Championship play-offs: The runners and riders in the battle for the top six

Adama Traore, Tom Lawrence and Lee Gregory
Middlesbrough (left) and Derby (centre) occupy the two remaining play-off spots, with Millwall next best placed

Forget foregone conclusions, one-horse races and dead-rubber games, the Championship play-off race is anything but.

Two games remain and any two teams from fifth to 11th can still scramble into the top six.

The scenarios can be a little confusing with a number of 'six-pointers' between the clubs involved, so BBC Sport has put together a guide to the runners and riders bidding for a shot at promotion to the Premier League.

The favourites

Middlesbrough
Middlesbrough fixtures
v Millwall (home) - Saturday, 28 April, 17:30 BST
v Ipswich Town (away) - Sunday, 6 May, 12:30 BST

Middlesbrough are in pole position for a place in the Championship play-offs going into the final two games, with six points separating them from Sheffield United in 11th and three between them and Millwall, who they play on Saturday, in seventh.

Victory in that game would likely end Millwall's hopes and secure a spot for Boro in the top six, while a draw or a Lions win would take it to the final day.

Boro have play-off experience in their squad in George Friend, Daniel Ayala, Ben Gibson and Adam Clayton - veterans of their previous promotion challenges.

Three wins in the past four games, including victories against fellow promotion hopefuls Bristol City and Derby, have propelled the Teessiders into the mix, while their goal difference is superior to all the teams in the tussle.

Paul Addison, BBC Tees: "It's fair to say that Middlesbrough's season hasn't gone according to plan. They were targeting a top-two finish following relegation after Steve Gibson heavily backed Garry Monk financially in the summer.

"It didn't work out - Monk was sacked and Tony Pulis brought in - and many Boro fans thought they were heading for a mid-table finish as the experienced campaigner set about putting his own stamp on the squad with a concerted promotion push in mind for next season.

"However, Boro have ground out some impressive results to haul themselves back into the top six.

"The win at Derby proved that they've hit form at the right time so they look like heading into the play-offs with momentum - who knows what might happen?"

Derby County
Derby County fixtures
v Aston Villa (away) - Saturday, 28 April, 15:00 BST
v Barnsley (home) - Sunday, 6 May, 12:30 BST

Derby, like Middlesbrough, looked to be among the automatic promotion favourites at one stage of the campaign but find themselves still desperate to ensure they are involved in the post-season mix.

After hitting form at the turn of the year to go second, a run of eight games without a win through February and March saw the Rams fall out of the top six for the first time since November.

Tuesday's morale-boosting win against a Cardiff side still seeking an automatic route into the Premier League lifted Gary Rowett's side back to sixth, but their final two games could prove difficult hurdles.

Aston Villa still hold hopes of making the top two, while Barnsley's Championship fate could rest on their visit to Pride Park on the final day.

Crucially, Derby have their fate in their own hands. Psychologically, the Rams have endured the pain of near misses in recent years and another unsuccessful campaign will be keenly felt.

Ed Dawes, BBC Radio Derby: "The euphoria surrounding the win over Cardiff City has come at the right time. Supporters had been crying out for the team to put more energy into their game and compete.

"The Rams have dropped too many points to those teams in the bottom half of the table who seemed to just work harder than them. Gary Rowett has been bold in his reorganisation of the shape and the players have responded.

"Remarkably they are still in the mix and if they can scrape sixth spot then I fancy them against anyone in a two-legged shoot-out. Wembley, though, is a different proposition."

The hopefuls

Millwall
Millwall fixtures
v Middlesbrough (away) - Saturday, 28 April, 17:30 BST
v Aston Villa (home) - Sunday, 6 May, 12:30 BST

Millwall's remarkable rise up the table on the back of a 17-match unbeaten run has propelled Neil Harris' side into the promotion picture just 12 months after they were promoted from League One via the play-offs.

The Lions roared their way into the Championship by beating Bradford City at Wembley and have picked up the baton in the second tier.

Their 3-0 defeat by Fulham on 20 April has the potential to have checked their progress, and their fixture schedule is extremely tough.

First they must negotiate a shoot-out of sorts with Middlesbrough and then Aston Villa, whose automatic promotion ambitions could still hinge on a result at The Den.

Victory against fifth-placed Boro will very much keep them in the hunt, while anything else could end their interest or leave them needing other results to go their way on the final Sunday.

