Premier League promotion race - how the contenders shape up
The race for Premier League promotion is shaping up for its usual intriguing and hard-fought finish. BBC Sport, with the help of Steve Claridge, runs the rule over the contenders for a place in the top flight.
SOUTHAMPTON Played 38 Points 75 GD +35
Rickie Lambert's 24 league goals have him streets clear as the Championship's top-scorer and have been enough to keep his side a nose in front in the table proper.
The striker's hat-trick, including two in the last five minutes, beat Millwall on Saturday and Tuesday's win against Hull ensures his side are unbeaten since January in the league.
Their failure to pull further away from the rest lies with an away record that, despite recent improvement, is only the sixth best in the division.
The Saints are tantalisingly close to the combination of 80 points and a 30-plus goal difference that has been enough to guarantee promotion in the last four seasons.
Form: The Saints have dropped only two points in their last six league games.
What they say: "We have said all along that we're taking one game at a time. Obviously you always plan. There's a lot of planning, but there are a lot of situations that could arise," said manager Nigel Adkins.
Steve Claridge's view: "There is still some way to go, but you wouldn't want to be in any other dressing room at this stage. They are clear favourites and there is no reason after 38 games why anything should change for them. I think they would be desperately disappointed if they were not promoted automatically."
READING Played 38 Points 70 GD +20
After losing at home to Hull on 21 January, the Royals were a point and two places off the play-off places, having played a game more than Blackpool in sixth.
They stepped ahead of a gaggle of promotion pretenders with nine wins in their following 10 games, but that run came to an end with Tuesday's surprise defeat at Peterborough.
Jason Roberts arrived from Blackburn in January and has scored five goals during their surge into the automatic spots.
While they have plundered points against opposition in mid-table and below, their next five games, all against top-10 sides, include clashes with Southampton and West Ham and will provide a stern test of their top-flight credentials.
Form: Reading have taken 19 points from a possible 24 in their last eight games - second only to Southampton.
What they say: "We have been on a terrific run to get ourselves into a great position and nothing has changed. We were 20 points off the pace at one point so the players deserve great credit ," said manager Brian McDermott.
Steve Claridge's view: "If you compared their squad to Southampton and West Ham you would say that they will finish third. They are not over-achieving, they are just squeezing every ounce of what they have got."
WEST HAM Played 37 Points 68 GD +21
West Ham showed the sort of steel Sam Allardyce's sides have been famed for in February as they took seven points from games against local rivals Millwall, current table-toppers Southampton and an in-form Blackpool, despite having a man sent off in each.
They have kept a full complement on the pitch in the five games since, but their form has stalled.
From being a point clear at the top with a game in hand over nearest challengers Southampton, they have slipped to third after four successive draws.
Nicky Maynard has yet to fire since signing from Bristol City in January with one goal in seven matches, while highly-rated young recruit Ravel Morrison made his first appearance as a substitute in Saturday's draw with Leeds.
The Hammers could do with a burst of form from either to raise spirits amongst disillusioned fans and get them motoring again.
Form: West Ham have won once in their last six matches.
What they say: "We're all a little bit edgy but we're confident we can take the final step and start winning more games than we draw," said manager Sam Allardyce.
Steve Claridge's view: "With their squad, budget and players they have to go up. It is as simple as that. They have one of the biggest budgets the Championship has ever had and I would not imagine that even a club of that size could sustain that level of investment. Anything less than automatic promotion will be seen as under-achievement."
BRIGHTON Played 38 Points 61 GD +8
Gus Poyet has made no secret of his desire to manage in the Premier League, and it looks as if Brighton did both themselves and their manager a favour by turning down Wolves' approach in February.
Under the Uruguayan, they have lost only one league match in 2012 to climb from 16th into the play-off spots.
The shiny new Amex Stadium's resident superstar is former Spain international Vicente, who leads the assists table despite making only four starts in an injury-hit start to life on the South Coast.
Their run-in contains some serious tests, including clashes with three of their fellow top-five sides.
Form: Albion have won three of their last eight matches.
What they say: "Imagine if Vicente had been fit for the whole season. Had he been, we could be 10 or 15 points better off," said manager Gus Poyet.
Steve Claridge's view: "They have been up and down but Gus Poyet has freshened it up, steadied the ship and brought a bit more quality in. Brighton have to be brave with the way they play. When you are 3-0 up everyone wants the ball, but it is not so easy when you are three down. When you consider they came up last year, it has been an excellent season whatever happens."
BLACKPOOL Played 38 Points 60 GD +12
Ian Holloway won plenty of admirers in the top flight last term thanks to his side's stylish, but unsuccessful, fight against relegation and his own refreshing refusal to resort to managerial clichés.
With chairman Karl Oyston keeping a tight hand on the purse strings and his relegated side stripped of assets such as Charlie Adam and David Vaughan, an immediate return had seemed unlikely.
But Blackpool have hung tenaciously to the coattails of those in the play-off positions and showed in 2009-10, where they finished the regular season with six wins in their last eight, that they have the ability to kick hard for home.
With veteran Kevin Phillips' goals added to by namesake Matt at the opposite end of his career, the Seasiders have gained more points from drawing and losing positions than any other side in the division.
Form: Blackpool have lost three of 14 league games in the league in 2012.
