Every year, without fail, the race for promotion to the Premier League is packed full of drama and excitement - and this season is no different.
Here, we take a look at the runners and riders in the battle to join Norwich in sealing a place in the top flight...
Promoted Norwich eyeing the title
Norwich have already become the first team to book their place in next season's Premier League. One more win will seal the title now, and they can achieve that by beating Watford on Tuesday night.
With four of their last six Championship campaigns having ended in promotion, it is safe to say that Norwich know how to find their way out.
Two years ago, with the end of Premier League parachute payments looming, Daniel Farke guided the Canaries to the title despite a rocky start - and it is looking likely that history will repeat itself.
|Watford (H)||April 20|
|QPR (A)||April 24|
|Reading (H)||May 1|
|Barnsley (A)||May 8|
"I think this team is even better [than 2018/19] and I think that's all thanks to the model they have at the club and the medium to long-term plans that they lay down, refusing to get drawn into a short-term outlook once they good relegated with what was a very low points total in the Premier League. They are to be congratulated for that and just the way that they have gone about it and the fact they are not ashamed to admit that their aim is to be a top 26 club.
"They develop young players, their recruitment policy is exceptional, they have been led fantastically well by Stuart Webber and they have stayed patient with the coach. They are, by far and away, the most consistent team in the Championship this season and the only time I've criticised them over the last three or four years has been due to the backing - or lack of - when they reached the Premier League. I believe they will have learned from that and they deserve all the plaudits coming their way."
Watford on course for immediate PL return
Watford have rarely been out of the top six since the season started with Vladimir Ivic at the helm, but since he was replaced by Xisco Munoz in the lead up to Christmas, their season has taken on a whole new lease of life.
The cheerful Spaniard made a winning start on Boxing Day, when the Hornets beat Norwich 1-0 at Vicarage Road, and that has been a continuous theme in Hertfordshire, with 15 of his 22 games in charge so far ending in victory, including seven of the last 10.
|Norwich (A)||April 20|
|Millwall (H)||April 24|
|Brentford (A)||May 1|
|Swansea (H)||May 8|
An upturn in fortunes on the road has been key to keeping the club in the race for promotion; under Ivic, the record read: P10 W2 D5 L3, while under Munoz, it currently stands at P11 W5 D3 L3, with the three defeats coming against Swansea, Bournemouth and Luton and settled by just a one-goal margin.
It was initially thought - and could still prove to be the case - that the run-in that could prove problematic for Munoz and Co, with games against Norwich, Brentford and Swansea coming up inside the next three weeks. The aforementioned defeat to local rivals Luton, however, prevented Watford from distancing themselves from the chasing pack and heading into the four remaining games, they must bear in mind that nothing is for certain in this division.
Swansea coming back into contention
With defensive solidity paramount for Steve Cooper this season, Swansea - who sneaked into the play-offs on goal difference alone last season - have been one of the frontrunners to, at least, take part in the end of season lottery at the conclusion of the current campaign.
The Swans have floated in and out of the top two, but have been there or thereabouts for the entirety, aided by a remarkable haul of 17 clean sheets from the first 30 games. In February, some cracks started to show, most notably after a 4-1 humbling at Huddersfield and a 3-1 defeat against Bristol City a week later.
|QPR (H)||April 20|
|Reading (A)||April 25|
|Derby (H)||May 1|
|Watford (A)||May 8|
Cooper managed to steady the ship with three wins from the next four, though the club courted controversy after last-minute penalties saw them past Swansea and Middlesbrough, before Andre Ayew's spot-kick earned a point against Blackburn on March 9. But the Swans lost two games either side of the March international break without so much as scoring a goal, with many wondering if they were capable of recovery.
Doubters were answered in emphatic style on April 10, when two late goals from Jamal Lowe helped his side to a 3-0 win at Millwall. The followed that up with a 2-0 triumph against Sheffield Wednesday, before battling back to hold Wycombe to a 2-2 draw after the strugglers had taken a two-goal lead.
With nine points between themselves and the chasing pack, it is likely to be play-offs at the absolute worst and with nine points between themselves and second-placed Watford, the dream of joining Norwich in the Premier League remains a possibility.
"Andre Ayew is one of the most talented players in the division and any team is going to miss him. Whether there's a possibility to get him back before the crucial crunch games at the end of the season, obviously there's huge debate over that. That's going to be massive for Swansea. They are not a prolific team and they have done it in a different way so that does put them a little more up against it.
"But the character they showed in getting back a point against Wycombe does potentially bode well for them and suggest they are on the upswing again, perhaps."
Can Brentford get back on track?
Chasing promotion once again after losing out to west London neighbours in the play-off final last term, Brentford put aside an indifferent start to the season to establish themselves in the automatic promotion picture back in January.
A 3-1 win at Reading on February 10 made it 21 without defeat for Thomas Frank's men and even facilitated a brief flirtation with top spot, though Norwich soon swooped in to lead the pack once more. Then they appeared to crack under pressure, as had seemed to be the case when they jostled with West Brom in the closing weeks of 2019/20.
|Cardiff (H)||April 20|
|Bournemouth (A)||April 24|
|Rotherham (H)||April 27|
|Watford (H)||May 1|
|Bristol City (A)||May 8|
A 2-0 defeat to Barnsley ended their valiant streak on Valentine's Day, with subsequent defeats to QPR and Coventry on the road within the next six days. Influential left-back Rico Henry's hamstring injury - from which he is yet to return - compounded a miserable afternoon in the latter.
While they have only lost once since February 20, they have been unable to get going again since, with a significant number of points dropped throughout the last month, owing to draws against Derby, Nottingham Forest, Huddersfield, Birmingham and Millwall.
