Championship betting preview: Who will challenge Boro and Villa?
Middlesbrough and Aston Villa are favourites to go up, but there are plenty of other teams to watch this season
Domestic football returns this weekend when two Championship fixtures get the season underway on Friday night.
On the same day as England's cricketers take on South Africa in the fourth Test match of the summer, Nottingham Forest will take on Millwall and Sunderland will face Derby County.
The early start is designed to give players enough time to recover before the World Cup finals next summer. But at the moment the main concern for players and fans in the Championship is the race for the Premier League.
So, which teams will be in the reckoning come the end of the season?
Pushing for the Premier League
For the second season running the clear favourite for the title is a newly-relegated team from the North East. Last season it was Newcastle, this time round it's Middlesbrough, who will be hoping to emulate the Magpies and secure an immediate return to the promised land after spending £30m this summer.
Boro are 3-1 for automatic promotion and the signs are promising. "They have a sensible new manager in Garry Monk and have bought with careful extravagance, oxymoronic though that might sound," says Rod Liddle of the Sunday Times.
Their purchases include the Championship's "most coveted forward", Britt Assombalonga, signed for £15m from Nottingham Forest, "and probably the best midfielder", and Jonny Howson a £6m arrival from Norwich.
"Boro have addressed key areas after being relegated from the Premier League," says Ben Fisher of The Guardian. They have "a squad that will surely challenge for automatic promotion".
So who can challenge them? "Only Aston Villa have a squad to rival Boro," says Fisher. "After failing to meet expectations last term, Steve Bruce has parachuted in 131 years' worth of experience in the form of John Terry, Chris Samba, Glenn Whelan and Ahmed Elmohamady."
Terry's arrival is a huge boost, but Villa's problems could lie at the front not back.
"If Aston Villa want to challenge for promotion, Jonathan Kodjia will need to put in another strong season," says Sky Sports. "Kodjia scored 19 goals last season, but he received some criticism for a perceived selfish streak and an inability to link with his team-mates."
He will also miss the opening weeks of the campaign, which could leave Villa playing catch-up. But they are still 3-1 for automatic promotion.
Fulham are 9-2 to finish in the top two and 11-4 to be promoted. But they need to find some firepower.
"Slavisa Jokanovic's side scored in 40 of their 46 league games last season, the most of any team, but if they're to challenge for the automatic spots they might need a clinical finisher to make a difference when things are tight," says Sky.
They have the tools to go up, says Fisher of the Guardian, "but must keep their manager, Slavisa Jokanovic, who has made worrying noises over the transfer policy, saying his list of summer targets has been ignored".
Sheffield Wednesday, who have qualified for the play-offs for the past two seasons, and Norwich are also tipped for a promotion push. They are both available at 10-3 to go up.
So too are Wolves. They are "in their best position to gain promotion to the Premier League since their relegation in the 2011/12 season," says The Independent. "Nuno Espirito Santo is in charge of Wolves and has acquired a host of new talent, including former Porto player Ruben Neves, as the club eyes a return to the top flight."
Liddle of the Sunday Times will be among those following their progress. "It will be interesting to see how this experiment in Iberian flair works out in a league which normally values pragmatics and grit," he says.
Another team that have pushed for promotion without success in recent seasons are Derby – 9-2 to go up this season.
On the face of it Derby "are weaker than last time around with Will Hughes among those to have left", says the Guardian. "Integral to any success will be managerial stability and in Gary Rowett they have a young coach with a superb reputation for working with what is at his disposal. He has ample attacking options – with Chris Martin available – and new signings Curtis Davies and Tom Huddlestone will improve the spine of his side."
It's a hoary old cliche that the Championship is the hardest league to get out of in Europe. But that pressure may at least explain why, according to Ian Whittell of The Times, "the longevity of Championship-level managers is down there with First World War fighter pilots".
Mick McCarthy of Ipswich is the longest serving manager in the Championship and will celebrate his fifth anniversary at Portman Road if he survives until November.
"He is also one of just eight from last season's competition beginning this campaign with more than 12 months' service at his club," says Whittell.
"Among the 18 clubs who finished below the top six last season, there were 15 managerial departures during the season, and four clubs – Derby County, Birmingham City, Wigan and Rotherham – were each responsible for two," he adds.
Aside from Nuno Espirito Santo at Wolves, the most intriguing managerial appointment of the summer must be former Russia boss Leon Slutsky at Hull.
While Sunderland may benefit from Simon Grayson's experience, it remains to be seen what sort of influence Slutsky has on his side. He has used his friendship with Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich to good effect, but there could be trouble ahead, says Sky Sports.
"They have landed the season-long loan signings of Ola Aina and Michael Hector from the Blues among other arrivals but there will be concern over an exodus of players, many of whom helped the Tigers to promotion in the 2015/16 season." Their odds of 5-1 to go up could prove to be on the short side.
Managerial influence may also make it worth watching the fortunes of Preston (20-1), who have Alex Neil, who was tipped for the top when he won promotion with Norwich, at the helm.
Harry Redknapp at Birmingham will be hard to ignore and their odds are just 7-1. If you are after an outsider, former Rangers boss Mark Warburton could surprise a few people at Nottingham Forest, who are finally free of the chaotic ownership of Fawaz al-Hasawi and available at 12-1.