The gruelling Championship campaign is drawing to a close and, with just four games to go, the enthralling season looks set to end in fitting circumstances, with the title race going down to the wire.
After being promoted as League One champions last season, Southampton adapted to the Championship effortlessly and have been the pace setters since day one.
Nigel Adkins’ side are a joy to watch when in full flow, which has been more often than not this season, and currently lead the way from second-placed Reading.
But despite only being ahead of the Royals on goal difference, they are still classed as 3/4 favourites for the Championship title with bwin.
Play-off final heartache was seemingly still felt by Brian McDermott’s Reading as the season got underway, but after a terrible start which saw the Berkshire outfit win only one of their first seven fixtures the Royals finally found their feet.
Recent months have seen a drastic turnaround and they are now the most consistent side in the Championship, picking up an impressive 15 points from the last 18 available.
Despite being the form team they are still outsiders in comparison to the Saints and are priced at 11/10 for title glory.
Home advantage in this fixture may be the reason for Southampton’s favouritism to take the title, but Reading will go there with no fear having already defeated West Ham at Upton Park.
But McDermott’s team have clicked at exactly the right time, and as other contenders have faltered and fallen by the wayside, Reading have enjoyed victory after victory and now have a real chance of snatching the title from Southampton’s grasp.
So who will come out on top?
At one stage, it looked as though it was a two horse race for the title with Southampton and West Ham at loggerheads.
However, the Irons have stuttered since the turn of March and two wins from their last nine fixtures has seen them slip six points off the pace.
A fight-back against Birmingham on bank holiday Monday earned Big Sam’s men a crucial point, but they now find themselves six points behind their rivals and, with an inferior goal difference to both Southampton and Reading, it may be now beyond them to clinch the title.
West Ham are rank outsiders for the title at odds of 25/1 with bwin, suggesting this one’s between Southampton and Reading.
If it was flair football alone that won titles then I think most supporters would agree that the Saints would be crowned champions. In Rickie Lambert and Adam Lallana they had two players in the running for Championship player of the year, with the former pipping his teammate to the coveted award.
Both have been phenomenal throughout the campaign but Lambert’s tally of 26 goals rightfully saw him take the prize.
The former Bristol Rovers hitman is leaps and bounds above the rest of the league when it comes to goalscoring prowess with his nearest competitors (Ricardo Vaz Te and Kevin Phillips) nine goals adrift in the leading scorers table.
Although the attacking players hog the limelight, titles cannot be won on goals alone, and shot-stopper Kelvin Davis has been terrific all season and along with the four defenders in front of him has formed part of a sturdy backline. Only two defences have leaked fewer goals – Hull and…. yes, you guessed it, Reading!
Amazingly, the Royals have only conceded 36 goals in their 42 league fixtures and Aussie Adam Federici has been a rock in between the sticks.
And as with the Saints, Reading are blessed with an array of attacking talent and when you can rotate between Jason Roberts, Noel Hunt, Simon Church and Adam Le Fondre it is no wonder the side from the Madejski find themselves in the mix at the business end of the season.
So with both sides strong in defence and attack this one’s difficult to call, although it should be easier to differentiate between the two on Friday night.
It is often the way that the two sides challenging for the title meet towards the end of the season, and once again the fixture list has not let us down.
Reading take the trip to St Mary’s on Friday evening in what looks set to be a humdinger.
Home advantage in this fixture may be the reason for Southampton’s favouritism to take the title, but Reading will go there with no fear having already defeated West Ham at Upton Park three weeks ago, and more importantly battling to beat Brighton and pick up a huge three points at the Amex Stadium on Tuesday evening.
With this in mind, a bet on Reading to win the title at 11/10 looks tempting, with a successful £25 free bet on this outcome set to return £52.50.
The free bet is available to new customers who sign up for a bwin account.
Looking at the run-in as a whole, it is difficult to decide who has the hardest set of fixtures over the last four games. Southampton visit Peterborough and host Coventry, which are both games where the south coast side would expect to pick up maximum points.
Similarly, Reading should defeat Nottingham Forest and Crystal Palace in front of their loyal fans and in doing so stake their own claims for the number one spot.
Conversely, both sides face stumbling blocks with trips to play-off chasing teams and Adkins and McDermott will look at these fixtures as the ones where their opposite number could slip up.
Southampton pay a visit to the Riverside with Middlesbrough still harbouring hopes of a top six finish, while Reading have a tricky trip to Birmingham on the final day in their quest to win the Championship.
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Whatever the outcome, no-one can deny that this season’s Championship has once again been pleasurable viewing and either Southampton or Reading would be worthy champions.
Or could West Ham cause a shock and end the season on top? The beautiful game just keeps you guessing.
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