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Championship mania: Leicester, Ipswich, Leeds and Southampton locked in epic promotion race

IPSWICH, ENGLAND - APRIL 01: Jeremy Sarmiento of Ipswich Town celebrates victory following the Sky Bet Championship match between Ipswich Town and Southampton FC at Portman Road on April 01, 2024 in Ipswich, England. (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images) (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images)
IPSWICH, ENGLAND - APRIL 01: Jeremy Sarmiento of Ipswich Town celebrates victory following the Sky Bet Championship match between Ipswich Town and Southampton FC at Portman Road on April 01, 2024 in Ipswich, England. (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images) (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images)

The four-way promotion scrap at the top of the Championship between Leicester, Ipswich, Leeds and Southampton is every bit as exciting as the one in the Premier League.

Much has been made of the thrilling nature of the fight for this season’s Premier League title, the first for many years to feature three teams battling tooth and nail until the bitter end.

But England’s richest clubs don’t have the monopoly on exciting title races and one division below, the Championship is in the grip of a similarly exciting climax.

With three games remaining, four teams are still scrapping over the two automatic promotion places as the competition enters a potentially defining week.

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Leading the way are Leicester City, who might have been expected to have wrapped up their return to the Premier League by now having made a record-breaking start to the campaign.

Under new manager Enzo Maresca, a former protege of Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, the Foxes set a new benchmark for the Championship by winning 11 of their first 12 games.

But a run of six defeats in 10 league games, beginning in February, threatened to torpedo their promotion push and they have only recently begun to find their feet again.

Hot on their heels, just two points behind, are Ipswich, who are bidding to become the first team to go from third tier to top flight in successive seasons since Southampton in 2012.

Theirs has been a remarkable transformation under Kieran McKenna, the former member of Manchester United’s coaching staff who took over in December 2021.

They and Ipswich jointly set a record-breaking pace for the first 20 games and are also equal top scorers, although there are signs they may be stumbling at the worst possible time.

Two more points behind them are Leeds United under promotion specialist Daniel Farke, who twice led Norwich City up as champions of the second tier.

Leeds surged into contention with a run of 12 wins from 13 games from the start of 2024 but like Ipswich have lost momentum, taking just one point from their last three games.

The Yorkshiremen are the first of the four title hopefuls to play next when they travel to Teesside tonight for a fixture against play-off chasing Middlesbrough.

Leeds are currently third in the Championship, behind Leicester and Ipswich but ahead of Southampton
Leeds are currently third in the Championship, behind Leicester and Ipswich but ahead of Southampton

The outsiders in the race are Southampton, three points behind Leeds and seven off Leicester – so highly unlikely to win the title but perfectly capable of sneaking into second place.

Like Leicester and Leeds, they were relegated from the Premier League last season and are looking to bounce back at the first time of asking under a new manager, Russell Martin.

They could have the biggest say of all, as the Saints travel to Leicester for a six-pointer and then have another on the final day of the season, Saturday 4 May, at Leeds.

It’s perhaps not the greatest advert for the Championship that the two automatic promotion places will probably go to teams who came down last season.

But after a week in which clubs in the EFL have revolted en masse at the planned abolition of FA Cup replays, it is a timely reminder that there is life outside the top flight.