Nick Godwin, BBC Radio London: "Millwall know all about sneaking into the play-offs. Last season in League One they put together a late charge, then used sheer adrenaline to power past Scunthorpe and Bradford to snatch a place in the Championship.

"This season's surge started a little earlier - in fact their only league loss since the turn of the year was against Fulham.

"Neil Harris has extracted every ounce of potential out of his small squad. Nevertheless it would take a superhuman effort for this group to get into the play-offs again.

"However, they have met every challenge they've been set in the last 12 months and must be taken seriously."

Neal Maupay and Brentford
Brentford fixtures
v Barnsley (away) 15:00 BST, Saturday, 28 April
v Hull City (home) 12:30 BST, Sunday, 6 May

Brentford, much like London rivals Millwall, have found their momentum toward the end of the season and hopes of a play-off campaign have gathered pace.

The Bees were 11th after March's 3-1 defeat by Cardiff but a subsequent seven-game unbeaten run has been the catalyst for their lingering ambitions.

Dean Smith's side have a trip to Barnsley, who are equally desperate for points for very different reasons, and then welcome Hull City, who are safe and playing for little more than pride and league position.

Their fans could find themselves cheering on Villa and possibly Middlesbrough on Saturday, as their best hope of catching the teams above them would come from Derby and Millwall dropping points at this stage.

Billy Reeves, BBC Radio London: "Brentford's chances, should they win the final two games are precisely 50-50, according to the Griffin Park Grapevine's 'super computer'.

"Bees have had strong Aprils in recent years; this year they have one of the the best points-per-games tallies in the top four divisions, and in my opinion not playing that well: perhaps they've added doing the 'ugly' things to their game that was missing in the early part of the season.

"The key man in midfield, Romaine Sawyers and forward Neal Maupay have grown into the season having made the jump from League One and the French second tier respectively.

"Bees have the easiest (on paper) final two games of the chasing pack but I can't see Derby or Boro messing up."

The outsiders

Sean Maguire
Preston North End fixtures
v Sheffield United (away), 15:00 BST, Saturday, 28 April
v Burton Albion (home) 12:30 BST, Sunday 6 May

Preston North End need a few permutations to go their way for them to scrape into the top six but they are unbeaten in three going into a proper six-pointer against Sheffield United when only the winner may stay in the hunt.

Their lack of success against their play-off rivals does not aid their chances, with just 13 points taken from a possible 33 against the six teams around them in the promotion picture.

If they beat the Blades, they eliminate a rival. Their final-day game against Burton Albion could have huge implications for their visitors, depending on how the Brewers get on in their crunch fixture with fellow strugglers Bolton.

Much is still to be decided.

Famara Diedhiou
Bristol City fixtures
v Nottingham Forest (away), 15:00 BST, Saturday, 28 April
v Sheffield United (home) 12:30 BST, Sunday 6 May

What a season it has been for Bristol City. They beat Manchester United en route to the semi-finals of the EFL Cup and still have a shout at promotion - just.

They need three points from their trip to Nottingham Forest and then, depending on the results elsewhere on the penultimate weekend, could go into another 'no slip-ups' decider with Sheffield United.

Their cup run shows they have the big game mettle to cope with pressure situations, but the Robins are woefully short of the form needed to bolster a play-off bid.

Richard Hoskin, BBC Radio Bristol: "As far as I am concerned, it'll now be a miracle if Bristol City reach the play-offs.

"Not only do they need lots of results to work in their favour, but they need to win their last two games - having won only four times in 2018.

"When the dust settles, City will be kicking themselves having been in such a strong position going into the new year. On the flipside, nearly all City supporters would have settled for a top-half finish back in August."

Leon Clarke
Sheffield United fixtures
v Preston North End (home), 15:00 BST, Saturday, 28 April
v Bristol City (away) 12:30 BST, Sunday 6 May

Sheffield United are the classic example of the pace-setting marathon runner that eventually hits a wall late on, watching helplessly as other pass by in full flight.

The Blades set the division alight on their return to the Championship following last season's promotion, winning 12 of their opening 17 games to keep pace with eventual champions Wolves.

While the men from Molineux have kicked on to find another gear, Chris Wilder's side have slipped out of the title picture.

Their fixture schedule pits them against two of their play-off rivals in Preston and Bristol City. They must win both games and hope results go their way to have any chance of reaching the play-offs and going for back-to-back promotions.

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