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Taking the temperature of the Championship’s race for promotion

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The Championship has entered the home stretch of the season, with around a dozen or so matches left in the race to earn promotion to the Premier League.

As it stands, the automatic places of first and second are anything but settled and there are seven teams within six points of the final playoff spot, setting the stage for a memorable final couple of months.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s PL match recaps ]

Once the runaway to win the league, Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United have taken a hit in form and maybe mystique since the discovery that they were spying on opponents’ training sessions in the run-up to matches.

Leeds is now third in the table following a 1-0 loss at QPR on Tuesday, two points back of Norwich City and one behind Sheffield United. The Whites are 3W-1D-3L since beating Derby County on Jan. 11.

The beautiful thing about the thick-and-fast nature of Championship fixtures is there’s a match with serious table ramifications seemingly every match day. Leeds will tangle with fourth-place West Bromwich Albion come Friday, while Sheffield United has a derby with playoff hopeful Sheffield Wednesday.

Here are the contenders for Premier League status, in two fields.

Automatic promotion

Red-hot Norwich City has lost just three times this season, and neither Leeds nor Sheffield United boasts a six-pointer left with the Canaries on their fixture list. Fourth-place West Brom is bidding for a straight return to the Premier League under Darren Moore, but could be joined on points by former boss Tony Pulis and Middlesbrough if the Smoggies win their match-in-hand. All five are within sight of automatic promotion.

Final playoff spot

While there’s plenty of time for any of the top teams to dip out of the Top Six, it’s looking more and more like about seven teams are vying for one spot. Bristol City has the inside track with 53 points and a match-in-hand on all but one of the teams in the the chasing pack: USMNT prospect Duane Holmes and Derby County. After that, it’s Birmingham City, Nottingham Forest, Preston North End, Hull City, and Sheffield Wednesday. Swansea City could also be within six points of sixth if it wins its match-in-hand and Bristol City and Derby lose theirs, but let’s no dive that deep into headache territory.

La Liga roundup: 10-man Real Madrid hold off Celta in season opener

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Spain’s top flight is back, and here’s a roundup of all of Saturday’s action.

[ FOLLOW: PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Celta Vigo 1-3 Real Madrid

If Real Madrid and Barcelona are, again, going to battle toe-to-toe for La Liga, consider the former team to have a head start.

Hours after Barca got the Aritz Aduriz treatment, Real Madrid – playing with 10 men for more than 40 minutes – took care of business, calmly beating Celta Vigo behind goals from Karim Benzema, Toni Kroos and Lucas Vasquez. Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric was sent off for a straight red in the 54th minute, while Gareth Bale, who stole headlines this summer after being rumored to leave time and time again, started and played 75 minutes.

Despite not having control of possession, the quality from Zinedine Zidane’s men was too much for Ruben Blanco. For instance, just look at Kroos’ strike from distance:

Celta, on the other hand, had a goal disallowed by VAR right before halftime, but still managed to spoil Thibaut Courtois‘ clean  in the dying minutes when Iker Losada, 18, scored two minutes after taking the field.

Valencia 1-1 Real Sociedad

Four minutes into stoppage time, Kevin Gameiro had the picture-perfect opportunity to record a brace and seal three points for Valencia in their first showing of the new campaign.

In front of an anxious Mestalla, he missed.

And just six minutes later, in the final breathe of the match, Mikel Oyarzabal did what Gameiro failed to do: convert from the spot. The rumored Manchester City target was influential all match and, in the end, rewarded with a goal.

A tough pill to swallow, Valencia will now look to earn their first win against Celta Vigo, while Sociedad next stop in their three-game road trip to start the season is Mallorca.

Villareal 4-4 Granada 

It wasn’t the matchup the majority had circled on their calendars, but Villareal and Granda’s 4-4 draw proved to be the most entertaining game on Saturday. A pair of penalties and an own goal were a few of the goals that made up the eight-goal frenzy.

Santi Carzorla – looking healthier than ever before – opened things up from the spot 35 minutes in. In the 75th minute, another familiar face, Roberto Soldado, put Granada a goal away from the home side. Shortly after, in the 81st minute, Antonio Puertas bagged Granada’s fourth and the night’s final goal.

An eight-goal match in such fashion will be hard to top on Sunday, that’s for sure.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Leganes 0-1 Osasuna

RCD Mallorca 2-0 Eibar

What we learned from a crazy PL Saturday

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Breathe. Take a walk outside. Put your arms above your head and try to drink in what you’ve actually seen today.

It is only Matchweek 2, but few Premier League days will match this.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Saturday’s games delivered high drama with VAR outrage, howlers, stunning goals and intense battles playing out.

Below is what we learned from a wild seven games across the league.


VAR DRAMA MARS MAN CITY, SPURS CLASH

Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur played out a gripping, enthralling 2-2 draw, but it was marred by VAR at the death. Gabriel Jesus‘ late winner for City was ruled out for a handball on Aymeric Laporte, which enraged Pep Guardiola and delighted Mauricio Pochettino. Man City dominated the game and Spurs had two shots on target and scored with both of them. City will have a bitter taste in their mouth, especially after the late VAR drama against Spurs in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal second leg last season. Pochettino said he is “in love with VAR” and Guardiola said it “needs to be fixed” as it is too subjective. The VAR debate will rumble on, as the ball clearly hit Laporte on the arm but many will have a bad taste in their mouths at the way it impacts the outcomes of games.


