Once again, the English Championship has thrown up a set of thrilling end of season permutations, in the fight for play-off places.
With just seven games to go, it's everything to play for, with a host of teams in with a mathematical chance of going up. Promotion isn't won with calculators however, it's achieved through hard work, winning, and grinding out results at this most crucial stage of the season.
At this stage, barring some kind of Devon Loch-like capitulation, Leicester and Burnley will be promoted. The Foxes, under the calm, assured stewardship of Nigel Pearson, have scarcely put a foot wrong this season and could clinch their return to The Premier League in two games time. Similarly, Sean Dyche's Burnley side, quietly efficient all season, seem set for a return to the top flight after four years.
Similarly, Queens Park Rangers, Derby County and Wigan Athletic look to have three of the four play-off berths reserved. Harry Redknapp's side are under huge pressure to bounce straight back to the Premier League, but Steve McClaren and Uwe Rosler will be hoping to outwit the West London outfit.
This then, is where things get interesting. Reading lie in sixth place, on 60 points. Then come Nottingham Forest, Ipswich Town, Brighton and Hove Albion and outsiders Bournemouth, fighting for the remaining play-off place. It would be a huge ask for the Cherries to make the play-offs, but 19 points from the last 24 on offer makes them the form team, and says they will be giving it a real go.
Forest have hit the wall in recent weeks, their cause not helped by the sacking of Billy Davies. Fans will be hoping the appointment of Stuart Pearce, albeit from the end of the season, will see them regain some of their early-season swagger. Ipswich have quietly crept up and are currently eighth, level on points with Forest. Then come Brighton, who have been thereabouts all season, but have lacked the killer instinct at times. A battling 3-3 draw at Blackburn on Tuesday, after twice going behind, suggests they could come good at just the right time. Striker Craig Mackail-Smith could be returning to full fitness at just the right time.
So what of the run-in, starting with Reading. This weekend, they go to Charlton, themselves in a bit of form, but they will surely not have quite enough to topple Nigel Adkins' men. I'm going for a draw. They then have Bournemouth (also away) and this also looks like a stalemate. They then welcome Leicester to The Madejski and this looks like yet another draw. A tough trip to Wigan then follows (loss) before a home game against Middlesbrough (win) and a visit to The Keepmoat Stadium, where they will probably have too much for Doncaster Rovers. On the final day, they play Burnley and going into that game, they will have 69 points.
Nottingham Forest play Millwall this Saturday at The City Ground (a win for Forest), followed by another home game (and win) against Sheffield Wednesday. Forest then go to QPR (loss), before Birmingham City visit Nottingham (home win). An awayday in Leeds follows that (draw), then their penultimate game is also away, at Bournemouth (loss). The final game for Forest is at The City Ground, against Brighton.
Ipswich have a decent run-in, but with two tricky away games to start, at Blackburn (draw) and Huddersfield (win). After that, Doncaster come to Portman Road (win), they then go to Watford (draw), and entertain Bournemouth (draw). Burnley away, with the clarets probably celebrating, could well see another defeat for Mick McCarthy's men. This will take them to a last-day home game against Sheffield Wednesday.
Brighton go to Barnsley on Saturday, where nothing less than a win will do for Oscar Garcia's team. That is followed by a difficult trip to Leicester, where they will face a City side on the verge of promotion. It's difficult to see anything other than a home win. After that, Albion host Charlton (win), go to Huddersfield (draw) and then have two home games. First up are Blackpool and this game could well see the inevitable hiccup by the Seagulls (draw) but they will surely bounce back with victory against Yeovil, to set up a final-day showdown.
Bournemouth, while they are the form side, have a very difficult run-in, with four games against teams above them, They start with a home game against QPR and despite under-achieving in the eyes of many this season, I expect Redknapp's boys to pull off the win. Then comes another home game, this time against Reading (a draw). A short away trip to Yeovil should yield three points, A home win against Sheffield Wednesday will be followed by a draw at Portman Road, followed by their next to last game, at home to Forest. I expect Eddie Howe's men to win this, taking them to 65 points going into their final game, just short of a play-off place.
Goal difference could well come into play, but any one of the four teams still in the mix could steal that last place. Reading would have it in their own hands, but Burnley will want to go out with a bang and could spoil their party. Similarly Ipswich will want to round off the regular season in style at Portman Road.
The real drama could be seen at The City Ground. The last day could be dramatic, with the play-off pendulum swinging this way and that, no doubt to an accompanying Sky montage of grown men crying, jubilant pensioners and youngsters lurching from one emotion to another by the minute. A huge contingent from the South Coast will be willing the Seagulls on, so expect an electric atmosphere.
Predicting results at this end of the season is a crazy, stupid thing to do, but that's why we all do it. The twists and turns will be numerous but it will only take one player to step up to the mark and show some quality in the last few games, to write himself into history.
This is why we love football and love The Championship
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