Burnley v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship

Promotion Watch: Burnley on the cusp of Premier League return

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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.

Leicester City are already up, but they’ve yet to seal the Championship title as Burnley push them all the way. The Clarets haven’t yet sealed their automatic spot, but they’re ever so close to returning to the big-time.

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 42, points 90

The Foxes are in the Premier League, so they are allowed to party, right? It seems like Nigel Pearson’s men have been doing a little too much of it though. A heavy defeat to Brighton and a draw with Reading means they haven’t sealed the title, yet.

Almost automatic

Current position: 2 – Burnley – Games played 42, points 83

One more win could do it for the Clarets, as Sean Dyche’s men travel to Blackpool this weekend. If they win and Derby County don’t, the Champagne corker will be popping all the way back to Turf Moor.

Top six certainties

Current position: 3 – Derby County – Games played 42, points 75

Derby pummeled Huddersfield to stay in the hunt for automatic promotion, but it seems as though the Rams will have to settle for the playoffs. A tough trip to Doncaster awaits this weekend, will Steve McLaren’s men keep the fight going for another week?

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Will Redknapp’s men hold their nerve and clinch a playoff spot?

Current position: 4 – Queens Park Rangers – Games played 42, points 73

Rangers are finishing the season strongly, despite the obvious disappointment of missing out on the top two. Harry Redknapp’s side smashed five past Nottingham Forest last Saturday. If they beat Leicester away this weekend, and other teams below them slip up, the R’s will seal a place in the top six.

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

Wigan’s brave fight in their FA Cup semifinal defeat to Arsenal showed what a great team they are. Now they have to pick themselves up and go again in the league to seal a playoff spot. The chasing pack are gathering behind them, just one slip up from Uwe Rosler’s side could hurt them. They play Reading on Friday as whoever wins will give themselves a lot of breathing space.

Play Off pretenders

Current position: 6 – Reading – Games played 42, points 64

Reading are hanging on in there and pulled out a great draw against already-promoted Leicester on Monday. They now face a showdown with Wigan, as Nigel Adkins remains positive but his team are without a win at home in seven.

Current position: 7 -Brighton – Games played 42, points 64

Two wins in a row for Brighton, who are now edging closer to the top six. They are level on points with Reading and if they beat Huddersfield this weekend they will make up serious ground on Wigan and Reading ahead of them.

Current position: 8 – Ipswich – Games played 42, points 64

Mick McCarthy’s team are grinding out wins as they beat Doncaster and have won two on the bounce to put themselves level with Reading and Brighton. A trip to Vicarage Road to play Watford awaits on Saturday.

Current position: 9– Bournemouth – Games played 42, points 62

The Cherries slipped up a little away at relegation threatened Yeovil, but their sensational win-streak had to come to an end at some point. Eddie Howe’s team are playing superb stuff, and they should beat Sheffield Wednesday this Friday. They could be in the top six with three games to go.

Premier League Preview: Stoke City vs. Manchester United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 02:  Paul Pogba of Manchester United (L) shoots while Erik Pieters of Stoke City (R) attempts to block the shot during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Stoke City at Old Trafford on October 2, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
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  • Man Utd leads all-time 43W-34D-28L
  • Clubs even in last six (2-2-2)
  • Red Devils unbeaten in 16
  • Stoke winners of two-straight

After wins over Sunderland and Watford, Stoke City gets a higher class of opponent on Saturday at the Britannia Stadium (Watch live at 10 a.m. EDT on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Fortunately for Stoke, it’s had some success against Manchester United in recent years.

Stoke and United drew 1-1 at Old Trafford on Oct. 2, though Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils are flying now. United is hard to break down, and arguably deserved better than the 1-1 draw it earned versus Liverpool last weekend.

Stoke is now 11 points clear of the drop zone, and a win could raise its status to closer to the Top Five than Bottom Three. United, meanwhile, wants three points that would move it to precipice of the Top Four.

 

What they’re saying

Stoke City’s Glenn Whelan on facing United“There has been a wind of change there and the supporters seem a lot happier now and you get the sense that they are together as a group now. You only have to look at the players within the squad, and even the ones who are leaving, to see how much strength in depth they have there.”

