EFL Championship: Promotion, Relegation and Playoff Spots Up For Grabs on Sunday
While Sunday’s soccer action includes a match between Chelsea and Liverpool and the latest installment of El Clasico, the real drama may well take place before either marquee match.
I’m going to try to persuade you to set your alarms for the final day of the English Championship (the division immediately below the Premier League) season, with all 12 matches kicking off at 7:30 a.m. ET.
Setting the Stage
Indeed, there are only two things that have already been assured ahead of gameweek 46 in England’s second tier, with Wolves promoted as champions and Sunderland suffering a second successive relegation.
Meanwhile, second place — the final automatic promotion place to the Premier League — is still up for grabs, along with the sixth spot that earns qualification for the playoffs (a four-team mini tournament to determine the third promotion place) later this month. Considering that promotion to the Premier League can be worth up to $490 million by some estimations, this is a very big deal.
However, it’s at the foot of the table where things are arguably even more intense, as falling to League One (the third division, yes it’s confusing) can prove a catastrophic blow to once-hallowed clubs — just ask Portsmouth and Blackburn.
A Real Relegation Scrap
Heading into the final game, as many as five teams could still join Sunderland in relegation to League One next season (the bottom three teams get relegated to League One). As if that wasn’t enough entertainment value, the fixtures that four of the said sides face have set up what may well be the most climactic last day in Championship history.
Three points separate Bolton — who rank 23rd (second-to-last) in the table — from Reading in 19th, but the former will still be hopeful of avoiding the drop back down to the third tier because they face the most favorable opponent of those in danger.
Phil Parkinson’s side play Nottingham Forest at home, with the visitors safe in mid-table and with little else to play for. The hosts are as low as 1.73 (-137) to win as a result, despite the fact that they’ve accrued just one point from the last 21 available to them, and SkyBet are offering a price of 2.62 (+162) on Bolton to steer clear of relegation.
Those Plucky Brewers
It’s Burton, in the dreaded bottom three on goal difference alone, that are the form side of those set to be biting their nails on Sunday, winning three in succession to end a nine-game run without a victory. Despite that fact, they are favorites for the drop, currently as low as 1.22 (-455) with some bookmakers.
Nigel Clough’s plucky overachievers travel to Preston on the final day, not an ideal fixture as their hosts are one of two sides battling it out for the last available slot in the playoffs. The Whites are currently two points shy of sixth place so they need a victory to have any chance of extending their season beyond the weekend, but there is hope for Burton given Preston’s modest home record. Thirteen teams have collected more points at home this season and Alex Neil’s men have won just three of their last 11 league matches at Deepdale.
A Gentlemen’s Draw?
Barnsley are just above the dotted drop line as things stand, owing to a superior goal difference to those around them, which may well be crucial come the close of play on Sunday. Between January signings Kieffer Moore and Ollie McBurnie in particular, it’s the Tykes that carry the greatest goal threat of those at the bottom at present, but they just so happen to face the other side in the tussle for a playoff place in the form of Derby County.
The Rams have been patchy of late, so that particular trip shouldn’t hold any fear for the underdogs, especially since their hosts require only a point to secure that sixth spot. As such, odds of 4.20 (+320) on a draw seem incredibly high given that a tie should suit both parties.
As far as Reading and Birmingham are concerned — the two teams currently sitting at 43 points and two above the drop — their schedule couldn’t have ended any worse.
Reading travel to Cardiff, who can guarantee themselves promotion to the Premier League with a win, while the Blues host a Fulham side one point back in third and aiming to leapfrog the Bluebirds and earn automatic promotion.
Fulham — who are owned by Shad Khan, the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars — have been in the hottest form for some time now. The Cottagers are on an incredible 23-game unbeaten streak that equates to half a season. They know that anything but a victory will likely leave them to scrap it out in the playoffs and as a result will have Birmingham blue blood in their nostrils.
A price of 1.75 (-133) on a Fulham win on the road at St. Andrews is actually very tempting indeed given the form of Slavisa Jokanovic’s charges, and that would mean that victory from two of the three sides (Bolton, Burton and Barnsley) below their hosts would see Birmingham relegated — a huge price at 15.00 (+1400) with most bookmakers.
As far as Reading are concerned, they, like Barnsley, may well be thankful for a less disastrous goal difference come the final whistle in Wales, but Paul Clement’s side look toothless to say the least right now so will likely be relying on those below them to fall short, rather than pulling clear themselves.
Whatever happens, it’s not a round of fixtures you’ll want to miss, and there will be tears aplenty around the grounds in England’s second tier.
Photo: Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock celebrates after a win.