Football League Expert & Columnist
Southampton, Reading and West Ham are chasing automatic promotion. Beags looks at their final fixtures...
Last Updated: 30/03/12 12:37pm
The race to win automatic promotion from the Championship is really hotting up.
Southampton have a five-point advantage at the top of the division and are in pole position to return to the Premier League for the first time since 2005.
The Saints have not lost in the league since a 2-0 home defeat to Leicester in January and have tasted victory in eight of their last 10 matches in the second tier.
Nigel Adkins' men will have some tricky hurdles to overcome during their run-in - they visit ever-expansive Blackpool this weekend, still have a South Coast derby with Portsmouth to negotiate and also entertain fellow top-flight hopefuls Reading.
But Southampton have been a well-oiled machine right the way through this season and it is hard to bet against them earning back-to-back promotions by April 28.
Reading and West Ham sit second and third respectively and seem the only other viable contenders to go up automatically, with the likes of Brighton, Middlesbrough and Birmingham 10 or so points back.
The Royals, whose manager Brian McDermott reportedly shunned overtures from Wolves before penning a new three-and-a-half-year contract in February, are on a great run, winning 10 out of 12 matches.
Reading will be desperate to go one better than last season when they were edged out by Swansea in a thrilling Championship play-off final; that disappointment could really spur them on to finish this campaign on a high.
Jason Roberts' experience has been extremely beneficial to the side since he arrived from Blackburn during the transfer window. The 34-year-old has netted five goals in his 11 appearances and has forged a strong partnership with Noel Hunt.
The Royals have even more experience in their ranks with Mikele Leigertwood, Ian Harte and new Portsmouth loanee Hayden Mullins, but their run-in does look tough.
In addition to that match at St Mary's on April 13, McDermott's men face West Ham this Saturday followed by games against play-off chasers Leeds and Brighton, a contest with a Nottingham Forest side fighting for their lives towards the bottom of the table, before finishing their season at Birmingham.
West Ham closed the gap on Reading to one point during the week with a much-needed triumph at Peterborough, Ricardo Vaz Te and Gary O'Neil netting second-half goals.
That will have eased some of the Londoners' nerves after a run of five consecutive draws saw them slip out of the top two.
Sam Allardyce wouldn't have been happy at the lack of wins, especially in the home games with Watford, Doncaster and Middlesbrough, but he is old enough and wise enough not to panic.
He only has to look around his dressing room at people like Mark Noble, Carlton Cole and Kevin Nolan to see players who have proved themselves at a higher level.
Four of the Hammers' remaining seven games are at Upton Park - they also visit Barnsley, Bristol City and Leicester - and Sam will be hoping that passionate crowd can help shout his side back into the Premier League at the first time of asking.
The West Ham faithful should see a top-drawer clash this weekend when Reading pay a visit, and if either side manages to take the three points they will be in the ascendancy for automatic elevation.
Stay tuned to Sky Sports for what should be a gripping end to the season!
The next Sky Live Championship fixture is Reading's clash with Leeds on Good Friday. Make sure you join us for all the build-up from 1.30pm.
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