Jose Mourinho praises newly-extended Antonio Valencia“I don’t think it is a reward, I don’t see it in this perspective. I just think he is the best right-back you can have. There is no better right-back in football. It is just for us to keep the best. I don’t think it is a reward. It is a privilege for us to have such a good player and such a good man.”

Prediction

United gets it done, only barely. Stoke will put up a brave battle for boss Mark Hughes, but there are too many weapons to suppress. United, 1-0.

AFCON wrap: Results keep Group C undecided

Ivory Coast's Wilfried Bony controls the ball on his head during their training session at the Stade Akoakam, Oyem, Gabon, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, ahead of their African Cup of Nations Group C soccer match against Congo. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
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Like Group A, Group C in the Africa Cup of Nations has very little decided ahead of the final group stage match.

[ MORE: Guardiola “said goodbye to title” ]

Ivory Coast 2-2 DR Congo

A thrilling first half had DR Congo leading 1-0 and 2-1, with only Wilfried Bony netting for the Ivory Coast. Les Elephants grabbed a draw through Serey Die’s 67th minute goal.

DR Congo now leads the group and is primed to advance with a result against Togo or a Morocco loss or draw against Ivory Coast.

Morocco 3-1 Togo

Mathieu Dossevi gave Togo a surprise fifth minute lead lead, but Aziz Bouhaddouz kickstarted the Moroccan attack to plug the victors into Group C’s second spot ahead of a Jan. 24 showdown with Ivory Coast.

Saturday’s matches

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

Premier League Preview: Liverpool vs. Swansea City

SWANSEA, WALES - MAY 01:  Jefferson Montero of Swansea City is challenged by Nathaniel Clyne of Liverpool during the Barclays Premier League match between Swansea City and Liverpool at The Liberty Stadium on May 1, 2016 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images)
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  • Liverpool leads all-time 22W-8D-10L
  • Swans lost five-straight at Anfield
  • Reds unbeaten in 7 PL matches

One of the Premier League’s top attacks hosts the division’s leakiest defense, as Liverpool may be licking its chops ahead of a visit from struggling Swansea City on Saturday (Watch live at 7:30 a.m. EDT on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Liverpool has drawn at Sunderland and Manchester United in its last two Premier League outings, and sits seven points back of leaders Chelsea.

Swansea City has allowed multiple goals in five of six PL matches since beating Sunderland 3-0 on Dec. 10. It’s no surprise that they’ve lost those five (the sixth being a 2-1 win at struggling Crystal Palace).

What they’re saying

Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp on the match“We’re really looking forward to this game. I don’t know when it happened but in England every game now is like a final. Swansea are trying to survive. I don’t know when the title run-in will start, maybe now and we’re in the race. I hope for a special atmosphere tomorrow.”

Swansea City back Federico Fernandez on Liverpool“They are a team that is very strong going forward and that is shown by the number of goals they have scored. If you lose a little bit of focus against these teams then they have the players that will punish you every time. But it’s not only defending strongly when they are attacking, it is also how we keep hold of the ball and how we use it when in possession.”

Prediction

Swansea boss Paul Clement has his hands full, and is grabbing reinforcements in the transfer window (Luciano Narsingh, Martin Olsson, Tom Carroll). That won’t be enough to handle what Liverpool will dish out Saturday, as the Reds break free with a 3-0 win.

Saints’ Fonte moves to West Ham for $10 million

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West Ham has been linked with big name strikers since the summer, but the Irons’ big January transfer to date is a center back.

EURO champion and Southampton mainstay Jose Fonte is moving to London.

[ MORE: West Brom finally sells Berahino ]

Fonte, 33, makes an approximately $10 million move from the South Coast, where the Portuguese back will better Slaven Bilic‘s back line while forcing Southampton to find an answer alongside Virgil Van Dijk.

It’s been a strange trip to London for Fonte and Southampton, detailed by our own Joe Prince-Wright here. Fonte joined Saints during the 2009-10 season, and became a cult hero at St. Mary’s in helping the club move from League One to the Europa League in just over a half-decade.

Something won’t feel right about seeing Fonte in claret and blue, and Saints host West Ham on Feb. 4. Should be quite interesting.