FEATURE: The battle for sixth – how do Ipswich Town match up to their main contenders?

Ipswich Town

Ipswich Town - Credit: Archant

With the top five teams pulling clear in the Championship, it’s increasingly looking like Ipswich Town are locked in a six-way battle for the last play-off spot. STUART WATSON takes a look at how the chief protagonists’ run-ins compare.

READING – sixth, 47pts

The Royals currently occupy sixth spot. Whether they can stay there will almost certainly be determined by the middle of March, with five of Nigel Adkins side’s next six games against teams in the top half.

The Berkshire side have blown hot and cold following their relegation from the Premier League and continue to struggle for consistency. Recently they thumped Bolton and Blackpool 7-1 and 5-1 respectively, but they were defeated 2-0 at Portman Road and went down 2-0 at home to Sheffield Wednesday last weekend.

Key centre-back Alex Pearce was dismissed in the aforementioned loss, but that red card has since been rescinded meaning he won’t be suspended for Saturday’s game at third-place QPR and the following weekend’s trip to sixth-spot rivals Blackburn.

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KEY FIXTURES: Blackburn (H – Feb 22), Brighton (A – Mar 8), Wigan (A – Apr 19).

FINAL THREE: Middlesborough (H), Doncaster (A), Burnley (H).

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KEY MAN: Adam Le Fondre has scored 13 league goals having started just 15 matches. Was kept quiet at Portman Road recently, but recent hat-tricks against Bolton and Blackpool show the master goal poacher can make the difference against struggling sides. Royals have bottom two Yeovil and Barnsley to play at home still.

BRIGHTON & HOVE ALBION – seventh, 46pts

There’s a real feel-good factor down on the south coast. The brilliantly designed Amex Stadium is filled to the rafters most weeks, with the Seagulls pulling in an average home attendance of 26,974 – the best in the division.

Only the bottom five teams, plus 16th-place Blackpool, have scored fewer than their 32 goals. On the flip side of that, only Burnley and QPR have conceded fewer than their 25. Indeed, Oscar Garcia’s side have kept eight clean sheets in their last 13 games.

It remains to be seen whether the FA Cup helps or hinders the Sussex outfit. They will host Premier League side Hull in the fifth round on Saturday believing their home crowd can roar them into the quarter-finals of a competition which is guaranteed to see two of the four big guns knocked out.

Brighton are due to play three of their sixth-spot rivals in their next four games, though Cup progress would see the visit of Reading re-arranged.

KEY FIXTURES: Wigan (H – Feb 22), Blackburn (A – Feb 25), Reading (H – Mar 8), Ipswich (H – Mar 22).

LAST THREE: Blackpool (H), Yeovil (H), Nottingham Forest (A).

KEY MAN: Matthew Upson is the rock in the centre of Brighton’s watertight defence. The former England international has been the one constant amid a rotation policy and brings valued experience alongside some exciting young talent.

IPSWICH TOWN – eighth, 44pts

The Blues have to be viewed as major underdogs in this battle for sixth-spot. Mick McCarthy is squeezing every last drop out of his low-budget squad, he himself admitting that circumstances dictate that his side has to play ‘stubborn not sexy’ football.

Never underestimate just how far team spirit and hard work can take you though. Everyone is pulling in the right direction at Portman Road and, while it’s not always been pretty, the points tally has kept ticking along.

The concern is that it would only take one or two key injuries to derail things. McCarthy has bolstered his numbers with the loan additions of Frazer Richardson and Paul Green, but it’s still one of the smallest squads in the division heading into a hectic March period.

Four of the next five games look winnable (Blackpool at home, Birmingham away, Middlesborough at home, Yeovil away). The latter two are long trips which come in the space of four days though. It won’t provide an ideal preparation for a crucial run of games against Wigan, Brighton, Derby, Forest and Blackburn.

KEY FIXTURES: Wigan (H – Mar 15), Brighton (A – Mar 22), Blackburn (A – Apr 5).

LAST THREE: Bournemouth (H), Burnley (A), Sheff Wed (H).

KEY MAN: Ipswich’s success this season has been largely due to a sum of their parts rather than any stand out individuals, but striker David McGoldrick is the one player who is capable of making something out of nothing. He’s on 16 goals for the season and on course to become the club’s first 20-goal-a-season striker since Shefki Kuqi (2004/05).

WIGAN ATHLETIC – ninth, 43pts (game in hand)

Wigan – with the core of their Premier League squad still together – look the strongest on paper. The only reason they are down in ninth is, arguably, because their involvement in the Europa League proved a major inconvenience earlier in the campaign. The stats show that they lost five of their six games leading into those Thursday night matches.

The Latics have lost just two games since Uwe Rosler replaced Owen Coyle as manager at the start of December and have kept clean sheets in six of their last nine league games. They strengthened an already strong group with the loan additions of Josh McEachran, Nicky Maynard and Martyn Waghorn last month and will fear no-one right now.

Again, the FA Cup could be a factor. Wigan – the competition’s holders – travel to Cardiff in the fifth round this weekend.

KEY FIXTURES: Brighton (A – Feb 22), Reading (H – Apr 19), Blackburn (A – May 3).

LAST THREE: Burnley (A), Blackpool (H), Blackburn (A).

KEY MAN: The return of Oamn keeper Ali Al-Habsi, following six months on the sidelines, has been a real boost. The 6ft 5in stopper – who saved a string of penalties in the Premier League – has kept six clean sheets since returning to the side at the end of December.

BLACKBURN ROVERS – 10th, 43pts

Rovers, like Ipswich, have been ticking along under the radar a little bit. There seems to be a lot more stability off the pitch at Ewood Park these days and manager Gary Bowyer has made his team hard to beat.

Turning draws into wins could be the difference, with the Lancashire side sharing the spoils with Derby, Barnsley and Middlesbrough recently. The loan addition of Luke Varney from Leeds last month could provide their attack with an added dimension, while Jordan Rhodes – without a goal in seven – is due for another purple patch.

Experienced duo Paul Robinson and David Dunn have improtant roles to play in the dressing room.

KEY FIXTURES: Reading (A – Feb 22), Brighton (H – Feb 25), Ipswich (H – Apr 5), Wigan (H – May 3)

LAST THREE: Birmingham (A), Charlton (A), Wigan (H).

KEY MAN: David McGoldrick has now got as many goals as Jordan Rhodes this season (16), the latter having now gone seven matches without finding the net. The Rovers front man tends to score in patches though and a return to form could ignite Bowyer’s side.

LEEDS UNITED – 11th, 42pts

They’ve been described as the laughing stock of English football such has been the soap opera twists at Elland Road in recent months, manager Brian McDermott sacked and reinstated during a protracted takeover bid which still is not cut-and-dried.

It could yet galvanise the players though, with striker Ross McCormack speaking out in defence of his boss before banging in a hat-trick in a morale-boosting 5-1 come-from-behind win against Huddersfield recently.

Tuesday night’s 1-0 defeat at Brighton keeps them five points adrift of the play-off places, but the Yorkshire club have the fewest games against their top six rivals to come with only Reading and Wigan to face. With home games against Bolton, Millwall, Doncaster, Charlton and Blackpool still left to play, Leeds could well be the team that makes a late run. What a story that would be.

KEY FIXTURES: Reading (H – Mar 11), Wigan (A – Apr 5).

LAST THREE: Forest (H), Birmingham (A), Derby (H).

KEY MAN: Ross McCormack was subject of several multi-million bids from Premier League club West Ham in January but the Scottish striker made it very clear he was going nowhere. The skipper has led by example and is the division’s leading scorer with 22 goals.

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