How the race for the Premier League looks ahead of the run-in
The battle for automatic promotion from the Sky Bet Championship will resume with added intensity after the international break.
Norwich, Sheffield United and Leeds appear to be in a three-horse race for a top-two finish with eight games remaining.
Here, Press Association Sport takes a look at each side’s chances.
Norwich have dropped only nine points from 13 games since the turn of the year. Nine wins, three draws and just one defeat have lifted them four points clear at the top. The Canaries are in the box seat after six successive victories and have so far given little indication they will crack under the pressure.
There is a huge German influence behind Norwich’s success this season as head coach Daniel Farke and fellow German assistants Edmund Riemer and Christopher John have taken England’s second tier by storm. Farke and his backroom staff have fused together a string of underrated players from around Europe with a growing band of homegrown talent to produce a well-drilled, winning blend based on fluidity with and without the ball.
Norwich’s current form and five-point cushion over third-placed Leeds makes them odds-on favourites for promotion. A tough test at Middlesbrough is first up after the international break, but their following three fixtures are against teams in the bottom seven and wins in those, allied to other results, could lift them to the brink of the Premier League after a three-year absence.
Last eight fixtures
Middlesbrough (a), QPR (h), Reading (h), Wigan (a), Sheff Wed (h), Stoke (a), Blackburn (h), Aston Villa (a)
The Blades have an identical record to Norwich in 2019 – nine wins, three draws and one defeat. Victory at Leeds in their last match has lifted them into second place. Chris Wilder’s side have seized the initiative, winning six and drawing one of their last seven, in which they have not conceded a goal.
Boss Wilder has overseen evolution rather than revolution since guiding the Blades back into the Championship in 2017, but their progress is nonetheless impressive. Wilder’s winning mentality still requires his players to run through brick walls, but, emboldened by expansive tactics, there has been more craft and sophistication to their game this season, while only Middlesbrough have conceded fewer goals.
A top-two finish is in the Blades’ own hands after their 1-0 win at Leeds before the international break. That gave them a big psychological lift and saw them leapfrog their closest rivals into second place with a slender one-point advantage. A place back in the top flight for the first time since 2007 beckons, but the pressure is still on and there can be no let-up.
Last eight fixtures
Bristol C (h), Preston (a), Birmingham (a), Millwall (h), N Forest (h), Hull (a), Ipswich (h), Stoke (a)
Leeds topped the table on Boxing Day and held three and 10-point advantages over Norwich and Sheffield United respectively. But their form dipped significantly at the turn of the year and they have lost five of their 13 league games in 2019, drawing one and winning seven.
Leeds have arguably been the Championship’s most entertaining side under Marcelo Bielsa this season. The Argentinian has moulded them into a cohesive, high-octane force, which can at times appear to be unplayable. But critics will point to their inconsistency. Leeds have lost games they have dominated through their failure to convert all their possession into clear goalscoring chances.
Leeds lost the initiative when beaten by the Blades in their previous match, but not many will have written them off as they trail the top two by a single point. Automatic promotion will be secured by those who best hold their nerve. The Whites have bounced back from similar setbacks this season to go on winning runs and can be expected to do so again.
Last eight fixtures
Millwall (h), Birmingham (a), Preston (a), Sheff Wed (h), Wigan (h), Brentford (a), Aston Villa (h), Ipswich (a)