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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.

EFL Cup wrap: Chelsea, Arsenal score four; Everton, Leicester ousted

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The EFL Cup — formerly known as the League Cup — is into the third round, with eight of 16 fixtures played Tuesday around the United Kingdom.

[ MORE: More of today’s EFL Cup goals ]

It was a day for new boys at Arsenal, and a celebration of veterans at Chelsea, while Everton was stung by a longtime Toffee now wearing yellow.

Nottingham Forest 0-4 Arsenal

Granit Xhaka gave Arsenal a halftime lead when he sent this wrecking ball towards the Forest goal. Lucas Perez added a second half brace, as the Gunners cruised to a win despite the Forest debut of ex-Gunner Nicklas Bendtner.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain nabbed the fourth, and USMNT talent Gedion Zelalem subbed into the match for the final 7 minutes.

The second Perez goal was class grunt work with a deft finish.

Leicester City 2-4 (aet) Chelsea

When you’re eye level with the keeper and so is the ball, just do what Shinji Okazaki did and nudge it over the line. Poor Asmir Begovic was outfoxed by Leicester’s Japanese striker, and again later when Okazaki bounded the ball off the ground from close range to make it 2-0.

Gary Cahill forced a ball across the Leicester line before halftime to halve the deficit, and Cesar Azpilicueta volleyed a 49th minute clearance home to level things at 2.

Sitting on yellow, Marcin Wasilewski put Leicester in an awful spot with a high elbow to Diego Costa during second half stoppage. The Foxes would need to play with only 10 men in extra time.

Cesc Fabregas only needed two minutes of the first frame of extra time to belt home a winner, as Hazard teed him up with a back heel straight from the playground. He added another soon after to dust this one up.

From 2-0 to 4-2, and having to contend extra time? Claudio Ranieri will not be pleased.

Newcastle United 2-0 Wolverhampton

DeAndre Yedlin proved playmaker on Matt Ritchie‘s opener, while Yoan Gouffran added a second, and Newcastle avenged its league upset from the weekend.

Derby County 0-3 Liverpool

Ragnar Klavan was the unlikely opening goal scorer, Philippe Coutinho the more likely second Red to tally. Divock Origi added the third Liverpool goal in the 54th minute, as Jurgen Klopp‘s bunch cruised.

Bournemouth 2-3 (aet) Preston North End

The Cherries went down 1-0 after 10 minutes, but avoid an upset at the Vitality Stadium when Lewis Grabban converted a 53rd minute penalty and Dan Gosling gave Bournemouth its first lead with under 15 minutes to play.

Simon Makienok leveled things with his second goal of the night, and we were off to extra time where  — wouldn’t you know it? — the Dane completed his hat trick to send the Cherries out of the EFL Cup.

Everton 0-2 Norwich City

Ghosts of Goodison past haunting Everton, as Steven Naismith had the Canaries up at the break. Josh Murphy tore into this shot in the 74th minute to insure the lead (and, as it turns out, ensure the win).

Brighton and Hove Albion 0-2 Reading

Reading had a 1-0 lead and made it 2-0 with 10 men after a red card to ex-Manchester United back Tyler Blackett.

Leeds United 1-0 Blackburn

Garry Monk got a winner from Kiwi striker Chris Wood to avoid extra time in a very even contest.

Wednesday
Swansea City-Man City — 2:45 p.m. ET
Northampton-Man Utd — 2:45 p.m. ET
Southampton-Crystal Palace — 2:45 p.m. ET
QPR-Sunderland — 2:45 p.m. ET
West Ham United-Accrington Stanley — 2:45 p.m. ET
Fulham-Bristol City — 2:45 p.m. ET
Stoke City-Hull City — 3 p.m. ET
Tottenham Hotspur-Gillingham — 3 p.m. ET

EFL Cup at the half: Xhaka’s blistering blast; Okazaki on fire (video)

Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images
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The EFL Cup — formerly known as the League Cup — is into the third round, with eight of 16 fixtures played Tuesday around the United Kingdom. Here’s where we stand at halftime.

[ LIVE: Follow the second halves ]

Nottingham Forest 0-1 Arsenal

Granit Xhaka put a little oomph on this one, huh?

Leicester City 2-1 Chelsea

When you’re eye level with the keeper and so is the ball, just do what Shinji Okazaki did and nudge it over the line. Poor Asmir Begovic was outfoxed by Leicester’s Japanese striker, and again later. Which Okazaki finish was more clever?

