No relent and goal difference disparity as Leeds United's promotion rivals flex their muscles
THREE games; all of which would effect the Championship’s automatic promotion race.
Three games that yielded ten goals and not a single one in Leeds United’s favour with Norwich City, Sheffield United and West Brom all flexing their muscles as the race to reach the Premier League without the need for the play-offs nears just a quarter of the season to go.
Marcelo Bielsa’s Whites will consequently enter the new week sat third and while having the benefit of a game in hand, the eye is now drawn to the goal difference column which is threatening to hand the Canaries, Blades and Baggies as good as a bonus point.
United took themselves back to the top of the division with Wednesday night’s 2-1 victory at home to Swansea City as a normally reliable Canaries surprisingly came a cropper in a 3-1 defeat at 11th-placed Preston North End.
Alex Neil’s Lilywhites failed to replicate that display when being held to a goalless draw on Saturday at home to Nottingham Forest who at present are the highest placed team outside of the division’s top seven who are threatening to get away.
But seventh-placed Derby County and sixth-placed Middlesbrough have work to do to enter the automatic promotion picture which is threatening to shape up into a four-horse race unless the Riversiders, Rams or in-form fifth-placed outfit Bristol City can join the party.
Having approached a free weekend sat top of the tree, the worst possible outcomes across the three games involving Norwich, Sheffield United and West Brom now have United in the unfamiliar position of third and with the Canaries, Blades and Baggies all boasting a goal difference that is at least plus six goals better than Leeds’.
All eyes were on Daniel Farke’s Canaries in their trip to second-bottom Bolton Wanderers on Saturday - a side who Leeds themselves will get the opportunity to boost their goal difference against next weekend at Elland Road.
Next weekend also sees Norwich entertain a Bristol City side who have won their last six - putting Lee Johnson’s men fifth and eight points behind Leeds but with a game in hand and with the prospect of welcoming Leeds to Ashton Gate next month giving the Robins the chance to cut that gap to two.
Of United’s 14 remaining fixtures, it is the visit to Bristol City plus the home clashes against West Brom and Sheffield United that stand out as the three key tests and assignments that take place in a four-game stretch that also includes an away day at Reading.
On Saturday’s evidence, they could be games that prove decisive with the Canaries, Blades and Baggies showing absolutely no relent and scoring ten unanswered goals between them without reply.
Any thoughts about Wednesday evening’s loss at Preston having an affect on Norwich were quickly dispelled as the Canaries romped to a 4-0 success at Bolton in which Farke’s side even missed yet another penalty.
The Canaries have now missed six out of seven spot kicks this term, the successful conversions of which would have put their goal difference at plus 29.
As it is, their plus 23 is still six goals better than United’s who trail Norwich by two points with a game in hand.
Now up to second, Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United also improved their goal difference column despite Billy Sharp staying on the bench by recording a 4-0 success at home to Reading leaving the Blades on plus 24 and ahead of Leeds on that basis, albeit having played a game more.
And even without the suspended Dwight Gayle, fourth-placed West Brom still had enough in the locker to oblige 2-0 at Aston Villa, taking their goal difference to plus 24 but still four points behind the Whites but on the same number of games.
Darren Moore’s side will have the chance to cut that gap to a point on Tuesday evening when visiting a QPR side that have lost their last six league games.
In a so often unpredictable division, Saturday’s encounters involving United’s promotion rivals were anything but.
No surprises with Leeds now down in third but in control of their own destiny and back on top if winning their game in hand - at QPR next Tuesday night.
Three days earlier, on the same day that Norwich entertain Bristol City, something will also have to give when West Brom entertain Sheffield United in the Saturday evening kick-off.
No chance of a full haul of points for all of United’s promotion rivals next weekend then; but the full haul for Leeds against Bolton and QPR is looking increasingly important with the value of boosting the goal difference tally also heightened even further before three crucial games against the Baggies, Robins and Blades.