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The Championship Play-offs: Who will be victorious?

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Ahead of the Championship play-offs, xtheline.co.uk’s Ollie Baines depicts the 4 sides who will fight tooth and nail for a place in the Barclays Premier League.

Norwich City vs Ipswich Town

Who would have guesses it eh? What a mammoth fixture this will be! An East Anglian Derby to decipher who will go on to Wembley to play for a place in the Premier League. Who will claim the true bragging rights and become the pride of East Anglia?

Alex Neil’s side finished the season four points short of earning automatic promotion, despite dropping just eight points from their final 18 games. Meanwhile, Town lost on the final day of the season away at Blackburn but managed to scrape 6th place and duly be matched against their rivals.

The Canaries have never faced Ipswich in the play-offs before, but have done the double over their counter-parts this term. However, as we all know, you cannot predict football, especially the play-offs.

Touted as “the biggest derby in history”, who will City and Town be looking to, to help them on their way to Wembley?

One to watch for City – City’s Player of the Season, Bradley Johnson has finally found his feet in the Norwich midfield. The former Arsenal youth prodigy has bagged a whopping 15 goals for the Green Army this season. Johnson has been at the heart of City’s attacks, none more so then some of his glorious efforts against the likes of Watford, Reading, Blackburn and of course Ipswich! The bullish midfielder wears his heart on his sleeve and gives everything for his club, can he help City across the finish line?

One to watch for Town – Front-man Daryl Murphy cannot stop scoring! With 27 goals this season, the 32-year-old has set the Championship alight and has aided Town’s push for promotion. Mick McCarthy will be delighted with the Irishman but will be hoping that the former Sunderland striker still has some left in the tank to pose a threat against rivals, Norwich City.

Prediction – Norwich win

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Middlesbrough v Brentford

Two sides who have been there of there abouts the entire season, both Middlesbrough and Brentford thoroughly deserve a chance for promotion.

Boro have been the defensive kings of the Championship, having only conceded 37 goals this season which include 21 clean sheets. There’s no wonder why no-one fancied a two legged tie against Aitor Karanka’s side.

Experience may be with Boro, but Brentford will have gusto. The Bees were promoted from League One at the end of last season and could see themselves in a double promotion in as many years should they overcome Boro first. Norwich City were the last side to go from League One to the Premier League in successive seasons, so it can be done and that will give Mark Warbuton’s side hope.

Brentford like to get the ball down and exploit the flanks, whilst Boro will look to win the midfield battle. Last time these sides met, Middlesbrough stuffed the Bees 4-0 and 1-0; however the past counts for nothing when a place in the Premier League is at stake.

Who will come out on top?

One to watch for Boro – The Championship player of the year, Patrick Bamford must be hailed as a huge factor in Boro’s season. The on-loan Chelsea starlet has grabbed 19 goals for himself this season and will be ready to provide the sucker-punch once again to put Boro in the reckoning for promotion.

One to watch for the Bees – Jota Peleteiro, the Spaniard who has taken the Championship by storm. A player of undobuted quality and poise, the midfielder has the “je ne sais quoi” to hurt Boro on the counter attack. Jota also has experience of an unlikely promotion having joined Eibar on loan for the 2013-14 season and took the division by storm, contributing the goals and assists that won Eibar the title and their first-ever promotion to the top flight. Can he be the secret formulae to Brentford’s success?

Prediction – Middlesbrough win

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As for the final itself, I have to go with my gut… Play-off winners – Norwich City!

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Who will win the race for the Sky Bet Championship play-offs?

The Championship play-offs are just around the corner.

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Photo: Getty Images

The Championship is a league renowned for its unpredictability and twists and turns in what is a 46 game long season.

On any given weekend, any team can beat another which makes it one of the closest and exciting leagues in the world.

This season has proved no different, with six teams still competing for a play-off place with just six games to go.

In 5th place currently is Derby on 68 points, three points clear of 7th placed Millwall with a game in hand.

They are at the moment the favourites to secure a play-off spot, with the top three having already practically guaranteed their places if they do not gain automatic promotion.

Aston Villa look to set to join them, with a maximum of eight points needed from their last five games to be sure of making the play-offs.

Gary Rowett’s side have bounced back well from the loss of Johnny Russell in January to the MLS and a string of first-team injuries that have decimated the squad in recent months.

Most of their stars, including Tom Huddlestone and Joe Ledley, returned for their 1-0 away win over Preston on Easter Monday, a result that was desperately needed.

They followed that up with a 3-0 win over Bolton at the weekend, and the goals of Matej Vydra plus the defensive experience of Curtis Davies and Scott Carson should see them over the line.

(Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

Two points behind them in 6th is Tony Pulis’s Middlesbrough, who have seen an upturn in form since the former West Brom man took over in December.

Pulis is known for his defensive style of play but Middlesbrough have scored plenty since he came in, with Adama Traore in particular impressing.

A club like Boro will be expecting play-offs as a minimum, and you would expect them to achieve that goal given the quality of their squad, although even if they don’t get there this season, they will be one of the favourites to go up next season under Pulis.

(Photo by Ashley Allen/Getty Images)

The surprise package of this season has been Millwall, with Neil Harris leading his side to an unexpected 7th place berth at this stage of the season.

The Lions have only lost one game all season, that being on New Years’ Day at Norwich.

They have relied on a mixture of youth and experience, with younger players like Jake Cooper, Jed Wallace and George Saville complemented by the likes of veteran Steve Morison, and an immense run of form has given them every chance of making the play-offs, which would be a remarkable achievement.

Most fans surely would have been happy with a mid-table finish on their return to the Championship, but they have defied expectations so far.

They face tricky trips to Middlesbrough and Sheffield United, and home games against Fulham and Aston Villa, but win at least a couple of those and the Lions could be roaring at the end of the league season.

(Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

Behind them on 62 points is Bristol City, who have had a mixed run of form since the turn of the year.

They briefly went 2nd in the table after a Boxing Day win against Reading, just a week after Lee Johnson’s side defeated Manchester United to reach the semi-finals of the Carabao Cup.

They eventually lost on aggregate to Manchester City after giving them a stern test, but have only won twice since then.

Like Millwall, they too face a trip to the Riverside to play Middlesbrough and host Sheffield United on the final day, but they are only four points off the top six and can still make it in.

(Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Another side who had an excellent first half of the season is Sheffield United, Chris Wilder’s side briefly sitting in top spot after a 2-1 away win against Leeds in October.

They have fallen away since then, currently sitting 9th and behind Bristol City on goal difference, but regardless of whether they qualify for the play-offs or not, it has still been a good season for Wilder’s men.

They drew 1-1 with Cardiff last week, a game which they had the better chances in, showing the fine margins that exist in the Championship.

The Blades lost in the Yorkshire derby against Barnsley on Saturday, a result that puts them four points behind Middlesbrough.

They host Preston before the season is out, a game which could still prove crucial for both teams, and also play Bristol City and Millwall.

Brentford sit just one point behind them in 10th, having shown some resurgence in recent weeks.

Their transfer policy is a very effective one, using a stats model to sign players both from England and all around the world.

Some of their signings appear to be gelling together well, with summer signing Neal Maupay netting the winner in both of their previous two games.

Manager Dean Smith has been linked with Premier League jobs in the past, and has done an excellent job at the Bees, who will surely be challenging at the end of the season.

(Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

The final team that have a realistic chance of reaching the play-offs is Preston North End, Alex Neil’s side currently occupying 11th place on 60 points.

They have lost their last three league games, although they were unlucky to lose against Derby and had the fair share of possession and chances against Reading.

Neil’s side face only one team out of the top 11 in the remaining fixtures – Sheffield United – which could work in their favour.

They have missed the firepower of top scorer Sean Maguire, who missed four months of the season due to injury, but his return has boosted the team, who have seen some outstanding performances already this season from the likes of Ben Davies, Ben Pearson and Alan Browne.

If Neil’s side can get substantial points out of their remaining games, they still have a chance of qualifying for the play-offs, although like the teams above them up to 7th, will need to rely on Derby and Middlesbrough dropping points.

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Three takeaways from Tuesday’s Championship action

Cardiff and Wolves extended their lead at the top of the Championship table.

Max Cohen

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Photo: Getty Images

Last night featured a blockbuster slate of Championship matches, with all of the top three clubs in action. Here are the main talking points from Tuesday’s fixtures…

The title race is not over yet…

Cardiff City continued their scorching hot run of form with a 3-1 win over Brentford at Griffin Park. The Bluebirds notched their seventh straight league win thanks to goals from Sol Bamba, Matthew Paterson, and Kenneth Zohore. Cardiff showed impressive fortitude to fight back from a goal down, and after conceding just five minutes in, they clinically rebounded to claim the three points.

The win brings Neil Warnock’s side just three points behind the league leaders Wolves with nine matches to play, and given Wolves’ recent slip-ups, a late title bid is not out of the question. Mark your calendars for April 6th: the matchup between Cardiff and Wolves which could serve as a battle for first position.

But the battle for automatic promotion probably is.

As much as supporters of Aston Villa and Fulham would like to believe they have a chance to achieve automatic promotion, the top two is most likely settled. With Wolves joining Cardiff in picking up maximum points on Tuesday, the gap between second and third is now seven points with nine matches to go.

(Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

With Cardiff showing no signs of letting up, it looks immensely difficult to topple the Bluebirds off their perch in second. Although Fulham is in the midst of a 15-match unbeaten run and making an impressive late charge, Neil Warnock’s side are on an 11-match unbeaten run of their own.

The Championship cements its reputation as the most exciting league in England

There is arguably no league in England that is as intriguing and unpredictable as the Championship. The vaunted status of the division was on full display Tuesday night when Queens Park Rangers shocked Aston Villa 3-1 at Villa Park.

Villa sat in third and had just come off a brilliant, comprehensive 4-1 thrashing of Wolves on the weekend. QPR, on the other hand, came into the match mired in lowly 16th position. Yet Rangers embarrassed the Villains on their home pitch and raced out to a 3-0 lead. That’s just the magic of the Championship.

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Romaine Sawyers – Blossoming in the Championship with play-off contenders Brentford

Finding himself in the best form of his career at Brentford, Romaine Sawyers talks us through his experiences adapting to life in the Championship with the Bees.

Romaine Sawyers

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Photo: Reuters

The step up to the Championship, moving from Walsall to Brentford, was a difficult one.

For one, the quality of players is much different, no disrespect to League One.

There are a number of quality individuals and teams, but there is also a greater emphasis on the tactical side of the game, largely due to the strong balance of clubs from the top right through to the bottom of the division.

At first I was inconsistent and spent a fair bit of time trying to find my feet. But now I am over that hurdle and playing at a level I am happy with.

This season has been good. In fact, probably my best one to date. I feel that I’ve been quite consistent and in really good form.

I can’t thank Dean Smith enough. His influence has been massive. He gave me my first real chance at mens’ football and he has continued to have faith in me as I’ve progressed through the levels.

I was fortunate to spend my formative years at the West Brom in the club’s academy. I was there from the age of seven and received a great footballing education. I still speak to most of my coaches that I had at a young age there, even now.

Dean initially brought me to Walsall when I left West Brom, and he has been a key factor throughout my development. He knows to get onto me if need a kick up the arse, or he will compliment me if I need an arm over my shoulder.

Above all, he is a great man manager. He quickly finds your strengths and weaknesses as a player and knows how to get you performing.

He gets the balance of praise and constructive criticism just right, in order to get the very best out of the individuals in the team.

I would say recently is the best I have performed in my career and my Player of the Month nomination for December was recognition of the work me and my Brentford teammates have been doing.

It feels like a real group effort every time we go out on the pitch and that has shown both on and off the field.

At the same time as myself being nominated for an award before Christmas my teammate, Lasse Vibe, was in the mix for the PFA Player of the Month prize.

We have players who are topping stats charts left, right and centre and we have some real depth and versatility in the team. This means we can attack from all areas, whereas in the past we have maybe been reliant on one or two individuals.

Personally, I like to get on the ball and make things happen, helping the team to score goals by creating chances. I think I could probably add more goals to my game by getting behind the opposition defence more regularly.

I’ve scored four times this season, so far, but this is something I’m working on in training with the coaching staff at Brentford. We do a lot of work with video analysis to help me and improve this aspect of my game, but it is a work in progress.

Stats are a well known aspect of the backroom work at the club. Personally, I don’t read into them as much as others. I’m a player who prefers to be visual, making decisions and reacting based ‘on the eye’, rather than through what the data says.

It is good when you feel you are in positive form and you consider yourself to be in a good place, then the stats back it up. I prefer to see it as a secondary option, rather than a first.

Having said that, in terms of recruitment, it has shown to be a success time and time again through the players that the club have signed from lower divisions and abroad – there is a lot of talent to be found outside the top English leagues.

I have fond memories from my time with Walsall and being nominated for League One Player of the Year in my final season is probably the best moment of my career to date, alongside signing for Brentford.

However, I also hold a lot of pride in representing my heritage country, Saint Kitts and Nevis .

It is a very fulfilling ambassadorial role, in terms of giving hope and confidence to the youth of the country. Whether it is through football or something else, it is possible to provide for your family and that is the message I like to send.

Every time I go back there I try to motivate them a little bit more.

From a football perspective, it is a different culture and a new style. I think that has helped my game. It is a lot more physical and rough. You get kicked about and you have to learn to deal with that.

Playing for my country means a lot to me because of my family history. If I am there actively with football it gives me the chance to get involved with the people and their community.

Away from the pitch I am also involved in the Kick It Out campaign, which is a role that is very important to me.

I remember growing up and being a young boy wanting to be a professional footballer. It is extremely important that we continue to try and bridge the gap in today’s game.

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