Gary Hooper

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Championship Focus: Who may be headed for Premier League promotion?

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The fixtures are evening out, and the promotion picture is coming into focus for Premier League hopefuls in the Championship.

The first and second placed clubs will join England’s top flight, while sides three through six will contest the promotion playoffs.

[ MORE: Previewing the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 second legs ]

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.

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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.

BLACKBURN, ENGLAND - MARCH 01: Jordan Rhodes of Middlesbrough and Jason Steele of Blackburn Rovers shake hands after the Sky Bet Championship match between Blackburn Rovers and Middlesbrough at Ewood Park on March 1, 2016 in Blackburn, United Kingdom. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
(Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

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).

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In the mixThe race for the final two playoff spots looks down to Derby — with a five-point lead on sixth place — and four other teams.

 during the Sky Bet Championship match between Brentford and Derby County at Griffin Park on February 20, 2016 in Brentford, United Kingdom.
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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.

Watch Live: Newcastle United vs Norwich City (Lineups & Live Stream)

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There has been plenty of difficulty for Newcastle fans the past few seasons, but nothing like this.

Already bottom of the table, the Magpies have lost goalkeeper Tim Krul for the season to an ACL tear, and must move forward with Robert Elliot and young Freddie Woodman at the position as they look to recover from a winless first eight matches.

Their best chance yet to pick up this season’s first win comes at home against newly promoted Norwich City, live on NBCSN at 11:00 a.m. ET or live online at NBC Sports Live Extra.

There is some good injury news for Toon manager Steve McClaren. Jack Colback, Paul Dummett, and Daryl Janmaat have all returned from injury to make the starting lineup, while Massadio Haidara is fit enough to make the bench.

WATCH LIVE: Newcastle United vs. Norwich City live online at NBC Sports Live Extra

Norwich sits in slightly better shape, out of the relegation zone with nine points through the first eight matches. However, without a win since early September, that pace likely needs to pick up should the Canaries wish to feel safe about next season through the second half of the campaign.

On-loan striker Dieumerci Mbokani will start up front for Norwich with the struggling Cameron Jerome on the bench and Gary Hooper still recovering from an ankle injury. The Congolese frontman scored off the bench in the 2-1 loss to Leicester City before the international break.

LINEUPS

Newcastle: Elliot, Janmaat, Mbemba, Coloccini, Dummett, Sissoko, Tiote, Colback, Wijnaldum, Perez, Mitrovic.
Subs: Woodman, Lascelles, Haidara, Anita, Thauvin, De Jong, Cisse.

Norwich: Ruddy; Whittaker, Martin, Bassong, Olsson; Redmond, Dorrans, Tettey, Brady; Howson; Mbokani.
Subs: 
Rudd, Wisdom, Jerome, Hoolahan, Jarvis, R Bennett, O’Neil.

PL Sunday preview: Norwich visit last-place Newcastle

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Sunday’s slate of Premier League action offers up just a singular fixture, but when projecting the impending relegation battle six months from now, it figures to be massive as a potential six-point swing.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup ]

Newcastle United vs. Norwich City — 10 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

No side has won fewer points than Newcastle United (three points from eight games – zero wins) to begin the 2015-16 PL season. Steve McClaren’s job is said to be in no danger whatsoever, but if affairs at St. James’ Park continue in their current state for much longer, how long can owner Mike Ashley (of all people) sit idly by and watch the Magpies languish at the very bottom of the league table?

In Norwich City, Sunday’s opponent, Newcastle face the second-highest scoring team (12 goals — Chelsea, who’ll not be down there much longer, are first with 14) currently sitting in the bottom half of the table. Center back Russell Martin and 21-year-old winger Nathan Redmond lead the Canaries with three goals a piece, while manager Alex Neil waits for Cameron Jerome, who last season scored 18 goals in the Championship, to improve upon his one-goal output to begin his latest stint in the PL.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays | Standings | Stats ]

Newcastle are currently joint-bottom in goals scored this season, as Dutch midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum is the only player to score more than once. Newcastle will be without goalkeeper Tim Krul, who this week tore his ACL while on international duty, as well as backup goalkeeper Karl Darlow (ankle). Norwich forward Gary Hooper (ankle) will face a late fitness test to feature on Sunday, while Youssouf Mulumbu is still a doubt to make his Canaries debut this week.

Watch Live: Liverpool vs Norwich City (Lineups and Live Stream)

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Daniel Sturridge makes his Liverpool return as the Reds are looking for their first win in a month as they host Norwich City at Anfield live on USA Network at 11:00 a.m. ET and live online at NBC Sports Live Extra.

The England international has not appeared since April 4 due to a host of injury problems but finally makes his way back into the starting lineup straight away after returning to fitness. He’ll start alongside Christian Benteke, supported by Coutinho and James Milner. The Reds have not won in any competition since August 17, the second of two wins to start the league season for Liverpool.

Unfortunately for Liverpool, what goes up must come down, and going down is Jordan Henderson who will miss 6-8 weeks with a broken foot. That forces Brendan Rodgers to move Emre Can back into midfield alongside Lucas.

WATCH LIVE: Liverpool vs Norwich City live online at NBC Sports Live Extra

Norwich pair Gary Hooper and Youssouf Mulumbu remain injured and unavailable, but otherwise the squad is healthy. Andre Wisdom, on loan from Liverpool, is not an option today against his parent club, but Steven Whittaker returns to the starting lineup from his one-match suspension after a pair of yellows in the 3-0 loss to Southampton before the international break.

LINEUPS

Liverpool: Mignolet, Clyne, Skrtel, Sakho, Moreno, Lucas, Can, Milner, Coutinho, Benteke, Sturridge
Subs: Bogdan, Lovren, Firmino, Gomez, Lallana, Ings, Ibe

Norwich City: Ruddy; Whittaker, Martin, Bassong, Brady; Redmond, Dorrans, Tettey, Jarvis; Howson; Jerome.
Subs: Rudd, Grabban, Mbokani, Hoolahan, Olsson, R Bennett, O’Neil.