'I thought Leeds United would coast the title and they're still the strongest in promotion race'

Leicester City and Leeds United are still fighting for the Championship title -Credit:George Wood/Getty Images
Leicester City and Leeds United are still fighting for the Championship title -Credit:George Wood/Getty Images

In two weeks we will know who has succeeded in this almighty promotion push at the top of one of the finest Championship seasons in history. None of the previous 20 years of this competition had four teams on 84 points or more after 42 matches.

In many of those seasons, the current top four would be running away with the title. In 2024, two of them will have to face the play-offs and there are no guarantees they will even win that lottery.

With the final matches upon us, LeedsLive has touched base with LeicestershireLive, East Anglian Daily Times and Southern Daily Echo. Their three correspondents for United’s rivals have answered the same questions to give us an overall view of the state of play with a fortnight to go.

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What's the state of play at your club? How are you gauging the overall mood/confidence/form?

Stuart Watson (Ipswich Town): We all hoped and believed Ipswich Town, having stormed to League One promotion with 13 wins from their final 15 games, could carry some serious positive momentum into the Championship. No one foresaw this though.

Talented young coach Kieran McKenna, having not done anything wild in the transfer market, has got the best out of what he's got. A group of players bonded on and off the pitch have attacked the division.

Portman Road, packed every week, has to be the best value place to watch football in the country. There have been comebacks and late winners galore. Ipswich are the top scorers in the division and have suffered the fewest defeats.

Supporters have just been enjoying the journey, but now, all of a sudden, the finishing line is in sight. Recent results suggest the size of the prize may be starting to weigh heavy.

It's true the players were collectively well below par when losing 1-0 at arch-rivals Norwich City recently, but the performance levels in the recent home draws with Watford and Middlesbrough were much-improved. Missed opportunities or potentially vital points? Time will tell.

McKenna insists his team, who have been relentlessly competitive for so long, aren't playing with anxiety and the pressure is on the other three teams. The muscle memory of last season's promotion could prove vital.

Jordan Blackwell (Leicester City): Six defeats from 10 and the eradication of their 14-point lead to third has sent the Leicester City fans into a spiral. The financial issues of recent weeks have shown how vital promotion is, and while a return to the Premier League looked a certainty only two months ago, they’re now heading in the wrong direction.

Last week’s defeats to Millwall and Plymouth Argyle have supporters panicking. Enzo Maresca has tried to keep his emotions steady amid the poor results, but even he struggled to hide his disappointment after the match at Plymouth.

He seemed forlorn as he admitted the only positive is Leicester’s fate is still in their hands, even deeming that “fortunate.” Maresca is insistent Leicester are playing as well as they did in the autumn and early winter, when they looked like they might run away with the division.

It’s just their finishing has deserted them. That is true to an extent. Their strikers have missed some sitters over the past two months, but it also feels like Championship opponents are, having played them once, getting to grips with how a Maresca team plays and limiting their strengths.

From the stands, it does not seem like there’s been enough variation in their play to try to counteract that.

Beren Cross (Leeds United): After one win in five, it's all feeling a little fraught at Elland Road. That 15-match unbeaten run from the start of the year miraculously pulled Leeds into the title race, but the international break came at the worst time and seems to have sucked all momentum away from them.

Injuries and call-ups made Easter tricky, but it's the three matches since then that have generated pessimism. Everyone knows this Leeds team can beat anyone on its day, but recent wobbles in a young team have taken their fate out of their own hands.

The hope is the weekend is kind before Monday's game and that nine days to prepare have given the side a chance to reset.

Alfie House (Southampton): Probably a state of surprise really, having been let back into the promotion race by the teams above them. Saints failed to win any of their first three back from the March international break and losing to Ipswich especially made even Russell Martin admit it would be the play-offs.

They couldn’t have foreseen none of the clubs above them would get a result over the last week, but they plugged away with three home fixtures coming at a good time. They won them all and there is a belief that maybe finishing in the top two could be possible, albeit remaining a tall order.

The following statement will depend on what happens in the next four, but this mini-resurgence should stand them in better stead of the play-offs if needed when it was all feeling rather glum just over a week ago.

What are your remaining fixtures like? Any bankers or banana skins?

SW: Ipswich had been due to go to Coventry this weekend, but that game had to be postponed due to the Sky Blues reaching the FA Cup semi-finals. It's created a debate about whether a two-week break is a good or a bad thing at this juncture.

Town's final three games will come in the space of eight days: an 8pm Saturday kick-off at Hull City, followed quickly by a Tuesday night match at Coventry City, with a season finale at home game against Huddersfield Town. Will Hull and Coventry be out of the play-off picture by the time those games come around?

Will Huddersfield still be fighting for their lives? It's futile trying to rate how difficult fixtures are in the Championship, especially at this stage of the season.

JB: Leicester have learned this past week that struggling teams with survival to fight for are not the ideal opponents, even if they have found it difficult to this point. So they will be hoping that, come the final day, Blackburn Rovers are already safe from the drop.

They will also be hoping Preston North End’s play-off hopes have completely died by the penultimate weekend of the season too. For the final two matches, those don’t look too ominous.

However, before that, they have two big home matches. West Bromwich Albion are almost, but not mathematically, secure in the play-offs and so aren’t going to roll over.

Then there’s the showdown with Southampton, a huge game for both sides. The Saints feel like they’ve come on leaps and bounds since Leicester’s 4-1 win at St Mary’s in September. The same cannot be said of Maresca’s side.

BC: The last few weeks have underlined there are seemingly no bankers in the Championship. Last week's home games were supposed to be the gimmes for Leeds, but they are now left needing to go away twice before hosting Southampton on the final day.

