Why Fulham face acid test as hot pace with West Brom and Leeds United continues at top of the division

MANAGING director Angus Kinnear is keen to clarify that Leeds United's recent last-minute winners at Luton Town and Reading were nothing to do with luck.

Thursday, 5th December 2019, 8:50 am
Updated Thursday, 5th December 2019, 9:40 am
FLYING: Leeds United celebrate Helder Costa's strike in Saturday's 4-0 win against Middlesbrough. Photo by George Wood/Getty Images.

"Most of the top teams in any league have the ability and habit of regularly claiming the spoils in the final minutes," said Kinnear in Saturday's match-day programme ahead of United's clash against Middlesbrough

After blitzing the Riversiders 4-0 to move top of the Championship, Kinnear's words then ironically rang very true just two days later when West Brom again usurped the Whites in top spot with a 90th-minute winner at Preston North End; albeit via the softest of penalty calls.

But Charlie Austin's last gasp spot kick for the Baggies continued a remarkable run for the division's top three who will soon be kicking comfortably clear if recent form continues.

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Collectively, West Brom, Leeds and Fulham have now won their last 14 games though something will have to give four days before Christmas when the Whites visit the Cottagers in a clash that could be crucial in the automatic promotion race.

Even at an earlier stage than last season, the signs at the beginning of December very much point towards West Brom, Leeds and Fulham having a three-team shoot-out for the two automatic promotion spots in similar fashion to the battle between Leeds, Norwich City and Sheffield United last term.

Looking back to the state of play after 19 games last term, there were no real signs of that trio breaking clear after 19 games with just four points separating the top four of Norwich, Leeds, Middlesbrough and Sheffield United.

Furthermore, fifth-placed West Brom and sixth-placed Derby County knew they would go level with the Blades if winning their game in hand whilst seventh-placed Nottingham Forest were also only point further back and with a game in hand.

Fast forward four months and the automatic promotion picture had become a clear three-horse race and one that United's Polish international midfielder Mateusz Klich admitted he could already envisage materialising again 12 months on in the aftermath of Saturday's triumph against Boro.

United's impressive and no nonsense 4-0 despatching of Boro made it five league wins in a row with Marcelo Bielsa's men currently four points better off than they were at this stage last season when they were one point behind leaders Norwich.

But even a four-point better haul has not been enough to put the Whites in pole position as it stands due to West Brom's achievements in dropping only 15 points so far and, like Leeds, also winning five in a row.

The Championship is notoriously full of unexpected results and surprises but Slaven Bilic's side have now taken seven victories and two draws from the nine games that have followed their sole league loss this season so far at Leeds on October 1.

As part of a huge 11 days in the Championship's automatic promotion race, the two sides will meet again at the The Hawthorns on New Year's Day and the Baggies can be expected to again rack up the points in their next six games until their showdown against the Whites.

Aside from this Sunday's hosting of eighth-placed Swansea City and a home clash against seventh-placed Brentford on the Saturday that Leeds visit Fulham, the Baggies' other next four opponents are all in the bottom ten with visits to Wigan Athletic, Birmingham City and Barnsley in the offing and a home clash against Middlesbrough.

Current service is likely to be continued though in any case, for Leeds, it is clearly the gap to third that matters most and a gap that stands at five points back to Fulham.

But after an inconsistent start that may yet cost the Cottagers dear, Scott Parker's side have now clocked up four-straight wins with no relent in their pursuit of the Whites and Baggies and with Aleksandar Mitrovic already on 15 goals.

Yet on paper at least, the three games that will precede Fulham's clash against Leeds promise to offer stern tests of their credentials with the Cottagers hosting fifth-placed Bristol City this weekend and then visiting sixth-placed Preston next Tuesday before the following Saturday's fixture against Brentford at Craven Cottage.

Three of the top seven and sides who along with fourth-placed Nottingham Forest may yet still have a say themselves in the automatic promotion race.

Forest, after all, would be level with Fulham if winning their game in hand while Bristol City, Preston and Brentford remain within striking distance at three, four and five points behind respectively.

Yet not on a run like Fulham's which will now face an acid test, all leading to the mouth-watering pre-Christmas cracker against Marcelo Bielsa's Whites at Craven Cottage on December 21.

If winning ways for both are continued, a five-point gap to the Cottagers could be slashed to two or extended to eight. A six-pointer if ever there was one.

But until then the picture for Leeds is simple - sixth-bottom Huddersfield Town away followed by 12th-placed Hull City and tenth-placed Cardiff City at home presenting the next three fixtures in a bid to kick further clear in the top two.

Fulham are not allowing Leeds to achieve that objective at present but given the Cottagers' next three fixtures, nine points from United's next three assignments might just widen the gap.