The End Is In Sight!

Although none of the major issues were settled over the Easter period, it’s fair to say that there were some surprises.

* Bristol City and Millwall won both of their games and in doing so gave themselves a much better chance of survival. Barring disaster Millwall are probably safe, but the Robins have some work to do before the end of the season. I’m not going to go through all the permutations but there’s a combination of results that could both of the bottom two clubs could be relegated as soon as this weekend, but once again I’d be surprised if that happened.

* Considering they’re both in contention for the playoff places, Brighton and Middlesbrough lost twice. Boro’s defeat at Hull was probably the end of their playoff hopes: they’re without a win in eight games since beating Barnsley at the start of March. Based on past performance criteria, only two play off spots need to be filled: Blackpool and Cardiff are the leading contenders but as only seven points separate Cardiff and Derby it’s still possible – but unlikely – that a surprise promotion contender could emerge.

However, tonight we have arguably the biggest game outside of the playoff final when the top two meet at St Mary’s (Sky Sports 1, 7:45pm) . If there’s a decisive result one way or the other, I’d be very surprised if the winner didn’t go on to win the nPower Championship this season.

Not surprisingly considering they’ve spent the entire season in either first or second place Southampton are the favourites. Nigel Adkins’ team is built around players that aren’t exactly household names that are either local products (Adam Lalana), had performed consistently in the lower half of the football league (Rickie Lambert & Billy Sharp) or were unsettled or unwanted elsewhere (Jose Fonte). The Saints have scored the most goals in the Championship this season and although Lambert & Sharp are the main strikers, there are goals throughout the team.

Reading overcame a sluggish start that always seems to plague the unsuccessful team in the previous season’s playoff final and haven’t been out of the top six since Valentine’s Day. Only six of the players that lost to Swansea in last season’s playoff final featured in Tuesday night’s win at Brighton and having turned down a move to Wolves, manager Brian McDermott is obviously committed to Reading reaching the Premier League under his direction, which has been driven defensively this season. The Royals have also been able to mine similar veins as tonight’s opponents: Adam Le Fondre arrived from Rotherham, Nigel Clough might be regretting letting Tomasz Cywka leave Derby on a free transfer and the new recruit that raised a few eyebrows when he dropped down a division to move to Berkshire was striker Jason Roberts.

Curiously, league meetings between the two have been relatively few and far between – there have been just two games at Southampton since 2005 – and the Royals haven’t won in Hampshire since March 1958. Southampton are unbeaten at home against the other clubs in the top six and although Reading have lost at both Blackpool and Cardiff this season, their recent 4-2 win at West Ham showed they’re capable of beating anyone at any venue.

On Saturday there are four intriguing games, three of which are ‘top v bottom’ clashes. As mentioned above, the game between Birmingham City and Bristol City is important to both teams for different reasons but the outcome of that game could also have impact on Doncaster and Portsmouth – and here’s why according to the BBC Sport website.

Although it’s not mathematically impossible yet, it doesn’t look as if Birmingham have much chance of automatic promotion so they need to finish as high as possible to ensure home advantage in the second leg of the playoffs and to avoid the dreaded fourth place. Bristol City’s hard earned consecutive wins over the Easter period have given them a four point advantage over Coventry City but with West Ham visiting Ashton Gate next Tuesday the West Country’s leading team aren’t safe from relegation yet. On paper this looks like a Birmingham win – the Blues have won three of their five home games against the current bottom six while they Robins have lost three of their five aways against the top six – but it’s worth remembering that Bristol City are one of only two sides to win at Southampton this season.

Portsmouth’s trip to Doncaster is their penultimate away game against their fellow strugglers – Michael Appleton’s side travel to Nottingham Forest on the last day of the season. The bad news for Pompey is that not only have they failed to score at Barnsley, Bristol City and Coventry this season but they’ve only scored three times in seven away games since February – two of which came at Southampton last weekend. Doncaster’s only home defeat to another side in the bottom six happened when a single goal from Nottingham Forest’s Chris Gunter in August and this looks like a low scoring game that could end unsatisfactorily for both sides.

The bottom six welcomes a new club this weekend: following Millwall’s mini revival during which the Lions looked as if they’d returned to last season’s form, Barnsley have replaced the South London club. The Tykes have been awful recently: one win in eleven games is hardly inspiring and in some respects Cardiff couldn’t have timed their visit to Oakwell any better: Barnsley have lost all five home games gainst the top six by an average of 2.6 goals and the visitors have only lost twice in their last ten away games. It’s far too early to start making predictions for next season, but Barnsley fit the profile of a team that could struggle next season.

The last game of the four is Blackpool‘s trip to Nottingham Forest, which is the first time these sides have met in the Midlands since the playoff semi final in May 2009 and could also be a tricky match for the hosts. Forest beat Reading back in November but have a poor record against the promotion chasers this season that includes four defeats at the City Ground. A win for Ian Holloway’s side would probably confirm a playoff spot for the Tangerines but if Forest can beat their visitors for the first time since March 1977 then they’ll probably be competing in the Championship next season.

Finally this week, I’d like to pay a belated tribute to Barry Kitchener, who died aged 65 at the end of March. A true one club player – 523 appearances for Millwall between 1966 and 1982 – ‘Kitch’ was one of the first players outside the old first division who I was aware of when I started following football four decades ago. He never played at the top level: I was always surprised that none of the bigger London clubs never made a move for him but it wasn’t due a lack of ability – his heart belonged to Millwall.

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Author: Mike Roberts

A football fan since the 1970s, I take my inspiration from the standard of writing that made Shoot! magazine streets ahead of anything else back in the day. I'm also a complete and utter stathead, which I blame on being exposed to American sports at the end of my teens.