Nigel Adkins’ men marched on towards promotion with a comfortable 2-0 home win against relegation strugglers Doncaster, courtesy of two goals from ex-Donny striker Billy Sharp. The fact that Sharp has only enjoyed intermittent starts since his January arrival at St Mary’s only goes to show the real strength in depth enjoyed by the Saints squad. It is easy to forget that Southampton are in just their first season back in the Championship after finishing runners-up in League One last year. Whilst the majority of their promotion rivals have gone through a rough patch at some point in the season, the Saints have quickly put any defeat behind them, building their title-winning form on the back of a superb home record. In 24-goal Ricky Lambert, they also possess the division’s leading scorer. Saturday’s victory means that Saints have now just dropped two points in their last seven league outings, it is difficult to see them dropping many more before the end of the season.
The Championship play-off final is one of the richest games in world sport, taking into account television revenue gained and potential parachute payments should relegation from the Premier League become a reality. Bearing that in mind, there should be a mad scramble amongst the well-placed teams to cement a place in the end-of-season lottery. This season, however, teams in the play-off mix seem to be doing their very best to do quite the opposite. This weekend’s set of results saw not one of the teams currently in the top six of the Championship pick up three points. Third-placed West Ham came back from 2-0 down away to Burnley to clinch a 2-2 draw, scoring twice inside the last 25 minutes. Fourth-placed Brighton conceded a 94th-minute equaliser at the City Ground, to draw 1-1 with Nottingham Forest. Fifth-placed Middlesborough could only manage a 1-1 with struggling Bristol City, also having to come from a goal down. Sixth-placed Birmingham City played out a 1-1 draw with eighth-placed Cardiff City, whilst seventh-placed Blackpool were defeated 3-1 away at Reading. With many of the play-off contenders facing each other in the remaining few weeks of the season, everything is set for one of the most nail-biting finishes to the Championship in quite some time.
The plight of Portsmouth continued on Saturday with a 2-0 away defeat by Coventry City, a team who have spent much of the season so far occupying the bottom spot in the Championship. Michael Appleton’s men have not been helped by their stricken financial state dictating the departure of several key players to rival clubs, including Hayden Mullins, Liam Lawrence and Stephen Henderson. With just one win in their last 11 league outings, the League One trap-door is inching ever wider for Pompey. Last week’s 4-1 win over Birmingham, which Appleton hoped would spur his side on to greater things, seems a very long time ago already. The phrase ‘one swallow doesn’t make a summer’ springs to mind. If Portsmouth are to pull off a great escape of sorts, they need to start picking up points now. Currently bottom of the table, and five points from safety with eight games to go, time is rapidly running out for a side who were winning the FA Cup and playing European football not quite so long ago. Sadly for them, whilst their divisional status has changed, their wage bill has failed to reflect matters on the field.
If there is one thing to be learned about Neil Warnock from his various travels around the divisions, it is that he is a fighter. As shocking a footballing cliché as that was, Warnock also seems to be right in the thick of it come the business end of the season. His latest challenge has been to take over a promising Leeds side that never quite reached their potential under Simon Grayson. Inheriting a squad which, on paper, has all the quality needed for a top-six finish, Warnock must have been relishing the prospect. Things haven’t been going totally to plan, however, and last week’s 7-3 home defeat by Nottingham Forest (the first time Leeds have ever conceded seven goals at home) seemed to signal the end of their play-off dreams. Saturday’s tight 1-0 win away to Millwall however has left Warnock’s side just three points off the play-off places and very much still in the hunt. In the high-intensity weeks left in this campaign, the experienced and wily head of Warnock may just prove to be one of the most crucial factors at play, especially with the current inability of other sides to really stake their claim.
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