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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.

Sane out “weeks” as Guardiola renews protection calls to refs

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Leroy Sane was chopped down with a terrible studs-up tackle during Sunday’s FA Cup win over Cardiff City, and the Manchester City man is expected to miss significant time with an ankle injury.

[ RECAP: Cardiff City 0-2 Man City ]

He’s fortunate it’s not worse, as Cardiff’s Joe Bennett made sliding contact with Sane’s leg as the German wizard made a near field-length dribble.

Pep Guardiola was raging after the injury, as an obscured referee needed the linesman to advise a straight red card. Instead, a yellow came.

That’s hardly any comfort as Guardiola says Sane will be out for a minimum of “two to three weeks,” a time span which includes league matches against West Brom, Burnley, and Leicester City before a Feb. 13 UEFA Champions League first leg against Basel. It also puts Sane’s status for the League Cup Final on Feb. 25 in question.

From ManCity.com:

“They [officials] have to protect the players,” Guardiola said. “Not my players. All players. They [refs] are there to protect the players. When there is fault, there is fault, and when it is dangerous, it is dangerous. I don’t understand the goal [Bernardo] that we didn’t get, but that is okay. We can accept that. But they have to protect the players. They have to do their job.”

All clubs face horror tackles, but teams have been explicitly physical against the difficult-to-slow City set-up. It’s difficult to fault Guardiola for his criticism, and ex-Aston Villa and Middlesbrough defender Bennett should see retroactive disciplinary action for his foul.

Cardiff 0-2 Man City: De Bruyne, Sterling guide Citizens into Round of 16

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Kevin De Bruyne‘s clever set piece in the first half helped open the floodgates for Pep Guardiola‘s side on Sunday, as the Citizens continued their tremendous run of form.

[ MORE: Chelsea books place in fifth round behind Batshuayi, Alonso finishes ]

Manchester City reached the FA Cup fifth round after earning a 2-0 win over Cardiff City at Cardiff City Stadium.

The Belgian international kick-started things for the visitors in the eighth minute, after De Bruyne brilliantly slotted his free kick under the Cardiff wall.

Goalkeeper Neil Etheridge was left without a prayer, and the Citizens were ahead 1-0 inside the opening 10 minutes.

Leroy Sane appeared to doubled the lead for Guardiola’s group in the 25th minute, however, the young attacker was judged to be offside from Bernardo Silva‘s through ball.

It wasn’t long though before City found a second. Raheem Sterling scored his 19th goal of the season in the 37th minute, after heading the ball past Etheridge from Silva’s cross.

Championship Focus: Wolves go 10 clear; playoffs race logjam

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Wolverhampton Wanderers’ most likely path to not winning — and running away with — the 2017-18 Championship title required a defeat to second-place Bristol City on Saturday. Alas, in dramatic fashion, it wasn’t to be and their lead only ballooned larger.

Once again, the Championship is beginning to sound a lot like the PL.

[ PL ROUNDUP: Chelsea leapfrog Man United for 2nd ]

Wolves extended their unbeaten run to 11 games (nine wins) by winning away to Bristol, 2-1, in the two sides’ top-of-the-table clash. The victory, which sent Nuno Espirito Santo’s side 10 points clear of now-second-place Derby County, was sealed by a 93rd-minute winner scored by Ryan Bennett after Wolves erased a 1-0 deficit courtesy of Barry Douglas’s 65th-minute equalizer. It was the first time Wolves had trailed a league opponent since losing to Queens Park Rangers on Oct. 28, the game which preceded their current unbeaten run.

In the Championship, the difference between chasing the second automatic-promotion place and the logjam of the playoff battle is roughly… oh, one or two bad results. Take, for example, the last eight days for Cardiff City.

The Bluebirds were riding high — second in the league, just four points back of Wolves, and unbeaten in six league games — before three straight defeats, including a disastrous showing against 22nd-place Bolton just before Christmas, erased their four-point lead in the race for second and tossed Neil Warnock’s side two spots down the league table, now 11 points back of the runaway leaders.

Outside of the current top-two, the league’s in-form team of the moment is eighth-place Preston North End, winners of five of their last nine and unbeaten during that stretch; Brentford have climbed all the way up to 10th after spending the first two months of the season stuck in the bottom half of the table, and the Bees are suddenly just four points off the playoff places and six clear of the bottom half.

[ PL SUNDAY: Man City go for 19 straight; WBA-Arsenal ]

After 25 of 46 rounds…

Place Team Points GD
1 Wolverhampton Wanderers 58 +27
2 Derby County 48 +18
3 Bristol City 47 +14
4 Cardiff City 47 +12
5 Leeds United 42 +9
6 Sheffield United 41 +9
7 Aston Villa 41 +9
8 Preston North End 40 +5
9 Middlesbrough 38 +8
10 Brentford 37 +7
11 Ipswich Town 36 +3
12 Fulham 36 +2