As another Championship season draws to a close there are likely to be few late-season dramas.
With three games remaining the relegation battle is all but over. The gap between the play-off places and 7th stands at a modest, but unlikely-to-be-overhauled, six points. The only great uncertainty remaining lies in the race for automatic promotion to the Premier League; made all the more enticing by a potential share in a £5.1 billion television deal.
Three teams harbour hopes of safe passage to the English top flight, and one will be able to be promoted in the same manner as Bournemouth last time out. Two will have the privilege of going up automatically, while one will be consigned to the lottery of the play-offs.
Boro are in the favourable position of having their fate in their own hands.
They sit top of the tree and, after drawing with Burnley in mid-week, have one of their promotion rivals to play.
If they come through this game unscathed it is difficult to conceive of them playing in the 2nd tier for an 8th consecutive season, especially given their three other opponents have nothing to play for and are unlikely to provide stern opposition.
Bolton are down already, while Ipswich and Birmingham have too much ground to make up in order to reach play-offs.
It has been an unusual season for Boro’. Despite their remarkable defensive record (27 goals conceded), rumours of in-fighting between manager and squad threatened to derail their promotion bid. However, five consecutive victories have contributed to the club’s resurgence with Ben Gibson and Gaston Ramirez starring at opposite ends of the field.
Despite setting the pace at this late stage and a wealth of attacking options (Jordan Rhodes, David Nugent, Albert Adomah, Stewart Downing, et al), only Cristian Stuani has hit double figures. Make no mistake about it, Middlesborough are built on defensive solidity. Jose Mourinho’s former assistant and ex-Real Madrid centre-back, Aitor Karanka, has forged a side in his own image; tough, resolute and disciplined.
Spurred on by the disappointment of Wembley heartache last season, Middlesbrough have the most favourable run in. It’s their title to lose. It’s never quite that simple though, is it?
The importance of Burnley’s home draw against Middlesbrough carried obvious significance, but an upcoming trip to their Lancashire rivals this weekend promises to be a stern examination of their promotion credentials.
Preston fans would love nothing more than to bring an end to the Championship’s longest unbeaten run, stretching back to Boxing Day.
Burnley’s run of form since the turn of the year has been exceptional. Sean Dyche’s squad largely resembles the side that gained promotion two seasons ago while the notable additions of Joey Barton and Andre Gray have added steel and firepower to the Championship’s top scorers. The Sam Vokes-Andre Gray partnership has yielded 35 goals as Burnley lurk menacingly behind Boro, with favourable fixtures against Q.P.R and Charlton in the final two weeks of the season.
Like Boro’, Burnley were promotion favourites from the outset and possess recent experience of a successful campaign. Having conceded only 33 goals all season, the club’s solid defensive foundations are supplemented by willing midfield runners in Scott Arfield and George Boyd and the most lethal forward pairing in the division.
A combination of experience and good form has seen Burnley remain in the top 6 since September and Claret fans will hope this blend will see them competing with the elite once again come August.
Brighton have the benefit of facing an already relegated Charlton, before welcome a play-Off bound Derby side in the penultimate week of the season.
However, the final week of the season is likely to be most decisive, with the Seagulls travelling to Boro on the final day of the campaign.
Chris Hughton’s side are shouldering the least expectation of the three promotion chasers after escaping relegation to League One at the end of last season.
This season has seen a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for Brighton. They sat one place above the drop when Hughton arrived 16 months ago, yet began this season with a 21-match unbeaten streak, remaining so well into December.
Akin to Boro’, Brighton have only one player to have reached double figures this season. Tomer Hemed’s return of 13 may seem paltry for a side with promotion pretensions but Chris Hughton has experience at this level, leading Newcastle to 102 points and an un-fancied Birmingham City into the play-offs two years later.
Dale Stephens, Beram Kayal and Lewis Dunk are excellent players while the January addition of Anthony Knockaert has added an extra dimension to the Seagulls attack.
Brighton are dangerous customers, having been in the top four all season they’ll be desperate to avoid the lottery of the play-offs after two failed campaigns in 12/13 and 13/14.
Brighton fans will be confident of overhauling the gap between themselves and their promotion rivals. An away trip to Teeside on May 7th… Don’t you just love it when the fixtures generator throws up a final-day gem?
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