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Championship Focus: Wolves go 10 clear; playoffs race logjam

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Wolverhampton Wanderers’ most likely path to not winning — and running away with — the 2017-18 Championship title required a defeat to second-place Bristol City on Saturday. Alas, in dramatic fashion, it wasn’t to be and their lead only ballooned larger.

Once again, the Championship is beginning to sound a lot like the PL.

[ PL ROUNDUP: Chelsea leapfrog Man United for 2nd ]

Wolves extended their unbeaten run to 11 games (nine wins) by winning away to Bristol, 2-1, in the two sides’ top-of-the-table clash. The victory, which sent Nuno Espirito Santo’s side 10 points clear of now-second-place Derby County, was sealed by a 93rd-minute winner scored by Ryan Bennett after Wolves erased a 1-0 deficit courtesy of Barry Douglas’s 65th-minute equalizer. It was the first time Wolves had trailed a league opponent since losing to Queens Park Rangers on Oct. 28, the game which preceded their current unbeaten run.

In the Championship, the difference between chasing the second automatic-promotion place and the logjam of the playoff battle is roughly… oh, one or two bad results. Take, for example, the last eight days for Cardiff City.

The Bluebirds were riding high — second in the league, just four points back of Wolves, and unbeaten in six league games — before three straight defeats, including a disastrous showing against 22nd-place Bolton just before Christmas, erased their four-point lead in the race for second and tossed Neil Warnock’s side two spots down the league table, now 11 points back of the runaway leaders.

Outside of the current top-two, the league’s in-form team of the moment is eighth-place Preston North End, winners of five of their last nine and unbeaten during that stretch; Brentford have climbed all the way up to 10th after spending the first two months of the season stuck in the bottom half of the table, and the Bees are suddenly just four points off the playoff places and six clear of the bottom half.

[ PL SUNDAY: Man City go for 19 straight; WBA-Arsenal ]

After 25 of 46 rounds…

Place Team Points GD
1 Wolverhampton Wanderers 58 +27
2 Derby County 48 +18
3 Bristol City 47 +14
4 Cardiff City 47 +12
5 Leeds United 42 +9
6 Sheffield United 41 +9
7 Aston Villa 41 +9
8 Preston North End 40 +5
9 Middlesbrough 38 +8
10 Brentford 37 +7
11 Ipswich Town 36 +3
12 Fulham 36 +2

Championship Focus: Halfway through, who’s coming up?

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Just as the second half of the 2017-18 Premier League season began on Tuesday, so did the Championship’s decisive half of football, with one former PL side threatening to run away with the title and the rest of the top half separated by just 13 points.

Sounds somewhat familiar, doesn’t it?

[ MORE: Boxing Day blues for Man Utd; joy for Chelsea, Liverpool, Spurs ]

Wolverhampton Wanderers, who were mostly recently a PL side before being relegated in 2012, are unbeaten in their last 10 league games (eight wins) and eight points clear of their nearest title challengers, though Nuno Espirito Santo’s side did drop points for the second time in four games on Boxing Day. The Championship’s most prolific scoring side is spearheaded by 23-year-old Brazilian forward Leo Bonatini (12 goals) and 21-year-old Portuguese wonderkid Diogo Jota (10). If Wolves somehow don’t end up promoted this season, a bump in league is still likely for the prolific duo. Tuesday’s 2-2 draw away to 16th-place Millwall left the door slightly ajar for newly-established second-place Bristol City to trim the gap into single digits.

Everyone will first recall Bristol’s famous victory over Manchester United in the League Cup last week, of course, but that triumph at is hardly an outlier in what has been a fantastically consistent season for Lee Johnson’s Robins. With just one defeat from their last 11 league games (eight wins), Bristol have shot up the table following a draw-filled start to the season which seemed likely to preclude them from the promotion discussion. 24-year-old English forward Bobby Reid leads the way with 11 goals this season, with no one else bagging more than a half-dozen for an effectively balanced side.

Cardiff City had shown themselves to be worthy adversaries of Wolves, until back-to-back defeats in the last week saw them tumble from second to third in the table. First, it was a 2-0 defeat away to 23rd-place Bolton, followed by a 4-2 humbling at home against Fulham on Tuesday. 27-year-old Canadian winger Junior Hoilett is still kicking around the Championship and leads the Bluebirds with six goals.

