Championship final day preview

THE climax to another enthralling Championship season arrives this Saturday lunchtime, with two promotion positions to be resolved.

Southampton, who are odds-on favourites to join champions elect Reading in automatic promotion to the Premier League, take on an already relegated Coventry City in front of a sold-out St Mary’s Stadium, with a win securing second spot.

Nigel Adkin’s side are looking to make it back-to-back promotions after last year’s success in League One and promotion this season would end a seven-year absence from the top flight.

Any kind of slip-up though by the Saints and West Ham United are poised to pounce, having lost just once in their previous 17 games. The Hammers take on Hull City at Upton Park.

Victory at Leicester City on Monday night has given them a final opportunity to steal back second place, a position they had occupied for the majority of the season.

On paper, the outcome looks straightforward for the Saints, but you just never know and as football experts say, it’s a funny old game.

Meanwhile, the final play-off position will also be decided this weekend.

Cardiff, who currently occupy sixth place, are on 72 points and travel to Crystal Palace, while Middlesbrough, lying two points below, travel to Watford.

A draw for the Welsh side will be enough, unless Tony Mowbray’s side win by 10 clear goals.

The other play-off spots are sorted, with Blackpool and Birmingham occupying the other two places.

Bristol City’s win last weekend secured their status in the Championship for next season, and in doing so sent Portsmouth down, along with Coventry City and Doncaster Rovers.

Whatever happens it promises to be a cracking afternoon of Championship football, with drama, delirium and despair no doubt in evidence at many of the grounds.

I think the Saints will draw at St Mary’s, and this will (just) be enough to claim second spot, while I can’t see beyond regulars Cardiff for the final play-off place.

Final day fixtures (12.30pm kick-off)

Barnsley v Brighton

Birmingham v Reading

Burnley v Bristol City

Crystal Palace v Cardiff

Derby v Peterborough

Doncaster v Ipswich

Leeds v Leicester

Milwall v Blackpool

Notts Forest v Portsmouth

Southampton v Coventry

Watford v Middlesbrough

West Ham v Hull

Automatically promoted: Reading, Southampton/West Ham

Play-offs: Southampton/West Ham, Blackpool, Birmingham, Cardiff/Middlesbrough

Relegated: Portsmouth, Coventry, Doncaster

Which two teams do you think will join Reading in the Premiership next season?

Leave your thoughts below!

Preview of ‘El Clasicoast’ – Southampton v Portsmouth

This Saturday, 7th April, will see Southampton and Portsmouth battle it out for the second time this season in a game which has been newly dubbed ‘el Clasicoast’.

For the two sets of fans, it is the Barcelona v Real Madrid of south-coast football. Nothing can compete with it in terms of sheer intensity, passion and commitment.

The reverse fixture earlier on this season at Fratton Park saw the two sides cancel each other out in a 1-1 draw. Southampton were top of the league, while Portsmouth were six points clear of relegation.

How times change.

Less than four months on, and Southampton are just inches away from the Premier League. With just six games remaining, Nigel Adkins’ side hold a two point advantage over Reading in second, although more importantly a six-point gap over West Ham in third place.

Meanwhile, Portsmouth, having been deduced 10 points for going into an administration for a second time in three years, lie five points from safety. League One football now seems an inevitably (if the club remain in existence).

The difference now between the two sides could not be more stark.

The Saints have been clearly the league’s best side this year, and no-one (except maybe Pompey fans) would begrudge them a crack in the Premier League for the first time since 2005.

Pompey are sinking slowly into the abyss, and possibly even out of existence. The 10-point deduction has meant relegation is a near certainty, and an exodus of the team’s highest earners (and best players) has done little to help matters on the field. Off the field, the club should have enough cash to see out the end of the season, but after that it is anyone’s guess.

Back to this Saturday then, and Southampton come into the game on the back of a comprehensive 3-0 defeat up at Blackpool last Saturday evening. Prior to the defeat, the Saints had won seven out of their previous eight, so they will be desperate to ensure their miserable afternoon by the sea up north was just a one-off.

