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Championship Focus: West Brom, Leeds improve promotion chances with wins

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By no means is the race for promotion within the Championship sealed and delivered, but West Brom and Leeds United continue to add to their lead on the rest of the pack.

Despite playing the final 13 minutes down a player after Romaine Sawyers saw a straight red card, the Baggies went on to earn a formidable 3-0 win over Bristol City.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Sheffield United loanee Callum Robinson opened the scoring in the 32nd minute, while Hal Robsun-Kanu sealed his brace with 11 minutes left in regular time. With the victory, Wes Brom extends their league unbeaten streak to five matches, and their total point to 66.

At Elland Road, Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United registered their first back-to-back wins since October, following a minimal-margin victory over Reading. Leeds holds a five-point cushion on third-place Fulham.

Meanwhile, with goals quick fire goals from Paul Gallagher and Alan Browne over a four-minute stretch against an aching Hull City, Preston moved into play-off contention.

Saturday’s results

Brentford 2-2 Blackburn
Bristol City 0-3 West Brom
Swansea City 3-1 Huddersfield
Wigan Athletic 1-0 Millwall
Barnsley 1-0 Middlesbrough
Birmingham 3-3 Sheffield Wednesday
Nottingham Forest 0-0 QPR
Preston 2-1 Hull City
Charlton 3-1 Luton Town
Stoke City 2-0 Cardiff City
Leeds United 1-0 Reading

Championship Focus: Promotion favorites West Brom, Fulham drop points; Leeds earn vital win

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Despite major activity on Saturday, little change took place at the top of the Championship table, with only second-place Leeds United managing to earn three points out of all the top-seven sides.

Luke Ayling’s goal in the 16th minute was the lone goal in Leeds’ one-sided match against Bristol City.

Leaders West Brom, who are now only hold a four-point lead on Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds, gave up a leveling stoppage-time goal to fifth-place Nottingham Forest at the Hawthorns.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Matty Cash’s injury-time strike, snaps the Baggies three-match winning streak and hands them their 12th draw of the season.

No other performance caught eyes as much as bottom-dwellers Barnsley’s 3-0 thumping of third-place Fulham. It’s Fulham’s first 3-0 loss since mid-November – a 3-0 defeat to Hull City.

Barnsley midfield orchestrator Cauley Woodrow bagged a brace, while Jacob Brown added his own six minutes into the second half as the last place side earned just their sixth win of the season.

Saturday’s results

West Brom 2-2 Nottingham Forest
Leeds United 1-0 Bristol City
Cardiff City 2-2 Wigan Athletic
Birmingham 1-1 Brentford
Derby County 1-1 Huddersfield
Sheffield Wednesday 0-3 Reading
Birmingham 1-1 Brentford
Derby County 1-1 Huddersfield
Sheffield Wednesday 0-3 Reading
Charlton 0-2 Blackburn
Fulham 0-3 Barnsley
Preston 0-1 Millwall
Middlesbrough 0-1 Luton Town
QPR 4-2 Stoke City

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.

Championship focus: Promotion-chasing Leeds, Brentford, Nottingham Forest drop points

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The suddenly congested Championship playoff picture handed big opportunities to leaders West Bromwich Albion and third-place Fulham on Tuesday.

Second-place Leeds United drew fourth-place Brentford, while fifth-place Nottingham Forest was surprised 1-0 at relegation-threatened Charlton Athletic.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Leeds entered the day having lost four of five and winning just twice in the league since Dec. 14, making Tuesday a rare chance for someone else to move into an automatic promotion spot.

Brentford made a bid to do that by opening up a 1-0 lead at home on a goal by Said Benrahma, only for Liam Cooper to level the score before halftime en route a draw.

That gave Forest a chance to climb into second just by handling its business against 21st place Charlton. Sabri Lamouchi’s men couldn’t do anything with 57 percent of the ball and a 17-11 shots advantage in a 1-0 loss.

That means Fulham can move into second with a win away to Millwall on Wednesday, while Preston North End and Bristol City further congest the race for promotion. Wins by both PNE and Bristol City would leave between 5-6 teams within three points.

Also on Wednesday, leaders West Brom can take hold of a minimum six-point lead on third with a win at Reading.