Leeds United are the hottest team in the league (this side of Bristol), as Thomas Christiansen’s men are unbeaten in their last six (five wins) and are now just three points back of fourth-place Derby. A pair of sides relegated in recent seasons, Middlesbrough (2017) and Aston Villa (2016), currently sit just outside the playoff (top-six) places.

[ MORE: Man City take on Newcastle seeking 18th straight win ]

After 24 of 46 rounds played…

Place Team Points GD
1 Wolverhampton Wanderers 55 +26
2 Bristol City 47 +15
3 Cardiff City 47 +13
4 Derby 45 +17
5 Leeds United 42 +10
6 Sheffield United 41 +10
7 Middlesbrough 38 +9
8 Aston Villa 38 +8
9 Preston North End 37 +4
10 Ipswich Town 36 +4
11 Fulham 35 +2
12 Brentford 34 +5

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

Championship Focus: It’s all about the playoff places now

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With Brighton & Hove Albion and Newcastle United having already clinched the Championship’s two automatic promotion places, all eyes turn to the four teams behind them still jockeying for playoff positioning…

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

3rd — Reading — 82 points, +2 GD
4th — Sheffield Wednesday — 81 points, +16 GD
5th — Huddersfield Town — 81 points, +1 GD
6th — Fulham — 77 points, +27 GD

First of all, the Championship remains the least sensible league in the world. Disagree? Just try to explain the above wildly varying points totals and the corresponding goal differentials. Go ahead, I’ll wait

As for the weekend’s results, Reading and Wednesday did themselves major favors in the race for third with victories over Wigan Athletic (1-0) and Ipswich Town (1-0), respectively, while Huddersfield, who entered the weekend in that top playoff place, played 67 minutes with a man advantage against Birmingham City, and lost 2-0. All three of Reading, Wednesday and Huddersfield have clinched their place in the promotion playoffs, which begin two weeks from Saturday, on May 13.

[ MORE: PL Sunday preview — North London derby, plus 6 of the top 7 play ]

Given Leeds United’s 3-3 draw with Norwich City, a win would have clinched the fourth and final playoff place for Fulham, but the Cottagers dropped a pair of points themselves in a 1-1 draw with Brentford at Craven Cottage. Still, Fulham are all but into the playoffs with a three-point lead on Leeds, and a goal differential that’s 13 goals better.

Championship Focus: 3 teams separated by 1 point; Fulham go 6th

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Brighton are promoted already, and Newcastle United should still be joining them, but beyond those two, the Championship is a disorganized, jumbled mess.

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

Norwich City 2-0 Brighton & Hove Albion

Let’s call it the promotion celebration hangover, shall we? After five straight wins secured their place in the Premier League next season, Brighton never really turned up against Norwich on Friday. Scoring one own goal is never an enjoyable experience. Scoring a brace of own goals is an absolute nightmare, which Brighton goalkeeper David Stockdale lived during a disastrous 21-minute period, and will never forget.

Nottingham Forest 3-2 Reading

Having climbed all the way up to third in recent weeks, Reading lost away to relegation threatened Forest on Saturday, and saw their lead in the race for the first playoff spot to be cut from four points to one. Britt Assombalonga put Forest 2-0 up two minutes into the second half, and Mustapha Carayol made it 3-0 before Reading came to life. Yann Kermorgant bagged a second-half brace and brought the visitors back to 3-2 with 15 minutes left to play, but that’s as close as they’d get.

[ MORE: Chelsea beat Tottenham to reach FA Cup final ]

Sheffield Wednesday 2-1 Derby County

Officially the Championship’s most in-form side (five wins and one draw in their last six games), Wednesday have raced past a whole host of sides and moved into fourth place with a comeback victory over Derby. Darren Bent put the visitors ahead three minutes into the second half, but Steven Fletcher and Gary Hooper responded to pull the Owls level and ahead over the the next 16 minutes.

Huddersfield Town 1-4 Fulham

Heading in the opposite direction, Huddersfield have just four wins from their last 11 league games (five losses), and have slipped from third to fifth, where they sit just two points ahead of sixth-place Fulham after a 4-1 home thrashing at the hands of the Cottagers. Scott Malone canceled out Chris Lowe’s early opener, Tom Cairney scored the eventual winner from the penalty spot in the 20th minute, and Stefan Johansen made it 3-1 and 4-1 in the final nine first-half minutes.

Elsewhere in the Championship

(18th) Burton 2-1 (7th) Leeds United

Monday’s Championship schedule

Newcastle United vs. Preston North End — 2:45 p.m. ET