Championship: How the automatic promotion race opened up

Nottingham Forest players celebrate, Helder Costa of Leeds and Aleksandar Mitrovic of Fulham
It's been joy and delight for Nottingham Forest and Fulham since December but woe for Leeds United (centre)

The Championship has a habit of being anything but predictable and so it has again proved in the past few weeks.

What seemed like being a procession to the Premier League for West Bromwich Albion and Leeds United has become a wide-open tussle for automatic promotion, with the top seven teams separated by only nine points, with a third of the season remaining.

How the table has changed

Championship table, 14 December 2019

Things began to change on Saturday, 14 December.

At the end of that day's play, Albion were 12 points clear of third-placed Preston, while Leeds had a 10-point advantage over North End.

It looked like being a two-horse race for the title, and the automatic promotion spots appeared sewn up by two clubs who had just four defeats from 44 games between them.

Fast-forward eight weeks and the table looks mightily different.

Championship table

West Brom's win in stormy conditions at Millwall on Sunday established a four-point advantage for the leaders, well down from the 12 they enjoyed at one stage, while Leeds have been completely reined in.

Only goal difference is keeping them above Fulham, who have an otherwise identical record to Marcelo Bielsa's side.

Nottingham Forest and Brentford lurk close behind, with Preston and seventh-placed Bristol City, who both have 50 points, also very much in the mix.

Leeds lapse accompanies Baggies blip

Clearly, the main reason for the congestion at the top of the table is the downturn in form of the Championship's two front-runners.

Back on 14 December, Leeds unfathomably let a 3-0 lead slip as they drew at home to 10-man Cardiff, while Albion needed Charlie Austin's late double to beat neighbours Birmingham.

Since that day the numbers are startling - Leeds have won just twice in nine Championship attempts, taking only eight points from a possible 27, and Saturday's defeat by Forest was their fourth in five games.

Albion have fared slightly better, but not much, collecting 10 points from 27 available during that time, although back-to-back wins over Luton and Millwall suggest they are getting back on track.

Goals have dried up for both sides, too. Albion are still the division's leading scorers but have netted a paltry, by their standards, 10 goals in their past nine games. By comparison, they scored 45 in their first 22 games.

Marcelo Bielsa
Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds have lost four league games out of five in 2020 - having only lost four in 26 before that

Leeds, meanwhile, have problems at both ends of the pitch. They have failed to score in four of their past five games, while their previously watertight defence, which conceded just 13 times in the opening 22 games, has failed to keep a clean sheet in 10 matches and has shipped 20 goals in that run.

"We used to create chances and score those chances, and now we have those chances and we are not scoring," Bielsa said before Tuesday's crunch game at Brentford.

"The team is not playing worse than before, the team is not running less. They're running even more and the team keeps the same confidence of before."

Forest, Fulham & Bees lead challengers

While the top two have floundered, the pretenders have become contenders - in some cases through an upturn in form and in others a continuation of the consistency shown throughout the campaign.

Forest were eighth and a point outside the play-offs in 14 December, but a run of six wins and just one defeat in nine matches has propelled them firmly into contention to return to the top flight after a 21-year absence.

As evidenced by recent wins over Brentford and Leeds, Sabri Lamouchi's side seem to shine against their promotion rivals.

Indeed, Albion, Forest's hosts on Saturday, are the only top-six team to beat them this term.

Third-placed Fulham have taken 20 points from the last 27 available, and Aleksandar Mitrovic's 20-goal return has kept them in among the play-off places virtually all season.

"He has become indispensable," said BBC Radio London's Jamie Reid of the Serbia international. "He's scored 31 for club and country this season, but he brings much more to the team than goals.

"He's become a dressing room leader and he's someone that the fans and other players look to when things aren't going to plan.

"He scored the crucial goal at Blackburn on Saturday to turn a likely draw into a victory and he's done that so many times in his time at Fulham."

Brentford celebrate a goal
Ollie Watkins (right) has scored 20 of Brentford's 52 league goals this season

No team in the top six has a better goal difference than Brentford, thanks in large part to Ollie Watkins, who jointly tops the division's goalscoring charts with Mitrovic.

The Bees, who have won seven of their last 11 games, host Leeds on Tuesday and a home win will result in the Yorkshire side dropping out of the top two.

Preston and Bristol City, meanwhile, have bounced back from four-game losing streaks to keep themselves in the hunt.

North End are unbeaten in five while the Robins, who face Leeds and Albion over the next two weekends, had won four consecutive Championship games before Friday's home loss to Birmingham.

Behind the top seven are six teams - Cardiff, Swansea, Millwall, Sheffield Wednesday, Blackburn and Derby - all within seven points of the top six and with lingering play-off aspirations.

It's all to play for...

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