Preston North End have reached the business end of the season as their play-off push gathers pace - all the runners and riders in the chase for the top six

PNE boss Alex Neil gives out instructions during the win over Birmingham
PNE boss Alex Neil gives out instructions during the win over Birmingham

The ‘business end’ of the season will be upon us next week when league action resumes at the conclusion of the international break.

Preston North End start their run-in with Saturday’s trip to the Madejski Stadium to take on Reading.

Preston right-back Darnell Fisher battles with Reading's Andy Yiadom at Deepdale in September - Reading are PNE's next opponents on Saturday

Preston right-back Darnell Fisher battles with Reading's Andy Yiadom at Deepdale in September - Reading are PNE's next opponents on Saturday

Eight games remain in the regular season, four at home, four away.

Alex Neil went on record last week to say that five wins from those matches should be enough to secure a top-six place.

Three of PNE’s games are against teams above them in the table – Sheffield United, Leeds and West Bromwich Albion are played in a row.

Their final home game of the season sees them take on a Sheffield Wednesday side just below them in the current standings.

Preston North End manager Alex Neil after the recent derby win at Blackburn

Preston North End manager Alex Neil after the recent derby win at Blackburn

It promises to be a run-in full of twists and turns, with all the teams pushing for a play-off pace having to play at least one of their rivals.

If we are to assume the automatic promotion places are going to come from two of Norwich City Sheffield United or Leeds, then there looks like being nine clubs in the mix for the top six.

There will be whoever misses out of the top two, then WBA, Middlesbrough, Aston Villa, PNE, Derby, Bristol City, Sheffield Wed and Nottingham Forest.

You could perhaps even throw Hull City into the mix in 12th place although they have a lot to do.

Callum Robinson in action against Sheffield United earlier in the season - Preston face the Blades a week on Saturday

Callum Robinson in action against Sheffield United earlier in the season - Preston face the Blades a week on Saturday

Preston’s involvement in the chase for the top-six owes much to the 12-game unbeaten run they are on.

What should not be overlooked either is the run of just one defeat in 12 games earlier in the campaign.

After losing 3-2 to WBA at the end of September, North End didn’t taste defeat again until December 1 when they were beaten at Birmingham.

They bounced back from that with wins over Nottingham Forest and Millwall.

Preston face Leeds in April, a side they beat in the Carabao Cup at Elland Road last August

Preston face Leeds in April, a side they beat in the Carabao Cup at Elland Road last August

Then came a sticky Christmas period before they started off on this current impressive run.

I’ve written many times that after the 3-3 draw at Aston Villa on October 2, PNE were bottom.

That was their first away point of the campaign, now they have 27 points from their travels in the bag.

Just think if they could boast 30 away points by the time they return from Reading?

The three games in the space of a week against Sheffield United, Leeds and West Brom, could well prove pivotal to North End’s chances.

Come out of that little lot with a healthy points return and the position for Neil’s men could look very healthy to say the least.

It is hoped that injuries can work more in Preston’s favour than they have so far this season.

Neil has been unable to work with a full squad all campaign, with injuries to striker Sean Maguire and winger Billy Bodin on the eve of the season setting the tone.

Alan Browne and Paul Gallagher missed the last game against Birmingham, Andrew Hughes hobbling out of it.

Tom Barkhuizen and Tom Clarke have been out for the last few games.

On the plus side, Callum Robinson and Louis Moult are back in the frame.

What has to be factored into the play-off race is the games in hand for three of the clubs in the pack.

Middlesbrough in fifth and eight-place Derby have played a game less than PNE, WBA, Wednesday and Forest.

Bristol City, in ninth, have played two less.

It brings into play the points in the bag versus games in hand argument which managers like to muse over at this delicate stage of the season.

Here are the run-ins of the teams in the top half of the table.

Norwich: Middlesbrough (a), QPR (h), Reading (h), Wigan (a), Sheff Wed (h), Stoke (a), Blackburn (h), Villa (a).

Sheff Utd: Bristol City (h), PNE (a), Birmingham (a), Millwall (h), Forest (h), Hull (A), Ipswich (h), Stoke (a).

Leeds United: Millwall (h), Birmingham (a), PNE (a), Sheffield Wed (h), Wigan (h), Brentford (a), Aston Villa (h), Ipswich (a).

West Brom: Birmingham (h), Millwall (a), Bristol City (a), PNE (h), Hull (h), Reading (a), Rotherham (h), Derby (a).

Middlesbrough: Norwich (h), Bristol City (h), Swansea (a), Bolton (a), Hull (h), Stoke (h), Forest (a), Reading (h), Rotherham (a).

Aston Villa: Blackburn (h), Sheff Wed (a), Rotherham (a), Bristol City (h), Bolton (a), Millwall (h), Leeds (a), Norwich (h).

PNE: Reading (a), Sheff Utd (h), Leeds (h), WBA (a), Ipswich (h), Wigan Athletic (a), Sheff Wed (h), Brentford (a).

Derby County: Rotherham (h), Brentford (a), Blackburn (h), Bolton (a), Birmingham (a), QPR (h), Bristol City (a), Swansea (a), WBA (h).

Bristol City: Sheff Utd (h), Boro (a), Wigan (h), WBA (h), Villa (a), Reading (h), Sheff Wed (a), Derby (h), Millwall (a), Hull (a).

Sheffield Wednesday: Stoke (a), Villa (h), Forest (h), Leeds (a), Norwich (a), Bristol City (h), PNE (a), QPR (h).

Nottingham Forest: Swansea (h), Rotherham (a), Sheff W (a), Blackburn (h), Sheff Utd (a), Boro (h), QPR (a), Bolton (h).

Hull City: Ipswich (h), Reading (h), Wigan (h), Boro (a), West Brom (a), Sheffield Utd (h), Swansea (a), Bristol City (h).

A look at those fixture lists shows just what a scrap it is going to be for a place in the top six.

Expect the unexpected and these next few weeks promise to both exciting and never-wracking in equal measure.