What they say: "We're still in a position where we're in with a chance and we've got to take that opportunity if we can," said manager Ian Holloway. "The lads are up for it and are more than ready for the challenge. History proves that we're a club that should never be written off."
Steve Claridge's view: "Blackpool have been quite savvy, using the Premier League to build the infrastructure to ensure they are challenging consistently in the second tier. They are fun to watch and that is how Ian Holloway wants it. Whatever happens with them you know that it is going to be a thoroughly enjoyable ride."
MIDDLESBROUGH Played 37 Points 60 GD +3
When Tony Mowbray took over as Middlesbrough boss in October 2010 with the club bottom of the Championship he immediately set his sights on the Premier League.
Despite his side's failure to win a league match between Boxing Day and Valentine's Day, the possibility of Mowbray achieving that ambitious target in his first full season is still alive.
Dutchman Marvin Emnes has particularly enjoyed life under the new regime, scoring 11 goals in 33 league appearances after falling out of favour with Mowbray's predecessor Gordon Strachan.
The Teesiders will need to improve their form against the sides directly around them however.
They have lost to Birmingham, Leeds, Reading and Blackpool in 2012 and face four other members of the top 10 in their final nine games.
Form: Middlesbrough have taken six points from a possible last 15.
What they say: "We don't have many Lionel Messis in our team, but we do have a lot of very honest, hard-working pros who have done fantastically well this season. I don't think the players need any further motivation from me. They all want to play in the Premier League," said Middlesbrough manager Tony Mowbray.
Steve Claridge's view: "Last year everything was expected of them and they disappointed, whereas this year their ambitions were lower and they are punting for a top-six spot. They do not have the highs that other clubs have, but they have been thereabouts all year. Ultimately though, I don't know whether they are a top-six side or promotion candidates."
BIRMINGHAM CITY Played 37 Points 59 GD +19
After an indifferent start to the season, Birmingham hauled their way into contention after the turn of the year, picking up eye-catching away wins over and Leeds as they climbed from 12th into the play-off spots.
January also marked the start of an enterprising FA Cup run in which the Blues sent Wolves and Sheffield United out before taking Chelsea to a replay.
Some of that momentum has been checked in recent weeks, but boss Chris Hughton has created a combative credible contender with former Valencia striker Nikola Zigic spearheading a side containing shrewd acquisitions like Andros Townsend, Chris Burke and Wade Elliot.
An upturn in an away record that is only the 17th best in the Championship would vastly improve their chances of cementing a top-six finish.
Form: Birmingham have won only five of 18 matches against opposition in the top half of the table.
What they say: "You have just got to keep bringing that same focus and determination to the game. If you do that I think that when all's said and done, the better teams end up at top and we consider ourselves one of the better teams," said Birmingham stand-in captain Steven Caldwell.
Steve Claridge's view: "I don't think the board-room problems have massively affected Birmingham. Every club that comes out the Premier League has to get rid of people and Chris Hughton has been quite cute and canny in who he has brought in before the embargo. The likes of Marlon King, Zigic and Burke are all capable of doing well at this level."
CARDIFF CITY Played 38 Points 59 GD + 7
After watching Swansea succeed where they had failed 12 months previously in last season's play-off final, Cardiff will not lack motivation during the Championship run-in.
Malky Mackay took over from Brendan Rodgers at Watford in his first full-time managerial role and looked as if he may follow the Swans boss into the Premier League via the automatic spots in November.
But from being within three points of the automatic places, they slipped away from the top with only four wins in 14 Championship games this year.
The Bluebirds could improve on that tally during a run-in that pits them against sides below them in the table in their final five matches, but will need Peter Whittingham, who has weighed in with 10 league goals from midfield, to keep helping out the strikers.
Form: Cardiff have won one in their last six Championship games.
What they say: "We all have to keep on working away and believing in our ability and believing that we're a good enough club to be involved, which we are," said manager Malky Makay.
Steve Claridge's view: "They have not got the armoury up front that they had last year and that has been made worse by Rudy Gestede's absence. Cardiff like to get the ball down and dominate in midfield, but he gives them a completely different option if their passing game is not working."
HULL CITY Played 37 Points 58 GD +7
For a founder member of Ossie Ardiles's "famous five" attack at Tottenham as a player, Nick Barmby the manager has overseen a strikingly conservative Hull team since taking over from Nigel Pearson in November.
Hull have conceded 30 goals in 37 league games - the fewest in the division - but average just a goal a game themselves.
Captain Jack Hobbs and James Chester have been the basis of that defensive record but Matty Fryatt has yet to find the net as regularly as he did for Leicester since moving the KC Stadium in January 2011.
The Tigers' play-off place may depend on the daunting task of getting something from West Ham at Upton Park on the final day of the season.
Form: Hull have lost once in their last 12 Championship games.
What they say: "We need to hold our nerve and we need to be fearless, but I haven't seen anything that suggests we are a nervous team and I don't think I will. They can handle it. They are not daft." said boss Nick Barmby.
Steve Claridge's view: "Nicky Barmby has just carried on Nigel Pearson's tactics of building from a strong defence. They like to go 4-5-1, 4-3-3 at times, and they were excellent on the break when I watched them beat Cardiff. What you have to do is find one or two players who will do something special and take you out of the norm."
Steve Claridge was speaking to BBC Sport's Mike Henson