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Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

Canadian winger Hoilett reunited with Neil Warnock at Cardiff City

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Ontario-born winger Junior Hoilett is no longer a free agent, as he’ll try his hand at a fourth club since leaving Blackburn Rovers in 2012.

Hoilett, 26, left Canada for the Blackburn academy as a teenager, and made 81 Premier League appearances with 12 goals for the Rovers.

[ MORE: UEFA World Cup qualifying roundup ]

The 10-times capped winger will now join recently-hired manager Neil Warnock at Cardiff City. Warnock was a caretaker manager at QPR during Hoilett’s time there.

From CardiffCity.co.uk:

“I’m really pleased to be here and I’m ready to go. The Manager puts belief in his players and this is a great group of lads. Everyone loves playing for the Gaffer. I’m here to hopefully bring some more creativity and goals. I can’t wait to get started.”

Along the way, he was loaned to FC St. Pauli and SC Paderborn before making a permanent move to Queens Park Rangers following Blackburn’s relegation to the Championship. Three of his 13 goals in four QPR seasons came in the PL.

Championship Focus: Top Six all but certain, but who will clinch auto promotion?

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There are 5-6 matches left in the English Championship season, and the Top Six is looking pretty darn certain.

Who makes it to the automatic promotion spots and who contends the four-team promotion playoff is another story altogether.

[ MORE: Leicester clinches Champions League slot ]

Before we get to the table ramifications, here are the matches that shaped things.

Burnley 1-0 Leeds United

Scott Arfield scored in the first minute, and that’s all the Clarets needed to stay atop the table.

Middlesbrough 1-0 Preston North End

Boro continues to control its own destiny thanks to a first-half goal from Albert Adomah.

Fulham 2-1 Cardiff City

American 20-year-old Emerson Hyndman’s first senior goal put a serious crimp in Cardiff’s hope of making the playoff.

Huddersfield Town 2-2 Hull City

The Tigers needed to come back twice in order to snare a point. In the process, they likely sacrificed their chance at the Top Two.

Derby County 4-1 Bolton

Johnny Russell starred, picking up a brace as the Rams cruised while condemning Bolton to the drop.

Bolton is headed down. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

Burnley, Middlesbrough and Brighton still have legit shouts at claiming instant promotion to the Premier League. The Clarets lead the table with 80 points but the aforementioned chasers have played one less match.

Boro could pass Burnley if it wins its match in hand. Brighton visits Nottingham Forest on Monday to make up its match in hand.

Hull City, Derby County and Sheffield Wednesday look set for a spot between 4-6, especially after Fulham shocked Cardiff.

Championship focus: Automatic promotion spots far from settled

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This week will go a long way toward deciding the field for the promotion playoffs, as well a perhaps the automatic promotion berths, as the Championship contests three April match days.

With matches looming between Burnley and Cardiff and Derby and Hull, there’s plenty to like about Tuesday and next weekend, though Saturday provided us plenty to chew on.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things | Koeman steams ]

Burnley and Brighton’s high-profile draw allowed Middlesbrough to pull into second, three points shy of first with a match-in-hand on the Clarets. All that and more in focus, here:

Brighton 2-2 Burnley

The host Seagulls looked set to leap to the top of the table after carrying a 2-1 lead from halftime deep into stoppage time. But Michael Keane headed in an 93rd minute equalizer to keep the Clarets atop the table. Andre Gray scored his 23rd goal of the year for Burnley, and he could be a joy to watch in the Premier League next season should the Clarets keep hold of their promotion pace.

QPR 2-3 Middlesbrough

With Sunderland and Newcastle favored for Premier League relegation, Boro could be the only PL side in Northeast England next year. Grant Leadbitter missed a penalty in this one, but Gaston Ramirez scored off the ensuing corner to put in a silver lining.

[ MORE: Detailing the day Leicester (pretty much) won the PL ]

Hull City 4-0 Bristol City

Four Premier League veterans helped Steve Bruce‘s Tigers move 7 points back of first place and 7 points clear of 7th place, with Charlie Davies, Robert Snodgrass, Mohamed Diame and Sone Aluko all scoring in the blowout.

Cardiff City 2-1 Derby County

Watch out! Cardiff has moved to within two points of the final playoff spot, currently held by Saturday’s visitors. Bruno Ecuele Manga and Stuart O'Keefe scored for Vincent Tan’s Bluebirds.

Elsewhere
Wolverhampton 0-0 Ipswich Town
Bolton 0-1 Reading
Rotherham 2-1 Leeds United
Fulham 2-1 MK Dons
Huddersfield Town 0-1 Sheffield Wednesday
Nottingham Forest 0-3 Brentford
Blackburn 1-2 Preston North End
Charlton 2-1 Birmingham City

Checking in with the Championship’s Premier League promotion hopefuls

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With roughly one-third of the schedule to play, there are four clubs within three points of automatic promotion to the Premier League and five more in or within shouting distance of the promotion playoffs.

So while we’re tracking the race to avoid PL relegation between Aston Villa, Sunderland, Norwich City and others, let’s take a look at who’s making bids to take their places.

[ MORE: Difficulty looms for in-form, relegation-scrapping Villa ]

Only one of last season’s relegated teams is far removed from the race to rejoin the Premier League, and that’s Queens Park Rangers. The R’s are 11 points back of sixth place, the final PL playoff spot.

Top dogs

Steve Bruce has Hull City in line for an instant return to the Premier League, but it’s far from sewn up. The Tigers have the Championship’s best goal differential (26), but are tied with Middlesbrough on points and just a point ahead of Sean Dyche‘s Burnley.

Also within a win of the Top Two is Brighton and Hove Albion, led by ex-Norwich City and Newcastle United manager Chris Hughton. He guided the Magpies to promotion, and also got Birmingham City to the playoff in 2012.

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - AUGUST 01:  Jonathan Spector of Birmingham City during the Pre-Season Friendly match between Birmingham City and Leicester City at St Andrews (stadium) on August 1, 2015 in Birmingham, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
(Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Also in the running

Derby County and Sheffield Wednesday would be headed to the playoffs if the regular season ended today, but either could drop out of the six within a single game weekend.

Ipswich Town is in 7th with 48 points, while Birmingham is a point back. And remember Vincent Tan? Cardif City’s 45 points have them in the discussion for a PL return.

Of those teams, only one carries an American player. That’s USMNT defender Jonathan Spector (right), the former Manchester United and West Ham United man.