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Promotion Watch: Leicester up, but who will join them?

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The final few weeks of the English Championship have arrived, and one team have already sealed promotion from England’s second-tier.

Congratulations, Leicester City.

That being said, it’s time to keep one eye on the Championship’s other promotion hopefuls and which two teams could be joining the Foxes in the Premier League next season. In case you’re not familiar with how this works, the bottom three from the PL at the end of this season get relegated to the Championship, and the two teams who finish first and second in the Champions gain automatic promotion to the world’s most-watched league.

(MORE: Latest Championship standings)

Then, as if that wasn’t enough excitement, teams who finish third through sixth in the Championship battle it out in the playoffs, with the winner of the final at Wembley securing a place in the PL in what’s been dubbed as ‘soccer’s richest match’ with the cash windfall for promotion exceeding $150 million. Wowza.

Each week from now until the end of the season, will check in on the Championship to see the ecstasy and agony of those teams fighting to make it to the big-time after a grueling 46 game season.

Some massive teams are on the brink of promotion, can they get themselves over the line?

They’re up!

Current position: 1 – Leicester City – Games played 41, points 89

The Foxes have done it! Leiecester beat Sheffield Wednesday last Friday and needed QPR to lose and Derby to not win, and both duly obliged to send Nigel Pearson’s side back to the top-flight after a 10-year absence. Solid as a rock all season, they have an exciting mix of youngsters and wily veterans and now the aim is to win the Championship title. That took a bit of a hit, as they lost 4-1 to Brighton on Tuesday. They now face playoff contenders Reading away on Easter Monday.

Automatic aspirations

Current position: 2 – Burnley – Games played 41, points 83

Injury-ravaged Burnley are almost over the line, as they have a 11-point lead over third placed Derby. Sean Dyche’s men grabbed four points from away trips to Watford and Barnsley to keep their automatic promotion charge on track. The Clarets are just a few points away from making it back to the PL. If they win against Middlesbrough on Saturday, they could be up.

Top six certainties

source: Getty Images
Will Derby be playing Chelsea in the PL next season?

Current position: 3 – Derby County – Games played 41, points 72

The Rams lost at Middlesbrough last weekend and with that went their chances of sealing automatic promotion. Probably. Steve McLaren’s side are hard to break down, and now it’s all about preparing themselves for the battle ahead in the playoffs. A great season for Derby, but will it get better? They beat Blackpool 3-1 away in midweek, can they follow that up by beating Huddersfield?

Current position: 4 – Queens Park Rangers – Games played 41, points 70

Harry Redknapp‘s men have lost two in a row to playoff chasing Bournemouth and Blackburn, as the West London club are resigned to the lottery of the playoffs. Inconsistency has plagued the R’s all season, and their recent slump has come at precisely the wrong time. If ‘Arry doesn’t seal promotion this season, it could be ‘ta, ta’ to QPR for the crafty cockney. On their day, they can give most PL teams a game with the squad they possess, but with teams below them hitting form and QPR limping over the line, it could be more heartache for the Loftus Road outfit.

Current position: 5 – Wigan Athletic – Games played 41, points 67

Wigan perhaps had one eye on their FA Cup semifinal against Arsenal this weekend, as they lost 1-0 to Millwall in midweek. Playoff qualification is all but secure, nut can Uwe Rosler’s men reach the FA Cup final for the second-straight season and defend their title? That would be a bonus, albeit a huge one, as Wigan are focused solely on winning the playoffs. They are bag in-form but not in league action this weekend.

Play Off pretenders

Current position: 6 – Reading – Games played 41, points 63

The Royals won 1-0 away at Charlton last Saturday, as U.S. midfielder Danny Williams got on the scoresheet. But they failed to build on that away at Bournemouth, as the Cherries made it five wins in a row by dispatching of Nigel Adkins’ Royals. They are now just two points ahead of the chasing pack outside the playoffs with five games to go. Squeaky bum time.

source: Getty Images
Sun, Seagulls and top-flight soccer at the Amex next season?

Current position: 7 -Brighton – Games played 41, points 61

Oscar Garcia’s side got a morale boosting win against Leicester City in midweek, as the Seagulls won for the first time in six. They face relegation haunted Charlton at home this weekend, and could enter the playoff spots with a win. A good end to the season could see the campaign extended at the Amex.

Current position: 8 – Ipswich – Games played 41, points 61

The Tractor Boys keep chugging along, as the Suffolk side beat Huddersfield 2-0 in midweek. Only one defeat in five for Mick McCarthy’s side and they host Doncaster at the weekend. They are right in this.

