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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 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.

Leeds’ Bielsa admits he spied ‘all the rivals’

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Managerial darling Marcelo Bielsa spoke out Wednesday as fallout continues from a Leeds United scout caught spying on Derby County last week.

Bielsa says he’s spied on every team the club has played in the Championship this season.

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How rare is this? And how big of a role has it played in Leeds’ 4-point lead in the race for automatic promotion to the Premier League? From the BBC:

“I observed all the rivals we played against and watched the training sessions of all opponents,” he said. “All the information I need to clarify, I gather it without watching the training session of the opponent, so why did I send someone to watch them? Just because I thought I wasn’t violating the norm. I gathered information that I can obtain in another way.

“We feel guilty if we don’t work enough, it [watching the opponents train] allows us to have less anxiety and in my case I am stupid enough to allow this kind of behavior.”

The 63-year-old Argentine has spent time at Lille, Lazio, Marseille, Athletic Bilbao, and Espanyol in addition to running the national teams of Argentina and Chile.

It does raise the question of how much spying is done in soccer. We know that the NFL’s New England Patriots cheated during a game against the New York Jets and that MLB teams try to steal signals, but sneaking around a training session… is that okay? Should it be?

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.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Report: Marcelo Bielsa lined up by Atlanta United

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Now this is something that would not only break the hearts of Leeds United fans but it would surely delight supporters of reigning MLS champs Atlanta United.

A report from Paul Newberry of the Associated Press claims that Atlanta United want one of Marcelo Bielsa or Guillermo Barros Schelotto to take over from outgoing head coach Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino.

The Argentine coach took charge of ATL’s first two years as an MLS franchise but Martino announced he is leaving this month, and he is expected to be named the new head coach of the Mexican national team.

Bielsa is known to be a close friend of Martino, but does this link make sense?

Right now the eccentric Argentina coach has a sleeping giant, Leeds, in second place in England’s second tier and many believe the Elland Road club are the favorites for promotion to the Premier League this season.

However, a report from the Daily Telegraph states that Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani could be having money issues as his sports streaming company, Eleven Sports, is on the brink of shutting down.

“Radrizzani’s sports streaming service is at risk of shutting down after only four months amid growing doubts over the financial viability of the company. It is understood that the 44-year-old Italian businessman has been unsuccessfully attempting to renegotiate deals with established pay-TV operators but Eleven Sports is now considering pulling the plug on its UK company. Telegraph Sport understands there could now be added pressure on Leeds to achieve promotion this season due to fears over cash-flow issues.”

Would this situation force Bielsa to leave Leeds before the end of the season? Probably not. It seems likely that the pressure will be cranked up on him to achieve promotion though as Radrizzani, Leeds’ majority owner since May, will need to deliver the huge riches promotion to the Premier League brings to continue to bankroll the club.

Bielsa does have a reputation for jumping ship pretty quickly when he does decide he’s had enough at a particular club or if things that were promised to him do not come to fruition. That said, this would still be a huge shock.

Then again, Atlanta shocked many with hiring Martino in the first place and since then the signings of Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, Barco and now Gonzalo ‘Pity’ Martinz.