Gary Cahill forced a ball across the Leicester line before halftime to halve the deficit.

Newcastle United 2-0 Wolverhampton

DeAndre Yedlin proved playmaker on Matt Ritchie‘s opener, while Yoan Gouffran added a second, and Newcastle is well on its way to avenging its league upset from the weekend.

Derby County 0-1 Liverpool

Ragnar Klavan the unlikely opening goal scorer. Mark a man, Rams.

Everton 0-1 Norwich City

Ghosts of Goodison past haunting Everton, as Steven Naismith has the Canaries up.

Brighton and Hove Albion 0-1 Reading

Reading leads despite a red card to ex-Manchester United back Tyler Blackett.

Elsewhere
Leeds United 0-0 Blackburn
Bournemouth 0-1 Preston North End

Wednesday
Swansea City-Man City — 2:45 p.m. ET
Northampton-Man Utd — 2:45 p.m. ET
Southampton-Crystal Palace — 2:45 p.m. ET
QPR-Sunderland — 2:45 p.m. ET
West Ham United-Accrington Stanley — 2:45 p.m. ET
Fulham-Bristol City — 2:45 p.m. ET
Stoke City-Hull City — 3 p.m. ET
Tottenham Hotspur-Gillingham — 3 p.m. ET

Two Manchester United youngsters find new clubs; One for good

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Championship club Reading hasn’t kept a clean sheet since an Opening Day win, and has turned to a Manchester United defender to fix that.

The Royals have signed Tyler Blackett, 22, to a three-year deal. He ends his United career with 12 appearances, 11 in the Premier League, and a trio of loan spells (Celtic, Blackpool, Birmingham City).

MORE: Ranking PL early season expectations

Also leaving Old Trafford, albeit only for a year, is promising defender Cameron Borthwick-Jackson. He’s off to Wolverhampton, who sits third in the Championship after four matches.

The Manchester-born 19-year-old made 14 appearances last season for Louis Van Gaal, having been with the club since he was a 6 year-old.

From the BBC:

“My aim is to play as many games as I can, gain experience and go back and challenge for a place in the team because Jose Mourinho has told me I’ve got a future there,” Borthwick-Jackson told BBC WM.

“I had interest from Premier League clubs and other Championship clubs but I wanted to come here and help the club get back to where they belong, which is the Premier League.”

Borthwick-Jackson was tossed into the fire by Louis van Gaal after a rash of defensive injuries hit United last season, and didn’t embarrass himself.

Jose Fonte acknowledges Manchester United interest, still focused on Southampton

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Manchester United has improved dramatically this summer, bringing in a host of flashy – and expensive – new players.

However, one area the Red Devils still remain somewhat weak at is the back line. Recently, they have been linked with Southampton defender Jose Fonte, who would prove a welcome addition to a thin central defensive unit.

Fonte was asked about the rumors in the buildup to Southampton’s Premier League opener Saturday against Watford, and he both acknowledged the interest and played it down.

“If the interest is there, it is a reason to be flattered to be associated with a club like Manchester United,” Fonte told Portuguese outlet Mais Futebol. “But I have a contract with Southampton, and I’m just focused on my work, to make a great season. I will not deny that Manchester United is one of the biggest clubs in the world and that it makes me happy to be associated with it. But to be Manchester United’s player is a big difference.”

The 32-year-old’s stock was already high, having strung three fantastic seasons together with Southampton, crafting him into one of the best defenders in England. Saints reportedly rebuffed plenty of interest in Fonte last summer, but this year, after adding to his value with a fantastic showing in Euro 2016 with eventual champions Portugal, given his age and form, it might be in Southampton’s best interests to sell.

However, Saints manager Claude Puel has issued a warning to would-be suitors. “I do not think there is a possibility for Jose to leave us,” Puel said to reporters in the pre-match press conference. “I am sure that he can play all these games. He is very proficient.”

“The window is difficult for the club and the players,” Puel continued. “Many clubs can be interested in players. That is normal.”

Fonte has been an absolute workhorse since joining Southampton from Crystal Palace in the 2010 winter transfer window while both clubs were still in the lower divisions. He has topped 3,000 league minutes in five of his six full seasons with Southampton, appearing in an incredible 110 Premier League matches the last three seasons (out of a possible 114).

At Manchester United, the current first-choice central defenders are Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo, Tyler Blackett, Phil Jones, and new signing Eric Bailly. Even with the arrival of 22-year-old Bailly, that squad doesn’t exactly inspire trophy-winning confidence.