EFL: Agent Ayling, Shearer’s rival and Birmingham’s wonder pass

Where do you begin with this weekend?

It started with Leicester slipping up against Plymouth Argyle at Home Park, yet being done a huge favour as their rivals for the Championship title also dropped points. Southampton scored a dramatic late winner to beat Watford, while at the bottom, the race to stay in the second tier intensified and even left some players “in tears” (sorry, Huddersfield).

Portsmouth’s promotion party was delayed after being held at Bolton Wanderers in League One (and there were some superb goals in that division, too, especially by Exeter City, Reading, Wigan and Oxford United).

In the fourth tier, Stockport County and Wrexham sealed promotion, while the battle to stay in the English Football League is also nearing its conclusion. That’s without even mentioning the race for play-off spots.

This week, we look at how Luke Ayling became a Leeds United double agent, the player who reached a remarkable goalscoring landmark to draw level with Alan Shearer, and another who morphed into prime Juan Roman Riquelme. Plus, free-scoring Oxford and probably the worst tackle you’ll see this season.

Here’s what you may have missed in the EFL.

Agent Ayling…

A question on many people’s lips this weekend was, ‘Does anyone want to get out of the Championship?’

The three sides in prime position to win England’s second tier — Ipswich Town, Leicester City and Leeds — are stuttering to the finish line. All three dropped points at the weekend and look to be feeling the pressure.

Ipswich ended the weekend on top, one point ahead of Leicester, who have played one game fewer. Their lead at the summit could have been greater but for the stubborn, play-off-chasing Middlesbrough, who held them to a 1-1 draw.

There was an incident in second-half stoppage time at Portman Road, however, when Ipswich were chasing a winner, which drew acclaim in Leeds — two points behind Ipswich after losing earlier in the day against Blackburn — and was best encapsulated by an Ipswich tweet that simply read: “90+3′ – Luke Ayling is booked for time wasting.”

Ayling is on loan at Boro from Leeds, although he is set to leave permanently at the end of the season once his contract expires. That didn’t stop the full-back providing one more Leeds ‘assist’ against a title rival. Ipswich’s tweet was inundated with approval from Leeds fans and no doubt applauded by his former team-mates too.

Cue the conspiracies, among everything else.

‘Agent Ayling’ provided a more traditional assist in the game, too, setting up Emmanuel Latte Lath for his seventh goal in nine games, before Ipswich equalised through Massimo Luongo — and some may say he did more for Leeds on Saturday than Daniel Farke’s side themselves.

Massimo Luongo scoring for Ipswich (Stephen Pond/Getty Images)

Nevertheless, it leaves the race for the title nicely poised — expect the pendulum to keep swinging until the last kick of the season.

Shearer vs Szmodics

Blackburn Rovers pulled off a huge result, winning 1-0 at Leeds United.

John Eustace’s side are scrapping to get themselves out of the relegation mire and went into the game on the back of a 5-0 battering by Bristol City.

Should they survive, one player will have played a significant part: Sam Szmodics. His winner at Elland Road was goal No 30 in a remarkable campaign, a superb output within a struggling side.

It was a record-equalling goal from the Republic of Ireland international, too: he became the first person to score 30 goals in a season for Blackburn since Alan Shearer in 1995-96 — a feat Szmodics described as “mindblowing”. His feat was recognised by his peers, too, with Szmodics being named in the Championship team of the season at Sunday’s EFL awards.

Blackburn are still not safe but now, in 17th and five points above the relegation zone, their fate remains in their hands with three games to go.

Roberts or Riquelme?

In another clash which may have big ramifications at the bottom of the second tier, Birmingham City pulled off a surprise result of their own, beating Coventry City 3-0.

For Coventry, the result is hardly the best preparation for their FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United this Sunday. In addition to it being their second loss on the bounce, the Birmingham defeat was the first time they had failed to score in a game this calendar year.

As for Birmingham, a Bobby Thomas own goal and strikes from Ivan Sunjic and Jay Stansfield saw them beat Coventry in the league for the first time since 2011. The third goal was particularly eye-catching, as the St Andrew’s crowd saw Tyler Roberts morph into peak-era Juan Roman Riquelme, the former Argentina No 10. His sumptuous, disguised pass took five Coventry players out of the game. Stansfield was on the same wavelength and slotted home his 12th of the season.

Birmingham climbed out of the relegation zone with that victory, but are only one point and one place above Huddersfield Town — who themselves were left “crying in the dressing room” when a dubious penalty decision in the 111th minute denied them all three points against Bristol City.

Keeping up? Just like the title race, the battle to avoid the drop to League One is intense.

Oxford… it’s like watching Brazil

There is a team in yellow who are thrilling and entertaining, providing beautiful football that is easy on the eye, and scoring lots and lots of goals.

No, it’s not Brazil, but Oxford United. They thrashed play-off rivals Peterborough United 5-0 in a superb display at the Kassam Stadium.

Samba football? Maybe. But Des Buckingham’s side have now scored four or more goals in three successive games for the first time in their history and appear to be peaking at just the right time.

They were three up by half-time and added two more to condemn last weekend’s EFL Trophy winners to a chastening defeat.

They occupy the final play-off spot and are three points ahead of Blackpool, who are a place behind in seventh. Oxford also have a game in hand. In their last five games, they have scored 16 and conceded once.

Win against Lincoln City on Tuesday and their place in the play-offs is secure. Lose, however, and things get interesting, as Lincoln will move to within a point of Oxford with two games to go.

For Peterborough, their weekend ended on a high. Harrison Burrows was named as League One player of the season and Ronnie Edwards was awarded the best young player in that division. To top things off, both Burrows and winger Ephron Mason-Clark were named in the League One team of the season.

Is this the worst tackle of the season?

Barrow’s Pete Wild was named League Two manager of the month for March on Friday but his side have made an awful start to April, losing all of their games: Morecambe, Swindon Town and now Gillingham.

Matters at Priestfield were not helped by a first-half red card received by George Ray after one of the worst challenges of the campaign. His kung-fu kick poleaxed Gillingham’s Josh Walker, who had only been on the pitch for one minute having replaced the injured George Lapslie.

Ray caught Walker’s breastbone with his studs, but the attacker was left concussed after landing on his head. He required eight minutes of treatment before being stretchered off but thankfully was well enough to watch the second half and see his side win their first game in four.

“They (Barrow) are a physical, aggressive team,” said Gillingham boss Stephen Clemence, who described the tackle as “horrific”.

He added: “This is not me having a go at Barrow, I respect what they do but when you have physical, strong players and you mistime a challenge, people can come out on the wrong side. That’s happened to a couple of our players against Barrow in the two games.”

(Top photos: Gary Rowett and Luke Ayling, both via Getty Images)

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