The Championship’s four-way fight for promotion and a title no one wants to win

The four-way fight for promotion to the Premier League is reaching a thrilling climax and could potentially go down to the last kick of the final day.

Just five points separate four teams — Ipswich Town, Leicester City, Leeds United and Southampton — with all on course to break the 90-point barrier, a tally usually enough to secure one of the two automatic promotion places.

There is so much at stake for all of them. The pressure has started to tell in recent weeks as Leicester, Leeds and Ipswich have faltered, allowing Southampton to close back on the leading pack.

Here, The Athletic looks at the runners in the promotion race and assesses what shape they are in as they enter the final furlong.

Ipswich Town (89 points)

Leicester, Leeds and Southampton — all three sides relegated from the Premier League last season — were expected to challenge for promotion, but Ipswich have gatecrashed that three-way dance-off.

There is probably the least amount of pressure on Kieran McKenna’s side, not just because they are the surprise package but also with less at stake financially for the club.

Last season, they wracked up 98 points in League One but still finished second to Plymouth Argyle, and only two points ahead of Sheffield Wednesday. Already this year they have set a new points record for a newly-promoted side; a stark contrast to Plymouth and Wednesday’s struggles nearer the foot of the Championship.

Under McKenna, who has just been named the Championship’s manager of the season, they have maintained momentum. They are statistically the side that runs the most and are the division’s top scorers, with 20 per cent of their goals coming in the final 10 minutes.

Brighton loanee Jeremy Sarmiento is a key part of Ipswich’s prolific attack (Stephen Pond/Getty Images) (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images)

As with many of their rivals, that effort has started to take its toll. After an incredible run of nine wins from 10 league games, they have picked up just two points from their last three matches and now face back-to-back away games against two sides with play-off aspirations — Hull City and Coventry City.

They end the league campaign at home to Huddersfield Town, a team who could still be fighting to stay up on the last day.

“It’s going to go down to the last week,” McKenna said after picking up his award this week. “We know it’s going to be really tough, but it’s something to relish and I know we’ll give it everything.”

McKenna certainly feels that, despite being the current leaders in the race, the pressure is on their rivals. “What I see and feel from the group is that they don’t feel any of it (pressure),” he says. “They’re enjoying it and they’re enjoying the season. We’re trying to finish it off the best that we can.

“We know where we’re coming from and where other teams are coming from, so I don’t think there’s any pressure on us. But that doesn’t mean we won’t leave any stone unturned. We’re enjoying that pressure on us.”

Ipswich are in pole position and with less expectation than their rivals, but can they hold their nerve? They held off Wednesday last year and that will bring belief that they can do the same with the chasing pack this time round.

Remaining fixtures:

April 27 Hull City (away)

April 30 Coventry City (away)

May 4 Huddersfield Town (home)

Leicester City (88 points)

For the first half of the season, it was all plain sailing for Leicester.

With new manager Enzo Maresca installed, a new playing style and a much-changed squad — as well as the biggest playing budget in the division — Leicester began the season in dominant fashion and won 13 of the first 14 games.

By Christmas, they already had 58 points on the board and by New Year’s Day they were 17 points ahead of fourth-placed Leeds. People were starting to talk about record point hauls. Even on February 14, their lead was 12 points over Leeds in second and 14 over third-placed Southampton.

Since then, they have won just three out of 10 league games.

How much of a factor their off-field issues have been is open to debate, with a charge for breaching profit and sustainability rules (PSR) from the Premier League and a registration embargo from the EFL imposed in that time. A points deduction is expected if they do return to the Premier League, a promotion that will no doubt prompt accusations that they benefited from financial doping.



Leicester have vowed to fight off the pitch – but they are crumbling on it

But if they fail to go up, the EFL are looking to hit them even harder. A huge cost-cutting exercise will have to be implemented.

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Leicester were 12 points clear in February, now they are a point behind in second (Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images)

There is so much at stake at Leicester with many playing for their futures at the club. Several of the squad are out of contract this summer, including Jamie Vardy, Wilfred Ndidi and Kelechi Iheanahco. The club would need special permission from the EFL to re-register them. That has brought increased pressure on Maresca’s men, as well as some discontent amongst a section of fans.

The defeat at Plymouth, their third consecutive 1-0 away loss, seemed to be the lowest point with defender James Justin saying it was time for the players to “look themselves in the mirror”.

But their fate is still in their own hands with three of their remaining four games at home, including a huge clash with Southampton on Tuesday.

After the Plymouth defeat, the players called their own meeting to discuss the situation and galvanise themselves ahead of the final four fixtures.

“We need to win four games to go up, which we should be doing with the staff, the players and everyone around the club,” Justin told local radio after the Plymouth game. “We’re doing the club a disrespect at the moment on the pitch, but hopefully we can get back to the drawing board and right those wrongs.”

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Stephy Mavididi and Harry Winks are crestfallen after the loss at Plymouth (Harry Trump/Getty Images)

In recent weeks, it has been clear where Leicester have been struggling.

While they have only kept two clean sheets in the last 12 games, they have only lost by slender margins and it has been a lack of a clinical edge in front of goal that has cost them. According to Opta, they have created the highest number of ‘big chances’, chances they would be expected to take, in the division — eight more than Leeds and 13 more than Southampton. While they have taken 53 of them, just three behind Southampton, their conversion rate of 42 per cent is only the ninth-highest in the division.

