With nine games to go, the pressure is ratcheting up for the teams at the top end of the Championship. The battle for promotion is never straight-forward, however this year’s race is capturing the imagination of many. Historic clubs like Newcastle and Leeds are right in the picture for promotion to the top flight, while forward-thinking managers like David Wagner, Jaap Stam, Garry Monk and Slaviša Jokanović have brought excitement in the dugout as they compete against the tactical acumen of Rafa Benitez and divisional experience of Chris Hughton.
As we head into the next round of fixtures before the final international break of the season, things are tight at the top of the table. Newcastle and Brighton have 77 points, with the former leading by virtue of goal difference. While the top two have looked like the obvious picks for automatic promotion through most of the season, David Wagner’s exciting Huddersfield are very much in the race on 71 points with a game in hand.
Meanwhile, the race to get the final three spots for the promotion playoffs is just as tight and exciting. Garry Monk’s Leeds seemed certainties for the playoffs in February, but stuttering form since then means they have been reigned in by the chasing pack. Leeds are on 66 points, just two points ahead of Jaap Stam’s reading in fifth. Two points behind Reading in 6th are last season’s playoff finalists, Sheffield Wednesday, completing a trifecta of Yorkshire teams in the top six.
For the longest time it appeared that nobody could catch this sextet, but Slaviśa Jokanović has revitalized Fulham to make them serious contenders to gatecrash the playoffs. The Cottagers are just a point behind Wednesday and were it not for a late equalizer conceded at home against Blackburn on Tuesday, Fulham would already have jumped ahead of Carlos Carvalhal’s men in the standings.
This sets the stage for some crucial games this weekend that are bound to have an impact on how the table shapes up in the home stretch of a marathon campaign.
Friday sees a Huddersfield side that are top of the form table visit relegation-threatened Bristol City. On paper, this is a mismatch, but Bristol will buoyed by winning a crucial six-pointer at Wigan the last time out, so the Terriers cannot afford a letdown in intensity as they chase the automatic promotion spots.
At the same time on Friday, Wednesday host Reading in a direct clash between playoff rivals. A defeat at Hillsborough could spell trouble for Wednesday, but a win would push them above the Royals. Considering the high stakes of the game, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see a tight tense game and you wonder if Stam and Carvalhal would be happier settling for a point rather than risking a slide in momentum.
Friday’s results will set the stage for some equally important fixtures on Saturday. Fulham host Wolves, comfortable in the knowledge that at least one of Reading or Wednesday will lose points before they kick off. It is an opportunity that they can’t afford to throw away, especially after the points dropped at home against Blackburn.
Newcastle visit Birmingham hoping to get back on the winning trail after drawing at Reading and then losing at home to Fulham. The Magpies should have too much for Gianfranco Zola’s struggling Blues, but Rafa Benitez’s men have already thrown away too many points against inferior opposition this season.
The final game of the weekend has repercussions for both races — automatic promotion and the playoffs. Leeds host Brighton in front of what is bound to be a raucous atmosphere at Elland Road. If the Lilywhites win, they could establish a significant gap over the chasing pack while putting Brighton right in the sights of Huddersfield. However, if the hosts lose, the Seagulls may establish momentum to win the division outright while putting Leeds in danger of missing the playoffs altogether.
There are simply too many possibilities and it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see the permutations constantly evolve through the weekend. A two-week break follows and the losing teams this weekend will spend their time stewing over their precarious positions while the victors will be confident of taking their momentum into the final eight games of the campaign. As ever, the Championship is bubbling towards an exciting climax!