Championship Play-off Race; Who's going to Wembley?
If you ask football fans about the biggest, most exciting games of the season, most of them will point to the Champions League semi-finals or the final day of the Premier League season. But few seem to recognise just how unbelievably good the Championship play-offs are.
This season there's an extra special treat with several games in the last two weeks of the season having a play-off feel to them. Some are essentially play-off matches, including one or games this week, starting with Luton vs Middlesbrough.
Last time the two sides played, Matt Crooks scored a 91st-minute winner for Middlesbrough, but Boro haven't won away to Luton Town since 1974. In truth the result tonight isn't massively significant though.
Luton have already secured a spot in the playoffs, whilst Middlesbrough need just one point from their final three matches or for Blackburn Rovers to drop one.
Either way, Sheffield United will likely secure automatic promotion to the Premier League ahead of Luton and Middlesbrough. The Blades need just three points from their final four matches, the first of which is on Wednesday against West Brom.
A win for the Baggies at Bramall Lane could take them into the top six if Blackburn fail to beat Burnley on Tuesday night, but Sheffield United will be charged up to secure promotion.
Blackburn take on already-promoted Burnley on Tuesday, with Burnley knowing a win at Ewood Park would secure the Championship title. Blackburn would fly up to 5th with a win in El Lanclasico, whilst a point would still sneak them into the top six above Sunderland.
So by the weekend, the top two will likely be decided, with third and fourth likely to be a head-to-head battle between Luton and Middlesbrough. That leaves an eight-team scrap for the other two spots.
Entering play on Monday, Coventry City are 5th and Sunderland 6th. Blackburn Rovers and West Brom would enter the play-off places if they win their games in hand, but they face the top two in those matches.
Millwall, Preston, Norwich City and Swansea City are all still in with a chance of earning a top-six finish. Watford are only six points behind 6th placed Sunderland, but with so many matches between the teams above them still to play, it's mathematically impossible for them to finish in the playoffs, so they will be in the Championship again next season.
It is an incredibly bold assumption to say that Blackburn and West Brom both lose this week, but if they were to, only four points would separate 5th-placed Coventry and 12th-placed Swansea. To make it even more interesting, several of the play-off contenders are yet to play each other in the second half of the season.
Norwich travel to the Hawthorns on Saturday for a showdown with West Brom. Realistically, Norwich have to win to maintain their play-off bid, whilst defeat would likely be the nail in the coffin for Albion's hopes unless they can beat Sheffield United on Wednesday night.
Two days later, Blackburn host Luton Town, another tough game in the run-in for Tomasson's side. Blackburn have the advantage of playing at home and potentially knowing that Luton won't have too much left to play for so they might fancy their chances of securing just their second-ever win against Luton in the modern era of the Football League.
Swansea, Millwall and Coventry will all be favourites to beat Hull City, Blackpool and Birmingham City respectively in their penultimate games and if they do, it'll set up an absolutely mouthwatering final day.
Of the ten teams in playoff contention, eight of them play each other on the final day of the season. Considering how tight the relegation battle is, we may well be set for the best final day in Championship history.
The final day, which is the Bank Holiday Monday 8th May, sees Middlesbrough face Coventry, Millwall host Blackburn, Preston take on Sunderland and Swansea play West Brom. Norwich City have a slightly kinder fixture with Blackpool visiting Carrow Road.
Middlesbrough may well have an exact finishing position by the time Coventry go to the Riverside, and would therefore be likely to rest players for a play-off semi-final which may well be against Coventry the following weekend.
However, if Middlesbrough do still have anything to play for, Coventry are likely in for a tough game. They'll have to dig deep to repeat their 1 - 0 win over Boro back in October.
Millwall vs Blackburn promises to be a fiery encounter to say the least, with the sides currently level on points. Millwall were in such a secure spot in the play-off places just a month ago, but now find themselves looking to salvage their hopes against a Blackburn side who haven't won in seven.
Swansea have entered the play-off race quite late on after a good run of results. The Swans have six wins and a draw from their past seven Championship games, an absoltuley astonishing run of form in the Championship, where consistency is about as rare as a goalless draw.
Russell Martin's team pulled off a stunning 3 - 2 win at the Hawthorns back in October, with Michael Obafemi netting an 89th-minute winner. It's easy to picture another dramatic finale in two weeks time, with huge implications in the play-off race.
Last but certainly not least, Sunderland make the 130-mile trip to Preston. Their revival in the past two years wasn't expected to lead to a play-off finish this season, but, often by the skin of their teeth, they've been able to get enough points to stay in the mix.
Preston are a little more like Millwall in that the play-off spot is rapidly slipping away from them.
Just one point from three games in a race this tight with so many teams is simply not enough, and Ryan Lowe has seen his side potentially throw away a chance to play for a place in the Premier League. They must take maximum points from their final two games to have any chance of sneaking into the top six.
Whoever makes the playoffs is still a long way from Wembley let alone the Premier League. The two-legged semi-finals are exceptionally hard; the pressure on the home leg to get a result is huge whilst the away trips often bring teams into deafening, intimidating atmosphere's.
The play-offs are a dramatic, thrilling, often cruel set of football matches. Four teams get the chance to play and it ends in heartbreak for three of them, especially the side who lose the final and, as Huddersfield have shown this season, their can be disastrous effects.
Given the intensity of the play-off race below them, Luton and Middlesbrough will have a distinct advantage in that they won't be let down from missing out on automatic promotion, having known for some time that Sheffield United are likely out of reach.
These clubs therefore have the option to start preparing for the play-offs far earlier than the other two clubs they'll be competing against, an advantage which could prove crucial in getting to Wembley where they may well meet again in just 33 days.
It's so competitive and virtually impossible to predict who will join them, but it's going to be exhiliarting watching the race continue to unfold.