Permutations: What Leeds United must do to reach Championship play-offs
Hard to grasp that Leeds United could accumulate such a total and still miss out on a Championship play-off place on goal difference.
Sounds unlikely, but principal rivals Fulham have won their last three games and four of their last five.
Yet Leeds can at least take comfort knowing that the Cottagers have an extremely difficult run-in and that in any case their destiny remains in their own hands.
However Fulham, Sheffield Wednesday, Reading and even Huddersfield Town fare, United know that three wins from their final three games will seal the club’s first appearance in the Championship play-offs since 2006.
Seventy-five points was enough to seal a play-off place in that particular season – with Crystal Palace finishing sixth – as United ended the regular campaign with 78 points.
Even two more points would take United to Palace’s 2006 tally and an even smaller total of 74 points was enough to seal Sheffield Wednesday’s appearance in the play-offs last term. But it is already abundantly clear that something out of the ordinary is likely to be needed in 2016-17 though the final-day fixtures could be United’s saving grace.
A miserable Easter Monday jettisoned Leeds out of the play-off places for the first time since November as a 1-0 loss at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers saw the Whites drop from fifth to seventh.
Winger Kemar Roofe insisted after the previous weekend’s 3-0 win at home to Preston that he rarely looked at the league table – and didn’t even know where United were sitting in the Championship ladder.
“If you asked me I don’t even know where we are in the league,” said the winger. “It doesn’t bother us, we just take it game by game and just get the three points.”
But rest assured, Monday’s other results would have been the first port of call after departing the Elland Road pitch against Wolves and, not for the first time this season, nearly all of United’s play-off rivals won.
Third-placed Huddersfield Town might have been denied victory in a 1-1 draw at Derby County but Fulham’s 3-1 defeat of Aston Villa coupled with Sheffield Wednesday’s 2-1 triumph at QPR was essentially worst-case scenario for Leeds – especially with Reading also being 2-1 victors at home to Rotherham United.
Similar sets of results over the next three weekends will mean that United miss out on a play-off place even if taking seven points from their last three games.
Wolves missed out in a similar fashion in 2014-15, when a tally of 78 points was only enough to finish seventh as Ipswich Town pipped the Molineux club on goal difference. Yet only 72 points proved enough for sixth-placed Brighton the previous year.
The Championship is an unpredictable beast and Leeds are bidding to escape it when English football’s second tier is evidently at its strongest.
Yet even Fulham would do well to maintain perfect winning ways from their final three games with the Cottagers’ run-in suggesting that Leeds might not need nine more points to secure their place in the top six.
This coming Saturday could be pivotal as ,on a day when United visit sixth-bottom Burton Albion, who themselves face their own battle to stay up, Fulham visit a fourth-placed Huddersfield Town side who are still in with an outside shout of sealing automatic promotion, never mind a play-off place.
That said, even faltering Newcastle ought to be able to gain the six points that would guarantee their second-place finish from their remaining fixtures which see home clashes with Preston North End and Barnsley sandwiched by an away day at Cardiff City.
But the motivation for Huddersfield is nonetheless crystal clear and the Terriers have lost only four out of 15 games at the Galpharm this season, though Burton managed a 1-0 victory in Town’s back yard on April Fool’s Day.
Even if the Cottagers do bag all three points in West Yorkshire, the following weekend’s home clash with Dean Smith’s Brentford side is no ‘gimme’ considering that the Bees have won four of their last six. And then comes the final day trip to Sheffield Wednesday, who will have had a home clash with Derby County and an away day at Ipswich Town to contend with before.
The Owls, though, already have two points in the can on Leeds and are subsequently as short as 1-5 to finish in the play-offs, though it should be stressed that Leeds were 1-16 for a top-six finish a few weeks ago when the Whites held an eight-point buffer. The form of Fulham and Wednesday in particular has that gap wiped out leaving Leeds with a tricky conundrum with three games left.
Even Reading and Huddersfield have yet to guarantee their play-off places but the Royals are 1-200 with the bookmakers while the Terriers are 1-50. Four points would seal the deal for Reading who have the ‘easiest’ run-in of the play-offs chasers with Saturday’s visit to relegation-battling Nottingham Forest followed by a home clash with surely-doomed Wigan Athletic and a final-day trip to Burton.
Jaap Stam’s side are virtually home and hosed and similar comments will likely very soon apply to Huddersfield who need five more points to seal their top-six finish.
Saturday’s clash with Fulham is followed by a Tuesday-night trip to Wolves and the visit to Harry Redknapp’s Birmingham City the following weekend.
The Terriers then entertain Cardiff City on the final day and, given that Wednesday are already two points clear of Fulham and Leeds, it is no surprise that the bookmakers essentially view the race to finish sixth as a two-horse one.
Fulham are slight favourites at 4-6 and Leeds 8-11.
Yet, for Leeds, three fixtures clearly stand out head and shoulders above the rest – their own. Burton Albion away, Norwich City at home and Wigan away.
Rather than getting the calculators out, Garry Monk’s message is likely to be this – win them all and the Whites will be in the play-offs, regardless of what happens elsewhere.
Leeds have netted three straight league wins on two different occasions this term – in September and December – when home victories against Reading and Brentford were backed up by a 4-1 success at Preston on Boxing Day.
Given the red-hot form of the Cottagers, now would be a very good time to repeat the dose.