Leeds United return to Championship action on Saturday with nine games to navigate in their bid to return to the Premier League for the first time since 2004.
Marcelo Bielsa’s leaders are looking to put last year’s play-off misery behind them while West Brom are in the other automatic promotion slot, one point adrift.
Fulham are the closest challengers to the top two, six points behind West Brom, with Brentford and Nottingham Forest having to overcome a 10-point deficit if they are to claim automatic promotion.
The battle for a playoff place is much tighter with QPR, all the way down in 13th place, just six points off sixth spot.
Three-time English champions Leeds have suffered plenty of heartache in trying to return to the top-flight over the past 16 years.
An inconsistent spell of form between December and February threatened their promotion challenge once more, but they recovered to win five consecutive matches before the league was suspended in March.
But the lockdown could also come to Leeds’ aid as Bielsa sides have historically faded in the final part of the season due to the intense physical demand the Argentine puts his players under.
“The players have made a big effort so far, they’ve worked very responsibly,” said Bielsa, ahead of his side’s trip to Cardiff.
“Even though we have had a long period of time working on the physical preparation and after one month with tactical and technical work, it is not like a normal pre-season.”
Bielsa said he was pleased that Leeds could finish the season and earn promotion in the right way, but expressed his sadness that fans would miss out on the action.
“We have to say the communication between the players and the supporters makes football,” he added. “Without this relationship football is different.”
Mini ‘World Cup’
West Brom manager Slaven Bilic said the end of the season would be like a mini “World Cup” as he bids to return the club to the Premier League after two seasons in the Championship.
“It’s a lot of games,” he added ahead of a home clash against Birmingham. “It’s like you can’t have a slow start, you have to straight away come out of the blocks. You have to be prepared for such a busy schedule, playing every three days.
“You have to be completely focused at every game, every point, every throw-in, every corner, every duel is important. That’s why I like to call it a World Cup.”
Bilic said his players were ready for the return.
“Physically and psychologically, there’s going to be big pressure on us,” he said. “But as I say always – special achievements and extraordinary achievements don’t come by default. You have to earn them.”
The Championship’s regular season will finish on 22 July, followed by two-legged playoff semi-finals and final.
The semi-final first legs will be played on 26 and 27 July, with the return matches taking place on 29 and 30 July.
Wembley will host the final on 4 August, which is widely regarded as the most lucrative football match in the world, with the winner gaining promotion to the riches of the Premier League.