Not that it was ever in doubt, but Germany will officially have the opportunity to defend its crown as they qualified for the 2018 World Cup in Russia with a 3-1 victory over Northern Ireland.
Sebastian Rudy scored an absolute howitzer from extremely far out just two minutes into the game, and that set the tone as the Germans controlled 74% of the possession to ease their way through. Sandro Wagner struck in the 21st minute and young Josh Kimmich finished things off for the Germans with four minutes left in regulation, while Northern Ireland grabbed a consolation in stoppage time through Charlton striker Josh Magennis.
Germany tops Group C by eight points with still one match remaining, while Northern Ireland has secured the second spot, leaving them likely to make the playoff round on 13 points.
England 1-0 Slovakia
Harry Kane continued his blistering form, smashing England into the 2017 World Cup with one swift boot four minutes into stoppage time to give his country a thrilling 1-0 victory at home. Kyle Walker stole the ball with the visitors switched off as time ran down, and he crossed to his Spurs teammate Kane who beat Meha Mevlja in the box to poke home.
The home side was poor at times, holding 67% possession but only putting five shots on target of their 17 attempts on net.
The result leaves England six points clear at the top of Group F with one match remaining, locking them into the top spot. Scotland, Slovakia, and Slovenia will now all duke it out for a second place finish.
Scotland 1-0 Slovakia
Scotland picked up an absolutely massive goal as they chase a playoff spot. Derby County striker Chris Martin, a second-half substitute, forced a Martin Skrtel own-goal in the 89th minute, giving Scotland all three points and putting them in pole position for the 2nd spot in Group F.
Slovakia had been playing a man down since the 23rd minute when Robert Mak was sent off for a second yellow, correctly booked for a pathetic dive in the box under no contact. Still, the hosts were unable to grab control of the match, finishing with just 50% of the possession despite the long man advantage. Eventually, the ball came down the right flank and great work by Leigh Griffiths to keep play alive despite going to ground allowed Ikechi Anya to cross the ball for Martin on the doorstep, and his pressure saw the ball cut off the sliding Skrtel into the back of the net.
The win puts Scotland into 2nd place in Group F, two points above their opponents Slovakia and three above Slovenia with one match to go. They face Slovenia in the final round and do not have a goal differential advantage, so only a win would ensure them a spot in the playoff round.
Armenia 1-6 Poland
Poland moved onto the doorstep of automatic qualification as they pummeled Armenia 6-1. Robert Lewandowski scored a hat-trick and got help from Jakub Blaszczykowski, Kamil Glick, and Rafal Wolski to pile it on. The win puts Poland three points ahead of Denmark with one to play, although the teams are even on goal differential, so there could be some final day drama should Poland suffer an unlikely slip against Montenegro.
Montenegro 0-1 Denmark
Denmark kept pace with Poland at the top of Group E, leaving them three points back of the top spot heading in to the final day. It wasn’t as comfortable as it could have been, but an early Christian Eriksen (who else?) goal in the 16th minute saw them through. It was a superb goal, if not glittery, as Eriksen was under pressure from three defenders but surprised goalkeeper Danijel Petkovíc with the shot as it slid by for the lead and eventual winner.
While they’re three back of the automatic qualifying spot, Denmark will also be looking over its shoulder, as Montenegro sits three back of them and two back in goal differential, and playing for their World Cup lives in the final game.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
England is in control at the top of Group F, but below them things are beginning to get complicated.
Despite the absence of Marek Hamsik due to a last-minute injury, Slovakia defeated Malta 3-1. They took the lead just 97 seconds in as Vladimir Weiss put the visitors in front with a beautiful curling strike from outside the box. Malta struck back through domestic striker Jean Paul Farrugia in the 14th minute, but that was all Malta could muster.
Slovakia would go ahead just before halftime as FC Copenhagen midfielder Jan Gregus put them in front in the 41st minute. The speculative shot from Gregus came from a great distance out, and as it skipped across the ground, it appeared Malta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg saw it late, as his dive was poor and it skipped off his hands and in.
Both teams ended with 10 men on the field, as Farrugia was sent off with 16 minutes to go for a second yellow, and Adam Nemec saw the same fate in injury time, but before he was sent off, Nemec was there to kill the game off in the 84th minute.
