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Championship Analysis – All square at St Andrew’s as Birmingham and Cardiff epitomise the curious battle for the play-offs

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By Kristian Hood

Monday 26 March 2012

Birmingham and Cardiff drew 1-1 at St Andrew’s in Sunday’s Championship game, a result that does neither side any real favours as the climax of the race to cement a place in the play-offs draws nearer. The two sides remain locked together on 60 points alongside Blackpool, who Chris Hughton’s team displaced to go sixth. Goal difference could prove a major factor in the run-in, and Birmingham’s – a very healthy plus 19 – is significantly better than all immediately around them.

The play-off picture as a whole remains both fascinating and baffling in equal measure, perhaps epitomised by the weekend’s results, which saw no team between third and ninth place win. Sunday’s result meant Birmingham have only won one of their six league matches in March so far, but on the flipside the same is true of Blackpool, Cardiff and Hull immediately below them, while fourth-placed Brighton and Middlesbrough in fifth have only won two out of six. It’s little wonder every team in the top half remains in contention.

Tenth-placed Leeds, for example, were largely written off after dropping two points late on against West Ham last weekend before being thrashed by Nottingham Forest in midweek. A 1-0 win at Millwall on Saturday, however, moved Neil Warnock’s team back within three points of Birmingham, while wins for Leicester in 11th spot and Derby in 12th advanced both clubs to 55 points. Games are running out, of course, but a late burst by any team within reach during April would almost guarantee a play-off slot, such is the consistent level of inconsistency.

In contrast, Southampton’s March form has been virtually imperious, with a haul of 16 points from a possible 18. The Saints remain five points clear of Reading after the curse of the former player struck Doncaster as Billy Sharp netted both goals in a 2-0 home win. The Royals recovered from their first loss since January at Peterborough in midweek to overcome Blackpool.

March has been an infuriating month for West Ham. The Hammers had top spot in their own hands after winning at Cardiff in the opening weekend, but five consecutive draws later, Sam Allardyce’s side now trail Reading by four points in third spot. Optimists among the Upton Park faithful would argue that all could be well again next weekend when the two clubs go head to head. Should West Ham avoid defeat at Peterborough in their game in hand on Tuesday, the east Londoners will reclaim second place on goal difference if they win next Saturday’s showdown.

At the other end of the table, Coventry won the proverbial six-pointer against Portsmouth on Saturday. Having stunned Birmingham at Fratton Park in midweek, Pompey would have risen to within three points of safety with a win at the Ricoh Arena, but instead it was the Sky Blues who edged closer to safety, and now trail Bristol City in 21st place by a single point. Admittedly their opponents’ ten-point deduction has contributed strongly to the club’s growing chances of avoiding relegation, but Saturday’s win meant Andy Thorn’s men are now five matches unbeaten.

Three of Portsmouth’s next four fixtures are at home, which could be the defining period for the club’s bid for Championship survival on the pitch, but surviving off it remains the ultimate priority.

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