The EFL state of play ahead of the crucial Easter weekend

Norwich on the brink of Premier League return with Watford striving to join them, Sunderland chasing down Hull in League One and Bolton making a promotion surge in League Two… the EFL state of play ahead of the crucial Easter weekend

  • A manic Easter weekend in the EFL sees two full sets of fixtures in three divisions
  • Norwich City can move to the cusp of sealing immediate Premier League return
  • Watford are trying to hold off Swansea and Brentford for second automatic spot
  • Barnsley are the surprise package in the Championship play-off race 
  • Hull, Peterborough and Sunderland vying for just two League One places
  • Bolton are the in-form side in League Two as they try and bounce back  

The Easter weekend is often pivotal in the EFL and this year promises to be no exception.

With a packed schedule of games in the Championship, League One and League Two on both Good Friday and Easter Monday, the promotion, play-off and relegation pictures could well be much clearer afterwards.

Yet as a season that has seemed like more of a marathon than ever because of the Covid-19 pandemic and resultant compressed schedule enters its final sprint, the drama still promises to be unrelenting.

We take a closer look at the state of play in all three divisions ahead of this weekend’s football feast.

Norwich City are closing in on an immediate Premier League return as we approach a crucial EFL weekend over Easter with two full sets of fixtures ahead

CHAMPIONSHIP

Who’s going up?

It’s just a matter of time now until Norwich City seal their return to the Premier League at the first time of asking.

The Canaries, who have lost just one of 16 league games since the turn of the year and won 12 of them, have the luxury of a 14-point cushion to third ahead of the Easter weekend.

Daniel Farke’s side received criticism for not making a great fist of top-flight football last season but they’ve walked the Championship, sitting top of the table since late November.

Another six points in their games against Preston North End on Friday and Huddersfield on Tuesday evening will inch them closer to a Premier League return.

Who joins them remains up for grabs but second-placed Watford have certainly seized the initiative and they sit six points clear of Swansea in third as things stand.

They have the strongest home record in the Championship and are excelling under the stewardship of Spanish coach Xisco Munoz, who replaced the uninspiring Vladimir Ivic just before Christmas.

Ken Sema celebrates after handing Watford the lead in their last match against Birmingham

The situation in the Championship promotion race with Norwich and Watford occupying the two automatic promotion places and a congested play-off chase below them

The Hornets are in sparkling form, winning nine of their last 10 games, and they are heavy favourites to beat Sheffield Wednesday at Vicarage Road this Friday before a trip to Middlesbrough on Monday.

It would be foolish to write off Swansea and Brentford for that second automatic spot, however, not least because both have a game in hand.

Swansea are reeling from back-to-back defeats to Bournemouth and Cardiff but have often had the measure of their promotion rivals in meetings this season.

Steve Cooper’s side don’t score as frequently as many of those around them but they compensate with one of the league’s best defensive records.

It was misery for Swansea last time out as they lost the Welsh derby to bitter rivals Cardiff

The Welsh club should take three points from Birmingham City on Friday night and Preston on Monday and will be hoping for a Watford slip-up.

Brentford find themselves in a sticky patch having looked a good bet for automatic promotion and even the title during that 21-match unbeaten league run that spanned from mid-October until Valentine’s Day.

Since that was ended by Barnsley, they’ve also lost to QPR, Coventry and Norwich while their last two games have seen further dropped points in draws with Derby and Nottingham Forest.

Though they could still take second spot – not least because they have the Championship’s 28-goal leading scorer Ivan Toney in their ranks – the play-offs are looking more likely.

And that will fill Bees fans with trepidation after their heartbreaking Wembley loss to Fulham last season.

They have a slightly different rhythm this weekend with a trip to Huddersfield on Saturday then a home encounter with Birmingham on Tuesday night and should take all six points.

Ivan Toney is the Championship’s top scorer and is powering Brentford’s promotion push

Who’s in the play-offs?

This looked like a closed shop until quite recently but now a number of teams have aspirations to finish in the top six.

As well as two of Watford, Swansea and Brentford, we can expect two from Barnsley, Reading, Bournemouth, Cardiff and Middlesbrough to be in there.

Barnsley are the story of the season, having risen from nowhere under the expert guidance of coach Valerien Ismael to storm into the top six.

The South Yorkshire club’s style of football, described as ‘vertical’, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but their high press certainly rattles opponents and gets results.

