well to mount a promotion push, but another former top flight side may have the momentum to force their way into the reckoning. "Can Will Grigg remain on fire and achieve back-to-back promotions with League One champions Wigan Athletic?" asks the BBC.
It's not impossible, says Footy Accumulators. "Gary Caldwell’s young Wigan side have all the attributes to make a real impact on their return to the Championship."
Hoping to avoid the drop:
The main relegation candidates appear to be Burton Albion, Rotherham United and Barnsley.
"Delightful as it would be if they were to survive, Burton Albion are surely destined for a season of struggle," says Wardle of the Times. "Their rise from non-League is astonishing, but the Championship will surely prove a step too far for a team whose stadium holds fewer than 7,000 people."
He also tips the two Yorkshire clubs to struggle.
There could be a couple of big names in trouble too. Fulham have an "alarmingly weak" squad after selling Moussa Dembele and Ross McCormack (who has joined Aston Villa), says Taylor of the Guardian.
Then there is the curious case of Nottingham Forest, who have a new French manager, Philippe Montanier, with no Championship experience while the owner, Fawaz Al-Hasawi, wants to sell up. "A possible relegation dalliance cannot be discounted," warns Taylor.