The Guardian

Expect more twists in the tale as Championship enters final chapter

The Guardian logo The Guardian 21/07/2020 18:18:26 Ben Fisher
a group of people playing football on a field: Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA © Provided by The GuardianPhotograph: Martin Rickett/PA

Eight days and only three games ago, no Championship club was guaranteed to be in the second tier next season and even now, with 90 minutes to go, a maze of permutations are at play with more than half the division either jostling to survive or to escape the madness of a captivating and chaotic blink-and-you-will-miss-it competition.

In between Marcelo Bielsa strolling out of his flat in Wetherby to celebrate promotion with a dozen Leeds supporters as if he was about to carry in the bags from a grocery delivery and Gerhard Struber haring on to the pitch in slim-fit jeans and pristine trainers to embrace Patrick Schmidt's stoppage-time winner for Barnsley, there was a lorryload of goals on Saturday - including eight at Craven Cottage - but no strike was more significant than Lee Gregory's winner for Stoke, blowing second place wide open with the final round of matches to play.

Related: 'I'm very happy': Bielsa salutes Leeds' Championship title after win at Derby

That goal was the catalyst for Slaven Bilic's tone switching from sombre to sanguine in the space of 72 hours, with West Bromwich Albion's fate back in their own hands after Brentford slipped up at Stoke. Before that game Bilic, perhaps deliberately to up the ante, conceded defeat in the race for automatic promotion, saying he was resigned to preparing for the play-offs after West Brom failed to win any of their previous three matches.

What happened next provided the latest reminder of the league's alluring and dizzying unpredictability; Brentford's eight-game winning run came to a halt and on Sunday Danny Cowley was sacked by Huddersfield, despite having all but secured their Championship status with the victory on Friday against West Brom, who were stodgy in defeat.

Bilic, whose side host Queens Park Rangers at the Hawthorns on Wednesday, knows being able to control their own destiny is priceless, even if that inevitably brings added pressure. Brentford host Barnsley in what could prove to be their last game at the endearingly compact Griffin Park, while Fulham visit stricken Wigan with automatic promotion the prize if they win, Brentford do not and West Brom lose.

"We are confident, we are optimistic, I'm extremely positive that we are going to do it," Bilic said. "It's going to be a difficult 90 minutes - it's going to be a nervy game. But we are 90 minutes away from the thing we have been living for all season. We are playing at home, we have had enough time between Huddersfield and QPR. We needed the rest, we needed the freshness - psychologically and physically."

If Bilic was guilty of playing mind games, Thomas Frank returned the favour on Tuesday, describing the tussle at the top as "little Brentford behind big West Brom fighting for promotion". The Brentford head coach acknowledged how pressure can affect players in different ways but, namechecking his 25-goal top scorer Ollie Watkins as well as Saïd Benrahma, he believes his leading cast can thrive in the spotlight.

Frank said of the Algerian winger: "I don't think anything is stressing him, he is just growing in that environment. 'Give me the ball, I will decide this game.' We had a chat about it with the players on Monday morning and they have done a lot of talking themselves. When you experience a setback people react differently. But the energy is back, the smile is back. The fire in the eyes; the desire."

If the three-way fight for the second spot is perfectly poised, the play-off hunt is equally intriguing; Swansea still hope to squeeze into one of the four spots on goal difference, most likely at the expense of their Welsh rivals Cardiff, with Nottingham Forest presumably grateful for their superior goal difference after a sorry run of two wins from their past 10 matches. Upon the restart last month a game which had the makings of a final-day humdinger is now the only match on Wednesday with nothing riding on it: Bristol City v Preston, who have dropped to 11th and eighth respectively, leading the former to dispense with their manager Lee Johnson.

Related: Relegated clubs could earn reprieve amid Championship chaos

But while nothing is clearcut, things are particularly cloudy at the bottom. Seven teams are still, mathematically, at risk of relegation with Middlesbrough, Birmingham and Charlton precariously placed above Luton, Barnsley and Hull, who head into the final day at the foot having won once since New Year's Day. Only Hull look truly beaten and that Struber has given Barnsley a fighting chance underlines the impressive job the Austrian has done since taking over in November. It is a similar story at Luton, where Nathan Jones has lost one match since his shock return.

a group of people playing football on a field: Gerhard Struber embraces his Barnsley players after Patrick Schmidt's later winner against Nottingham Forest that gave the club a chance of avoiding relegation from the Championship. © Photograph: Martin Rickett/PAGerhard Struber embraces his Barnsley players after Patrick Schmidt's later winner against Nottingham Forest that gave the club a chance of avoiding relegation from the Championship.

Then there are the potential implications surrounding Wigan, Sheffield Wednesday and Derby, who could be docked points if found guilty of breaking financial regulations and, regardless of the outcome of their independent hearings, uncertainty prevails to further muddy the waters. If Wigan beat Fulham and results go their way, they are minded to withdraw their appeal against a 12-point deduction, which will be automatically triggered at the final whistle. When it arrives, the only certainty is there will be a medley of emotions.


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21. heinäkuuta 2020 21:18:26 Categories: Ilta Sanoma The Guardian Ulkomaat

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