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Race for Premier League promotion beginning to heat up

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The race for promotion to the Premier League has taken a wild and unexpected turn.

Wolverhampton Wanderers have all but secured the title with a nine point lead and five matches remaining. However, directly below them is where things have suddenly become hairy.

Cardiff City seemed to have second place done and dusted, with a return to the Premier League for the first time since 2013 almost ensured as they sat on a seven-match winning streak and without a loss since New Year’s Day, holding a seven-point lead plus a game in hand as March wound down. Now, just a week later, things could potentially be falling apart as the race heats up.

Following a draw to 9th placed Sheffield United, Cardiff hosted leaders Wolves on Friday in a top-of-the-table meeting, and chaos ensued. Wolves held nearly 2/3 of the possession and went ahead 1-0 past the hour mark as Ruben Neves bagged a beautiful free-kick goal, looping his close-range effort over the wall and tucking it inside the left post.

As the game wound down, Cardiff began to push forward as they looked for a late equalizer. They earned a penalty as stoppage time began, and Gary Madine stepped up to take it hoping for his 11th goal of the year. Instead, former Norwich City goalkeeper John Ruddy dove to his left and acrobatically kept the effort out, preserving the lead as a big celebration ensued. But the fireworks weren’t over.

Six minutes later, as Cardiff continued to press forward in desperation, Wolves’ Ivan Cavaleiro chopped down Aron Gunnarsson on the edge of the box, and the linesman flagged for a foul. That brought a second stoppage-time penalty opportunity for Cardiff still trailing by a goal. This time, former QPR winger Junior Hoilett stepped up to the spot, but his effort clanged the underside of the bar and came back out, and Cardiff could not capitalize on the ensuing scrum.

The loss means Cardiff has wasted its game in hand, suddenly dropping five points in the last two matches, sitting now five points above Fulham in third. The Whites are in spectacular form, unbeaten in a club-record 18 straight matches and leading the Championship form table. Fulham still has memories of playoff failure from last season, and would love to secure automatic promotion with a late-season charge, playing stunningly beautiful possession-based soccer under Slavisa Jokanovic.

Meanwhile, Cardiff next faces fourth-placed Aston Villa, who also remains in contention for promotion just two points back of Fulham. The pressure seems to be getting to Cardiff manager Neil Warnock, who refused to shake the hand of Wolves manager Nuno after the loss on Friday, instead firing some flowery language in his direction for his post-match celebration while applauding the home fans. He chastised Nuno after the game, telling Sky Sports in his post-match interview “in the British game you need to have manners and a bit of class.”

The remaining playoff places are currently occupied by Derby County and Middlesbrough who sit 15 and 17 points back of Cardiff City in 2nd, but that battle is raging as well. Just off the pace sits Bristol City, Millwall, and Sheffield United all at 62 points, just one behind Middlesbrough’s final playoff spot. Preston is another two back of that on 60 points, while Brentford is two behind them at 58.

FA Cup: Chelsea, Swansea into 4th rd; B’mouth ousted by Wigan

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Two more Premier League sides booked their place in the fourth round of the FA Cup, courtesy of third-round replays, on Wednesday, bringing the PL’s total representation to 14 clubs…

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup ]

Chelsea 1-1 (5-3 PKs) Norwich City

Chelsea’s scoreless streak — for both themselves and opponents (three straight 0-0 draws across all competitions) — came to a merciful end on Wednesday, but not before surpassing the 300-minute mark. Michy Batshuayi — who, it must be said, struggled mightily in making just his third start (all in cup competitions) since mid-October — broke yet another scoreless deadlock in the 55th minute, ending the Blues’ scoreless run at 331 minutes.

With barely 30 seconds remaining in second-half stoppage time, 19-year-old left back Jamal Lewis brought the Canaries level with a thunderous header off the post.

Extra-time saw Chelsea reduced to 10, and then nine, men. Pedro was booked for diving just after the hour mark, and the Spaniard earned a second yellow card for a wild challenge in the 117th minute. Four minutes later, in second-half extra-time stoppage time, Alvaro Morata was booked for diving and proceeded to shout and gesticulate in the referee’s face. A second yellow was shown immediately.

