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Championship: Blackpool play-off dream a reality

Fulham might just have top spot sewn up and Bournemouth are looking good for second, but the battle for the Championship play-off places is turning into a multi-team thriller which is getting harder to predict by the week.

Just nine points separate QPR in fourth from West Brom in 14th with everyone down to the Baggies believing that with a bit of good fortune and a lot of good form over the run-in, a place in the top six is there for the taking.

And it's not just the big boys like West Brom and, more realistically, Sheffield United, Nottingham Forest or Middlesbrough bang in the mix. There is also a gaggle of lesser sides, teams who were far shorter for relegation than promotion back in August, who are daring to dream. And one of those is Blackpool.

Critchley primed to blunt Blades

When the season kicked off, Blackpool - if the prices were your guide - were set for a relegation scrap, not a promotion push.
They were 3/1 for the drop before a ball had been kicked, joint favourites with Peterborough, despite finishing like a train winning promotion from League One last season.

Two points from the first five matches didn't exactly hint at much better, before the first glimpse that Neil Critchley's men wouldn't be outclassed in tier two arrived - a 1-0 win over Fulham.

A week later they went to Middlesbrough and won 2-1 and before the start of November they had added the scalps of Blackburn and Sheffield United among others.

But it's since the turn of the year that Blackpool have really come to life with just two narrow defeats in 11 - against Bournemouth and QPR - and they head into this week's rematch with the Blades having won three in a row.

At 66/1 to get promoted, the layers aren't getting overly-excited about the 12th-placed Seasiders' prospects but when Critchley himself was asked about the possibility of making the playoffs, he asked: "Why not? We're only six points behind so who knows?".

That six-point gap is to Sheffield United in sixth, and it's a gap Blackpool can halve by beating the Blades at Bloomfield Road where they have won six of their last eight, most recently on Saturday, 1-0 against Swansea.

Critchley is both smart and adaptable and has clearly instilled a real sense of self-belief into the camp and while singling anyone out would be wrong, the return from a four-month lay-off of ex-Anfield midfielder Kevin Stewart alongside Ken Dougall, resurrecting last season's star combo, is potentially critical.

Blackpool's fate, inevitably, is in their hands. They've ticked off double-headers against the current top four while their last three games of the season are against the current bottom three, who could easily all be down by then.

First, though, is defying the odds against a United side who have plenty of injury concerns yet are rated 23/20 shots at Bloomfield Road. Critchley's boys are 13/5, the draw 11/5.

It's not quite a must-win for Blackpool but it's definitely a daren't-lose, and if they can avoid defeat there is certainly a sense that, just like last season, the Seasiders are timing their promotion charge perfectly. And as Critchley says, why not?

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Hoops hopeful worst is over

Blackpool versus Sheffield United is just one of a number of crunch promotion tussles this week with QPR's trip to Nottingham Forest another tie with massive implications for two sides in the mix.

Forest warmed up for the task by crushing Reading 4-0 to go ninth, five places but just four points adrift of Rangers, who had been on the slide.

Rangers had been on a run of just one win in seven to drop out of the playoff places heading to Luton on Sunday and when they fell behind they might have feared the worst.

That they came back to win 2-1 with Rob Dickie scoring the late winner, showed plenty of resolve and had boss Mark Warburton turning on his critics.

Rangers are still 8/1 to get promoted, despite their position in the table, with Forest 5/1 and it's Steve Cooper's men who are currently 19/20 shots against the Hoops.

Rovers getting their timing all wrong

One of the most out-of-form teams in the top half are Blackburn, who need to stop the bleeding and ordinarily would be hopeful of returning to winning ways at home to Derby.

But this is a Derby, of course, who are fighting for their very lives and are in appreciably better form than Blackburn, who incredibly have managed to score just one goal in their last nine matches.

Bradley Dack had a chance to snap that streak on Saturday when he came on as a second-half sub against Bristol City after a year out through injury, but missed a penalty and then watch as City went on and scored a late winner.

It's no coincidence that their drought is coinciding with 20-goal Ben Brereton's month-long absence through injury and they are sorely missing their Chilean marksman.

Tony Mowbray's side are out to 15/2 for promotion but at 3/4 to beat Derby are expected to snap their dismal form this week.

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