How EFL Championship is shaping up ahead of huge weekend

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With the Premier League on its winter break, the EFL has a chance to shine this weekend, and there’s still plenty at stake.

As usual, the Sky Bet Championship has been fascinating this season and is heading full throttle for an exhilarating finale with everything still to play for at both ends of the table.

With four televised matches on Sky Sports to enjoy over this weekend, here’s a closer look at promotion, play-off and relegation matters in the second tier.

Freescoring Fulham lead the way in the Championship ahead of another fascinating weekend

Freescoring Fulham lead the way in the Championship ahead of another fascinating weekend

WHO’S ON COURSE FOR THE PREMIER LEAGUE?

It looks nailed-on that Fulham will be making an immediate return to the big time.

Four consecutive wins, during which they have scored a remarkable 22 goals, have taken them five points clear of second-placed Blackburn Rovers and they retain a game in hand to extend that further.

They also have the luxury of an eight-point cushion to Bournemouth, who currently occupy third spot beneath the automatic promotion places.

After a little wobble in December, Marco Silva’s team have roared back and with so much attacking strength, they have the potential to blow teams away when in the mood.

Anthony Knockaert celebrates after Fulham won 3-2 at Stoke City last weekend

Anthony Knockaert celebrates after Fulham won 3-2 at Stoke City last weekend 

How the top of the table looks in the Championship with Fulham five ahead of Blackburn

How the top of the table looks in the Championship with Fulham five ahead of Blackburn

Just ask Reading, Bristol City and Birmingham City, who have seen seven, six and six goals respectively smashed past them in recent weeks.

Aleksandar Mitrovic, something of a specialist at this level, already has 27 Championship goals this season and is the league’s top goalscorer by some distance.

And with the Serbian backed up by the likes of Harry Wilson, Neeskens Kebano, Fabio Carvalho and Tom Cairney, there’s surely no way they’ll fail to win promotion from here.

Who takes the second automatic spot is an open question. Bournemouth occupied the top two for much of the early season but have faltered, allowing Blackburn and Queens Park Rangers to catch up.

Rovers have been powered by the 20 goals of Chile striker Ben Brereton Diaz – one of the success stories of the season and coveted by Premier League sides.

Blackburn's Chile striker Ben Brereton Diaz has netted 20 goals in an outstanding season

Blackburn’s Chile striker Ben Brereton Diaz has netted 20 goals in an outstanding season

Sam Gallagher's winner kept Blackburn on track for the top two as they beat Middlesbrough

Sam Gallagher’s winner kept Blackburn on track for the top two as they beat Middlesbrough

They were given a rude awakening in early November when Fulham won 7-0 at Ewood Park but they’ve won nine of 12 league games since to climb the table, conceding only five times in the process as they shored things up at the back .

Bournemouth failed in last season’s play-offs but with new manager Scott Parker in place, started this season superbly by going unbeaten until November 2.

Since then, however, their form has slumped with just three wins from 11 matches. The latest setback was a 1-0 home defeat to Hull last weekend.

Scott Parker's Bournemouth need to find a second wind to gain automatic promotion

Scott Parker’s Bournemouth need to find a second wind to gain automatic promotion

QPR may have dropped two points at home to Swansea in midweek but nobody can rule them out of automatic promotion with just four points to make up and a game in hand on Blackburn.

Everything has clicked for Mark Warburton’s side this season after a succession of lower half finishes since they last dropped out the Premier League in 2015.

They’d won four matches on the bounce prior to that and have made a speciality out of scoring late winners, as Bristol City, West Brom and Coventry have discovered in recent weeks.

Charlie Austin couldn't inspire Queens Park Rangers to three points against Swansea midweek

Charlie Austin couldn’t inspire Queens Park Rangers to three points against Swansea midweek

Championship this weekend 

FRIDAY

Huddersfield Town vs Swansea City (7.45pm)*

SATURDAY (3pm unless stated)

Barnsley vs Bournemouth

Fulham vs Blackpool

Hull City vs Swansea City

Luton Town vs Blackburn Rovers

Middlesbrough vs Coventry City

Millwall vs West Bromwich Albion 

Preston North End vs Bristol City

Queens Park Rangers vs Reading

Peterborough United vs Sheffield United (5.30pm)*

SUNDAY

Derby County vs Birmingham City (1.30pm)*

Cardiff City vs Nottingham Forest (4pm)*

*Live on Sky Sports Main Event, Sky Sports Football and Sky Sports Ultra HD

WHO ARE THE PLAY-OFF CANDIDATES?

