SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY head coach Carlos Carvalhal believes that the race to secure a Championship play-off place remains wide open – and is not discounting the merits of several sides just outside of the top six.
Sixth-placed Wednesday welcome second-placed Newcastle United in a televised tea-time encounter at Hillsborough today (5.30pm) and they will drop back to seventh spot when they kick-off if Fulham beat Ipswich Town in an earlier game.
Fifth-placed Leeds United also face a key home game against eighth-placed Preston, who will be looking to propel themselves into firm top-six contention with a Roses victory.
Derby County are another side who have an outside chance of gatecrashing the top-six if results go for them.
Carvalhal – hopeful that talismanic forward Fernando Forestieri will play some part today after recovering from a knee problem – said: “A number are involved in the fight and with 18 points to discuss, a lot of things can happen.
“If a team wins a lot of games in a row, they can jump positions and if some start losing and losing, they can be out of the play-offs. Everything is open and nothing is guaranteed.
We have an opportunity to get out of this division and we as a group are desperate to take it and I know the supporters are. It has been a long time and it has not been an enjoyable six years and now we have an opportunity to crack it and are desperate to do that.Chris Wilder
“But I do not believe any teams have had the problems we have had in the last weeks. You don’t find anybody in that situation. But I think we are living well with the pressure since last season.”
On today’s game with Newcastle, which is set to attract a 30,000 crowd as the Owls seek to secure a double over Rafael Benitez’s side, he added: “It is the most difficult game of the season, I am absolutely sure and it is a big challenge to us.
“They have a lot of qualities.”
Meanwhile, across the Steel City, it is also a huge day for Sheffield United, who will end six seasons of torment in League One if they triumph at Chris Wilder’s old club Northampton – with Blades fans eyeing a promotion party before their rivals kick-off.
Even if the Blades taste a rare defeat, they could still be promoted if Fleetwood lose at Oldham – while Wilder’s troops will also go up if both sides manage draws.
Wilder, promoted to League One with the Cobblers at Sixfields almost a year to the day, said: “We have an opportunity to get out of this division and we as a group are desperate to take it and I know the supporters are.
“It has been a long time and it has not been an enjoyable six years and now we have an opportunity to crack it and are desperate to do that.”
It could also be party time for another Yorkshire club in Doncaster Rovers, who will return to League One at the first time of asking if they beat Steve Evans’ Mansfield Town at the Keepmoat Stadium.
As with the Blades, Rovers saw results elsewhere deny them promotion in their last game – after triumphing 5-1 at Grimsby Town last weekend – but they can seal the deal this afternoon, with manager Darren Ferguson urging his troops to keep calm.
Ferguson, whose side can also be promoted even if they don’t win, depending on the results of Stevenage and Luton Town, said: “I do not have to overstate the importance of this game to the players.
“But we have to perhaps play the game and not the occasion. It is important we play our own game against a team who have to win to have any chance of the play-offs.”
While Stags manager Evans is seeking to spoil Rovers party by claiming victory to boost his own’s side’s hopes of gatecrashing the top seven in League Two, another former Leeds boss in Simon Grayson is aiming to put a dampener on proceedings as his Preston side visit Elland Road.
They face hosts who have lost back-to-back games this week, with some Whites supporters nervously starting to look over their shoulders towards the chasing play-off pack, although head coach Garry Monk insists that anxiety is not an issue for him and he has called on his players to embrace an exciting end to the season and not feel the pressure.
Monk, whose side are five points ahead of Fulham, said: “I do not think we should be putting this group under any pressure.
“Of course, the desire and the challenge ahead is to take the opportunity we have (and) of course that is there and it brings pressure with it. But the players should play with the attitude of continuing what they have been doing all season.
“We’re not thinking about places in the league or what is available. Our only focus is this game at the weekend. We will let everyone else focus on everything else.”
Full previews: Pages 2-4