That put Slovakia up to nine points, and it moved them into second place thanks to late drama in Glasgow. Chris Martin gave Scotland all three points with an 88th minute strike as the home side won 1-0 over Slovenia, who dropped from second to third with the loss. The Fulham striker got a beautiful feed through the back line from Stuart Armstrong, and while his shot wasn’t terribly accurate, it was enough to win the game as Slovenia goalkeeper Matus Kozacik gave it a poor effort.
The win for Scotland pulls them above Lithuania and into fourth, a point back of Slovenia in third.
Coming into Sunday, three Premier League sides had already been eliminated from the FA Cup in the fourth round. That number nearly doubled in two matches on Sunday.
Both Watford and Hull City crashed out of the FA Cup on Sunday, losing to Championship clubs in deflating fashion.
Watford was dropped first, undone by a goal from Millwall leading scorer Steve Morison in the 85th minute in a 1-0 defeat. Watford had a rough afternoon, first denied what seemed a clear penalty as Brice Dja Djedje went down in the box before halftime, but Martin Atkinson waved away the protests from coach Walter Mazzarri. They also saw goalkeeper Costel Pantillimon stretchered off before the break with what seemed like a painful injury to his lower leg.
In the other early match, Fulham ran Hull City ragged, dropping them 4-1 with striker Chris Martin starting and scoring despite plenty of confusion surrounding his contract situation. The Whites have been one of the best sides in the Championship this season, but have struggled with poor finishing. That wasn’t a problem today, with Martin scoring alongside former Hull forward Sone Aluko, Stefan Johansen, and young Ryan Sessegnon. The game had some drama late as well when Fulham goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli saved two straight penalties by Abel Hernandez despite a second penalty being given for a foul directly after the first save. Here’s video of both from the stands:
The defeat for Hull comes just days after breaking Manchester United’s 17-match unbeaten streak, but still crashing out of the EFL Cup semifinals on aggregate.
The results see the pair of second-tier clubs into the last 16, and drops the two Premier League sides out, totalling 12 Premier League clubs that have been eliminated from the competition, with Leicester City yet to play its Fourth Round replay against Derby County. Manchester United is also still to play, set to host Wigan Athletic at Old Trafford with kickoff at 11:00 a.m. ET.
The desperation is just as real for clubs to join the big money Premier League as it is for PL clubs to avoid relegation, and here’s what’s cooking down in the second tier with about a dozen matches to play.
Top of the Pops
Four sides are within four points of the top of the table. It’s not impossible that fifth-place Derby County could make up the 7 points between itself and automatic promotion, but let’s focus on the four.
Burnley (68 points): Last year’s one-and-done Clarets have had an incredibly impressive run under Sean Dyche, who simply must be considered for any job in England (if he even wants to leave Turf Moor). The Clarets are unbeaten in 12 matches, and have allowed just one goal in their last six matches, but they’ve also played one more game than the second and third placed teams. Andre Gray (above) has proven an impressive buy, with 21 goals.
Middlesbrough (67 points): Boro has allowed a league-best 20 goals (tied with Hull). That’s good because their big buy Jordan Rhodes has just a goal and assist in 7 matches since coming over from Blackburn.
Hull City (64 points): Steve Bruce‘s stingy side had been very good but is struggling with schedule congestion. Abel Hernandez is thriving in the England’s second tier, with 16 goals tied for second in the league.
Brighton and Hove Albion (64 points): Tomer Hemed is the club’s leading scorer, with 11, and Chris Hughton‘s club surged into the Top Four thanks to a 21-game unbeaten streak (not currently active).
In the mix: The race for the final two playoff spots looks down to Derby — with a five-point lead on sixth place — and four other teams.
Derby County (60 points): Chris Martin has 12 goals and 8 assists in an outstanding campaign for the Rams. Tom Ince is second in goals with eight.
Sheffield Wednesday (55 points): The second-highest scoring club in the Championship, with Fernando Forestieri and ex-Celtic and Norwich striker Gary Hooper leading the way.
Cardiff City (55 points): Could Vincent Tan own a Premier League club again after this season? The Bluebirds have points in five of their last six.
Birmingham City (54 points): Cooled a slide with wins in two of three. U.S. back Jonathan Spector is on the team.
Ipswich Town (54 points): Winners of two in-a-row after halting a three-match losing skid.