GUARDIOLA, AGUERO FALL OUT

Man City’s all-time leading goalscorer was not happy, at all, after being subbed out in the second half of their game against Spurs. He and Guardiola went at it, with words being said, fingers pointed and both had to be separated.

With tensions bubbling under the surface for years over Aguero’s playing style in a Pep side, this looked a lot more personal.

In the coming weeks we will find out just how damaging this public spat will be for both Guardiola and Aguero, as City may be starting to feel the pressure.


LIVERPOOL SHAKE OFF RUST

Liverpool edged by Southampton 2-1 at St Mary’s on Saturday and it was a really strange game. Saints started well and given Liverpool’s 120 minutes against Chelsea for the Super Cup final in Istanbul on Wednesday, it was expected that they’d start sluggishly. But when they kicked through the gears around half time they tore Saints apart with Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino leading the charge. Adrian’s late howler gifted Saints a way back into the game and Danny Ings should have scored his and Saints’ second to snatch an unlikely draw. Liverpool held on and after the travel week they’ve had, Jurgen Klopp was a happy man at the final whistle. Two wins from two for the Reds, and they’ve been far from their best as their stars recover from busy summer tournaments.


PUKKI READY TO STAR FOR NORWICH

Teemu Pukki has four goals in his first two games as a Premier League player. Those questioning whether or not the Finnish striker could translate his form from the Championship to the PL are now having a long hard look at themselves in the mirror. Pukki scored a hat trick in Norwich’s 3-1 win against Newcastle and the first was a stunner. After his spells with Sevilla, Schalke and Celtic, Pukki has finally arrived in the big time and his clinical finishing will be a theme of the season. Norwich have been written off by plenty of teams and the way they hammered Newcastle suggests the Canaries will be well clear of the relegation scrap.


ARSENAL, CEBALLOS CLICKING THROUGH THE GEARS 

Arsenal’s attacking unit now has a deep playmaker as Dani Ceballos starred in their win over Burnley. Ceballos is the perfect replacement for Aaron Ramsey and he not only created chances but worked back defensively. He is the perfect player for Unai Emery to build his attack around. Of course, Aubameyang and Lacazette (who both scored) are stars who can finish, while Nicolas Pepe looked bright off the bench as Arsenal’s attacking options will feel their rivals with serious envy. At the back they had some issues dealing with Burnley’s direct style as David Luiz took a few unecessary risks and Bernd Leno flapped at a few crosses, but overall two wins from two is a very good start for the Gunners. Now come the real tests as they head to Liverpool and host Tottenham in their next two games. Lets see how good the Gunners really are.


Bonus: Harry Wilson and Douglas Luiz scored screamers in a 2-1 win for Bournemouth at Aston Villa. You need to see them.

Pep rages at VAR after Man City denied winner

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Pep Guardiola is absolutely furious.

Whether you think he should be is another story.

Manchester City had its last-gasp winner taken off the board against Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday at the Etihad Stadium, when VAR spotted the ball glancing off Aymeric Laporte‘s arm before Gabriel Jesus scored in stoppage time.

[ RECAP: Man City 2-2 Spurs ]

The Man City boss had not cooled down after the match, referencing Fernando Llorente’s uncalled handball in the UEFA Champions League last season.

That’s a different competition, however, and a different set of rules. Maybe that’s Pep’s point. Anyway, let’s let him rage:

“I thought we left that situation in Tottenham in the Champions League last season. But it is the same. The referee and VAR disallow it. It’s the second time – it’s tough. It’s honestly tough but it’s the way it is.

“It happened last week with Wolves and we saw for Chelsea on Wednesday – the keeper wasn’t on his line – Adrian in the penalty shoot-out. They have to fix it. The whistle inside matches now isn’t quite clear. But they believe it’s hands with Llorente in the Champions League and sometimes they don’t.

“It was incredible it wasn’t a penalty in the first half [for the foul on Rodri in the box] but VAR said it wasn’t and then at the end they did. I’m pretty sure people were happy today we just need to work harder at scoring our chances.”

He’s not really on point here, is he? As a neutral I hated the moment, but it follows the letter of the law. The Rodri point is a good one, but doesn’t negate the ball skittering off Laporte’s arm (and it looked to have touched Harry Skipp’s arm, too, but after the fact!).

Pochettino: “I am in love with VAR”

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Mauricio Pochettino‘s heart belongs to a set of TV monitors and a referee sat in an office in the suburbs of London.

In others words, he loves VAR.

After Spurs pegged the reigning champions back to 2-2, there was more late VAR drama between these two teams. Gabriel Jesus‘ strike was ruled out in the 92nd minute after Aymeric Laporte was adjudged to have handle the ball in the box after a VAR review.

Pochettino spoke to our partners Sky Sports in the UK after the crazy ending to the game, and simply said: “I love VAR. I’m not so happy with our performance.”

Spurs rode their luck and had three shots to Man City’s 30 and were dominated. Tottenham scored with their two shots on goal, but Man City were left ruing a number of missed chances as more VAR heartache followed.

Pochettino is off to give his nearest TV screen a few smooches as Spurs, once again, have VAR to thank for leaving the Etihad Stadium with a smile on their face.