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Championship playoff matchups are set

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With the final day of the Championship regular season complete, all eyes are now on the playoff as four teams vie for the final spot in next season’s Premier League action.

Brighton Hove & Albion and Newcastle are both in automatically, and now we look for a third team to join them. The teams to participate were all but set before the day, but the playoff positions were clogged, so determining the matchups was down to the results on the final day.

Reading took down Burton Albion 4-2 on the final day, leaving them in third position. They will take on Fulham, who finished 6th after one of the best second halves of any team in the Championship. The Whites were in 10th in early January, but stormed through the Championship with 11 wins and five draws over their final 20 matches, keeping pace with Newcastle at the top.

Sheffield Wednesday fell to Fulham at Hillsborough on the final day, but it doesn’t affect their matchup as they take on Huddersfield Town, who also lost at home. Wednesday also had a fantastic second half of the season, playing 1-2 with Fulham at the top of the form table the entire way.

Here’s a closer look at each of the four teams in the playoff:

READING

Reading’s Yann Kermorgant celebrates with Tyler Blackett (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images).

One of the most baffling table positions of the entire season, Reading is considered by many to be the weakest team in the playoff despite finishing third. Their +4 goal differential gives a peek into how confusing it is to see them finish so high, but a closer inspection produces even more head-scratching. They conceded 62 goals this league season, far more than anyone else in the top 7, and at times look like a bottom-half team before peeking at the scoreboard and realizing they’ve won again. A perfect microcosm of this is their final-day result, a wild 4-2 win over struggling Burton Albion, a game which they were out-possessed and out-shot.

So where did they win their points? A scrappy team, Reading ground out 18 wins in one-goal games, while only losing five and drawing seven. They play their attack through French striker Yann Kermorgant, who has 17 goals on the season for sixth-highest in the Championship this year. They can also get goals from Jamacian international Garath McCleary on the wing or Chelsea youth product John Swift. Their weekly starting 11 features Premier League experience in goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi, and their squad features USMNT midfielder Danny Williams. Another recognizable name is former Manchester United central defender Tyler Blackett.

Reading was last in the Premier League for one season in 2012/13, seeing their way up after winning the league before immediately dropping back down. They also reached the semifinals of the 2014/15 FA Cup as a Championship side, losing to Arsenal.

SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY

With Fulham receiving the bulk of the attention for their attractive style of play, Sheffield Wednesday fans felt slightly aggrieved as their side has been just as good in 2017, topping the form table over the final few weeks with six straight wins until defeat on the final day. They are the opposite of Reading in every way, a defensively stout club that can still move forward and put on a show. This team is a serious contender for promotion, and can shut down teams on their best day.

Their leading scorer for the second straight year is former Watford striker Fernando Forestieri. The Argentinian never saw the Premier League with the Hornets after they were promoted, but he moved to Hillsborough and bagged 12 goals for the Owls this campaign after hitting 15 last season. They have a pair of former Sunderland players with Premier League experience in goalkeeper Kieran Westwood and striker Steven Fletcher, with the latter bagging four goals amid the late-season winning streak. January signing Jordan Rhodes has been a relative disappointment, coming over from Middlesbrough and only bagging three goals in 17 appearances. Captain Glen Loovens is an experienced central defender who spent four seasons at Celtic plus a year in Spain before coming to Wednesday four years ago.

Sheffield Wednesday was a founding member of the Premier League in 1992 and has spent much of its history in the top flight, but they have not been there since relegation in 2000, and have even fallen into League One twice since then amid financial trouble.

HUDDERSFIELD TOWN

Huddersfield celebrates a goal by Manchester City loanee Aaron Mooy (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images).

Another team with an ugly goal differential that somehow ended up in the playoffs, Huddersfield Town is a club that has not seen top flight action since relegation in 1972. The Terriers have come a long way since their 19th place finish last season, thanks in large part to manager David Wagner, a former United States international who has impressed as the first non-British manager in the club’s history.