Willy Caballero denied Nelson Oliveira on Norwich’s first attempt of the ensuing penalty shootout, giving the Blues the only cushion they’d need as Willian, David Luiz, Cesar Azpilicueta, N'Golo Kante and Eden Hazard all converted.

Chelsea will host Newcastle United in the fourth round on Sunday, Jan. 28.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

Swansea City 2-1 Wolverhampton Wanderers

Swansea faced the greatest threat of a Cupset on Wednesday but managed to come out on top, knocking off runaway Championship leaders and champions-elect Wolves. The Swans went ahead through Jordan Ayew in the 11th minute before the prolific Diogo Jota, who’ll be in the PL one way or another next season, brought Wolves back to 1-1 in the 66th. Three minutes later, Wilfried Bony bagged the winner to see Carlos Carvalhal’s side through to the next round.

Swansea will visit League Two side Notts County, who knocked off Championship playoff hopefuls Brentford in the third round, on Saturday, Jan. 27.

Wigan Athletic 3-0 Bournemouth

Bournemouth sat 32 places above Wigan in the English football pyramid when Wednesday’s replay kicked off, and it matter not a single iota, as Paul Cook’s side hammered the Cherries at the DW Stadium. Sam Morsy, Dan Burn and Callum Elder bagged the goals for the League One leaders (three points clear after 26 of 46 rounds played). Wigan have alternated each of the last four seasons, finishing 23rd in the Championship and leading/winning League One. It’s been five years since the Latics were relegated from the PL, in the 2012-13 season.

Wigan will host West Ham United in the fourth round on Saturday, Jan. 27.

FA Cup preview: Three more PL sides face 3rd-round replays

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Three more Premier League sides, including a top-four fighter, attempt to join a dozen of their top-flight contemporaries in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Wednesday…

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup ]

Chelsea and Swansea City host Championship opposition in the form of Norwich City and Wolverhampton Wanderers, respectively, while Bournemouth will make the 500-mile roundtrip to take on League One side Wigan Athletic.

The Blues, who now sit fourth in the PL after their disappointing 0-0 draw with Leicester City, could manage only a scoreless draw with the Canaries at Carrow Road earlier this month. They are winless in their last four games across all competitions — all draws — including their League Cup semifinal first-leg draw with Arsenal last week; the last three of those all finished without a single goal scored. Chelsea, who are tied with Liverpool with the fourth-most FA Cups in their history (7), lost out to Arsenal in last season’s final at Wembley Stadium.

Swansea are undoubtedly the side on highest Cupset alert, as Wolves are the runaway leaders and champions-elect in the Championship (10 points clear after 27 of 46 rounds played), thus able to devote more attention to the FA Cup than the typical second-division side. With the two sides separated by just a single place in the English footballing pyramid (Swansea, 20th in the PL; Wolves, 1st in the Championship), they appear destined to swap places by the end of May.

Meanwhile, Bournemouth’s punishment for conceding a pair of early goals to a side currently 32 places below them in the pyramid, is the long, midweek trip from the south coast to the DW Stadium in the northwest of England. It was the Premier Leaguers who needed a two second-half goals, including Steve Cook‘s 90th-minute equalizer, to draw level at home in the first meeting.

Tuesday’s FA Cup replay actionFULL ROUNDUP

Leicester City 2-0 Fleetwood Town
West Ham United 1-0 (AET) Shrewsbury Town
Mansfield Town 1-4 Cardiff City
Sheffield Wednesday 2-0 Carlisle United
Reading 3-0 Stevenage

Report: Robbie Keane joining Wolves’ promotion push

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Robbie Keane is heading back where it all began for the Irish striker, hopeful of aiding a return to the Premier League for his Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Keane has two goals in four matches for Atlético de Kolkata in the Indian Super League, but Wolverhampton reporter Tim Nash says they will give him an early release.

[ MORE: Wenger wages at penalty decision ]

The 37-year-old striker scored 29 goals in 87 games for Wolves from 1997-99 before embarking on a glistening career which took him to Tottenham, Liverpool, Celtic, West Ham, and the LA Galaxy.

Wolves have a 12-point lead on Derby County and are 14 points ahead of third- and fourth-placed Cardiff City and Bristol City in the Football League Championship.

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