A 12-match unbeaten run was ended by Sheffield Wednesday just before the internationals but the Tykes, who spent a sole season in the Premier League in 1997-98, will hope to get back on track on Friday.

Barnsley have made a strong surge into the play-off spots but lost to Sheffield Wednesday

They host Reading, the team just beneath them in the standings who have been in and around the top six for the entirety of the season.

Coach Veljko Paunovic has worked wonders at a club that had become accustomed to bottom half finished since they lost the 2017 Play-off final to Huddersfield.

However, having looked pretty secure in the play-off spots for most of the campaign, they’ve dropped a lot of points of late and are now looking over their shoulder.

Bournemouth are just three points behind them entering the Easter weekend. As they aim to rebound into the Premier League at the first time of asking, the Cherries have been up there all season.

That wasn’t enough to save manager Jason Tindall, sacked in February and replaced by Jonathan Woodgate. Their recent loss to Barnsley was damaging but Bournemouth responded with a brilliant 3-0 win over Swansea.

Bournemouth have dropped out the top six but could yet bounce back to the Premier League

They’ll have their mettle tested by Middlesbrough on Friday and Blackburn on Monday.

Cardiff have galloped up the table since Mick McCarthy replaced Neil Harris as manager in January and went into the international pause on a high after a 1-0 win at bitter rivals Swansea.

Just four points off the top six, they will fancy their chances, and so will Neil Warnock’s Middlesbrough just a couple more points back.

Who’s going down?

It looks like Wycombe’s stay in the second tier will be a brief one – Gareth Ainsworth’s side captured the imagination by winning the League One play-offs in July but the Championship has proved a step too far and they’re 11 points adrift of safety with eight games to play.

Sheffield Wednesday are six adrift but hanging in there. It’s been a shambolic season at Hillsborough with two managerial changes but Darren Moore and his team gave themselves a glimmer of hope with a 2-1 win at Barnsley last time out and there are definite signs of improvement.

However, meetings with Watford and in-form Cardiff over Easter are probably far from idea as they look to keep the momentum going.

Above them, Rotherham United may occupy the third relegation spot but they have only three points to make up and four games in hand on Birmingham above them following a series of Covid-19 interruptions.

Wycombe have put up plenty of fight this season but look set to return to League One

The bottom six in the Championship as Derby, Coventry and Birmingham feel the pressure

The flip side for the Millers, who beat Bristol City last time out, is that they now face a manic April with nine games to cram into 25 days, a severe test of endurance for their squad.

Nonetheless, their games in hand leave ground-sharers Birmingham and Coventry looking very precarious just above the drop zone.

The Blues took decisive action to fire Aitor Karanka last month and replaced him with Charlton boss Lee Bowyer. He started with a win over Reading but Birmingham then lost 3-0 at Watford.

It doesn’t get any easier, either, with Swansea and Brentford either side of the weekend.

Wayne Rooney’s Derby have lost their way of late and have lost four of their last seven games

Coventry’s form has been patchy all season but they will hope to get at least a point at QPR on Friday before a home game against another mid-table side in Bristol City on Monday.

The bounce enjoyed by Derby County after Wayne Rooney became their full-time manager is a distant memory and a run of seven without victory, including four defeats, has sucked them back into trouble.

With a five-point cushion, they should still have enough to be a Championship team next season and as win over Luton at home this Friday will make them breathe much easier.

Championship fixtures 

GOOD FRIDAY (3pm kick-off unless stated)

Bournemouth vs Middlesbrough; Bristol City vs Stoke City; Cardiff City vs Nottingham Forest; Derby County vs Luton Town; Millwall vs Rotherham United; Preston North End vs Norwich City; Queens Park Rangers vs Coventry City; Watford vs Sheffield Wednesday; Wycombe Wanderers vs Blackburn Rovers; Barnsley vs Reading (5.30pm, live on Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports Football); Birmingham City vs Swansea City (8pm, live on Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports Football)

SATURDAY

Huddersfield Town vs Brentford (12.30pm, live on Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports Football)

EASTER MONDAY (3pm kick-off unless stated)

Middlesbrough vs Watford (12.30pm, live on Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports Football); Blackburn Rovers vs Bournemouth; Coventry City vs Bristol City; Luton Town vs Barnsley; Nottingham Forest vs Queens Park Rangers; Reading vs Derby County; Rotherham United vs Wycombe Wanderers; Stoke City vs Millwall; Swansea City vs Preston North End; Sheffield Wednesday vs Cardiff City (5.30pm, live on Sky Sports Football)

TUESDAY

Brentford vs Birmingham City (7pm); Norwich City vs Huddersfield Town (7.45pm, live on Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports Football)

LEAGUE ONE

Who’s going up?

