Sone Aluko

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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.

Watford, Hull City the latest Premier League clubs dumped from FA Cup

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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.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Other Sunday FA Cup fixtures ]

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.

FOLLOW LIVE: Sunday slate of FA Cup 4th Round games

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The 4th Round of the FA Cup is nearly complete, with a number of Premier League clubs surprised earlier in the week. Today, three more Premier League sides see their early Cup fates decided.

First, in play this morning, Hull City is visiting London to take on Championship club Fulham at Craven Cottage. The Whites own a 3-1 lead in part thanks to a goal by former Tiger Sone Aluko, just back from international duty with Nigeria.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: FA Cup Fourth Round continues ]

Also in play this morning is Millwall and Watford, a game that saw the Premier League side dumped out after a late goal by Millwall leading scorer Steve Morison with just five minutes remaining. Adding insult to injury, Watford goalkeeper Costel Pantillimon was stretchered off just minutes before halftime, replaced by Huerelho Gomez who was then forced into a good save moments after coming on.

At 9:00 a.m. ET, semi-pro side Sutton United is hosting Championship club Leeds United, having already upset League One side AFC Wimbledon last round.

Manchester United finishes off the slate as they welcome Wigan Athletic to Old Trafford at 11:00 a.m. ET. The Red Devils saw their 17-match unbeaten run come to an end last time out in unceremonious fashion last time out as they progressed through to the EFL Cup final on aggregate despite a 2-1 loss to Hull City.

Iceland EURO hero Ragnar Sigurdsson signs with Fulham

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Ragnar Sigurdsson’s amazing summer continues.

The center back, 30, was among the most important pieces of Iceland’s run to the quarterfinals of EURO 2016.

Now he’s leaving Russian side Krasnodar for England, where he’ll join a promising Fulham side.

From FulhamFC.com:

He has agreed a two-year deal, with a Club option for a further 12 months.

The centre-back was an integral part of the Iceland team who exceeded all expectations at this summer’s European Championship in France, playing every minute as the Nordic nation reached the Quarter-Finals, where they were eventually knocked out by the host nation.

Fulham is unbeaten through four matches, with two wins, and has added Sone Aluko and Denis Odoi. Slaviša Jokanović’s bunch just might have a promotion run in them.

Premier League 2016-17 season preview: Hull City

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It seems like years ago that Hull City won the playoff final at Wembley over Sheffield Wednesday.

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In the few months since that major victory, shooting the Tigers back into the Premier League after just a season in the Championship, things have spiraled down towards the ground like an out of control airplane.

Manager Steve Bruce, with the club since 2012 and loved by the fans, quit after speculation for the England job seemed to unsettle him in his current position. Injuries have ravaged the squad before the season has even begun, with goalkeeper Allan McGregor and defenders Moses Odubajo, Alex Bruce, and Michael Dawson have all been ruled out for months. Despite this, the new uncertainty at the managerial position means the club hasn’t signed a single reinforcement this summer.

[ MORE: Every PL season preview ]

For a club that has only seen Premier League action since 2007 and has never finished higher than 16th in the top flight, it will be more than an uphill battle much of the season.

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Hull City can stay up if…they find a quality manager and he pulls in signings. The Tigers relied on a solid defensive structure last season, and with so many injuries at the back to open the season, they risk putting themselves in an unrecoverable situation straight out of the gates. They need players, and they need them yesterday.

More than likely though, they’ll be headed back down. Like Burnley, this is a team that has bounced back and forth in recent years, and they look more unstable than ever before coming into this season. There is some experience in the squad between Tom Huddlestone, Mohamed Diame, Robert Snodgrass, and Abel Hernandez, but that alone won’t be able to keep the ship afloat.


Best Possible XI

—– Jakupovic —–

— Ivanovic — Dawson — Davies — Robertson —

— Diame — Huddlestone —

— Elmohamady — Livermore — Snodgrass —

— Hernandez —

Transfers In: Will Mannion (Undisclosed, AFC Wimbledon).

Transfers Out: Sone Aluko (Free, Fulham), Ryan Taylor (Free, Unattached).

Last Season: The Tigers made their way to the Premier League via the playoff, but they were solid for much of the year and put out balanced numbers. Their defensive record was worthy of a place at the top of the table allowing just four more goals than defensive stalwarts Middlesbrough, and they scored just three goals less than the league leaders. Unfortunately, while this team is built well for the slog of the Championship, they – like Burnley – have little star power and may struggle to find rewards for their hard work in the top flight.

HULL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 09: Robert Snodgrass of Hull City celebrates scoring during The Emirates FA Cup Third Round match between Hull City and Brighton & Hove Albion at KC Stadium on January 9, 2016 in Hull, England. (Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)
(Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)

Star Player: Robert Snodgrass – A classy player who has been hurt for much of his Hull career, Snodgrass shot onto the scene with Norwich City in 2013 – his first shot at the Premier League – and has backed up that production since. He’s a chance creator more than a finisher, but he’ll score the occasional goal as well. Abel Hernandez is the star finisher on the squad, with 20 Championship goals last season, but Snodgrass is the player opposing managers will be most concerned about when game-planning for Hull.

Coach’s Corner: Steve Bruce was meant to lead Hull into the Premier League for the second time in three years, but after receiving a shot at the England job that Sam Allardyce ultimately won, things went sour. Bruce resigned, and suddenly the squad is left not only thing but without a leader. They wanted Welsh boss Chris Coleman, but were turned down. The vacant managerial position is something Hull will want to sort out quickly, or else they risk an untenable situation just weeks into the new season.

PST Predicts: At this point in time, there’s only one place anyone can realistically see Hull after the season, and that’s back in the Championship. Sure, it’s a long season, and with the transfer window not closed yet, things can turn around. But if things remain as they are, and a manager isn’t found until after Opening Day, it could get ugly quick. They have a more talented squad than Burnley, and therefore can weather time without reinforcements better than their counterparts from the Championship in a similar situation, but a thin squad is deadly.