“We would like to arrive at this stage more quiet and more relaxed,” Maresca said. “But we like the drama.

“The only way to manage the moment is just to be focused on what we do. If you start to think about how many points, how many games you need to win, it becomes a little bit of a mess.

“We completely understand the frustration of the fans because the players and the staff are in the same way. But you can see that, in this moment, everyone is a little bit struggling to win games. This is normal. We have to stay calm.”

Remaining fixtures

April 20 West Bromwich Albion (home)

April 23 Southampton (home)

April 29 Preston North End (away)

May 4 Blackburn Rovers (home)

Leeds United (87 points) 

Daniel Farke’s side looked like they had zeroed in on a top-two finish and were not interested in being caught up in a scrap when they won nine consecutive games — and 13 from 15 in total — from the turn of the year.

But, as the race enters its final stages, Leeds have hit a wobble with their unbeaten run at home this season ended by struggling Blackburn Rovers last weekend.

That came on the back of draws with Watford and Sunderland and defeat to Coventry City as the toll of a long and relentless season looks to have caught up with Leeds.

They are lacking confidence in front of goal and the atmosphere at Elland Road is on a knife edge, especially with the pressures of knowing the results of the teams above them before the game has even kicked off. Leeds have regularly had the last slot of the weekend due to television scheduling, which will continue with Monday night’s trip to Middlesbrough.

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A long season has taken its toll on Leeds of late (Ed Sykes/Getty Images)

Previously at Elland Road, their home support has paralysed opponents and inspired their own, but when tension rises it can work the other way. It remains to be seen if they benefit from their next two games being away from home before what could be a pulsating, nerve-jangling finale against Southampton.

“We are heading into the crunch period,” Farke said. “To focus on the process is an important thing. The quality of the team and of the players… what we lack in terms of injuries is also quite important. But to be focused on what you can influence is always crucial.

“Each and every game is important and each and every point counts. The closer you come to the end, the less time there is to repair if you make a mistake. It’s more or less what we have faced all season, so we have to concentrate on ourselves and our own game and being good enough to win as many points as possible.

“The fixture list has been a bit crazy this season but, once you’ve worked in the Championship, you experience this several times. You can’t pay attention to the other fixtures or complain about the fixture list. Right now we have two away games within four days. We play before Ipswich play, but after Leicester and Southampton play, and we want to grind out good results in each and every game.

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Archie Gray wheels away in celebration as Leeds overwhelm Leicester in February (Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

“From the owners, there is just backing and trust. The pressure we have is that we are in a privileged position and we want to use it. We are playing a top-class season. The points tally is remarkable; the goal difference is remarkable. We are by far the best team in the second half of the season and our defensive record is remarkable so, in many statistics, we are more or less leading this league.

“It has brought us into this privileged position where we will finish in the top four and, once you have this, you want to have the perfect season and be promoted.”

Remaining fixtures:

April 22 Middlesbrough (away)

April 26 Queens Park Rangers (away)

May 4 Southampton (home)

Southampton (84 points) 

It might have been demoralising for Southampton that when they went on a 22-game unbeaten run earlier in the season, they still found themselves 11 points behind Leicester. Just as significantly, they seemed out of the race for automatic promotion just two weeks ago when they languished 12 points behind second, even if they did boast two games in hand.

Yet three consecutive wins at a time when the top three have all faltered have put them right back into contention.

They are now just four points behind second-placed Leicester, who they face at a nervous King Power Stadium on Tuesday night. There is also the final-day showdown at Leeds. If both teams need a win that day, there will be no ground in the country where the atmosphere is as electric as Elland Road.

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Southampton are the team with true momentum but can ill afford a slip (Matt Watson/Southampton FC via Getty Images)

A bit like Leicester, Southampton have adopted a possession-based, patient style of play under Russell Martin, averaging over 66 per cent of the ball per game, the highest in the division above Leicester (62 per cent) and Leeds (58 per cent). Ipswich are seventh on 53 per cent. Martin’s team have also made more passes and with a higher passing accuracy than any other team (89 per cent), and conjured more shots on target than any other side this season (250 in total).

There seems to be less pressure on the Saints as this is a situation they were not expecting. No wonder Martin is talking about changing the dynamic of the promotion picture. “We were written off some time ago,“ he said. ”But the players have stuck at it and been resilient.”

Southampton still have ground to make up on their rivals and they are coming from a long way back. They cannot afford a single slip-up.

Three of their final four games are away from home, too, but they seem to be the team with confidence and momentum, with striker Che Adams a man in form with four goals in his last three games.

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Adams scores against Preston North End on Tuesday (Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images)

“We are feeling confident with the place we are in, in terms of the performances and results,” Martin added. “But it is about making sure we know that the last three games don’t really matter if we don’t take care of the next one. That is the biggest game of our season now, for sure.

“Football is psychological, whether it is the first game of the season or the last. Mentality, psychology, courage and a willingness to go all the way will play a huge part in the run-in.”

Remaining fixtures:

April 20 Cardiff City (away)

April 23 Leicester City (away)

April 27 Stoke City (home)

May 4 Leeds United (away)

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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