As of the midweek fixtures, everyone in the race for a place in the top two or top six have played 32 or 33 games, which is the closest we have had so far to everyone on an even playing field with fixtures remaining. There are only nine points separating both ends of the top nine and everyone has a similar run in (in terms of difficulty).
I believe even though it is easy to isolate each fixture and say how much easier it is to beat some in the bottom six than someone in the top six, a lot can be said for several variables that are still substantive factors in the world of football. Having a run of form and momentum can easily outweigh the difficulty of the games remaining as shown by Fleetwood’s run of form in the previous six games: beating Pompey, Peterborough and Wycombe, whilst also drawing to Coventry and ourselves most recently.
This is worrying, considering our inability to put away teams around us, with only having three shots on target at home against Fleetwood and two against Pompey and Oxford, taking four points from those crunch games when nine were initially available.
However, luckily for us, after the upcoming Coventry game we have a run of six games of playing nobody inside the top nine, so if we do falter further, we should be able to create more momentum going into the final four games in which we play Peterborough and Rotherham - as well as Burton, who beat us this season and the last at the Pirelli Stadium.
As mentioned previously, momentum is massive going into the final games of the season given how tight the table is. Looking at the final 11/12 games there are not many teams who will be able to collect this run of form if they are unable to beat teams around them.
Regarding teams outside the play-offs, Fleetwood and Ipswich do not have to play any teams inside the current top six after the 21st of March, however Oxford will still have three of those teams after that date and will find it very hard to pick up points in this time.
So, I would say they have very little chance of making it into the play-offs.
The other two each have three of the top nine to play between now and then playing each other in the process, however due to Fleetwood’s ability to beat teams in the top six, their game in hand and Ipswich’s recent form I would say Fleetwood would be the most likely to make it into the play-offs. It would be very hard not to see them do well in the lottery draw which is the play-offs, with Barton’s shithousery which could easily play out similar to ours against Pompey last year. However, contrary to this, ALL their previous recent wins have been by one goal. Therefore, one injury to McKay or Madden could signal a significant downfall in this promotion fighting underdog.
In terms of the teams currently in the play-offs, Pompey have a game in hand, which does not constitute points but gives them a lifeline for pushing away from the bottom three and/or closing in on the top two places.
They have to play five of the top nine but only two of the bottom seven, with the majority of their games coming against teams in the midtable obscurity. The anomaly with Pompey is their inescapable home form, in which they haven’t lost. However, they only have to play one of the top nine at home, coming against Fleetwood to whom they recently lost to.
I believe they will have to fight in each of these games and are not guaranteed any victories. Alongside this they also have another ‘big day out’ at Wembley and another against Arsenal. With the latter in the same week as they go away to Peterborough, which is a formidable place to go to anyway. With this I believe they have one of the hardest run-ins, as fatigue could easily mean they crash like they did alongside us this time last year.
In Contrast, Peterborough have potentially the easiest run in of anyone in the top six - only having to play three of the top nine and five of the bottom seven, with the majority of their games at home in which they have done incredibly well.
The return of the prolific Ivan Toney will also be a huge boost, but how they deal with having a two week gap without playing will be a huge test having to go to Burton this Saturday. Even though they do have a relatively easy run in with their last three games, they will need to pick up a good amount of points in their next two games if they want to keep up at the top, with them falling behind with everyone playing their games in hand.
Their ability to outscore a lot of teams is their main game plan with possibly the best front three in the league, however, getting exploited by Fleetwood on their reliance on Ivan Toney to score week in week out signalled their drop in form previously, but they will need to bounce back from this defeat better than they previously have, otherwise they may find themselves outside the play-offs come the end of the season.
I am not sure how, but Wycombe are still up their fighting at the top. There are not many teams who can get battered 4-0 twice in ten days and still find themselves two points off top at the end of February. I believe that the home form is the main thing keeping Wycombe in this race, taking 42 points from 18 games, and with only four games left at home, they may be in line to drop off as two of them are against Oxford and Rotherham.
Their away form leaves a lot to be desired, taking 17 points from 15 games leaving them in a miserable 12th. However, the fact of the matter is their recent form has been inconsistent to say the least and with everyone else around them hitting form, I believe that we will slowly see Wycombe drop with them only four points away from being outside the play-offs due to it being so tight, their home form and inconsistency may not be enough to save them from losing out, however they do have the ability of surprising everyone and may hang on come the end of the season.
Coventry are arguably one of if not the best all-round team in the league.
They are joint top with a game in hand and a win would take them four points clear of Wycombe in 3rd, which on their run of form may be quite hard to catch. They do however have to play five of the top nine still. Unfortunately, at this moment in time I cannot see them losing many, if at all in their current form, however the game this weekend at their place seems to be the one in which we see who can push on and take this title.
Coventry, like Fleetwood, do not seem to win with authority, they win by one maybe two goals in a game, which means that every team against them has a chance of nicking a draw and no game is ever put to bed, just like us under Jack Ross. If this is effectively used against them by teams who press a lot like ourselves and Peterborough, this could be their undoing as they never seem to dominate possession either.
I would say that Coventry are a team that are clinical, and Mark Robins deserves a lot of praise with how he has found a way to make this team tick, and have them right now in prime position to win the league. However, a slip up does not seem to far away and with them having to play us who need to bounce back from a poor opening start against Fleetwood and travel to Portman road who NEED to get points back on the board, there are not going to be any easy games for them if they are never going to put a game to bed.
Rotherham have the hardest run in, having to play four of the current top seven, and five of the bottom seven and only two mid table teams in between. The games they have to play against the top seven take up over half of their final seven games, and with their recent form and inability to convincingly beat teams around the lower ends of the league, drawing to Wimbledon and most recently scoring in the end of the game to beat Accrington, Rotherham will need to convincingly win their next three games in order to feel they have strong momentum going into the final month of the season.
Overall, I believe that this is going to the final day, whether it is fighting to be in the top six or the top two. Everyone is picking up points, even if it is by slim margins, and every team seems to have a game plan that works for them, that achieves results.
The issue is how teams deal with this pressure and if they can cope.
One bad run of results could put you down the pecking order, however with everyone still having to play each other, I don’t think it is going to be over until the end. What I would say is consistency is very much key, and with teams like ourselves and Pompey being able to have a run of games in which maximum points is very much a possibility, it gives the momentum a chance to build and to be able to go into every game with confidence.
However, teams like Rotherham and Coventry have games against hard sides fighting in the same battle near enough every other game, and will find it hard to put together a run of form with confidence.
To say anyone has a better run of fixtures is naïve - I believe momentum is key and will be the difference come now and May 3rd, just like we saw with Luton and Barnsley last year and even with Charlton when they came out of nowhere.