Current position: 9– Bournemouth – Games played 41, points 61

What is going on down in the seaside resort of Bournemouth? Five wins on the spin for Eddie Howe’s men has them flirting with the playoffs, as the Championship’s form team have beaten QPR and Reading in their last two games. Even if they don’t make the top six, incredible season from the newly promoted side.

Courtois: Chelsea can still win title without Costa

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 26:  Thibaut Courtois of Chelsea celebrates his team's second goal during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge on November 26, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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A week from now, Diego Costa may still be a Chelsea player; he may also very well be off to the Chinese Super League by then.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

The beauty insanity of the transfer market — and a volatile figure like Costa, in particular — is that no one knows which path he’ll take. After being made to train on his own on Monday, the best anyone can tell you is, “It’s 50-50.”

There aren’t many sides in the world that could stand to lose the league’s top goal-scorer (14 goals in 19 appearances this season; Chelsea have played 21 games) and still win the league title, but Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois believes that the current Blues squad is one that could hold onto its seven-point lead with 17 games remaining — quotes from FourFourTwo:

“Of course we have enough quality to replace Diego. Diego is important for us, but if he’s not there for one game, we know we can handle it as well.

“Was this a message to our rivals? Yes, just to see Chelsea won 3-0 and that loss at Spurs didn’t affect us and we can play without Diego if need be. I think everybody hoped for us to drop points and we didn’t so that was very good.”

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

Eden Hazard has chipped in with nine goals of his own this season — his performances have been bordering on brilliance at points — while Pedro and Willian each have five league goals to their name. 19 goals from three secondary-type scorers is what champions are made of, until you consider the only other true striker currently in the squad, 23-year-old Premier League newcomer Michy Batshuayi, has 1) made just 13 PL appearances (all as a substitute); 2) scored just once, all the way back in August.

Louis van Gone: Ex-Man United, Barca boss LvG retires from coaching

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 21:  Louis van Gaal Manager of Manchester United celebrates after winning The Emirates FA Cup Final match between Manchester United and Crystal Palace at Wembley Stadium on May 21, 2016 in London, England. Man Utd won 2-1 after extra time.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images
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It wasn’t supposed to end like this for Louis Van Gaal.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

In his mind, he probably imagine himself manager Manchester United for the duration of his three-year contract before riding off into the sunset after restoring the Red Devils as Premier League champions four months from now. At the very least, he’d agree to stay on one more season to complete a bit of unfinished business after narrowly missing out on the title in his third season in charge at Old Trafford.

Instead, he was fired last May, two days after lifting the FA Cup at Wembley Stadium, and has been out of a job ever since. Van Gaal’s unemployment will now continue for the rest of his days, as the 65-year-old announced on Monday that he has retired from coaching after 26 years at Ajax, Barcelona (twice), AZ Alkmaar, Netherlands (twice), Bayern Munich and Manchester United — quote from the BBC:

“I thought maybe I would stop, then I thought it would be a sabbatical, but now I do not think I will return to coaching.”

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

After the stress put upon his shoulders while at Man United, the last eight months must have felt like heaven to Van Gaal. Why on earth would anyone ever go back?

AFCON: DR Congo go top of Group C with win; Ivory Coast, Togo draw

Congo's Lomalisa Mutambala, right, with Morocco's Faycal Fajr, left, during their African Cup of Nations Group C soccer match between Congo and Morocco at the Stade de Oyem in Oyem, Gabon, Monday Jan. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
AP Photo/Sunday Alamba
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A roundup of all of Monday’s action in the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations…

Ivory Coast 0-0 Togo

OYEM, Gabon (AP) Ivory Coast’s Europe-based stars stumbled in the heat of northern Gabon in their African Cup of Nations opener, with the defending champion held by Togo to 0-0 on Monday in another twist to start the tournament.

Ivory Coast’s title-winning coach fared worse as Congo beat Herve Renard’s Morocco 1-0 in the day’s second game.

Congo, a team that was on strike and refusing to train two days ago, finished with nine men on the field and on top of Group D.

Ivory Coast created few clear chances against Togo, with Wilfried Zaha‘s blocked shot in the second half after a clever run probably its best. Zaha was substituted two minutes later and, although Ivory Coast pressed hard in stages, it never broke open Togo’s well-drilled defense in the first game in Group C in the northern jungle town of Oyem.

Togo was competitive in the first half and had two good openings with around 10 minutes to go, when Kodjo Laba missed with a header from in front of goal and Mathieu Dossevi’s deflected shot dropped onto the roof of the net.

