WITH the run-in approaching, EFL connoisseur Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) picks out six teams to side with.
Football League: Six teams to side with this Spring
The December injury to playmaker-in-chief Bradley Dack was supposed to be the knockout blow that ended Blackburn’s play-off hopes.
After that, we saw Lewis Holtby step up to the mantle before he, too, became sidelined – surely game over?
In fact, Tony Mowbray has shown surprisingly impressive adaptability to keep finding new strategies to combat each setback.
Adam Armstrong has relished the increased freedom when playing off Danny Graham while fit again Dominic Samuel has boosted the attacking options; John Buckley has shown strength when operating as an attacking midfielder too.
Rovers have, on paper, a reasonable set of fixtures between now and the end of March – they could be a team to get behind in their push for sixth.
The fact QPR do not have much to play for is not necessarily a hindrance.
Mark Warburton likes to encourage his players to be brave in their use of the ball and bold in their movements off it, with high levels of creative freedom – those things are more likely to come to fruition in a relatively low-pressure environment.
The Rs boast an elite talent in Ebere Eze, who is supremely creative, as well as speedster Bright Osayi-Samuel, who has been in sizzling form since early December.
QPR can be criticised for their road return, with just 18 of their 51 league goals coming away from Loftus Road.
Their recent displays, though, in 0-0 draws at Play-Off candidates Swansea and Nottingham Forest show they are picking up in that regard – and four of their last six away games are against teams below them.
League One: Fleetwood
What a difference a month makes. Fleetwood concluded January as low as 11th, on a run of just one win in 10 and five points off the top six.
Since then, though, Joey Barton’s side have propelled themselves into promotion contention. They currently occupy the final play-off spot and, after five consecutive victories – the last three of which coming against major promotion rivals – they might fancy their chances of closing the six-point gap to the top two.
Glenn Whelan has been a key signing, providing grit and tenacity in midfield next to Paul Coutts, who dictates play with meticulous precision; previous Fleetwood midfields had been a touch lightweight but this combination gives them a clear grip on those central areas.
Lewie Coyle and Danny Andrew support play superbly from the full-back positions, enigmatic wide forward Barrie McKay brings quality from the left while Wes Burns makes driving runs from the right to create space for Paddy Madden, one of the best poachers at this level over the last decade.
The Cod Army look serious contenders.
League One: MK Dons
It was a risk for Pete Winkelman to dismiss in late November Paul Tisdale, who had overseen promotion the following season.
It was an even bigger risk, though, to replace Tisdale with Russ Martin, who only retired from playing on the day of appointment.
Martin inherited a pressured situation, with the team sitting in the relegation zone in early November, but the team has taken 23 points from 16 games under his tutelage, lifting them 13 points above the bottom three.
The former Norwich defender surely takes a lot of the credit for this rise – the diamond system has worked a treat and his former Canaries colleagues, Louis Thompson and Carlton Morris, have both made favourable impacts.
It should not be underestimated, though, the importance of having energetic midfielder Alex Gilbey and talented wide forward Rhys Healey fit simultaneously for an 11-game sequence.
League Two: Newport
It is easy to look past Newport in the promotion picture. Prior to Tuesday’s trip to Grimsby, the Exiles sit 15th, 12 points off the play-off places, but that only tells half the story.
The South Wales outfit have played just 32 games, three fewer than eight of the teams above them – and are in an almost identical position to the one they were in at this stage last season, when they reached the play-off final.
Michael Flynn’s side have been the division’s second best-performing teams over the last eight games, in which they have mustered 1.31 Expected Goals For (xGF) and 0.80 Against (xGA), giving them a Ratio (xGR) of 62.07%.
The return to fitness of key left wing-back Ryan Haynes and midfield controller Josh Sheehan is a big plus for Newport, who look primed for a spirited finale.
League Two: Salford
Unlike Newport, Salford do not have a realistic chance of reaching the play-offs.
The projected points tally required to finish 7th is 72 and the Ammies are currently on 44 – so they would have to take at least 28 points from their remaining 11 games, which is a huge ask.
It should be acknowledged, though, that their performance levels have risen since January, when the Class of 92 made signings to significantly enhance the squad.
Bruno Andrade was a title-winner last season with Lincoln while fellow wide man, Ashley Hunter, has been arguably the most creative player in the division above over the previous three seasons.
Speedy forward James Wilson featured at a reasonable rate for Manchester United under Louis Van Gaal while Tom Elliott is a high-pedigree target man to facilitate Graham Alexander’s direct methods.
This is very much a League One squad and should be respected as such in the markets.