A 5-0 thumping of Preston at Deepdale on April 10 provided a glimpse into the level of performance the Bees are capable of producing on their day but at the moment, chances of reaching the top two are out of their hands.
"The attention and psychology of being up there is different to being a chaser, obviously. There are other factors at play and we can't go without mentioning - and you wonder what effect this has had on them, in terms of the mental side - the absence of players like Josh Dasilva and Rico Henry, which has been massive because they are two of the very best in the Championship in their respective positions.
"They have changed the system but that can sometimes not be so much about the tactical effects. When you are talking about mentality and things going on outside, that can just give you a different stimulus and the players have something else to think about in the build-up to a game. I find it hard to listen to talk of a 'losing' mentality when they went 20-odd games unbeaten during the course of the season."
Bournemouth on the rampage
Until Christmas, Bournemouth were right in the mix for automatic promotion and an immediate return to the Premier League. After a Covid-enforced lay-off on Boxing Day, though, they dropped like a stone, leading to the departure of Cherries legend Jason Tindall as manager on February 3.
Jonathan Woodgate, who had only arrived at the club as a coach days earlier, assumed control and quickly arrested the slump, with four wins and two draws from his first eight games in charge - in addition to taking the club to the FA Cup quarter-finals - though it wasn't enough to prevent them dropping into seventh.
|Millwall (A)||April 21|
|Brentford (H)||April 24|
|Wycombe (A)||May 1|
|Stoke (H)||May 8|
Such a run saw him promoted from caretaker to manager within 18 days and his work since has undoubtedly put him in pole position to take the reins on a permanent basis once his contract runs out at the end of the season.
The highlight has been the six-game winning streak his side are currently in the midst of. Since March 16, Bournemouth have despatched Swansea, Middlesbrough, Blackburn, Coventry, Huddersfield and, most recently, promoted Norwich, conceding just four goals along the way. In-form teams fare well in the play-offs and Bournemouth are certainly the team to beat.
Barnsley's admirable rise
It's still surreal to think what Barnsley - who survived by the skin of their teeth last season and were in the relegation zone as recently as October, when Gerhard Struber departed for the New York Red Bulls - have achieved so far this term.
Struber's successor - Valerien Ismael - picked up four wins from his first five league games and by the end of December, the Tykes were sat in eighth. The year started with three straight defeats, bringing optimistic fans' expectations down a notch, but the journey was only just beginning.
|Huddersfield (A)||April 21|
|Rotherham (H)||April 24|
|Preston (A)||May 1|
|Norwich (H)||May 8|
Since January 27, they have been on a mesmerising upward trajectory from the relative comfort of mid-table to the cusp of the play-off places, which they entered for the first time on March 6 after a 1-0 win over Birmingham - their seventh win in a row.
A 12-match unbeaten run was brought to an end just before the international break when Sheffield Wednesday edged the Yorkshire derby 2-1 at Oakwell, but though they responded by taking seven points from the next three, a 2-0 defeat to relegation-threatened Coventry on April 18 prevented them from getting just that little bit more comfortable in the top six. The job isn't done yet.
"It was a huge result for Reading, the fact that Coventry were able to beat Barnsley, there's no question about that. Maybe, just maybe, for the first time this season, there will be an element of pressure on Barnsley, who had got themselves comfortable in the play-off positions and everybody expected them to stay there.
"They have been able to play the whole season with hardly a morsel of pressure on their shoulders. That's changed now."
Reading's hopes slipping away
For Reading, who blazed a trail as leaders for the first two months of the season, the reality is that in the race for the play-offs, the odds are now stacked against them.
Despite dropping out just before Christmas, Veljko Paunovic's Royals have been a mainstay of the top six for the majority of the season, yet struggling to establish some consistency could cost them. A run of three straight wins from late February into March was the first time they had won more than two in a row since October, yet was preceded by a run of four defeats from five.
|Luton (A)||April 21|
|Swansea (H)||April 25|
|Norwich (A)||May 1|
|Huddersfield (A)||May 8|
With the pressure building from a resurgent Barnsley and a refreshed Bournemouth, they started to stutter again in mid-March. In fact, a 1-1 with the Tykes on April 2 followed 1-1 draws with Nottingham Forest and QPR either side of a 2-1 reverse to Birmingham on March 17.
On Easter Monday, Reading produced a professional performance in a 3-1 victory over Derby, but they failed to back it up and a 2-0 defeat to Watford dumped them into seventh for the first time, with a subsequent 1-1 draw with Cardiff leaving them four points off the pace. Two goals in the last 10 games from talisman Lucas Joao certainly hasn't helped matters, either. Their race isn't run, but Reading have some ground to make up - and fast.
"I watched Reading draw 0-0 at Preston in January and it was the first time that they left me really, really disappointed with the body language, the performance and the fact Lucas Joao wasn't at it. They have played 17 games since then and have won six. Anybody can have negative results in the Championship but, for me, the performance levels have dropped off for Reading significantly.
"Every now and again they will rise, but it's literally for one game, maximum two, and then there's a drop off. That's what concerns me. They will be buoyed by Coventry beating Barnsley but can they find that consistency they had earlier in the season? The clock is ticking, the games are running out and they need to find it instantly."
Who are the favourites to join Norwich?
Norwich are the clear and obvious frontrunners for the title, and are currently priced at 1/50 to lift the trophy with Sky Bet, with Watford a 20/1 title shot and 1/10 to be promoted back to the Premier League at the first time of asking.
Brentford are third favourites to be promoted at 6/5, with Bournemouth at 2/1, Swansea 7/2, Barnsley 4/1 and Reading 25/1.
The final stretch is now in sight, but nothing is decided in, arguably, the most unpredictable league in world football. What is certain is that a thrilling few weeks ahead.