Play-off race hots up

Tom Mallows looks at the clubs involved in an increasingly frantic battle for a play-off spot in the Championship.

Chris Hughton: Hoping a hectic season will end in Wembley play-off glory

Gus Poyet: Is chasing back-to-back promotions with Brighton

It is definitely 'squeaky bum time' in the Championship promotion race with less than a month to go until the end of the regular season.

The two automatic promotion spots look likely to be filled by two from Southampton, Reading and West Ham.

The trio are nine points ahead of the chasing pack, with faltering West Ham currently occupying third place. They have won just one of their last seven games and Saturday's 4-2 home defeat to in-form Reading allowed the Royals to open up a four-point gap in second.

Nigel Adkins' Saints, meanwhile, remain two points clear at the top of the pile, despite their 3-0 defeat to Blackpool at the weekend. It looks likely the South Coast club will be returning to the big time next season.

Looking below that trio though and the picture is less clear. Realistically the dream of a trip to Wembley and Premier League football remains alive for up to eight sides, with even those in mid-table not completely discounted.

With four of the top seven locked on 63 points it is clear the battle for a top-six spot is going to go down to the wire.

Here, Skysports.com assesses the runners and riders for a play-off position and the chance for a shot at the promised land of the Premier League.

Birmingham Pld 39 Pts 63 GD +21

Chris Hughton's men have already racked up 53 games this season with last year's Carling Cup success meaning a stab at the Europa League in the autumn. Given Hughton only arrived in the summer and the fact he has had to completely rebuild a side dismantled following relegation, it is to his credit that he has steered his side into such a healthy position. If they win their game in hand at Burnley on Tuesday they could open up a valuable three-point gap between themselves and the chasing pack. They may need it too as fixtures against West Ham, Brighton and Reading lie in wait. After a long and arduous season, do the Blues have enough in the tank to drag themselves over the line?

Sky Bet odds for top six finish: 8/15

Blackpool Pld 40 Pts 63 GD +13

Like Chris Hughton at Birmingham, Blackpool boss Ian Holloway has had to rebuild the side following the pain of relegation and sale of key players. The 49-year-old has successfully managed to do that without sacrificing the swashbuckling style of play that made them so popular in the top flight last season. The signing of veteran Kevin Phillips has been one of the shrewdest moves of the season and the battling spirit in the squad is demonstrated by the fact they have won more points from drawing and losing positions than any other side. Their fixture list also looks favourable, with 10th placed Leeds the highest-ranked side left to play.

Sky Bet odds for top six finish: 4/6

Brighton Pld 40 Pts 63 GD +8

Gus Poyet's men are enjoying a fine first season back in England's second tier, with the feel-good factor of promotion and the move to their new state-of-the-art Amex Stadium fuelling a sustained play-off bid. The South Coast club have lost just one league game in 2012 to shoot up from 16th place into the top six. They appear to have that crucial momentum all successful play-off campaigns need. In Vicente they also have a player capable of moments of inspiration. The former Valencia winger appears to have put a succession of injuries behind him and could make the difference for Albion as they tackle a run-in that features games against Reading, West Ham and Birmingham.

Sky Bet odds for top six finish: 5/4

Middlesbrough Pld 40 Pts 63 GD +3

Tony Mowbray's men appear to be losing form at just the wrong time with injuries to key defenders not helping their cause. Saturday's 1-1 draw with Brighton was their fourth in succession and made it six games without a win. Injuries to Seb Hines and Matthew Bates have also left Mowbray short of cover at the back. Solace cannot be found in the fixture list either with Cardiff and Hull City - the two sides immediately below them in the table - lying in wait. The Teessiders will really need to dig in between now and the end of the season if they are to keep their Premier League dream alive.

Sky Bet odds for top six finish:11/8

Cardiff Pld 40 Pts 61 GD +7

After the play-off heartache of the last two seasons Cardiff will be desperate to go one better and give themselves a shot at Wembley glory. Sadly for Bluebirds fans Malky Mackay's men are another side who are seeing their play-off bid falter at just the wrong time. The Carling Cup runners-up have won just three times in 15 league games and have gone five matches without a victory at home. A controversially disallowed goal at home to Millwall on Saturday merely added to Mackay's frustrations. Next weekend's trip to Middlesbrough could go a long way towards deciding their play-off fate.

Sky Bet odds for top six finish: 6/4

Hull City Pld 40 Pts 58 GD +2

Hull City have managed to survive the trauma of losing boss Nigel Pearson in mid-season, with Nick Barmby ensuring a smooth transition that has meant the Tigers have consistently picked up points. It isn't hard to assess City's strengths; they have the joint best defensive record along with Reading with just 36 goals conceded. However, their total of 38 goals scored is comfortably the worst in the division outside the bottom four. A hectic March that encompassed nine games in 29 days clearly took its toll, with the Tigers losing their last four. With Middlesbrough and West Ham also lurking in their last six games, you get the impression it will take an almighty effort if they are to overhaul their rivals and climb into the top six.

Sky Bet odds for top six finish: 4/1

The best of the rest....

Leeds United and Watford are just a point further back from Hull, with the Hornets' win at Elland Road stretching their unbeaten run to seven. Big-spending Leicester and Nigel Clough's Derby County are then just a further point back. It remains an outside shot for any of these sides to make the play-offs, but in a division as unpredictable as the Championship, you just never know.....