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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.

Dele drives Spurs past Norwich City

Tottenham Hotspur match recap and highlights
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A win is a win, even if Tottenham Hotspur’s 2-1 home defeat of Norwich City was anything but convincing in London.

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Dele Alli and Heung-Min Son scored as Spurs climbed sixth in the table with 34 points.

Teemu Pukki scored for the spot for the Canaries, who remain dead last and six points off the safe spaces.


Three things we learned

1. Spurs can score in 2020: The Premier League had not been kind to Jose Mourinho’s men since a they twice came back in a 2-2 draw with these same Canaries at Carrow Road. In fact, Spurs went 315 Premier League minutes without a goal before Dele got his first half marker on Wednesday. Losses to Saints and Liverpool were joined by a weekend draw at Watford, so this win was vital (Spurs thrice scored over two FA Cup matches versus Middlesbrough).

2. Bounces go the way of Spurs: Norwich can forgive itself for feeling a bit snakebit considering how poor Spurs looked for most of the day. Dele’s shot or cross was deflected high toward the back post, where Heung-min Son was able to nod it over the line from extreme close-up range.

3. Serge Aurier shines: Bad Serge Aurier shows up quite a bit, but the full back had a great day on Wednesday. Aurier had an assist to go with two interceptions and three tackles. He was a menace and stuck into 50-50 battles, earning plaudits on the day.


Erik Lamela was lively early for Spurs, seeing a free kick deflected out for a corner and another chance saved by Tim Krul.

Dele put Spurs ahead when he lunged past Christoph Zimmermann to poke a Serge Aurier cross past Krul. Heung-min Son set up the play with a lay-off to the Ivorian.

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VAR was kind to Todd Cantwell early in the second half, as the sliding midfielder put his studs into Lamela and it was worth only a yellow card.

Spurs youngster Ryan Sessegnon fouled Max Aarons in the 68th to give Norwich a chance from the spot, and a long review did not lead to a reprieve. Pukki beat Lloris low and to the right for 1-1.

But Dele’s cross floated to Son for a back post winner and blushes were spared for Mourinho.

Leicester City smashes West Ham, loses Vardy

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Leicester City snapped a two-match losing run with a 4-1 defeat of West Ham United on Wednesday.

The third-place Foxes move to 48 points, but lost Jamie Vardy and Nampalys Mendy to first half injuries.

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Harvey Barnes and Ricardo Pereira set each other up for goals and Ayoze Perez scored twice late in the win.

Mark Noble scored a penalty of his own for the losing side, whose 23 points are out of the drop zone on goal differential. The Irons have played one fewer match than everyone but Liverpool.


Three things we learned

1. Barnes rides high:  Harvey Barnes is having an uneven season in the Premier League, like many to just turn 22. But the youngster is certainly on an upswing, having scored in a weekend loss at Burnley and collecting a goal and an assist on Wednesday. His six assists lead the Foxes, and may just be the tip of the iceberg.

2. More of the same from West Ham (and that’s not good): David Moyes‘ West Ham looks a lot like Manuel Pellegrini‘s West Ham, which isn’t a surprise given the latter’s better reputation in recent seasons. It’s a draw and two losses since the 4-0 win over an abject Bournemouth, and the Irons’ match-in-hand on the relegation field is against Liverpool (who they still face twice). Felipe Anderson is set to miss a month and that won’t ease concerns either.

3. Vardy injury, defense a big concern: The league’s leading scorer got his leg stretched out on the pitch and was favoring his gluteal area in the first half, eventually limping off the field. Losing him would ask a lot of Kelechi Iheanacho.

The Foxes also would be wrong to overlook another goal conceded, even if it came by controversial penalty. Leicester has conceded in seven of eight league matches,  and five included multiple goals. It’s not a huge worry in a 4-1, but a trend indeed.

Man of the Match: Barnes.


Jamie Vardy cut into the box early but his first touch betrayed him and couldn’t get full power on a shot to Darren Randolph.

The in-form Barnes got the Foxes in front by turning a Ricardo Pereira dinked pass into the open goal.

An injury to Nampalys Mendy accelerated the return of Wilfred Ndidi to the pitch, the midfielder returning in the 34th minute.

Vardy was then forced off the pitch with an apparent back injury, bringing Kelechi Iheanacho into the fold in the 44th minute.

Barnes then returned the favor to Pereira, who whistled his effort into the goal in the fifth minute of first half stoppage time.

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But hold on.

Noble needed just five second half minutes to pull one back for David Moyes’ men, as Sebastien Haller won a suspect penalty off Ndidi.

Kasper Schmeichel made a fine save on Michail Antonio to keep it 2-1.

Leiceste regained control and looked the only threat to make it 3-1 after that, with Perez converted a penalty after Angelo Ogbonna fouled Kelechi Iheanacho.

The Nigerian forward then set up Perez for his second to salt away the win.

Leicester City’s Vardy limps off pitch versus West Ham

Jamie Vardy injury
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January is not being kind to English forwards.

Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy limped off the pitch at King Power Stadium on Wednesday, an apparent upper leg injury the cause.

It was a non-contact injury, as Vardy pulled up lame after clearing the ball.

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Kelechi Iheanacho replaced Vardy, who leads the Premier League Golden Boot race by one goal over Sergio Aguero.

Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham was injured in Tuesday’s 2-2 draw with Arsenal, while Tottenham’s Harry Kane and Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford are all nursing long-term injuries.

That had led many to infer that England manager Gareth Southgate might ask Vardy to reconsider his international retirement, but here we are.

Leicester City is in the thick of a Top Four chase in the hopes of returning to the UEFA Champions League, and losing Vardy would be a monumental blow.

Griezmann’s second half brace saves Barcelona from shock upset in Ibiza

Barcelona survives Copa del Rey scare
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Like a college kid on Spring Break, Barcelona vastly underestimated the power of Ibiza.

One of the biggest clubs in the world had loads of trouble in its Copa del Rey Round of 32 meeting at UD Ibiza on Wednesday.

Barcelona barely got past the third-tier side thanks to two Antoine Griezmann goals and a comeback 2-1 win at the Estadi Municipal de Can Misses.

UD Ibiza playing in a 5,000-seat stadium, took a ninth-minute lead and had more shot attempts as late as the 65th minute. New manager Quique Setien was left to sweat it out.

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Somewhat fitting that a man named Pep got the early goal. Josep Caballe Martin has more yellow cards than goals in Segunda B this season.

Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique, and an injured Luis Suarez were among the players left behind, but this wasn’t a massively depleted Barcelona side. Arturo Vidal and Jordi Alba were brought off the bench.

Frenkie de Jong set up Griezmann for a 72nd minute equalizer, and Griezmann added his second off an Alba feed in the fourth minute of stoppage time.