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97th minute equalizer puts Norwich City on precipice of Championship title

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Norwich City is on the verge of securing the Championship title and automatic promotion to the Premier League after bagging a 97th minute equalizer to draw 2-2 with Sheffield Wednesday.

Mario Vrancic deposited a free-kick into the top-right corner deep into second-half injury time to secure the draw and move Norwich City five points clear at the top with three matches to go. While the slip is another opportunity for second-placed Sheffield United to gain ground, it also keeps Norwich City just out of reach with the season winding down.

The result is redemption for just two games ago when Norwich City themselves were pegged back in the 97th minute to finish 2-2 with Reading. That late equalizer came after Norwich had turned around a 1-0 deficit with goals in the 86th and 88th minutes. In fact, Norwich has had a propensity for late goals all season, including an 81st minute equalizer in a 1-1 draw with Wigan last time out, an 83rd minute equalizer in a 1-1 draw with West Brom in January, another in the 1-1 draw against Brentford, an 86th minute winner against Blackburn in December, and a 93rd minute winner against Bolton.

Marco Stiepermann had put the hosts in front after just 19 minutes on Friday, but Norwich proceeded to cough up the lead and even fell behind as Steven Fletcher scored for Sheffield Wednesday by sliding at the far post to reach a delivery less than 10 minutes after the halftime break.

Norwich will be thankful that the season is coming to an end and the window of opportunity for challengers to creep nearer is closing. The Canaries have led the way since late February, but have drawn three straight matches, including two to lower-half sides in Reading and Wigan. The finish is moderate, with matches remaining against lower-half sides Blackburn and Stoke City, plus a road visit to playoff hopefuls Aston Villa to close things out.

FOLLOW LIVE: Higuain starts in FA Cup

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Having clinched a spot in the League Cup Final, Chelsea aims for the next round of the FA Cup when it hosts Sheffield Wednesday on Sunday at Stamford Bridge.

Kickoff is at 1 p.m. ET in London.

[ LIVE: Follow all the FA Cup scores ]

It’ll be the Chelsea faithful’s first chance to see Gonzalo Higuain in their blue, with the ex-Napoli man starting for Maurizio Sarri.Youngsters Ethan Ampadu and Callum Hudson-Odoi also start for Chelsea, the latter reportedly handing in a transfer request earlier this week.

[ MORE: Giovinco leaving TFC? ]

Ex-Premier League strikers George Boyd and Steven Fletcher start for Wednesday, who is managed by Steve Bruce.

Make sure to tune-in for our special Transfer Deadline Day show on NBCSN on Thursday, Jan. 31 from 5 p.m. ET as we focus on all of the moves across the Premier League in the January window. You can stream the show live online right here.

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.

Championship Focus: Newcastle continue slide, fall from top spot

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Oh, Newcastle United, what are you doing? The title was yours, just waiting to be snatched up. Now, with five games to go, you no longer control your own destiny.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s coverage of the Championship ]

Queens Park Rangers 1-2 Brighton & Hove Albion

Fewer than a dozen games to go, only a handful of points off the top spot — there’s no better time to hit your best form of the season, and that’s exactly what Brighton have done over their last half-dozen games, winning five of the six at the same time Newcastle have gone into something of a tailspin (2W-2D-2L).

Glenn Murray bagged his 21st goal of the season (joint-3rd in the Championship) in the 58th minute on Friday, followed six minutes later by Brighton’s second, courtesy of Sebastien Pocognoli. QPR would pull a goal back through Matt Smith in the 74th minute, but the visitors would see out their 10th away win of the season (2nd most, behind Newcastle — 13).

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Spurs apply pressure, Chelsea unfazed ]

Sheffield Wednesday 2-1 Newcastle United

All the possession in the world, all the shots and shots on target, don’t mean a thing if you can’t hit the back of the net. 52 percent possession, 16 shots (8 on target), to 11 (and 3) — and yet, the Magpies found themselves 2-0 down after 87 minutes.

Tom Lees and Steven Fletcher fired Wednesday, who needed the win to hold onto sixth place (fourth and final playoff spot), into a comfortable lead before Jonjo Shelvey pulled one back in the 88th minute.

Elsewhere in the Championship

(19th) Nottingham Forest 2-0 (3rd) Huddersfield Town
(10th) Norwich City 7-1 (4th) Reading
(5th) Leeds United 3-0 (9th) Preston North End
(7th) Fulham 3-1 (17th) Ipswich Town
(18th) Birmingham City 1-2 (8th) Derby County

In flashiest show of English cash infusion yet, Wolves linked to big-money midfielder

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Sure, Paul Pogba cost Manchester United $116 million big ones, but that’s Manchester United.

In an even more glaring statement of the skyrocketing spending power in England, Championship side Wolverhampton has been heavily linked with a whopping $28 million move for Benfica midfielder Anderson Talisca. Wolves were recently purchased by Chinese conglomorate Fosun International back in mid-July, explaining the reported influx of liquidity.

The 22-year-old Brazilian moved to Portugal from his hometown club of Bahia in the summer of 2014, and has largely been a fixture for Benfica since coming across the pond.

This rumor picked up steam a few days ago after it was published in Noticias Ao Minuto, has since been updated by Portuguese newspaper O Jogo earlier Wednesday, and has been corroborated by The Sun. According to the O Jogo report, the deal is essentially complete, and all that’s left is for Talisca to receive a work visa allowing him to travel to Molineux Stadium and take a medical, something which Noticias reports is nearly complete. According to The Sun, Talisca’s agent Jorge Mendes and Benfica president Luis Felipe Vieira were both present at Wolves’ opening Championship fixture at Rotherham on Saturday to discuss the deal.

Should this transfer complete as reported, Talisca’s price would be nearly half the reported price Fosun International paid to purchase Wolves. The deal would utterly smash the previous Wolves transfer record, more than tripling the $8.4 million paid for Steven Fletcher in 2010. It would also top the Championship transfer record set by Aston Villa just last week when they paid Fulham around $16 million for Ross McCormack.

According to some reports, Liverpool was interested in Talisca as well, but have been beaten to the punch.