Preston North End are entering the 'business end' of the Championship play-off race

Being down to single figures of matches it is right to assume that the ‘business end’ of the Championship season is upon us.

By Dave Seddon
Wednesday, 11th March 2020, 12:20 pm
Updated Wednesday, 11th March 2020, 12:21 pm

It could well be a strange countdown to the end of the campaign due to coronavirus, with plenty of uncertainty regarding the possibility of games being played behind closed doors or even delayed.

Just for the moment though, let’s have a look at how things are unfolding in the Championship play-off race.

Preston North End are in the thick of it, among 10 clubs outside of the top two who have designs on the four play-off slots.

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Preston players celebrate after Daniel Johnson scores from the penalty spot against QPR at Deepdale

Top two Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion look to be pulling away in their quest to secure the automatic promotion places.

Leeds are seven points clear of third place on the back of five straight wins, with Albion six clear.

They are still catch-able with nine games to go but it would take a wobble from both and some top form below them to alter the state of play.

However, we are talking about the Championship, a division which has been unpredictable all season.

Preston North End manager Alex Neil

The unpredictability of the play-off race and the excitement is added to by the fact all the teams in the mix have rivals to play.

Looking at North End, they have Cardiff, Derby, Nottingham Forest, Brentford and Bristol City to play in the current top 12.

Third-place Fulham’s next two games are against Brentford and Leeds. Then next month they play Forest, Cardiff and West Bromwich Albion in successive games.

After Brentford have faced Fulham on Friday night, they then have to tackle the Baggies.

Then later in the season they have Derby to play.

Bristol City have Blackburn, Forest, Cardiff and Swansea to play, before North End visit Ashton Gate on the final afternoon of the campaign.

There is a similar pattern throughout the pack, with the teams taking points off one another over the next eight weeks.

Much has been made of the current form of the teams in

play-off contention.

North End have lost four of their last five games but have still held on to sixth spot.

Bristol City, a point and place behind them, have gone five games without a win.

Fifth-placed Forest have won two of their last eight games and were beaten 3-0 at the City Ground by Millwall last Friday night.

Brentford’s 5-0 victory over Sheffield Wednesday came after they had drawn four and lost one of their previous five games.

Fulham have started to pick up again with wins over Swansea and North End, together with a 1-1 draw at Bristol City.

Before that run they had drawn twice and lost 3-0 at Craven Cottage against strugglers Barnsley.

Millwall’s win in front of the cameras at Forest caught the eye and they looked a well-organised side when they came to Deepdale and won last month.

Those are the Lions’ only two victories in the last nine league games, although there have been draws with Fulham and Bristol City in that run.

Blackburn are without a win in four games, strong form in January and February having lifted them to within sight of the top six.

Had they gone to Derby and won last Sunday, Rovers would have jumped above PNE into sixth.

As it was, they lost 3-0 to the Rams at Pride Park.

North End are nearly three weeks on from their last victory, a 2-1 success against Hull at Deepdale.

They had to come from behind to win that, Paul Gallagher’s penalty and a header from Alan Browne earning three points.

Although ‘must-win’ is not a term to apply in a mathematical sense with 27 points still to play for, just for confidence and belief the trip to Luton on Saturday carries that tag.

If their poor run is to extend, someone is going to take advantage and put themselves in a stronger position than Alex Neil’s men to secure a top-six slot.

In the last two seasons North End have been the chaser in terms of trying to reach the play-offs.

Two years ago they got to within touching distance and took their challenge until the last day.

This time last season, PNE beat Birmingham with a stoppage-time header from Sean Maguire to go seventh in the table.

They were on 57 points, only goal difference keeping Aston Villa in sixth place above them.

In the final eight games they took only four points and slipped back to 14th.

This time they have the advantage of being in the top six – and have been for much of the season – so have to make that count.

Luton need the points at the other end of the table so North End are going to be in for a battle at Kenilworth Road, a venue they last visited in 2006.

It is the first of three big games leading into the international break.

Whatever happens on and off the pitch, these are interesting times.

Be prepared for plenty of twists and turns.