Chief football writer Phil Hay looks at the penultimate weekend of matches in the Sky Bet Championship and Leeds United’s chances of prolonging their season into the final day.
The dejected tone at Burton Albion on Saturday left little doubt that Leeds United fear the game is up and the club find themselves needing snookers in the fight for a top-six finish, if not quite a miracle.
The Championship table, nonetheless, still presents the possibility that Leeds, in Garry Monk’s words, will be left with “half a chance” of making the play-offs on the final day of the season. United need favours from various directions but all four of the teams above them are technically within reach with two games to play.
Their campaign comes to a head against Norwich City at Elland Road when, for the first time, Monk knows that defeat would spell the end of their challenge. Even a victory might not salvage it though, as Monk said at Burton, “football works in mysterious ways.” This is how the penultimate weekend shakes down for the division’s play-off contenders:
Reading, 3rd place, 79 points
Remaining fixtures: Wigan (h), Burton (a)
Reading are six points clear of Leeds and only their meagre goal difference – unusually small at plus one for a club directly below the top two – gives United any chance of catching them. On Saturday Jaap Stam’s side host a Wigan Athletic team who are virtually relegated and a result of any sort will ensure their involvement in the play-offs.
They can afford to lose to Wigan if Leeds fail to win at home to Norwich but given how strong Reading are at the Madejski Stadium, they are unlikely to need much from their last fixture away at Burton Albion. Leeds were five points better off than Reading before their meeting in Berkshire on April Fool’s Day. The swing in momentum has been dramatic and decisive.
Sheffield Wednesday, 4th place, 78 points
Remaining fixtures: Ipswich (a), Fulham (h)
But for an injury-time equaliser at Barnsley at the start of this month, Wednesday would be on a run six straight wins. That streak, which followed a patchy spell of results, has set them up for a second play-off appearance in the space of two years and two more points would make certain of it. A draw and a defeat from their last two games is necessary to give Leeds an opportunity to climb above Wednesday on goal difference but only if United themselves take maximum points from the fixtures that remain.
For so long it appeared that Fulham’s visit to Hillsborough on the last weekend would have significant implications for the top six but Wednesday will require nothing from that game if they turn over Ipswich at Portman Road on Saturday. Ipswich are solid enough at home and Mick McCarthy – a died-in-the-wool Leeds fan – will doubtless try to do United a favour but a 1-0 defeat to Rotherham on Saturday did not auger well.
Huddersfield Town, 5th place, 78 points
Remaining fixtures: Wolves (a), Birmingham (a), Cardiff (h)
Huddersfield are in the same boat as Sheffield Wednesday, needing two points to be sure of remaining beyond Leeds’ reach, but their form is more brittle.
Fulham hammered them at the John Smith’s Stadium on Saturday, the second time in a month that David Wagner’s side have conceded four times in one match, and two wins from seven has diverted attention from chasing the top two to fending off clubs beneath them. That said, Huddersfield have been sitting on a game in hand for a while and they contest it against Wolverhampton Wanderers at Molineux tonight. A win in the West Midlands puts the issue to bed and guarantees Huddersfield’s qualification.
A draw would have virtually the same effect – creating a scenario where Leeds could only pip Town if they win their last two matches and Huddersfield lose both. Town, like Reading, are also exposed by a very low goal difference but failure to qualify would require something of a perfect storm.
Fulham, 6th place, 76 points
Remaining fixtures: Brentford (h), Sheffield Wednesday (a)
At face value they are the club most at risk of losing out to Leeds but a three-point advantage is effectively four owing to their superior goal difference. Fulham are 13 to the good in that department and Leeds will not be able to overhaul the gap if Fulham win this weekend.
Fulham have defied an extremely difficult fixture list with four successive victories, scalping Ipswich, Norwich, Aston Villa and Huddersfield, but it is incredible to think that on March 7, United were a few seconds away from opening up an 11-point lead over Slavisa Jokanovic’s side. That last-gasp curler from Tom Cairney was worth its weight in gold to Jokanovic but Fulham are not home and dry yet. Saturday throws up a West London derby against Brentford, a team who are reeling off results with some style, and they finish with a trip to Sheffield Wednesday on the last day.
If a twist is coming, it will almost certainly come at Hillsborough.
Leeds United, 7th place, 73 points
Remaining fixtures: Norwich (h), Wigan (a)
The simple part first: lose to Norwich on Saturday and the season is over. Every single club above Leeds could afford a defeat and Fulham’s goal difference would see to it that the top six were locked in. Equally, a victory at Elland Road will not help United if the four sides above them match that result.
The same scenario applies. Monk will doubtless talk about Leeds concentrating on their own business but the club need help from elsewhere and they need it this weekend.
A draw with Norwich would keep them in the running providing Fulham lose, cutting the gap between them to two points, but Sheffield Wednesday’s qualification would be guaranteed, throwing up the possibility of Carlos Carvalhal resting key players against Fulham on the last day. In short, Norwich is must win. And then hope for the best.