Gary Rowett's Rams best-equipped to chase Wolves
Progressive manager Gary Rowett has done a fine job wherever he has been and he can lead Derby to the Premier League over the next five months.
Wolves hold a four-point lead at the top of the Sky Bet Championship and look solid 1-5 favourites to be crowned champions but there is likely to be a major battle for the other automatic promotion slot which could be contested by Cardiff, Bristol City, Derby and Aston Villa.
At the start of the season it looked like being a wide-open title race.
Villa were ante-post favourites at 7-1 and seven teams were 14-1 or shorter, including 13-1 shots Wolves.
The lack of confidence in Wolves was partly down to their poor showing last season when they finished 15th despite investing heavily in their squad.
However, they added further quality in the summer and manager Nuno Espirito Santo has excelled in his first season in English football.
Wolves are on course to amass more than 100 points and the frightening thing is they are likely to get better.
Classy midfielder Ruben Neves and winger Jota – on a season-long loan from Atletico Madrid – would get into the majority of Premier League teams.
Those two and 12-goal top scorer Leo Bonatini have been consistent from the start of the campaign, but there is more to come from powerhouse attacker Ivan Cavaleiro, who has only just built up the match fitness to last a full 90 minutes.
There will also be increasing opportunities for winger Helder Costa, who overcame injury problems before being frustrated in his attempts to reclaim a starting berth.
Wolves have more quality and strength-in-depth than any team in the division and Cardiff have done well to be only four points back.
The Welsh side have had a lot of injuries and are looking forward to the imminent return of key forward Kenneth Zohore, who has not played since October.
With experienced manager Neil Warnock driving them on, they should stay in top-two contention but their high-intensity style of play is physically demanding and they don't look great value at odds-on to go up.
The job of the chasing pack is to apply as much pressure on Cardiff as possible and fourth-placed Derby may be the team best equipped to do that.
The Rams made a slow start to the season, winning just three of their first ten games, and they went into October in 15th place.
But they have won nine of their last 12 matches and have sufficient quality and depth in the squad to keep churning out results.
Matej Vydra leads Derby's scoring charts with 12 and is clearly loving the number ten role identified for him by Rowett.
But there are other attacking threats. Centre-forwards Dave Nugent and Chris Martin are proven in the second tier and there is a lot more to come from Tom Lawrence, who has had a injury-hit opening half of the campaign.
Defensively, Derby are well-organised and their players are looking increasingly comfortable with the counter-attacking style of football favoured by the manager.
Supporters who became accustomed to the attacking, passing football played under former Derby manager Steve McClaren have not always been convinced, but now they are warming to the new regime's approach, which can help Derby return to the top flight for the first time since 2008.
Bristol City and Villa look the other main contenders for automatic promotion.
Steady progress is being made by City, who have a wealthy owner in Stephen Lansdown and a bright young manager in Lee Johnson.
They have a great chance of staying in the top six but making the top two will be tough unless key striker Famara Diedhou can get over his injury problems.
Villa are desperate to get up this term but they are ten points behind Cardiff and have a major problem to solve up front with Jonathan Kodjia out long-term.
They are reportedly close to the Financial Fair Play spending limits and will need to be creative in January to give themselves a chance.
Derby to be promoted
2pts 5-2 bet365, Coral, Ladbrokes
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