Tuesday’s results

Blackburn Rovers 3-0 Hull City
Wigan Athletic 2-2 Middlesbrough
Nottingham Forest 0-1 Charlton Athletic
Brentford 1-1 Leeds United
Swansea City 0-0 QPR
Barnsley 0-1 Birmingham City

Wednesday’s fixtures

2:45 p.m. ET
Millwall v. Fulham
Bristol City v. Derby County
Luton Town v. Sheffield Wednesday
Huddersfield Town v. Cardiff City

3 p.m. ET Wednesday
Stoke City v. Preston North End
Reading v. West Bromwich Albion

Barcelona’s Setien under pressure after three games in charge

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BARCELONA, Spain — Barcelona hired Quique Setien to improve a team that was already leading the Spanish league.

Two weeks later, the defending champions are trailing Real Madrid and clearly struggling to adapt to the on-the-fly coaching change.

The team has boosted its possession of the ball and its number of passes, tenants of the orthodox Barcelona style professed by Setien that had waned in recent seasons. But that has yet to make it firmer on defense or lead to more goals compared to its performances under predecessor Ernesto Valverde.

Barcelona needed a goal by Lionel Messi to get past Granada 1-0 in Setien’s debut on Jan. 19. A double by Antoine Griezmann, including a second goal in stoppage time, saved them against third-tier side Ibiza in the Copa del Rey with a 2-1 win on Wednesday.

But on Saturday Barcelona was completely outplayed at Valencia, which was content to let Barcelona have the ball and then wait to pounce on the break. Valencia won 2-0 despite also missing a penalty and hitting the post. Madrid’s 1-0 win at Valladolid on Sunday let it move three points ahead and take charge of the title race.

Setien acknowledged that his team has yet to play like he wants.

“We are evaluating the position of our players and the understanding we need to have to do what we propose,” Setien said after Saturday’s loss. “One thing is that (the players) understand it on the chalkboard and quite another is how we put it into practice.”

Setien’s three-man backline, a change from Valverde’s four defenders, left the team’s flanks exposed against Valencia. Ansu Fati and Jordi Alba, playing as wing backs, were unable to effectively join the attack. And, most disconcertingly for Setien, the midfield of Sergio Buquests, Frenkie de Jong, and Arthur failed to set up Messi and Griezmann in scoring positions.

Barcelona only got going once it was trailing in the score and after Arturo Vidal had replaced Arthur. Vidal set up Messi’s goal against Granada and was his best partner in attack again at Valencia.

“There are things that (my players) didn’t interpret correctly,” Setien said. “That, or we didn’t explain them well. We made passes that didn’t help advance the team. There are things we need to work on to correct.”

Setien will need to work out the kinks in his team before Barcelona visits Napoli in the opening leg of their Champions League round-of-16 leg on Feb. 25.

Next up is Leganes in the Copa del Rey round-of-16 on Thursday.

SIMEONE’S SLUMP

Atletico Madrid is in a slump and its road forward is only going to get more difficult.

Diego Simeone’s side will take a four-game winless streak across all competitions to crosstown rival Real Madrid next weekend.

Madrid bettered Atletico on Jan. 12 in a penalty shootout to win the Spanish Super Cup. That loss started a wretched run for Atletico that has included a 2-0 loss at Eibar, a humiliating exit from the Copa del Rey to a third-tier team, and Sunday’s 0-0 draw at home with lowly Leganes.

“The results are not good, but we have never stopped trying nor fighting for the good times to return,” goalkeeper Jan Oblak said. “We hope to build the run of wins that we all need.”

While Oblak is keeping the team in matches by anchoring a strong defense, the team’s attack is sputtering. With 22 goals in 21 league matches, only five teams in the 20-team division have scored fewer. Barcelona, the leading scorer, has 50 goals.

The pressure will be on former Madrid player Alvaro Morata to lead an attack with Angel Correa and youngster Joao Felix, who has yet to meet expectations following his 120 million euros ($133 million) transfer from Benifca.

A win at the Santiago Bernabeu would do wonders to silence Atletico’s critics. A loss would realistically leave the team with only the Champions League to play for. It faces defending champion Liverpool in the round-of-16 next month.