With a small part of the Championship season left, I assess who I think will earn promotion from the divison.
This season's Championship has been one of drama, excellent goals and tough competition. The top half of the table has been the tightest for years and equally at the bottom it's been just as thrilling. But this is the time of the campaign when it really matters. With just seven games left to go, who will be earning promotion to the top-flight? It's time to analyse.
Before we start, let's take a quick look at the top half of the Championship table.
As you can see, Southampton have a comfortable lead at the top after shocking many this term. While Reading and West Ham battle it out for a runners up spot, Birmingham, Brighton, Middlebrough, Blackpool and Cardiff are all in contention for play-off places.
Having finished last season in 2nd place in League One, they now find themselves table toppers of one of the toughest divisions in English football. Some contrast eh. This season they have been outstanding, and look set to grab an automatic promotion place come the end of the campaign. I had doubts if they would be able to cope with the magnitude of the Championship, especially with star player Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain making the switch to Arsenal in the summer. However, frontman Rickie Lambert has been simply brilliant for the Saints this season with 24 league goals to his name, not to forget midfield maestro Adam Lallana who has also revelled in the attacking liberal environment that coach Nigel Adkins has set up. Whether they will be able to pull off a 'Norwich' or 'Swansea' if they earn promotion this year, which looks likely, is questionable but they derserve a chance to show what they can do in the top-flight.
Brian McDermott has done a fantastic job with the Royals and has proved his desire to stay with the club having turned down the Wolverhampton Wanderers job a couple of months ago. At the age of 50, McDermott has got Reading playing free flowing football, with widemen Kebe and Robson-Kanu constant threats alongside recently new additions Jason Roberts and on-loan Gunners striker Benik Afobe. After going on a very impressive run from 28 January to 10 March, in a time where they earned eight victories on the trot, they now are 2nd and chasing Southampton's tail. The last time they were in the Premier League, they had a great first season but crumbled in the second and were held victims of the torrid 'second season syndrome'. The Reading faithful will be hoping they can get promotion, and stay there for a good while to come.
It's been a funny old season for the Hammers. Having spent so much cash in the summer on new recruits, the pressure was always going to be on for former Bolton and Blackburn boss Sam Alladyce. Yes, they are 3rd and are still very much in the title race but performances of late have been shaky and especially on home turf the fans have been a little eager to slam points on the board. The team have drawn far too many, before their 2-0 win over Peterbrough on 27 March, they had drew five on the trot. Much is expected of the players following the dissapointment of last season's Premier League campaign. But, ignoring what the critics say, I reckon they will edge it and be a force to be reckoned with in the Premier League next season.
The Blues have had a rollercoaster ride of a season, having been on a European tour and constantly in and out of the play-off places. They have a kind run-in, which manager Chris Hughton has described as "irrelevant" saying every game is hard in this division. He has a point. The side's results have been strange to say the least this term, with a 4-1 defeat at home to struggling Portsmouth a fortnight ago but then they thrashed Millwall 6-0 away from St Andrews, which has been a fortress for the squad, a month earlier. I think they will pen down a play-off spot, that's got to be a cert.
The 2010/2011 League One champions have been an other surprise package in the division this season. Coach Gus Poyet has to be handed huge credit for his signings, including the prolific Craig Maickail-Smith and on-loan Manchester City starlet Gail Assulin. But these two haven't been the only ones contributing to their play-off aspirations, the whole team have. The Seagulls started off going six league games unbeaten, and shocked many. Plus, they had a impressive run in both domestic cups which is another indication of Poyet's hard work and talent as coach. They have the fans, stadium and with a few more marquee signings, players to go up. It's in their own hands.
Tony Mowbray's men have excelled this season and just need to hang in their in 6th place for a little longer. A automatic promotion place is off the cards, but a play-off place is a realistic target and if they were to get back in the top-flight, it would mean the world to the fans. Bad news for Boro if they do go up is star forward Marvin Emnes may well leave with a number of European outfits sniffing.
Wouldn't we love to see the Tangerines back in the Premier League again? They were a breath of fresh air in the 2010/2011 campaign and Ian Holloway has again worked wonders with the side, who are pushing for a play-off place. Players such as young Tom Ince, veteran LuaLua and skipper Barry Ferguson have all been vital components to Blackpool's push for promotion.
Since their Carling Cup final defeat to Liverpool, they have collected 7 points from 7 matches. Not title material? Well, no. But, they have the players to cause a late upset in the play-off run-in and it wouldn't surprise me if Malky Mackay's men were to edge out one of the top six late on.