The promotion race in League One is shaping up to be a thriller with Hull, Peterborough and Sunderland battling it out for just two places.

Hull lead the way with 70 points off the back of a seven-match unbeaten run but the fact those last two – against Shrewsbury and Gillingham – have been 1-1 draws has checked their awesome progress.

Grant McCann’s side head to mid-table Crewe on Friday before hosting struggling Northampton on Monday so will expect to return to winning ways.

Peterborough, outside the Championship since 2013, recovered from a recent wobble with a 7-0 thrashing of Accrington at the weekend, the biggest win in League One all season.

Tom Eaves celebrates after opening the scoring in Hull’s draw with Gillingham last weekend

Aiden O’Brien celebrates scoring Sunderland’s winner against Bristol Rovers last weekend

Prolific striker Jonson Clarke-Harris, the division’s top scorer with 25 goals, smashed a hat-trick.

Posh make the trip to Fleetwood on Friday but their game at home to Sunderland is absolutely massive for the promotion race, with just two points between them in second and third.

Sunderland are the form team in the race, with Lee Johnson’s side winning eight of their last 10 league games, not to mention winning the Papa John’s Trophy at Wembley.

They showed their robustness in winning 1-0 at Bristol Rovers at the weekend and retain a game in hand on Peterborough and two on Hull, which could well prove crucial.

Jonson Clarke-Harris (right), of Peterborough, is the leading goalscorer in League One

It’s a fascinating race for automatic promotion and the play-off positions in League One

Who’s in the play-offs?

Obviously one of Hull, Peterborough and Sunderland will have to enter the play-off lottery and Lincoln are the nearest to securing their place below them.

The Imps looked on for automatic promotion a couple of months ago but Michael Appleton’s team have lost five of their last eight to slip back although reaching the play-offs would still be an excellent achievement.

Lincoln’s former manager Danny Cowley is in the process of revitalising Portsmouth after replacing Kenny Jackett in March.

Victories over Ipswich and Shrewsbury in his first two matches in charge have lifted Pompey to fifth and they should make it three on the spin at home to rock bottom Rochdale on Friday.

Portsmouth have won back-to-back games to climb the table under manager Danny Cowley

But really it’s anyone’s guess who’ll fill out the play-off positions with only three points splitting Portsmouth in fifth to Ipswich in 11th.

Gillingham climbed into six place with a 1-0 win over Wigan on Wednesday night.

But Blackpool, Doncaster, Oxford, Charlton, Ipswich and even a couple of others below that may fancy their chances of a late dart.

However, Blackpool and Doncaster have games in hand on the chasing pack, which could make all the difference.

Who’s going down?

Nobody can be written off just yet. Rochdale are bottom and four points from safety, with Bristol Rovers, Wigan and AFC Wimbledon also in the relegation zone.

Wigan’s takeover by a consortium led by Bahraini businessman Abdulrahman Al-Jasmi was completed this week, allowing them to exit administration.

Above the drop line, Northampton will be feeling the pressure after their late loss at Wimbledon last weekend, while Swindon are only a point above danger.

Joe Pigott’s late winner against Northampton could yet prove crucial for AFC Wimbledon

How things look at the bottom end of League One with the bottom four going down

League One fixtures 

GOOD FRIDAY (3pm kick-off unless stated)

Doncaster Rovers vs Charlton Athletic (12.30pm, live on Sky Sports Football); Accrington Stanley vs Burton Albion; Crewe Alexandra vs Hull City; Fleetwood Town vs Peterborough United; Ipswich Town vs Bristol Rovers; Lincoln City P-P Milton Keynes Dons (Covid outbreak at Lincoln); Northampton Town vs Shrewsbury Town; Plymouth Argyle vs AFC Wimbledon; Portsmouth vs Rochdale; Sunderland vs Oxford United; Swindon Town vs Blackpool

EASTER MONDAY (3pm kick-offs)

AFC Wimbledon vs Fleetwood Town; Blackpool vs Gillingham; Bristol Rovers vs Doncaster Rovers; Burton Albion vs Swindon Town; Hull City vs Northampton Town; MIlton Keynes Dons vs Crewe Alexandra; Oxford United vs Accrington Stanley; Peterborough United vs Sunderland (live on Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports Football); Rochdale vs Ipswich Town; Shrewsbury Town vs Plymouth Argyle; Wigan Athletic vs Portsmouth

TUESDAY

Charlton Athletic P-P Lincoln City (Covid outbreak at Lincoln)

LEAGUE TWO

Who’s going up?

