The audience of America’s Jimmy Kimmel Live were left bemused on Tuesday night when Game of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau joked the series would conclude with Westeros being saved by a godlike figure called Bielsa. Coster-Waldau then revealed he was talking about Marcelo Bielsa of his beloved Leeds United. Given Leeds’ promotion rival Sheffield United’s most famous fan is Sean Bean (Ned Stark from GoT), the reference was even more timely as both dramas enters the home straight.
Whilst Leeds and Sheffield United remain locked in a battle of twists and turns worthy of George RR Martin’s epic series, Norwich appear to be cruising to automatic promotion. The Canaries have lost just 1 game since the turn of the year and hold a crucial 7 point lead over third placed Sheffield United.
Striker Teemu Pukki has been named Championship Player of the Year with 27 goals whilst Emiliano Buendía has provided 11 assists. However Buendía picked up a needless suspension last week against QPR and Norwich conceded a surprise equalizer to Reading on Wednesday night, reminding Norwich the job isn’t yet complete.
Bielsa’s Leeds meanwhile have edged into the second automatic promotion slot after Patrick Bamford’s double secured a 2-0 win over Preston. Leeds went through a major wobble over the New Year losing 4 games from 6, but they’ve rebounded strongly with 7 wins from their last 10 with playmaker Pablo Hernandez in inspired form.
Sheffield United had overtaken Leeds after their smash and grab 1-0 win at Elland Road. However they then slipped up against Bristol City and Birmingham to leave them a point behind Leeds and facing the possibility of the playoffs. Chris Wilder was deservedly named Manager of the Year after building his team around a strong defence. After going an amazing 7 games without conceding, they now cannot afford another slip up.
Fourth placed West Brom have almost no chance of automatic promotion but remain a certainty for the playoffs. They controversially sacked manager Darren Moore after a poor run of home results, but things remain similar under caretaker boss Jimmy Shan. West Brom have a great front pair in Jay Rodriguez and Dwight Gayle but concede too many soft goals. The race for the final two playoff spots is increasingly unpredictable with Aston Villa emerging as the form team. Dean Smith’s side have managed 7 straight wins. Midfielder Jack Grealish remains the fulcrum of the team, but Villa’s last two games are against Leeds and Norwich so they may need to bank their playoff berth beforehand . Middlesbrough have gone in the opposite direction after 6 consecutive defeats, falling from the playoff places into seventh. However a win over Bolton has kept them in the hunt and manager Tony Pulis will be confident of rebuilding what was perviously a strong promotion bid.
Bristol City currently sit in the final playoff spot and have played a game less than Villa, after Andreas Wiemann’s hat trick at Sheffield United. Tantalizingly, City face Villa on Saturday. Meanwhile several other clubs remain on the fringe of the playoff picture all hoping for a late surge into the top 6. Those clubs include in-form Sheffield Wednesday who travel to Leeds on Saturday, Hull, Nottingham Forest and Derby.
Derby’s position looks precarious after owner Mel Morris put the club up for sale after revealing he’s suffering huge losses on the club. Derby have shown ambition in recent years but Morris’ revelation is a reminder this League is a money-pit.
Another club with problems are Birmingham City who suffered a 9 point deduction after recording losses of over the leagues limit £39million over the last 3 years. It capped a bad month for the club who were widely condemned after a supporter ran onto the pitch to attack Villa star Grealish during the Birmingham derby. Birmingham rebounded this week with 4 points against promotion chasing Leeds and Sheffield United to ease any fears of relegation, but manager Gary Monk will be relieved to see his side to safety.
Down at the bottom Ipswich Town, a club that lifted both the FA & UEFA Cups under the legendary Bobby Robson find themselves facing the abject humiliation of relegation to League One. Ipswich’s relegation could be confirmed on Saturday if they fail to win and they are almost certain to be joined in League One by crisis ridden Bolton.
Bolton owe huge debts to outgoing owner Ken Anderson and have been beset with liquidity problems that have seen players and staff paid late, the training ground closed due to supplies running out and the club’s very existence under threat from a winding up order.
Bolton could be sold to Laurence Bassini, a man twice declared bankrupt and previously banned by the League from taking up a directorship at any club. The future looks bleak and whoever owns the club next season will almost certainly be doing so in League One, with Bolton currently 9 points short of safety.
Just above Ipswich and Bolton, 4 clubs are engaged in a tight battle to avoid the final relegation place. Rotherham have put up a gutsy fight against the odds but currently sit 2 points short of safety and have by far the worst goal difference of the threatened clubs. They do remain tough to beat at home having given both Leeds and Norwich a fright, but face playoff hopefuls West Brom and Middlesbrough in their final games of the season.
Of the teams just above the drop zone Reading look the strongest after claiming that dramatic point at Norwich, but they have the toughest fixture list meaning this weekend’s clash with mid-table Brentford could prove a must win game. Millwall and Wigan are both still in trouble and face each other on the closing day of the season in what promises to be a final twist in a typically dramatic Championship season.
Automatic Promotion: Norwich, Leeds
Playoffs: Sheffield United, West Brom, Aston Villa, Bristol City
Relegation: Ipswich, Bolton, Wigan
Featured image credit:Yle