The top four Championship clubs all bagged three points over the weekend and continue to be separated by just two points, leaving this compelling race for the Premier League wide open with just four matches remaining.
Last month Watford boss Slavisa Jokanovic described the division as “crazy” after a run of results put his side into the promotion picture, and he predicted that the teams that held their nerve and made the least mistakes would prosper. Funnily enough, considering the season has been somewhat notorious for teams bumbling around at the top with no true authority, the top four have found a rhythm; trouble is, only two go up automatically and time is running out. Predicting that top two is, of course, still agony – albeit in the most fun way possible, with fixture lists and scenarios at the ready.
Tentatively speaking Bournemouth should still be favourites – for a top-two spot at least. As well as being a point clear, and one could argue an extra point clear due to having a goal difference nine superior to nearest rivals Norwich, the Cherries also have a relatively easy run-in. On Tuesday they travel to Reading for what would normally be a tough fixture on paper; but as the Royals face Arsenal on Saturday in the FA Cup, one suspects Steve Clarke may rest several key players. Eddie Howe’s side then host Sheffield Wednesday and Bolton before travelling to Charlton on the final day.
The key battle is likely to be between Norwich and Middlesbrough as they face one another in the run-in at Carrow Road on Friday. It is a massive fixture as it could potentially knock one of the pair out of the race – most likely Boro of course as they are currently the lowest-placed of the quartet. Bournemouth and Watford would happily settle for a draw. Before they travel to Norwich, Boro host play-off chasing Wolves so if Aitor Karanka’s side can come through those games unscathed they will still be in contention. The Canaries travel to dipping Leeds on Tuesday and after playing Boro face Rotherham and Fulham, so have a favourable finish.
Watford face a nail-biting start to the run-in as they don’t play until Wednesday, meaning that as they head north to face Nottingham Forest they could be playing catch-up or potentially have the keys to top spot dangling in front of their eyes. A month ago a trip to the City Ground would have been a daunting one but Dougie Freedman admitted after his side’s 1-0 home defeat to Huddersfield on Saturday that the team appeared to be “just running out of steam a little bit” after a blistering start to his reign began to falter in the last month, and now may be a good time to play them. Birmingham, Brighton and Sheffield Wednesday make three modest remaining opponents.
Just below, the battle for the two remaining play-off slots is just as compelling as four teams are continually hokey-cokeying from week to week, with only a single point separating fifth and eighth. Derby are currently a point clear of Ipswich, who are keeping out Brentford and Wolves purely on goal difference.
At the other end of the table, Millwall and Wigan remain seven points adrift of safety but go head to head in a crucial clash on Tuesday, so the winners will reduce that gap to four overnight as Rotherham don’t play until Wednesday.
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