Four of the first six games at the African Cup have been draws, with Ivory Coast’s fellow title challenger, Algeria, held to 2-2 by Zimbabwe, a team that hasn’t qualified for the African Cup in over a decade. Also, host Gabon couldn’t beat outsider and tournament debutant Guinea-Bissau in the opening game.

“After Algeria-Zimbabwe and Gabon-Guinea-Bissau, we were very careful,” Ivory Coast coach Michel Dussuyer said. “But we still have two (group) matches so we are still confident.”

Togo even started better, and Dossevi was clear on goal in the 29th minute only for Ivorian goalkeeper Sylvain Gbohouo to smother the chance.

Zaha was at the heart of Ivory Coast’s two best attacks, first in the first half when he sped down the right wing and sent across a dangerous low cross that was scrambled away. Then, in the 68th minute, he tricked his marker with a clever turn, cut inside, and hit a low shot that was headed to goal before two Togo defenders managed to get in the way.

Senegal and Congo are the only teams to win at the tournament.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

DR Congo 1-0 Morocco

Junior Kabananga got the winner for Congo in the 55th minute after a mistake from Morocco `keeper Monir el-Kajoui. Congo’s Lomalisa Mutambala was sent off for a wild tackle in the 81st and played the last six minutes of normal time plus six minutes of injury time with nine men when captain Gabriel Zakuani went off injured with all their substitutes used up.

Still, victory was a major mood-changer for Congo, whose players refused to train on Friday and Saturday, claiming they hadn’t been paid tournament bonuses. They also posted a video on social media during their strike, where they complained about their treatment.

On Monday, Morocco was the one frustrated: Midfielder M’Bark Boussoufa hit the crossbar in the second minute. Goalkeeper El-Kajoui tried to block a cross with his feet and managed only to divert the ball to Kabananga to score the winning goal. Then, substitutes Youssef En Nesyri and Youssef el-Arabi missed late chances.

Although Ivory Coast and later Renard failed their first tests at the tournament, the Stade d’Oyem held up despite a desperate race to be ready in time, which saw workers scrambling around the venue finishing all sorts of jobs on the day of the game. Television viewers won’t have seen the construction debris that surrounds the outside of the stadium, which juts out of dense jungle canopy around 15 kilometers outside of Oyem.

Even organizers couldn’t do anything about the heat during the opening match, though, with Togo coach Claude le Roy’s shirt covered in dark sweat patches after urging his team on to a promising draw against the defending champion Ivorians.

“It was very hot. We were sweating so much,” Le Roy said. “We did what it takes. We are satisfied with the draw.”

Tuesday’s AFCON schedule

Ghana vs. Uganda — 11 a.m. ET
Mali vs. Egypt — 2 p.m. ET

Report: RBNY send McCarty to Chicago for hefty allocation fee

New York Red Bulls midfielder Dax McCarty reacts towards the fans after an MLS playoff soccer match against the D.C. United, at RFK Stadium, Sunday, Nov. 1, 2015, in Washington. McCarty scored the only goal and New York won 1-0. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
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UPDATE: The Fire and Red Bulls have officially announced the trade. The deal will send $200,000 of allocation money to RBNY in 2017, and $200,000 again in 2018.

Don’t look now, but the Chicago Fire are building something noteworthy in Bridgeview.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Three weeks after signing three-time MLS Cup-winning (LA Galaxy) midfielder Juninho to anchor the midfield in Veljko Paunovic’s second season in charge, the Fire sent a hefty chunk of general allocation money to the New York Red Bulls in exchange for do-everything stalwart Dax McCarty, who’ll partner the Brazilian in comprising one of MLS’s toughest midfield duos.

According to a report on FourFourTwo.com, the Fire will send $400,000 of general allocation money to the Red Bulls, which represents the largest sum of MLS dollars to change hands since the league began announcing figures during the 2017 SuperDraft on Friday (New York City FC traded $250,000 to the Fire in exchange for the no. 3 overall pick, which helped fund the acquisition of McCarty). In total, McCarty made 169 regular-season appearances for the Red Bulls, serving the last two seasons as club captain, and helping the red half of New York to the only two major trophies in club history, the 2013 and 2015 Supporters’ Shields. The 29-year-old (he’ll turn 30 in April) is currently participating in January camp with the U.S. national team.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

The Fire also signed 28-year-old Hungarian striker Nemanja Nikolic to a Designated Player contract last month. Nikolic has nearly 200 goals to his name in 326 career games played.

With seven weeks still to go before First Kick 2017, the Fire’s opening-day starting lineup is shaping up to look something like this…

Nikolic

Accam — De Leeuw — ???

Juninho — McCarty

Vincent — Meira — Campbell — ???

Bava

The Fire might be good this year.