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Championship roundup: Race for PL promotion remains white hot

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The Championship title has all been wrapped up, but there are still two promotion spots up for grabs, and they are both being hotly contested.

Wolverhampton Wanderers sits 11 points clear at the top of the table, and its final four matches are all against teams 17th or worse in the table. They can clinch not just automatic promotion but also the title this weekend should they win and Cardiff City lose at Norwich City.

Second place in the table also earns a spot in the Premier League next year, and that’s where the true fun is. Fulham, on a club-record 20-match unbeaten streak without a loss since New Year’s Day, has steamrolled up the table. The Whites haven’t even trailed a single second since January signing Aleksandar Mitrovic stepped on the field in a Fulham kit, and the Newcastle loanee won Championship Player of the Month for March after scoring seven goals in eight league matches. Fulham finally overtook Cardiff City by a point midweek, but the Bluebirds still have a game in hand, meaning they still control their own destiny, although the margin for error is razor-thin.

The battle has brought about the media mind games, and while Fulham manager Slavisa Jokanovic has stayed the course insisting the Whites take it one game at a time, Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock hasn’t held back, claiming Fulham are favorites in an attempt to pile pressure on their foes.

“You look at the games and they’re expected to win every game, really,” the outspoken Warnock said ahead of Cardiff City’s match this weekend at Norwich, saying his squad has done well just to keep its head above water. “It’s got to be [up to] us and if we can’t then good luck to them, 20-odd games unbeaten in this league is fantastic. They’ve got great players and a great squad and we’re actually competing with them. They’ve gone 20-odd games unbeaten and it’s neck and neck. It shows how far we’ve come really.”

Aston Villa is in fourth, but has work to do trailing Fulham by five points and the two teams above them in such good form. Cardiff has each of its last two matches, but before that, Warnock and company rattled off a 13-match unbeaten streak of its own. Cardiff finishes the season with games against Norwich (13th), Nottingham Forest (18th), Derby County (5th), Hull City (16th), and Reading (19th) while Fulham has Brentford (10th) this weekend plus Millwall (6th), Sunderland (23rd), and Birmingham (20th) remaining.

The race for the playoff is also a good one. Cardiff City, Aston Villa, Derby County, and Millwall currently hold the playoff spots, but the latter two both sit on 68 points, with three clubs within three points, and another two within five. Once the playoffs are set, the margins are thin and all bets are off. Huddersfield Town finished 5th last season, earning the three-seed in the playoff format, but managed to make it through unscathed to earn a berth in the Premier League this season.

Race for Premier League promotion beginning to heat up

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The race for promotion to the Premier League has taken a wild and unexpected turn.

Wolverhampton Wanderers have all but secured the title with a nine point lead and five matches remaining. However, directly below them is where things have suddenly become hairy.

Cardiff City seemed to have second place done and dusted, with a return to the Premier League for the first time since 2013 almost ensured as they sat on a seven-match winning streak and without a loss since New Year’s Day, holding a seven-point lead plus a game in hand as March wound down. Now, just a week later, things could potentially be falling apart as the race heats up.

Following a draw to 9th placed Sheffield United, Cardiff hosted leaders Wolves on Friday in a top-of-the-table meeting, and chaos ensued. Wolves held nearly 2/3 of the possession and went ahead 1-0 past the hour mark as Ruben Neves bagged a beautiful free-kick goal, looping his close-range effort over the wall and tucking it inside the left post.

As the game wound down, Cardiff began to push forward as they looked for a late equalizer. They earned a penalty as stoppage time began, and Gary Madine stepped up to take it hoping for his 11th goal of the year. Instead, former Norwich City goalkeeper John Ruddy dove to his left and acrobatically kept the effort out, preserving the lead as a big celebration ensued. But the fireworks weren’t over.

Six minutes later, as Cardiff continued to press forward in desperation, Wolves’ Ivan Cavaleiro chopped down Aron Gunnarsson on the edge of the box, and the linesman flagged for a foul. That brought a second stoppage-time penalty opportunity for Cardiff still trailing by a goal. This time, former QPR winger Junior Hoilett stepped up to the spot, but his effort clanged the underside of the bar and came back out, and Cardiff could not capitalize on the ensuing scrum.

The loss means Cardiff has wasted its game in hand, suddenly dropping five points in the last two matches, sitting now five points above Fulham in third. The Whites are in spectacular form, unbeaten in a club-record 18 straight matches and leading the Championship form table. Fulham still has memories of playoff failure from last season, and would love to secure automatic promotion with a late-season charge, playing stunningly beautiful possession-based soccer under Slavisa Jokanovic.

Meanwhile, Cardiff next faces fourth-placed Aston Villa, who also remains in contention for promotion just two points back of Fulham. The pressure seems to be getting to Cardiff manager Neil Warnock, who refused to shake the hand of Wolves manager Nuno after the loss on Friday, instead firing some flowery language in his direction for his post-match celebration while applauding the home fans. He chastised Nuno after the game, telling Sky Sports in his post-match interview “in the British game you need to have manners and a bit of class.”