The race to win promotion into League One looks set to go right down to the wire. Three go up automatically and there seems to be movement each and every time games are played.

Cambridge United lead the table at present after they bumped Cheltenham down thanks to a last-gasp win at Carlisle last weekend but their lead is a flimsy two points.

The U’s face a tricky weekend if they’re to keep their position with fellow promotion hopefuls Morecambe and Tranmere awaiting them on Friday and Monday respectively.

Cheltenham’s form has been bumpy in the past few weeks with three defeats from their last five, including a loss at Morecambe last time out.

Adam May of Cambridge celebrates his late winner at Carlisle to send them top of the table

Morecambe celebrate Liam McAlinden’s winning goal against Cheltenham last Saturday

They host Tranmere on Friday as second meets third with just a couple of points splitting them though Rovers have drawn three of their last four since losing the Papa John’s Trophy final to Sunderland.

But Bolton, who sit a place below Tranmere in fourth but only on goal difference, are the form team in League Two and, indeed, of the entire EFL.

Ian Evatt’s side have recovered from a very shaky start to the campaign to go 13 games unbeaten, winning 11 of them, and have soared up the table to make an immediate return to the third tier a possibility.

Forest Green Rovers, who lost 1-0 to Bolton last weekend, and Morecambe are both just a point further back and are very much in the automatic promotion picture.

Bolton’s Eoin Doyle celebrates his winner at Forest Green last weekend as their run continued

The race for promotion in League Two is shaping up to be an absolute thriller in run-in

Who’s in the play-offs?

There’s a five point gap between Morecambe in sixth and Newport in the final play-off position – with a cluster of clubs below that hoping to overtake the Welsh club.

Newport have lost their last two games and have been reeled in by the likes of Exeter, Leyton Orient, Salford, Carlisle, Crawley and Bradford in a chasing pack that stretches well into mid-table.

Most of the teams have eight games still to play as they jostle for position with almost a full programme on both Friday and Monday.

Who’s going down?

With two relegated into the National League at the end of the season, the situation at the foot of the table has been a rollercoaster for a while now.

Grimsby Town need to make up six points if they’re to avoid a return to non-league football five years after breaking out of it.

The Mariners face a visit to Salford on Friday and then a home match against promotion chasing Cheltenham on Monday and time is fast ebbing away to get the required wins.

Southend are in 23rd and have three points to make up on Barrow on the other side of the relegation line – but the Shrimpers have played two games more.

They did, however, grab a vital 1-0 win at Harrogate Town last weekend to keep hopes very much alive.

That came as Barrow, only promoted last year, lost 2-1 at Stevenage and the Cumbrians face an important game against Colchester, a place above them, on Monday.

Southend have the luxury of reacting to how their relegation rivals get on as they play Carlisle at home on Saturday and then head to Morecambe on Tuesday, both 24 hours after everyone else plays.

The fight to stay in the EFL is intensifying with Southend and Grimsby the current bottom two

League Two fixtures

GOOD FRIDAY (3pm kick-off unless stated)

Bolton Wanderers vs Colchester United (1pm); Scunthorpe United vs Crawley Town (1pm); Barrow vs Newport County; Bradford City vs Forest Green Rovers; Cambridge United vs Morecambe; Cheltenham Town vs Tranmere Rovers (live on Sky Sports Football); Mansfield Town vs Leyton Orient; Oldham Athletic vs Stevenage; Port Vale vs Exeter City; Salford City vs Grimsby Town; Walsall vs Harrogate Town

SATURDAY

Southend United vs Carlisle United (1pm)

EASTER MONDAY (3pm kick-off unless stated)

Colchester United vs Barrow; Crawley Town vs Oldham Athletic; Exeter City vs Mansfield Town; Forest Green Rovers vs Salford City; Grimsby Town vs Cheltenham Town; Harrogate Town vs Port Vale; Leyton Orient vs Walsall; Newport County vs Bolton Wanderers; Stevenage vs Bradford City; Tranmere Rovers vs Cambridge United

TUESDAY

Carlisle United vs Scunthorpe United (6.30pm); Morecambe vs Southend United (6.30pm)




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