League Insider - Challengers
James Riach considers the challengers for Championship play-off positions in our latest League Insider column
Last Updated: April 26, 2011 4:52pm
The most lucrative game in football so they say - the Championship play-off final always provides ecstasy and agony, but which teams will shape the drama this season?
Promotion to the Premier League is the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but a gruelling campaign in the second tier is no ray of light that shines from a clear sky.
Far from it. Life in the Championship is tough - really tough - and therefore the desperate battle to reach the holy land of the English top-flight is always a bitter race that takes many twists and turns.
The prize of £90million makes the contest on 30th May even more intriguing, and with six games to go in the regular season, a number of teams are still in with a shout.
Queens Park Rangers may have slipped to a shock 4-1 defeat at Scunthorpe on Saturday but they remain nine points clear at the top of the table and on course for a title-winning campaign.
Neil Warnock has worked wonders at Loftus Road and following a phenomenal nine months for Adel Taarabt, the Hoops look set to grace the Premier League for the first time since 1996.
But while Rangers' fate appears seemingly assured, below them it is a completely different story.
Second-placed Norwich City continue to flourish under Paul Lambert but the Canaries were beaten 3-0 by fellow promotion contenders Swansea at the weekend.
Back-to-back successes would be a remarkable achievement for the Canaries and while they were put to the sword at the Liberty Stadium, the scoreline flattered the home side who won the game because of their clinical finishing in the final third, while Norwich squandered some excellent opportunities.
Lambert's men are 10 points above seventh and look certain to at least finish in the play-offs, but a place in the top two is within their reach after coming up from League One last year.
One thing they will want to avoid, though, is finishing third as that is a position that traditionally is followed by disappointment.
Cardiff currently hold that place but after their defeat to Blackpool in last year's final Dave Jones will want to secure promotion via the automatic spots this time around.
A Welsh side has yet to play in the Premiership but with the Bluebirds and Swansea, who are level on points with their rivals, well positioned - this could be the year that changes.
The Swans are capable of brushing aside any opponent on their day, but are also open to complacency at times.
So often it is the team that sneaks into sixth that goes on to win the play-offs, and as ever it is so close right down into mid-table.
While critics of the system will argue that it is unfair a team with 10 points less than a side above them can earn promotion, with 18 points still to play for it makes for a mouth-watering finish.
Reading and Leeds sit in fifth and sixth respectively but both Brian McDermott and Simon Grayson will no doubt be looking nervously over their shoulders.
Indeed, Hull City in 10th place are only five points off the Whites as the likes of Millwall, Nottingham Forest and Leicester remain in the chasing pack.
Millwall overcame Leeds 3-2 on Saturday to move into seventh but Forest are in absolute freefall.
They recently played out a thrilling 4-3 encounter with Reading but were undone by a last-gasp Luke Chambers own goal to condemn them to another defeat against a team hitting form at the right time.
Billy Davies' charges were in a fantastic position earlier in the campaign but a dreadful run of form has seen them slip right back.
They lost out to Blackpool in the semi-finals last year despite looking good for the automatic spots for most of the season, and if history were to repeat itself, questions would have to be raised at the City Ground.
Then there is Leicester - Sven Goran Eriksson has filled his squad with big-name players and they could yet make a late charge.
It would be a stunning effort should the Foxes snatch a place in the top six as they were threatened by relegation earlier in the campaign.
Fans of all these teams should expect a nail-biting month-and-a-half - who do you think has what it takes to secure promotion?