Top scorer Rickie Lambert missed last weekend’s defeat, but should return to lead the line and right-back Frazer Richardson will hope to return to the matchday squad.

Portsmouth have won two and lost two in their past four games. Wins against Birmingham and Hull City were combined with disappointing defeats against Coventry and most recently Burnley, when Michael Appleton’s men were thrashed 5-1 at Fratton Park.

On-loan midfielder George Thorne has played his last game this season for the Blues and will return to parent club West Bromwich Albion, having picked up an ankle injury.

Israeli defender Tal Ben Haim is a doubt, but Chris Maguire has had his loan extended from Derby County extended until the end of the season and will start up front for Pompey.

The game at St Mary’s is a sell-out, and it promises to be another feisty and hotly contested derby game. Everything points towards a home victory, but do not write off Portsmouth just yet. If there was ever a game which the players will want to win, it’s this one.

This weekend is an opportunity for someone to write their name into either Fratton or St Mary’s folklore.

Who will be the hero in el clasicoast?

Pressure is on in the race for the Premier League

The race for a place in the Barclays’ Premier League is well and truly on.

With the season now entering its final few stages, around a dozen teams will believe they are in with a shout for promotion. It looks like the top two will come from three teams, while the teams who will end up in the play-off positions are far less certain.

Southampton currently lead the way on 78 points, five clear of second-placed Reading. Nigel Adkin’s side have not looked back since promotion from League One in the last campaign, with Rickie Lambert once again leading the line in style, with 28 goals to his name for this season. Premier League football in August now looks a near on certainty for the Saints.

Reading recently went on an eight-match winning streak which helped propel them up the table. The Royals are desperate to make amends for last season’s heartache when they lost the play-off final to Swansea City at Wembley. And Brian McDermott’s team have hit form at just the right time as they look to go that one step further. The title looks beyond their reach, but it’s a straight fight with West Ham for second place.

West Ham United lie currently in third place, four points and a game in hand over Reading. The Hammers have drawn their last five games, so no one can say they haven’t had the opportunities. There have been rumours of discontent among the fans over Sam Allardyce’s style of football at Upton Park and this negative atmosphere is arguably transmitting itself onto the players. Despite this, second place is still well within reach with 24 points still to play for.

Brighton and Hove Albion are the surprise package of this season’s Championship. Lying in 4th position on 62 points, a realistic objective following last year’s title win would have been a mid-table finish at best. But the charismatic Gus Poyet has done wonders at the new Amex Stadium. One defeat in the last 10 puts the team in a great position for a play-off place, but any kind of slip could see them drop out of the top-six. It could be just a little too far for this season.

Middlesbrough occupy fifth place on 61 points, just one behind Brighton. Patchy form of late has seen Tony Mowbray’s side slip down and become far less of a certainty for a play-off place. Just seven wins at the Riverside is where the side have fallen short and a lack of goals is also an issue. Mowbray will ensure his side fight until the very end, which is why they could well scrape over the line come the end of the season.

Birmingham City currently hold down the fourth and final play-off spot. Chris Hughton’s side are on 60 points, level with both Blackpool and Cardiff. 11 victories and just one loss at St Andrew’s all season has helped propel the side up the division, as they look to bounce back from their final-day relegation last year. Having competed in the Europa League earlier in the season, fatigue could be a factor as the Blues look to overcome the final few hurdles. One win in their last seven would suggest this, so a solid promotion push for next year could well be the more likely option.

Blackpool and Cardiff City lie in 7th and 8th position respectively. Both sides have lots of experience in the top half of the Championship, and this will be key in these final stages. On recent history, Cardiff will finish in the top six and fail, and (sorry Bluebirds fans), this is probably going to happen again. There is no doubting the quality of Malky Mackay’s side, so they are not to be completely ruled out, but poor recent form could see them fall short. Ian Holloway’s Blackpool are, like Birmingham, desperate for an immediate return to the top flight. Three defeats in their last five suggests they might struggle, but experience could see them finish in the top six.

Hull City will also feel they are still in line for a play-off finish, while Neil Warnock will insist his Leeds United side doesn’t fall short. His recent arrival may be a case of too little too late though.