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Championship Focus: Top three all win; everyone else drops points

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The EFL Championship’s races for Premier League promotion and the second-division title might just go down to the final days — if not day, singular — of the season based on the recent form of three runaway clubs.

[ MORE: What did we learn on a wild PL Saturday? (video) ]

As we discussed last week, Norwich City and Leeds United have paced the league for the vast majority of the season and remain in line to return to the PL for the first time in three and 14 years, respectively. There remains, however, a threat to their duopoly: Sheffield United are unbeaten in their last eight outings (five wins) and sit just two points back of Leeds, who are two points off the pace of Norwich.

All three of the aforementioned promotion chasers won this weekend — Norwich 1-0 Swansea City; Bristol City 0-1 Leeds; Sheffield United 2-0 Rotherham.

[ MORE: PL Sunday preview: Liverpool in chase mode; Arsenal v. Man United ]

That’s all the joy and happiness there is to report from the upper reaches of the Championship this weekend, as the next five teams in the table (entering the weekend) all dropped points.

West Bromwich Albion were one of the luckier sides, able to salvage a 1-1 draw with 24th-place Ipswich Town despite coughing up an early lead. Manager Darren Moore, who took over and re-energized the club just before the Baggies were relegated from the PL last season, wasn’t so lucky: he was fired with West Brom sitting fourth in the table.

Fifth-place Middlesbrough blew an early lead of their own and gave away all three points to suddenly red-hot Brentford (four wins in their last five — up to 12th, six points out of 6th) at the Riverside Stadium. Sixth-place Bristol City fell victims to Leeds, which opened the door for Derby to leapfrog them for the fourth and final playoff place on the back of their draw with Sheffield Wednesday.

After 35.5 of 46 rounds…

Place Team Points GD
1 Norwich City 72 +27
2 Leeds United 70 +22
3 Sheffield United 68 +27
4 West Bromwich Albion 61 +20
5 Middlesbrough 58 +13
6 Derby County 55 +2
7 Bristol City 54 +7
8 Nottingham Forest 53 +10
9 Preston North End 51 +6
10 Birmingham City 50 +8
11 Hull City 50 -1
12 Brentford 49 +13

Championship Focus: Promotion favorites Norwich, Leeds win again

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Norwich City and Leeds United have spent the majority of the 2018-19 EFL Championship season battling one another for the top spot, and smart money would have long since been placed on them to finish in two-two and secure automatic promotion to the Premier League.

[ MORE: Man City win, lose KDB | Man United come back, beat Southampton ]

That was before Sheffield United began their current run of six games unbeaten (four wins) and just one loss in their last 12 games (eight wins), to complicate matters. Leeds, on the other hand, have lost five of their last 11 (five wins) and have fallen off their longtime perch atop the table. Norwich’s recent form has been somewhere in the middle of the other two (6W-3D-1L in their last 10), but just good enough to create a two-point advantage over Leeds.

Sheffield United, who will face Steel derby rivals Sheffield Wednesday on Monday, entered the weekend level on points with Leeds, but have since fallen three back after Marcelo Bielsa’s side thrashed West Bromwich Albion 4-0 on Friday. For about 17 hours, Leeds were again top of the Championship.

Norwich then proceeded to win 3-1 away to Millwall on Saturday to reclaim the summit. Golden Boot leader Teemu Pukki bagged his 24th league goal of the season in the process.

The rest of the race for playoff places is, shall we say, an unmitigated disaster zone where absolutely anything can, and likely will, happen. We’ll turn our attention to that in a few weeks when the dozen teams still in the mix begin to, hopefully, sort themselves out.

[ MORE: PL Sunday preview: Merseyside, west London derbies on tap ]

After 34.5 of 46 rounds…

Place Team Points GD
1 Norwich City 69 +26
2 Leeds United 67 +21
3 Sheffield United 64 +25
4 West Bromwich Albion 60 +20
5 Middlesbrough 58 +14
6 Bristol City 54 +8
7 Derby County 51 +1
8 Birmingham City 50 +8
9 Nottingham Forest 50 +7
10 Hull City 50 +2
11 Aston Villa 48 +8
12 Preston North End 48 +5

Taking the temperature of the Championship’s race for promotion

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The Championship has entered the home stretch of the season, with around a dozen or so matches left in the race to earn promotion to the Premier League.