Middlesbrough, on paper, should be lacking motivation with the play-offs virtually beyond them, but they're unbeaten in nine and should create a hostile atmosphere on Monday night. Queens Park Rangers have turned out some shock results and will be fighting for their lives when Leeds visit.

The Saints showdown almost speaks for itself. Ultimately, Leeds have to win these two away games to make that final day mean something to them.

AH: Decisive for all four teams in the race. Saints visit both Leicester and Leeds in the next two weeks and will play a big role in the final table.

Despite looking unenviable on paper, they’re trying to see this as positive because it effectively keeps promotion in their hands and is a chance to take points off of their rivals. Whether they can capitalise on that or not is the question.

They haven’t played either of the two since September and things are very different. This weekend and next weekend are matches versus mid-table sides Cardiff and Stoke City, which are, obviously, must-wins.

Martin has kept repeating the fact that visiting Leicester is irrelevant if they don’t take care of business in Wales first.

What's been your perspective of the other three clubs over the past four to six weeks?

SW: Given the January transfer window frustrations and Enzo Maresca's comments towards supporters about his team's style of play, I did think Leicester might slip a little, not to the extent they have though. I've always thought Daniel Farke's experience in this division, plus the ridiculous firepower at his disposal, would get Leeds over the line.

Again, seeing them fail to score in successive home games was a major surprise. Ipswich may have done the double over Southampton, but you could see the talent in their team on both occasions. It did feel premature when many started writing them off for automatic promotion a few weeks ago.

JB: I’ve got it completely wrong on all of them. Without any reason, I thought Ipswich would fall away, that staying in the race with what are essentially Premier League sides would be too much for them. Even recently, when the top three have messed up, they’ve still managed to grind out draws.

I thought Leeds, with momentum on their side after that long unbeaten run, would coast to the title. I do still feel they are the strongest of the teams in the race, but that might not be enough.

And I feared Southampton would accept being in the play-offs after the loss to Ipswich. That couldn’t be further from the truth, with others’ slip-ups allowing them back in.

BC: Kieran McKenna was rightly named Manager of the Season on Sunday. Ipswich have had a truly remarkable season and I can't believe they never fell away from that early pace.

Even in their most challenging spells, they kept drawing and picking up points when they couldn't find wins. While the wheels have seemingly come off at Leicester at various points, Ipswich have just kept on keeping on.

I don't watch every minute of them, but their results and late winners tell me they won't slip up now. Leicester's form remained outrageously good until as recently as mid-February, but they have needed all of those points to keep them in the race after a dreadful two months.

These next two home games will decide their fate, for me. Win both and they should rightly win the league, but take three points or less and recent weeks show they can quickly buckle.

I was among the many disregarding Southampton until last weekend, really. When Daniel Farke said he wasn't discounting Russell Martin's side on April 8, it drew some quizzical looks in his press conference.

He's been proven right and the Hampshire side are the form outfit now, playing with freedom and nothing to lose. It would say everything about the Championship if they now, somehow, got into the top two. They have the fixtures to do it too.

AH: Surprising that all three teams are faltering a touch, but Martin told us pressure would do funny things at this stage of the season. Leicester should have been home and dry with the lead they had, but we’ve seen they’ve been a bit inconsistent for a period of months now, and it’s strange from outside there never seemed to be peace with the management despite constant victories.

It felt like Leeds started to hit perfect form in 2024 and it seemed as though that would be enough to see them over the line, but they’ve probably had the worst results of the bunch over the last five. Ipswich have been extremely impressive and, given the difference in budget with the other three, you have to say fair play for being up there.

From a neutral perspective, they’re the one side everyone wants to go up.

What's your prediction for the final four positions and why?

SW: I've filled out my predicted results and the end table I have is Leicester (96pts), Ipswich (96pts), Leeds (94pts) and Southampton (91pts). I think Southampton have left themselves just* too much to do, while I'm not sure Leeds will take maximum points from here on in.

Leicester to get over the line by drawing their next two and winning their last two. Ipswich to join them with seven points from a possible nine.

JB: Leicester’s fate will be determined by what happens in the next two games, I feel. I believe they will beat Preston and Blackburn in their final two matches, so a victory over either West Brom or Southampton will be enough for them to get over the line.

Without confidence, I will say they will get the three points this weekend and will eventually do it. And having bet against them for so long, I will now back Ipswich to win their final three.

As tough as trips to Hull and Coventry might be, I think they’ve got it in them to get victories there. That leaves Leeds and Southampton in the play-offs.

Who wins the league will be determined by Leicester’s game against Southampton. I’d give the Saints the win there, so Ipswich will finish first, a point above Leicester.

BC: Right now, I think Ipswich will go up, but in second. Those away games in Hull and Coventry look hard on paper, but the former has been poor at home and neither will have much to play for when Ipswich arrive.

Leicester's game in hand could make it too difficult for Leeds to overthrow them. Those aforementioned home matches against West Bromwich Albion and Southampton are critical and, unfortunately for Leeds, I can see the Foxes sneaking them, which should then make them champions.

United's away games look hard to call and may leave them with too much to do, even if they can beat the Saints on the final day.

AH: I think the top two could remain up there now until the end of the season. Ipswich have got a tough couple of fixtures coming up, but you’d be a fool to bet against them after everything we have seen.

Leicester have the additional game against Saints which could put them four points ahead of third, while Saints have not won more than four in a row all season, so to do seven seems a tall order. I expect all of the teams to get a couple of positive results and push the points tallies up, and calling a league winner specifically is even harder.

For the Leeds or Saints readers, hopefully, there will be something on the line for the clash at Elland Road on the final day, or they might see each other again later that month.