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The race for Premier League promotion is red hot

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With the top flight title race fading fast as Liverpool pummels the Premier League into oblivion in record fashion, an appreciation can be had for what the Reds are accomplishing. That is for another time.

For now, we are going to take a moment to appreciate the race below them. There is a red-hot battle for Premier League promotion that is tighter than we’ve seen in a while.

Y’all, the Championship is LIT.

West Brom sits atop the league with 59 points from 31 matches, and the Baggies seem a solid bet to make their way back to the Premier League after a short one-season dip. Below them, a battle rages that could even threaten the top dogs should West Brom slip even a little.

[ MORE: Chelsea closes in on Ziyech deal ]

Leeds United sits second, occupying an automatic promotion position as they have for most season. That may change today. As Leeds stands on 56 points after its draw with Brentford yesterday, Fulham lurks just a point back, and with a match today against fellow Londoners Millwall, a win for the Whites would see them knock Leeds off the top two for the first time since early November.

Behind Fulham is Brentford with 54 points, level with fifth-placed Nottingham Forest and only ahead thanks to its league-best +27 goal differential. Yes, you read that right, the league leader in goal differential is in fourth.

Preston North End in sixth and Bristol City in seventh are each level on 50, meaning the gap from second to seventh is a measly six points. Things could get truly insane down the stretch.

Of the top seven teams, five of them have lost at least once in their last five matches, with only Fulham and Preston owning pristine form of late. West Brom had lost just once all Championship season until the holidays hit and suddenly they’ve dropped three of their last seven. Leeds is facing a full-on collapse, having won just twice since mid-December and losing four of its last six, with just four points gained in that span. Fulham is in good form with four wins in its last five, but they are living on the edge having skated by via a one-goal margin in each of their last seven victories and 10 of their last 11. Brentford would be formidable if the Bees could figure out their road form, with six of their nine losses coming away from Griffin Park. Nottingham Forest can’t get out of its own way, following up a signature 2-0 win over Leeds with a 1-0 gack attack at home to 21st placed Charlton Athletic last time out.

All this mayhem makes each match critically important – and therefore tense as hell. Fulham today could move into an automatic qualifying spot with a win, but if they fail to beat Millwall, it could open them to fall as far as fifth. If this pace keeps up, theoretically a team that had a shot to finish with an automatic qualifying spot could end up out of the playoffs altogether with a few poor results late in the season. Building room for error in the next month or two will be critical for teams that wish to have a chance down the stretch.

There are some critical matches coming up as well. West Brom plays Nottingham Forest on Saturday that has a make-or-break feel to it for both sides, especially the Baggies who then have Bristol City next. Leeds plays Bristol City on Saturday hoping to put a finger in the leaky dike. Fulham has a three-game stretch through March that sees them play Bristol City, Brentford, and Leeds looking to prove they belong. As you can see, the Robins have a ton of chances to yank themselves up the table.

For some of these teams like West Brom and Fulham, they are looking to return to the Premier League after short spells down below. For many of the teams fighting for promotion, however, fans are hoping to see their beloved clubs crack the top flight for the first time in quite a while. Leeds United, a storied club that qualified for the Champions League with a third-place finish in 2000, hasn’t been back since relegation in 2003. Another storied club, Forest has not been back to the Premier League since dumped in 1999. Three clubs have never been in the Premier League: Bristol City was relegated from the First Division back in 1979, Preston hasn’t seen top-flight action since 1961, and Brentford hasn’t been in the top flight since 1947 with just five total top flight seasons in club history.

There are still battles to be won in the English top flight, with teams like Chelsea, Tottenham, and Sheffield United battling for a Champions League place while others further down the table fight for their Premier League lives. Still, the race for promotion is proving to be a wild and crazy one just a few blocks down the road.

FA Cup third round preview, score picks

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There are some tasty clashes in the FA Cup third round this weekend as two all-Premier League ties have been set up, while there are also a lot of tricky tests against lower league teams for PL clubs.

 [ LIVE: Follow all the FA Cup scores here ]

Liverpool will host Merseyside rivals Everton at Anfield, while Wolves host Man United as they met for the second season in a row, plus Arsenal host Leeds United and holder Man City host Port Vale.

The third round is where PL and Championship teams enter the oldest knockout competition in the world and plenty of top-flight teams may not take this competition so seriously this season given the congested nature of the Premier League table as managers focus on not being relegated instead of FA Cup glory.

Upset alerts are well and truly ready.

Below is the draw in full and my score picks are next to them, as the games will be from Saturday to Monday before the fourth draw draw is made.

FA Cup third round draw (JPWs score picks to the right)

7:31 a.m. ET: Millwall v Newport County – 3-1
7:31 a.m. ET: Bristol City v Shrewsbury – 4-0
7:31 a.m. ET: Birmingham City v Blackburn Rovers – 1-1
7:31 a.m. ET: Rochdale v Newcastle – 1-1
7:31 a.m. ET: Burnley v. Peterborough – 0-2
7:31 a.m. ET: Rotherham United v Hull City – 1-3
10:01 a.m. ET: Southampton v Huddersfield Town – 2-1
10:01 a.m. ET: Watford v Tranmere Rovers – 2-2
10:01 a.m. ET: Cardiff City v Carlisle – 2-0
10:01 a.m. ET: Fulham v Aston Villa – 3-1
10:01 a.m. ET: Preston North End v Norwich City – 2-0
10:01 a.m. ET: Brighton v Sheffield Wednesday – 1-2
10:01 a.m. ET: Brentford v Stoke City – 4-1
10:01 a.m. ET: Oxford United v Hartlepool United – 1-1
10:01 a.m. ET: Reading v Blackpool – 1-2
12:31 p.m. ET: Bournemouth v Luton Town 1-3
12:31 p.m. ET: Leicester City v. Wigan – 2-1
12:31 p.m. ET: Man City v. Port Vale – 5-1
12:31 p.m. ET: Wolves v. Man United – 3-1
12:31 p.m. ET: Fleetwood Town v. Portsmouth – 1-2