The quartet that will make up the play-offs is anyone’s guess. You’ll have at least one side left disappointed to miss out on automatic promotion who need to rouse themselves again and others who’ve made a late surge into the top six.

After all, just eight points split Huddersfield Town currently in sixth and Blackpool down in 14th with most of the sides in between still having games in hand.

West Brom expected to be in the mix to go straight back up but their inconsistency under Valerien Ismael has made it a frustrating season for the fans.

Valerien Ismael's West Brom suffered another setback when they lost in midweek to Preston

Valerien Ismael’s West Brom suffered another setback when they lost in midweek to Preston

Recent defeats to Derby, QPR and Preston North End have left them fifth and looking over their shoulder rather than trying to push towards the top two. Their strong home form – just one loss to far – and stinginess at the back may well carry them far.

Huddersfield, relegated from the Premier League in 2019, are certainly a much improved proposition on the last two campaigns.

Carlos Corberan’s side are hard to break down and are currently eight undefeated, with a helter-skelter 4-3 win at Reading their latest outing.

Danny Ward celebrates scoring for Huddersfield in their thrilling 4-3 win at Reading

Danny Ward celebrates scoring for Huddersfield in their thrilling 4-3 win at Reading 

Nottingham Forest started the season in disastrous fashion, losing six of their opening seven games to cost Chris Hughton his job.

But Steve Cooper has come in and galvanised a proud club, who haven’t been in the Premier League for 23 years. This could be their year with local lad Brennan Johnson catching the eye.

Another top-flight regular for many years, Middlesbrough, are also on the fringes of the top six while the much-improved Coventry are kicking on under Mark Robins.

Given the unpredictability of the division, where two or three wins can propel you up the table, Luton, Stoke and Sheffield United won’t be giving up on the play-offs either.

Brennan Johnson of Nottingham Forest is one of the Championship's brightest young talents

Brennan Johnson of Nottingham Forest is one of the Championship’s brightest young talents

WHO IS IN DANGER OF GOING DOWN?

Derby County’s problems extend far beyond a relegation to League One that has seemed inevitable since they were deducted 21 points earlier in the season.

Liquidation loomed for the Rams as they scramble to complete a takeover that would provide an injection of cash to keep the club running. They have, however, been handed a month’s reprieve by the EFL.

On the field, Wayne Rooney has worked wonders with an ever-diminishing squad. They aren’t even bottom of the standings – which isn’t a good look for Barnsley – and would be 15th if not for their points handicap.

Wayne Rooney is fighting tooth and nail to try and pull off the greatest of escape for Derby

Wayne Rooney is fighting tooth and nail to try and pull off the greatest of escape for Derby

How the bottom six in the Championship table looks ahead of the weekend's fixtures

How the bottom six in the Championship table looks ahead of the weekend’s fixtures

But with eight points to make up on Reading in 21st place, Derby nonetheless still need a miracle to be a Championship club next season. They have been fighting tooth and nail, however.

The Tykes, also eight points from safety, have fallen a long way from the side that reached the play-offs last season. They’ve lost their last three games and haven’t won in the league since November 3 and even that was against Derby.

If their demise seems inevitable, Peterborough United are scrapping for their Championship lives having only come up last season.

Peterborough United were 2-0 up at Birmingham in midweek but went on to only draw

Peterborough United were 2-0 up at Birmingham in midweek but went on to only draw

Despite having the worst defence in the division, they’re only two points shy of Reading and would be even better placed had they not chucked away a two-goal lead at Birmingham on Tuesday.

Reading were themselves hit with a six-point deduction for breaking EFL sustainability rules in November and have been pretty hopeless ever since, sliding down the table into real danger.

They’ve lost four in a row yet haven’t dispensed of manager Veljko Paunovic, who hasn’t been able to recreate the outstanding start they made to last season.

Cardiff, just three points above Peterborough, are also in trouble and haven’t won a Championship game since the end of November.

A couple of wins since their Turkish takeover have elevated Hull to a position where they can breathe a little easier.

Andy Carroll was with Reading but made the switch to West Bromwich Albion this week

Andy Carroll was with Reading but made the switch to West Bromwich Albion this week

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