The battle for the play-offs in the Sky Bet Championship looks set to be as dramatic as ever as we enter the season’s run-in.
Norwich City lead the way at the top of the table, with Leeds United and Sheffield United also battling it out for automatic promotion to the Premier League. West Brom lie in fourth place, in the driving seat for a play-off spot and holding onto faint hopes of finishing the campaign in the top two.
But below that, just seven points separate the next eight teams in the Championship table.
With the exception of Bristol City and Derby County, who hold a game in hand on others in the chasing pack, these eight sides have seven league games remaining to fight it out for what would appear to be two available play-off places.
Boro have matches against Swansea, Bolton, Hull, Stoke, Forest, Reading and Rotherham to look forward to. In terms of league position, our upcoming opponents are ranked an average of 16th place, the lowest such average for any of the aforementioned play-off pack.
Villa, for example, have both Leeds and Norwich lying in wait in a crunch final two fixtures. Derby County and Bristol City have each other to play, as well as West Brom.
Preston North End, Sheffield Wednesday and Hull City could all have a big say in the final league standings, each with three of the top five to come up against.
Of course, things are rarely as straightforward as league standings in a league like the Sky Bet Championship. It is a frequent cliché, but any side can beat any other - as we have so often seen - and with plenty to play for at both ends of the table, the Championship’s closing stages will be as competitive as ever.
What is a more pressing matter is converting positive performances into results and all-important points. Boro have dominated long spells in recent fixtures, but as we know all too well, the Teessiders are without a win since beating Blackburn and QPR in late February.
Around us in the table, Aston Villa have put an impressive run of wins together in that time, including against Boro, while Preston’s own winning run extended in controversial circumstances at the Riverside before coming to an end just last Saturday.
Tony Pulis’ side must hope for a similar change in fortunes, one that is demonstrably possible in this league, though the diagnosis from the Boro boss has been clear throughout - we simply have to hit the back of the net more.
Scratch below the surface of those recent defeats, especially at the Riverside, and many end up scratching their head. Playing the numbers game, just two Boro goals and no points is meagre return for a total of 81 shots in four home games. Not speculative efforts either - against Bristol City alone, Boro hit the post twice, had two shots blocked on the line and forced numerous saves. City were clinical and made their first big chance count.
Scant consolation for a frustrated set of Boro supporters, save that the Boro dressing room were equally frustrated. John Obi Mikel, for all his experience and success in football, admitted he’d never experienced anything like it. Pulis himself remarked he’d seen fewer shots in an entire season at Stoke City, a club he led from the Championship into European football.
Looking again at averages, the law of averages would suggest Boro are due some good fortune in that respect. Nevertheless, Pulis himself says Boro must relish this challenge, take responsibility, and tackle it head on.
It’s a challenge that we pick up once more at Swansea City this Saturday - the first of seven crucial games in 28 days.