Leeds United v Norwich City v Sheffield United: how the run-in shakes down for the Championship's top three
The domestic season resumes on Saturday with the Championship automatic promotion battle heading for the wire and Leeds United in the thick of it. Phil Hay looks at what the run-in holds for the division's top three clubs.
The Championship field is so tightly packed in parts that the nine-point deduction imposed on Birmingham City last week took the club from outside play-off contention to the fringes of the fight to avoid relegation. Birmingham were most likely looking at another season in the division either way but their FFP sanction was not season over.
The middle of the table is heavily congested, with 10 points between Aston Villa in sixth from Blackburn Rovers in 16th, but its top two positions, the automatic routes out of the league, have come down to a three-horse race, barring a recovery from West Bromwich Albion which overhauls a seven-point gap in front of them. Middlesbrough, in fifth, are already 20 adrift of leaders Norwich City.
Norwich have a top-two finish in their hands but, after their last game, the club’s manager, Daniel Farke, warned that “in the Championship momentum can swing very quickly”.
Leeds United need it to flow their way after a 1-0 loss to Sheffield United before the international break, a result which knocked them down to third, and will attempt to start a concerted response at home to Millwall on Saturday.
All of the top three clubs have eight matches to go and are split by only five points. Here are their respective run-ins and the fixtures which will shape the final table:
A trip to Middlesbrough, the first of Norwich’s remaining fixtures, should have been one of the Championship’s more difficult propositions this season but Boro, remarkably, have a worse home record than Wigan Athletic in 19th. Nonetheless, the key opportunities for Farke’s squad are the three games which follow their outing at The Riverside, against Queens Park Rangers, Reading and Wigan.
Norwich have been very good at making the most of fixtures which, on paper at least, they are expected to win and an extension of their current surge – six straight victories and counting as it stands – through early April would probably edge them out of reach.
What Farke will want to avoid is a scenario where something is riding on their final match, away at a resurgent and dangerous Aston Villa. Realistically, there are enough good games for Norwich to get themselves over the line and their odds-on price for the title is about right.
Remaining fixtures: March 30 - Middlesbrough (a), April 6 - QPR (h), April 10 - Reading (h), April 14 - Wigan (a), April 19 - Sheff Wed (h), April 22 - Stoke (a), April 27 - Blackburn (h), May 5 - Aston Villa (a).
The striking thing about the opposition awaiting Sheffield United and Leeds United is the symmetry involved. Both will play away at Preston North End and Birmingham in the space of the same four-day period. Both will host Millwall during the next fortnight and both are due to travel away to Ipswich Town, the league’s bottom club and a team who are as good as relegated.
It is also interesting that changes for television coverage have made only a limited difference to the fixture list. The Blades meet Birmingham City on April 10, a day after Leeds go to Preston, and host Millwall a few hours before Leeds meet Sheffield Wednesday in an evening kick-off on April 13.
Their start times on Easter Monday are also different so the psychological impact of the live table shifting might take hold at some stage but as a rule, Chris Wilder’s side will rarely be asked to sleep on results elsewhere. And in terms of the fixture list itself, Sheffield United do not have any of the top six left to play. Some would call that favourable.
Remaining fixtures: March 30 - Bristol City (h), April 6 - Preston (a), April 10 - Birmingham City (a), April 13 - Millwall (h), April 19 - Nottingham Forest (h), April 22 - Hull City (a), April 27 - Ipswich (a), May 5 - Stoke (a).
Nobody will have forgotten the carnage which last season’s home game at Elland Road to Millwall produced – seven goals, an early red card for Liam Cooper and an injury-time winner from Jed Wallace – but the crunch for Leeds appears to be coming after this weekend’s game between a Millwall side who are weak away from the New Den.
In the space of a week, United go to St Andrews and Deepdale before hosting a Sheffield Wednesday side who have come from nowhere to get involved in the play-off race. The Owls are 10 games unbeaten under manager Steve Bruce, though even their record fails to eclipse that of Preston North End who last lost in the Championship on New Year’s Day and are now up to seventh in the table.
Birmingham, too, have been competitive under Garry Monk given the club’s complex circumstances and internal politics, and that spell of matches is critical with tricky meetings with Brentford and Aston Villa to come. There are no more ‘six-pointers’ left for Bielsa and a very marginal race makes you wonder if Ipswich away on the very last day could be the right fixture at the right time.
Remaining fixtures: March 30 - Millwall (h), April 6 - Birmingham (a), April 9 - Preston (a), April 13 - Sheff Wed (h), April 19 - Wigan (h), April 22 - Brentford (a), April 27 - Aston Villa (h), May 5 - Ipswich (a).