The remaining playoff places are currently occupied by Derby County and Middlesbrough who sit 15 and 17 points back of Cardiff City in 2nd, but that battle is raging as well. Just off the pace sits Bristol City, Millwall, and Sheffield United all at 62 points, just one behind Middlesbrough’s final playoff spot. Preston is another two back of that on 60 points, while Brentford is two behind them at 58.

Report: Aston Villa striker Agbonlahor considering MLS move

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A long-time English goalscorer looks to be ready to pursue new endeavors next year.

The Telegraph is reporting that veteran Aston Villa striker Gabby Agbonlahor will likely leave the club at the end of the 2017/18 season, even if the Villans are promoted back to the top flight of English soccer.

Agbonlahor spent many of his professional years with Villa during their PL stay, but since the team’s fall to the Championship, the Englishman has struggled to find any goalscoring rhythm.

In his two seasons in the second-tier, Agbonlahor has only managed to score twice across all competitions, and has seen his playing time dwindle down significantly.

The report suggests that Agbonlahor’s time is almost certainly up at Villa after the dip in form, and a move to Major League Soccer could be in the cards as he aims to revitalize his career.

The 31-year-old has spent 17 years at Villa, including his days with the club’s youth academy.

Official: Scotland national team brings back McLeish

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Scotland’s new boss has had the job before, as former Rangers and Aston Villa manager Alex McLeish is set to hold the hopes of the Tartan Army.

[UPDATE]: The Scotland FA announced on Friday morning the appointment of McLeish. While contract numbers and length were not disclosed, both McLeish and the Scotland FA mentioned that Scotland would be hosting matches at Hampden Park during Euro 2020, making it an even bigger priority for the Tartan Army to qualify.

[ MORE: Batshuayi the talk of BVB ]

An announcement is expected Friday for the 59-year-old, who led Scotland during EURO qualifying in 2007. Scotland went 7W-3L in his time with the club, including a win away to France.

McLeish was also capped 77 times for Scotland as a player and is a member of the Scottish Football Hall of Fame.

Scotland hasn’t qualified for the World Cup since 1998 and has missed every EURO since 1996.

Championship Focus: Halfway through, who’s coming up?

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Just as the second half of the 2017-18 Premier League season began on Tuesday, so did the Championship’s decisive half of football, with one former PL side threatening to run away with the title and the rest of the top half separated by just 13 points.

Sounds somewhat familiar, doesn’t it?

[ MORE: Boxing Day blues for Man Utd; joy for Chelsea, Liverpool, Spurs ]

Wolverhampton Wanderers, who were mostly recently a PL side before being relegated in 2012, are unbeaten in their last 10 league games (eight wins) and eight points clear of their nearest title challengers, though Nuno Espirito Santo’s side did drop points for the second time in four games on Boxing Day. The Championship’s most prolific scoring side is spearheaded by 23-year-old Brazilian forward Leo Bonatini (12 goals) and 21-year-old Portuguese wonderkid Diogo Jota (10). If Wolves somehow don’t end up promoted this season, a bump in league is still likely for the prolific duo. Tuesday’s 2-2 draw away to 16th-place Millwall left the door slightly ajar for newly-established second-place Bristol City to trim the gap into single digits.

Everyone will first recall Bristol’s famous victory over Manchester United in the League Cup last week, of course, but that triumph at is hardly an outlier in what has been a fantastically consistent season for Lee Johnson’s Robins. With just one defeat from their last 11 league games (eight wins), Bristol have shot up the table following a draw-filled start to the season which seemed likely to preclude them from the promotion discussion. 24-year-old English forward Bobby Reid leads the way with 11 goals this season, with no one else bagging more than a half-dozen for an effectively balanced side.

Cardiff City had shown themselves to be worthy adversaries of Wolves, until back-to-back defeats in the last week saw them tumble from second to third in the table. First, it was a 2-0 defeat away to 23rd-place Bolton, followed by a 4-2 humbling at home against Fulham on Tuesday. 27-year-old Canadian winger Junior Hoilett is still kicking around the Championship and leads the Bluebirds with six goals.

Leeds United are the hottest team in the league (this side of Bristol), as Thomas Christiansen’s men are unbeaten in their last six (five wins) and are now just three points back of fourth-place Derby. A pair of sides relegated in recent seasons, Middlesbrough (2017) and Aston Villa (2016), currently sit just outside the playoff (top-six) places.

[ MORE: Man City take on Newcastle seeking 18th straight win ]

After 24 of 46 rounds played…

Place Team Points GD
1 Wolverhampton Wanderers 55 +26
2 Bristol City 47 +15
3 Cardiff City 47 +13
4 Derby 45 +17
5 Leeds United 42 +10
6 Sheffield United 41 +10
7 Middlesbrough 38 +9
8 Aston Villa 38 +8
9 Preston North End 37 +4
10 Ipswich Town 36 +4
11 Fulham 35 +2
12 Brentford 34 +5