9:01 a.m. ET: Charlton v West Brom – 1-1
9:01 a.m. ET: Chelsea v Nottingham Forest – 3-0
9:01 a.m. ET: Middlesbrough v Tottenham – 2-2
9:01 a.m. ET: Crystal Palace v Derby County – 3-2
9:01 a.m. ET: QPR v Swansea – 1-1
9:01 a.m. ET: Sheffield United v AFC Fylde – 4-1
9:01 a.m. ET: Crewe v Barnsley – 1-3
9:01 a.m. ET: Bristol Rovers v Coventry – 1-1
9:01 a.m. ET: Burton Albion v Northampton – 1-1
11:01 a.m. ET: Liverpool v Everton – 3-1
1:16 p.m. ET: Gillingham v West Ham – 2-1

2:56 p.m. ET: Arsenal v Leeds United – 1-1

FA Cup third round draw: Liverpool v. Everton headlines

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All 20 Premier League and 24 Championship teams have entered the FA Cup at the third round stage.

The draw did not disappoint.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Liverpool will host Merseyside rivals Everton at Anfield as they meet in the FA Cup once again, while Wolves host Man United as they met for the second season in a row, plus Arsenal host Leeds United and holder Man City host Port Vale.

 [ LIVE: Follow all the FA Cup scores here ]

Below is the draw in full, as the games will be played on the weekend of Jan. 3-6, 2020.

FA Cup third round draw

Leicester v Wigan Athletic
QPR v Swansea
Fulham v Aston Villa
Chelsea v Nottingham Forest
Wolves v Man United
Charlton v West Brom
Rochdale or Boston v Newcastle
Cardiff City v Forest Green or Carlisle
Oxford v Exeter or Hartlepool
Sheffield United v AFC Fylde
Southampton v Huddersfield Town
Liverpool v Everton
Bristol City v Shrewsbury
Bournemouth v Luton Town
Brighton v Sheffield Wednesday
Bristol Rovers or Plymouth Argyle v Coventry or Ipswich Town
Eastleigh or Crewe v Barnsley
Man City v Port Vale
Middlesbrough v Tottenham
Reading v Blackpool
Watford v Tranmere Rovers
Preston North End v Norwich City
Millwall v Newport County
Crystal Palace v Derby County
Solihull Moors or Rotherham United v Hull City
Brentford v Stoke City
Fleetwood Town v Portsmouth
Arsenal v Leeds United
Gillingham v West Ham
Burton Albion v Northampton
Burnley v Peterborough
Birmingham City v Blackburn Rovers

Report: Bolton takeover talks break down

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Bolton Wanderers are in an even more alarming financial position, after reports of potential owner Laurence Bassini missing a deadline on Monday to provide proof of his financial capital.

Bolton’s current owner Ken Anderson made the deadline before the weekend, a weekend which saw Bolton’s match against Brentford postponed as the players are refusing to play due to not having been paid their wages last month. But now, per The Times, it looks as though Bassini won’t become the club’s new owner after all, putting the club in a precarious state.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

It’s a sad state of affairs for Bolton, a once-proud club that was a mid-table side in the Premier League less than a decade ago. The club featured Stuart Holden and later Tim Ream, cementing its American connections, but has now come on very hard times. Relegation has already been confirmed, with the club in 23rd place in the Championship, but it could go into administration or cease to be a club if the team continues to fail to pay its players and staff.

Over the weekend, it was reported that the Championship is compelling Bolton to complete its final two matches against Brentford and Nottingham Forest, even if the first team players refuse to play. That could mean potentially using youth players in what would be a mockery of the game, pitting boys against men because of the league’s bylaws and club’s inability to pay wages that were promised contractually.

Leeds coach Bielsa accepts responsibility in spy row

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DERBY, England (AP) Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa is known for his meticulous planning and attention to detail when it comes to preparing his teams for matches.

He took it too far this week.

Bielsa, as coach of English second-tier team Leeds, has accepted responsibility for having a club employee spy on opponent Derby County’s training session ahead of their league match on Friday.

“Without trying to find a justification, I have been using this kind of practice since the qualifications for the World Cup with Argentina,” said Bielsa, who coached his country from 1998-2004. “This is not illegal. We have been doing it publicly; we talk about it in the press. For some people it is the wrong thing, for others it’s not.”

Police were called to Derby’s training center on Thursday following reports of a man “acting suspiciously outside the premises.” The man was seen at the perimeter fence, inside which Derby’s players were training. British newspaper The Daily Mail reported he had in his possession a pair of binoculars and a change of clothes.

Derby manager Frank Lampard brought an early end to the training session.

“Yesterday I talked to Frank Lampard and he told me I didn’t respect fair play,” Bielsa said. “I have a different point of view on it but the important thing is what Frank and Derby think. I am responsible for it because I didn’t ask for Leeds United permission to do it.

“It doesn’t matter if this is legal, illegal, right or wrong,” Bielsa added. “For me, it’s enough that Frank Lampard and Derby County felt it was not the right thing to do. I didn’t behave well.”

Lampard, the former England and Chelsea midfielder, suggested the same thing happened before the teams’ first meeting of the season.

“We had somebody the day before our first game against them, which we lost 4-1,” Lampard said. “Now Leeds can beat you 4-1, they’re a fantastic team, but we had somebody in the bushes that day. Twice this season now.”

Bielsa’s Leeds was top of the League Championship going into Friday’s match against sixth-place Derby.

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