As it stands, the automatic places of first and second are anything but settled and there are seven teams within six points of the final playoff spot, setting the stage for a memorable final couple of months.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s PL match recaps ]

Once the runaway to win the league, Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United have taken a hit in form and maybe mystique since the discovery that they were spying on opponents’ training sessions in the run-up to matches.

Leeds is now third in the table following a 1-0 loss at QPR on Tuesday, two points back of Norwich City and one behind Sheffield United. The Whites are 3W-1D-3L since beating Derby County on Jan. 11.

The beautiful thing about the thick-and-fast nature of Championship fixtures is there’s a match with serious table ramifications seemingly every match day. Leeds will tangle with fourth-place West Bromwich Albion come Friday, while Sheffield United has a derby with playoff hopeful Sheffield Wednesday.

Here are the contenders for Premier League status, in two fields.

Automatic promotion

Red-hot Norwich City has lost just three times this season, and neither Leeds nor Sheffield United boasts a six-pointer left with the Canaries on their fixture list. Fourth-place West Brom is bidding for a straight return to the Premier League under Darren Moore, but could be joined on points by former boss Tony Pulis and Middlesbrough if the Smoggies win their match-in-hand. All five are within sight of automatic promotion.

Final playoff spot

While there’s plenty of time for any of the top teams to dip out of the Top Six, it’s looking more and more like about seven teams are vying for one spot. Bristol City has the inside track with 53 points and a match-in-hand on all but one of the teams in the the chasing pack: USMNT prospect Duane Holmes and Derby County. After that, it’s Birmingham City, Nottingham Forest, Preston North End, Hull City, and Sheffield Wednesday. Swansea City could also be within six points of sixth if it wins its match-in-hand and Bristol City and Derby lose theirs, but let’s no dive that deep into headache territory.

Leeds defender Jansson joins Malmo fans outside Stamford Bridge

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Sometimes, soccer players can be accused of being too disconnected from the fans who travel across their country to support their side. But not Pontus Jansson.

The Leeds defender traveled to London Thursday evening to join Malmo fans as they marched, sang, and chanted outside Stamford Bridge. It’s unclear if Jansson actually went into the stadium for the Europa League match, but what is clear is that he’s never lost his affection for his boyhood club. He even led some supporters in one of the Swedish club’s chants.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Jansson joined Malmo’s youth academy in 2006 and made his professional debut for his hometown side in 2009, playing in Sweden until 2014. Jansson has been a regular for Leeds each of the last three seasons since joining from Torino.

Like thousands of other Malmo fans, he probably figured this was his best chance to see a European away game of his favorite club close by. So there he went from Leeds to London to join the Malmo fans.

Leeds United fined $260K for spying

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Leeds United have been fined approximately $260,000 for spying on opposing teams in the Championship this season.

Manager Marcelo Bielsa admitted to watching other clubs train over the course of Leeds’ remarkable push for Premier League promotion, using a power point presentation to show that the spying was just a part of his exhaustive preparation.

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Leeds is 2W-1D-2L since defeating Derby County in the match after the espionage surfaced in the press.

Bielsa has backed the practice by saying he’s done it over the duration of his coaching career, and — paraphrasing — that it’s a bigger deal in England than it is in the rest of the world. From The Telegraph:

Shaun Harvey, the outgoing EFL chief executive, said the league was compelled formally reprimand the club to send out a “clear deterrent”. For the second time in the saga, Leeds issued an apology “for acting in a way that has been judged culturally unacceptable in the English game.”

The club will also support a new Football League policy placing a 72-hour ban before match days when it comes to watching opposition training without permission.

Leeds has a match-in-hand on the automatic promotion place holders in the Championship, and can go back atop the table by winning it. The club finished 13th last season despite sitting as high as sixth as late as the 26th match day.