Written by Adam Jones, a look at the race for the Premier League from an outsiders point of view:
The race for the Championship playoffs is slowly coming to its climax, with only a couple of weeks left of the regular season. Fulham were victorious last season, beating Aston Villa narrowly at Wembley in May. Whilst the playoffs have not even been contested yet, I feel that Aston Villa are the side to beat. They have the ability to redeem themselves and have hit good form at just the right time…
3rd – Leeds United/Sheffield United
There will be an enormous amount of expectation on the team who comes in third place, considering these two teams have been fighting for automatic promotion for some time. I think Sheffield United will go on to win automatic promotion over Leeds United, being three points superior to the Elland Road team. The Blades also face bottom side Ipswich Town in their next Championship fixture at Bramall Lane. Victory would all but secure their promotion, as they have a much better goal difference over Leeds.
It would mentally destroy Leeds United if they were left to fight for promotion via the playoffs, after being in pole position to gain automatic promotion to the Premier League for most of the season. It would also damage Sheffield United if they dropped out of the automatic promotion places at this stage of the season. They are in such a favourable position now.
4th – West Bromwich Albion
Like Aston Villa, fellow Midlands side West Brom have a very useful squad. Jay Rodriguez and Dwight Gale have provided the Baggies with the attacking firepower that’s needed in the Championship. Players like Mason Holgate and Kyle Bartley will be key in defence if they are to gain promotion straight back to the Premier League.
West Brom will have the advantage of playing at home in the second leg if they retain their current position in the table. They are currently two points above fifth-placed Aston Villa. Villa aren’t likely to leapfrog them, considering the team in Claret and Blue play two teams in the top three in their two remaining fixtures. This includes a trip to Leeds United and then a home fixture against top of the table Norwich City.
James Shan has done a reasonably good job thus far as caretaker manager. However, I don’t think he has the senior management experience to take the Baggies to the Premier League.
5th – Aston Villa
Villa have a very strong squad. After a first season of mediocrity in the Championship, they came so close last season to reaching the top flight. With Dean Smith now appearing to be settled at the club, the Villans could go one step further this season and be promoted at Wembley. This was something they failed to do last season.
They have won their last ten league games on the bounce. These fixtures have included several playoff rivals, with their arguably most impressive results coming against Derby County (4-0) and Middlesbrough (3-0) at home, as well as Sheffield Wednesday (1-3) away. Villa will be looking to keep their third consecutive clean sheet this Sunday against Leeds United. However, that will be a very tricky task.
6th – LIKELY TEAMS: Derby County/Middlesbrough/Bristol City
All of these teams competing for sixth spot have stumbled this season whilst trying to establish themselves in the playoff positions. Aston Villa’s good form has meant that the task of trying to get into the top six has been made even harder. Derby County climbed into sixth spot after their 2-0 home win against QPR on Monday. However, they have a difficult end to the season, facing Bristol City, Swansea and West Brom.
Middlesbrough face strugglers Reading and Rotherham in their last two games. However, Derby County and Bristol City have a game in hand on them. Derby are currently level on points with Boro, with a better goal difference.
Bristol City’s last two fixtures of the season are tricky ties away from home. They do have a game in hand over Middlesbrough like Derby County do, however, they face Derby County at home in their next game. This will be a stern test for Lee Johnson’s side.
Any of these three teams could realistically make the playoffs.