As we head into the middle of April, domestic soccer leagues see their matches come thick and fast while title races and relegation scraps take centerstage. In England, the promotion race in the second-tier begins heating up as several teams remain in the conversation for automatic and playoff promotion to the Premier League.
The EFL Championship may not get the notoriety as it deserves, but it is still one of the toughest leagues in all of Europe. With 46 rounds, and several rounds featuring multiple match-days in a week, the Championship schedule can be one of the most-agonizing and draining in all of European soccer.
I decided to take a closer look at several of the candidates for promotion and see who we could see in the English Premier League come August. The top two finishers gain automatic promotion, while sides #3-#6 face off in a playoff-round with the final taking place at Wembley Stadium. Hull City defeated Sheffield Wednesday 1-0 in the 2016 Playoff Final.
1.) Brighton & Hove Albion — 86 points.
Looking like a clear favorite to gain automatic promotion, Brighton have been a dominant force in the EFL Championship this season. With five matches remaining, Brighton are on a three-match winning run and are tied with the fewest goals allowed this season (35). Playmaker Anthony Knockaert (13 goals, eight assists) was recently named the ‘Championship Player of the Year‘, while three strikers have netted 10+ goals so far this campaign. 33-year-old Glenn Murray leads the way with 21 league goals, while Tomer Hemed and Sam Baldock have combined for 22. Chris Hughton‘s side have not featured in the top-flight since 1982, but look to be a win or two away from booking an automatic promotion spot.
2.) Newcastle United — 84 points.
Following their Premier League relegation a year ago, Newcastle United look to be well on their way back up in 2017. With former Liverpool and Real Madrid boss Rafa Benitez leading the team, Newcastle have been a definite resurgence in England’s second division. With a 10 point advantage over third-place Huddersfield Town, Newcastle look to be a victory or so away from joining Brighton as the other automatic promotion club. Two players that have really stood out for Newcastle this season are striker Dwight Gayle and midfielder Matt Ritchie. Gayle, 26, joined from Crystal Palace in the summer and has really lived up to expectations, leading the team with 22 goals. Ritchie, 27, left Bournemouth to join Newcastle and has been their best attacking midfielder, netting 11 goals and adding seven assists so far. Karl Darlow has been a nice find in net, while defensively Newcastle are tied with Brighton for the fewest goals allowed this season (35). Two wins from their last five matches should see the ‘Toon Army’ back in the EPL.
3.) Huddersfield Town — 74 points.
It’s funny how much can change in a single year.. just ask third-place Huddersfield Town. In 2015-16, Huddersfield finished 19th out of 24 Championship teams on 51 points. Former USA international David Wagner was appointed manager back in November 2015, becoming the first person born outside the British Isles to manage the club. In 2016-17, Wagner has led Huddersfield to as high as leading the second-tier table which is a huge achievement in such a short time. Despite four losses in their last seven-league matches, Huddersfield remain in the playoff picture. Strikers Elias Kachunga (11 goals) and Nahki Wells (10 goals) have led the way up front, while Manchester City loanee Aaron Mooy has been very impressive in midfield. Wagner’s hard-work mentality has rubbed off on his players, while the Terriers remain a team still in the hunt for their first Premier League appearance since 1998.
4.) Reading — 73 points.
It’s been four years since Reading last competed in the Premier League, but the Royals look ready to make a jump back in. Led by Jaap Stam, Reading remain in the playoff picture, despite being the only side in the current top-six that has a negative goal differential (-1). At home, Reading are the second-best team in the league, claiming 47 points from their current 73 overall. The Royals saw a three-match winning run snapped in last weekend’s 7-1 thrashing at Norwich City. Ali Al-Habsi has not missed a start all season in the Reading goal, after joining from Wigan in 2015. Striker Yann Kermorgant is the team’s leading scorer with 14 goals, while Jamaican international Gareth McCleary (nine goals, seven assists) has been the team’s best playmaker. Overall, Reading have a favorable schedule to end the season, and should aim to earn at least seven points to have a chance in the playoff stage.
5.) Leeds United — 72 points.
Leeds United are one of the most-historic sides in English Football, and they very well could see themselves in the playoff picture come May. Looking for their first top-flight appearance since 2003, Leeds have a made a strong case under former Swansea boss Garry Monk. The side are led by Australian striker Chris Wood, who leads the team and EFL Championship with 24 goals this season. Pablo Hernandez has been the team’s main attacking threat in the midfield (eight assists), while defensively the team sees Kyle Bartley as their top defender. Former QPR keeper Robert Green has been a solid signing, making every appearance in league-play so far. However, with only five points separating them from seventh-place Fulham, Leeds know they will need at least two more victories for playoff safety. They begin their final five matches with a huge home match against Newcastle at Elland Road on Friday.
6.) Sheffield Wednesday — 69 points.
Sitting in the final playoff spot is historic Sheffield Wednesday, who were founded back in 1867. The Owls were one of the founding members of the Premier League, but have not played in the top-flight since 2000. Revenge will be on their minds, after falling to Hull City 1-0 in last year’s playoff final at Wembley. Carlos Carvalhal‘s side have a balanced bunch of scorers, with striker Fernando Forestieri leading the way with 11 goals. Former Sunderland man Steven Fletcher has added nine goals this season, while midfielders Ross Wallace and Barry Bannan have combined for six goals and 13 assists between them. The issue for Wednesday will be if they can hang onto their current playoff spot. Two of their final five league fixtures will be against sides that are chasing them. An April 22nd home date with Derby County could be huge for Wednesday’s playoff hopes, but their final match against Fulham could very well be a decider on who gets in as the last side.
Still In the Hunt
7.) Fulham — 67 points.
8.) Derby County — 62 points.
9.) Preston North-End 61 points.
10.) Norwich City — 60 points.
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