There are now just under five weeks to go in the regular Championship season, and as ever, the race for the playoffs could not be tighter.
Reading find themselves right in the mix, so it seemed only fair that we brought back Promotion Watch: our weekly round-up of all the teams doing battle in and around the top six and how the table is shaping up as games continue to get crossed off.
Automatic promotion chasers
The unstoppable Norwich City have been top of the Championship since November 21, and have only lost three games since then. Spearheaded by Teemu Pukki and Emi Buendia, the Canaries have been scintillating to watch this season and delivered their best performance of the campaign on Tuesday night in a 7-0 thrashing of Huddersfield Town. Daniel Farke’s side now only need five more points to secure promotion.
Watford are currently eight points behind Norwich, and while it seems unlikely that they will catch the Canaries as champions, the Hornets are firm favourites to go up in second. Seen as playoff candidates in the first half of the season, they have won 10 of their last 12 matches to state their intent of returning to the top flight at the first time of asking. With the quality in their squad it’s hardly a surprise.
Last year’s beaten playoff finalists Brentford seem the only team capable of spoiling the rather yellow party, but even they look like long shots as four draws in a row for Thomas Frank’s has left them nine points behind Watford with a game in hand. They possess the most potent striker in the league in Ivan Toney, but he can’t do it all on his own.
4th - Swansea City
- Games played: 39 / Points: 69 / Goal difference: +14
- Average position of remaining opponents: 13th
- Next match(es): Millwall (A), Sheffield Wednesday (A)
Swansea may only be a point behind Brentford, but their form suggests that they will be looking perilously over their shoulders rather than up the table. The Welsh side have lost their last four matches and have not scored a goal in over 400 minutes of football. They didn’t even register a shot on target in a 1-0 loss to Preston on Easter Monday - the second game in a row in which they conceded a stoppage time winner.
Finding the back of the net has been a problem for the Swans all season - they have scored seven fewer goals than any other side in the top eight - with neither Andre Ayew or Jamal Lowe a true out and out striker. While you would still back Steve Cooper’s men to finish in the top six given the all-round quality in their squad, their drop off is alarming and their trip to the Madejski Stadium on April 25 has taken on even more relevance.
5th - Barnsley
- Games played: 40 / Points: 68 / Goal difference: +8
- Average position of remaining opponents: 15th
- Next match(es): Middlesbrough (H)
Reading saw first hand on Easter Friday just why Barnsley have surprised everyone this season to be in contention for promotion. The Tykes are an intense pressing machine who are prepared to do battle in every game, making life very difficult for opposition teams. Daryl Dike’s arrival on loan from Orlando City in January has been key. The American netted twice in a 2-1 win over Luton Town on Monday to make it seven goals from nine starts - Barnsley have only lost one game he has played in.
Valerien Ismael’s men have statistically the easiest run in out of the playoff chasing teams, with Middlesbrough on Saturday their last true test before facing champions elect Norwich on the final day. Neil Warnock’s side took a point off a rampant Watford outfit on Monday, so here’s hoping Colin can do Reading a favour.
6th - Reading
- Games played: 40 / Points: 66 / Goal difference: +13
- Average position of remaining opponents: 8th
- Next match(es): Watford (A)
It was a relatively successful Easter weekend for Reading - they did not lose in a must-not lose game against Barnsley and they won in a must-win game against Derby County. There’s no doubting that Friday’s match against Watford is our toughest remaining fixture (given Norwich will almost certainly promoted by May 1), but it does give us a chance to put pressure on the teams around us who don’t play until Saturday.
It’s no surprise that the Royals are most outsiders’ favourites to drop out of the top six, and one of the main reasons for that is the run-in. We have the hardest set of remaining fixtures - with four of the top eight left to play - and of course it is now out of Reading’s hands as if Bournemouth win their game in hand against Huddersfield next Tuesday they would move into sixth. That’s if they do not do so over the weekend.
7th - Bournemouth
- Games played: 39 / Points: 65 / Goal difference: +22
- Average position of remaining opponents: 12th
- Next match(es): Coventry City (H), Huddersfield Town (A)
Unfortunately for Reading, Bournemouth seem to be hitting form at just the right time. They have won three consecutive matches for just the second time this season and have a favourable pair of fixtures coming up in the next week, meaning there is a good chance that that run may continue.
But take a glance at their squad and is it a surprise? Given the wealth of attacking talent the Cherries possess - Dominic Solanke, David Brooks and Arnaut Danjuma - there really should be no doubt of their place in the top six. That’s without mentioning surprise goal hero Philip Billing, who has struck in all three of their latest wins. Once Bournemouth have played Huddersfield next Tuesday, it will be a level playing field and straight shootout for the final five fixtures.
Cardiff City’s horror showing in a 5-0 defeat at struggling Sheffield Wednesday on Monday was a huge blow to their playoff bid, with Mick McCarthy admitting that it would now be a tough ask to finish in the top six.
Behind the Bluebirds only on goal difference, Millwall are on a run of three consecutive wins but it’s a streak that seems to have come too late in the season, while a run of one point from a possible nine looks to have ended Middlesbrough’s hopes.