Like Reading, at times this season Huddersfield has looked completely off the pace, and they’ll be happy not to have drawn Fulham in the semifinals, who beat them a combined 9-1 in their pair of regular season meetings. However, again like Reading, an ability to grind out wins and avoid disappointing draws, they collected their points throughout the year. They had a fabulous turn of the calendar year, with a 14-match run between December and February that featured 12 wins and a draw, but they enter the playoffs having come back down to earth. Their -2 goal differential speaks for itself, as the next team down the table with a negative goal differential is Aston Villa who finished 12th. Huddersfield finished the season with three straight losses and just one goal in those games, a bad omen for the postseason.

Leading scorer Elias Kachunga spent his entire career in Germany before moving to Huddersfield last summer, but the 25-year-old has struggled with calf problems of late, and his playoff status is unclear after missing the last four games. Fellow striker Nahki Wells has seen his goals dry up, with just one score in his last 13 appearances.

FULHAM

The Whites have gathered the most publicity between these four teams throughout the last few months, and are considered by many as the favorites to win at Wembley. Manager Slavisa Jokanovic has the team playing free-flowing, possession-heavy football that looks absolutely gorgeous. Their Achilles heel this season has been finishing, a big reason why they are only sixth in the table. They also have been awful from the penalty spot, dropping a healthy amount of points on the year thanks to missed penalties that would otherwise have earned a higher league position. The defense is leaky, but U.S. international Tim Ream has improved greatly as the season has progressed alongside Chelsea loanee Tomas Kalas.

Fulham is a completely overhauled squad over the past few years, completely unrecognizable from the team that was relegated from the Premier League in 2014 or even the one that battled relegation to League One last year. American owner Shad Khan has given his son Tony a large say in transfer dealings, and it paid off in a huge way this past summer. At its best, Fulham is fabulous to watch. Tom Cairney pulls the strings in the attacking midfield, and there is no focal point up front, with anyone from Sone Aluko, Neeskens Kebano, Floyd Ayite, Chris Martin, or Lucas Piazon can deliver a stunning finishing touch. In fact, they played a number of games without a true striker while Martin was either suspended or tapped up by his parent club Derby County. Their leading scorer is somehow midfielder Stefan Johanson, who has partnered with Kevin McDonald to produce one of the best central midfield partnerships in the Championship. 16-year-old Ryan Sessegnon has an attacking flair that has reportedly caught the attention top Premier League clubs.

What has baffled Fulham this season are sides that bunker in and defend. They have often performed better against the top sides in the Championship, as shown by their pair of wins over Newcastle. However, against teams that close down the lanes and put defense first, the Whites at times have looked lost. Their matchup with Reading is fascinating in that regard, having obliterated Reading 5-0 on one occasion this year before losing 1-0 the next time around.

Report: Wenger ready to pay Ozil, Sanchez club record deals

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Arsenal knows its departure from the UEFA Champions League has to be a short one, and that keeping its two best attackers around is imperative.

That’s why Arsene Wenger is preparing to make Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez the top paid players in Arsenal history, according to a report from The Telegraph’s Jeremy Wilson.

The contract status of both players has been a touchy one this season, and Sanchez especially has been linked with some of the biggest clubs in Europe (including London neighbors Chelsea).

[ MORE: Yaya to stay at Man City ]

But perhaps the Gunners’ FA Cup triumph over Chelsea has Ozil and Sanchez feeling good vibes about the Emirates Stadium set, and Arsenal is ready to pounce. According to the report:

Wenger has told the board that he thinks he can win the Premier League if this group stays together and is supplemented by no more than two or three key additions. Ozil is understood already to have been offered more than £250,000 a week and the club are ready to go to around £280,000 for both him and Sanchez.

The Gunners need both players healthy and happy heading into next season, and appropriate additions as well (A top striker is a must. Again). Wage structure is important, but Arsenal will have a blessing in disguise if another player can make a legit case he deserves to be paid like Ozil and Sanchez any time soon.

West Ham, Everton, and the superstar striker’s need for the Champions League

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Come up with a list of active elite level strikers, and it’s likely to be a short one filled with names from UEFA Champions League clubs.

Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Diego Costa, Luis Suarez, Robert Lewandowski, Edinson Cavani, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Harry Kane, even Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Rarely do names like these move to a non-UCL club while in their prime, and it’s just as uncommon to see them stay at clubs which have failed to qualify for the UCL.

