Who will win the Championship Chase?

WITH the winning post almost in sight, the front runners in the most exciting championship chase for years are nearing the final furlong.While there are sure to be more twists and turns in the Coca-Cola Championship promotion race and some may fall at the final fence, it still has all the makings of a close finish.

Elvin King

WITH the winning post almost in sight, the front runners in the most exciting championship chase for years are nearing the final furlong.

While there are sure to be more twists and turns in the Coca-Cola Championship promotion race and some may fall at the final fence, it still has all the makings of a close finish.

Three runners have pulled slightly away in a leading pack in which Ipswich Town are handily placed.

Thirteen clubs are still in contention to gain rewards that make the winner of races like the Grand National and The Derby seem impoverished in comparison.

The three clubs who reach the Premier League either by finishing in the top two or via the play-offs, will bank a minimum of £50million, even if their stay at the top is limited to just one year.

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In this respect it is the most expensive sporting race there is.

This year's runners and riders will be hoping to put in their best work over the final 220 yards.

The trainer (owners, chairman, manager and coaches) will have done their work and it is now up to the jockey (players) to steer the nag home.

The art of all the contenders is to force at least a neck in front of the rest as the finishing line arrives.

From Stoke City - 62 points from 35 games - down to 13th placed Cardiff City - 44 from 33 - the thunder of hooves and the sight of flying turf covers a small area of track.

Unlike previous seasons when teams have made great strides in the early part of the campaign and raced into a lead the bookmakers are forecasting a breathtaking finish in May.

The team that finds an extra piece of puff or gains that extra bit of confidence will be the one that lands the glory at the end of the chase.

How do you gain that bit extra?

Bringing in a proven addition - a David Nugent perhaps - is one answer.

Gaining the run of the ball to give you a couple of confidence-inspiring victories to go on a run is another.

But the main thing is to have paced yourself.

One or two will feel the pace and blow up.

Others will catch a second wind at the right time and sail ahead.

Here's hoping that Ipswich Town can find what it takes starting with the visit to Southampton this weekend.

When the cheering has subsided and the winners decided - after a brief unsaddling period - the fun will begin.

ELVIN KING's pinsticker's guide to the promotion contenders

Stoke City: Currently have their noses in front but others are breathing down their necks. Possibly peaked too early but are well served all the pitch and cannot be discounted. If it was the Grand National, would be a candidate to come a cropper at the final fence. Rating - Automatic: 7 out of 10. Play-offs: 9 out of 10.

Bristol City: The surprise packet and rank outsiders when the tapes went up. Have stayed the distance and keep winning enough games to keep their confidence high. The rarefied atmosphere they will reach in a week or two could see them struggle for oxygen. Rating: 6/10 - 8/10.

Watford: One of the favourites with the backing of the Premier League parachute payments. Manager Adie Boothroyd has steered his club through similar situations in the past and this experience will stand him in good stead. Seem a little light on players - goalkeeper and up front. Rating: 7/10 - 9/10.

West Brom: Looked at one time as though they were going to win it in a canter. Tension will mount as they will lose parachute payments next season, but manager Tony Mowbray has quality aplenty in his squad. Getting their second wind right now, and will be in the mix. Rating: 7/10 - 9/10.

Plymouth Argyle: Have surprised one and all by making a swift recent burst despite losing key players. Have a distinct home advantage at their western outpost ground, but will struggle to gain enough points on their travels. Could well end down the field. Rating: 4/10 - 5/10.

Charlton Athletic: Parachute cash gives them a distinct advantage, but manager Alan Pardew has been unable to get any consistency from his side. The play-offs look their best bet, and Town fans will hope they don't get drawn against Mr Pardew after the two semi-final defeats against West Ham. Rating: 5/10 - 8/10.

Ipswich Town: Have as much money as any rival to spend in the run-in with owner Marcus Evans happy to put his hand in his pocket to aid Jim Magilton's cause. Need to show more in the final few weeks to finish in top two. Top six is not beyond them if they gain points away from home. Rating: 6/10 - 7/10.

Hull City: There is likely to be one surprise high finisher - and the Tigers have as good a chance as any. Have made themselves into a team that is difficult to beat and they have everything to gain and nothing to lose after quietly moving into contention. Rating: 5/10 - 6/10.

Burnley: Have only won five home games - but have only lost ten out of 34 in total. Owen Coyne is new to English management but he has done well although the Turf Moor-based outfit do not look equipped to take on the Manchester United's of this world on a regular basis yet. Rating: 3/10 - 5/10.

Wolverhampton: Manager Mick McCarthy has not covered himself with glory at Molineux so far, but he is the kind of wily old fox who conjure up the right results at the right time. Will need to improve, and look lacking in class - but don't rule them out. Rating: 4/10 - 6/10.

Crystal Palace: Find themselves going in the wrong direction at the wrong time. Neil Warnock will spur them up again, but the damage appears to have been done over the last few weeks. Do not look to have the quality to make it a season to remember. Rating: 2/10 - 5/10.

Norwich City: Heaven forbid! The Canaries have done well under Glenn Roeder. They have the momentum, but their heavy defeat at Leicester showed that frailties still exist. Roeder has a history of doing well in his first year, so next season will be ordinary for the Canaries. Rating: 1/10 - 3/10.

Cardiff City: Seven points off the play-offs with a game in hand on most it will need a super human effort by David Jones' side. And with the FA Cup high on their agenda for another week or two the Welsh side have no chance - although they might flatter to deceive before the final whistle. Rating: 1/10 - 2/10.

N (SQUARE) WHAT do you think. Who can you see going up? Have your say. Write to sports desk, Evening Star, 30, Lower Brook Street, Ipswich IP4 1AN or e-mail starsport@eveningstar.co.uk.