The money, the prestige, the endorsements; All are amplified by the world stage. Given the massive import of their domestic stage and spotlight, Premier League sides have bucked this trend on occasion — see Romelu Lukaku — but it’s the exception to the rule.

That’s what puts an ambitious club like West Ham United between a rock and a hard place. The Irons have been vocal about their desires to bring in a top-end striker, and it’s likely they’d be happy to spend what it takes to attract Alexandre Lacazette, Aubameyang, or Cavani to town.

Lyon reportedly rejected a $45 million bid for Lacazette last season, admitting that ultimately the player’s desires would determine his future. Higuain, too, was linked to chairman David Gold’s wallet before moving to Juventus. Carlos Bacca also saw his future connected to the Irons.

Instead, Gold landed Andre Ayew from Swansea, and had to hope Andy Carroll could stay healthy or Enner Valencia would deliver. Not a striker, Dimitri Payet apparently decided to skip town soon after West Ham’s Europa League exit at the hands of Astra Giurgiu.

Now it’s Kelechi Iheanacho being linked to the London Stadium, another hopeful swing from the Irons that points a strong finger at the problem: West Ham can be as ambitious as it likes, but it’s going to need a miracle to pull an elite striker to London without European football.

And it shouldn’t happen, but what if Everton is bumped from the UEL in the third qualifying round or playoff next year? Will Lukaku follow Payet’s lead and sink another team from joining the discussion? Though an argument can be made it’s better for Everton to lose those summer games, the Toffees very much need to succeed in the UEL qualifying and also show signs of strength in the early PL docket. That’s the unforgiving life of sitting on the outskirts of the powerful tier.

Every team at every level is searching for the next elite striker. Some, like West Ham, will need to luck into a young buck on the rise or a flawed striker finding his potential. And how do they hold onto that player, one who will have alerted the big boys to his arrival, without qualifying for Europe? It’s improbable.

The ability of teams like Chelsea and Liverpool to compete for a European slot in the PL standings thanks to missing out on the UCL the year before signals hope for clubs like Everton and West Ham. And five Premier League sides competing in the UCL this year could extend an invitation to stay longer in the Top Seven discussion for sides like Southampton and Leicester City, too.

So this summer’s striker captures are huge for Slaven Bilic and David Gold. This is a window the league’s “next group” won’t have open annually, and West Ham’s hopes of barging into the discussion again hinge on who shows up by August.

Toure reportedly set for another year with Man City

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Never say never.

Yaya Toure looks like his season-long peace with Pep Guardiola will stretch into a new season, with Toure’s combustible agent admitting talks with Manchester City regarding a new contract.

Dimitri Seluk is among the worst agents on Earth Toure’s agent, and said, “We are talking. We will see what happens but City is a club that is in Yaya’s heart.”

[ MORE: Barcelona names new manager ]

But Seluk has not been in City’s heart, having made numerous poor decisions on when to open his mouth, deepening a rift between Toure and Guardiola that kept the player off the pitch for some time. Earlier this Spring, Seluk also suggested that Toure could join Manchester United.

So, yeah, smart guy. Hates microphones and publicity.

Toure turned 34 this month, and became a fixture for Guardiola once he broke into the lineup. The midfielder made nine-straight starts around the turn of the calendar, scoring five goals in the Premier League.

Wolfsburg holds off Braunschweig with Vieirinha blast (video)

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Outworked and outperformed in the first half of their playoff second leg at Eintracht Braunschweig, Wolfsburg needed a wake-up call to steady its hopes of staying in the Bundesliga.

That came off the boot of longtime right back Vieirinha, as the Portuguese veteran ran onto a rebound and fired a 17-yard arrow into the goal to boost Wolfsburg aggregate lead to 2-0.

[ MORE: Barcelona names new manager ]

That would mean the 2.Bundesliga hosts would need three goals to give the second tier a third promotion this season. An 82nd minute red card to Braunschweig’s Maximilian Sauer effectively ended those far-off dreams.

Ingolstadt and Darmstadt were relegated in the season, and Stuttgart and Hannover were promoted from 2.Bundesliga.