Football: Endgame set for play-off pay-off

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The Independent Online
MEANINGLESS END-of-season fixtures? Where? We might be just three weekends from the end of the football season, but the majority of Premier and Nationwide League clubs still have everything to play for.

In the Third Division, Exeter, in 13th place, could still snatch a play- off place if they hit a purple patch. The openness of the division is exemplified by Rochdale, in 16th place. They are still not mathematically certain of losing out on promotion and yet could still finish with less points than the current bottom side, Scarborough.

The Third Division title could still be won by any one of six sides, and although Cambridge, Cardiff and Brentford are the favourites for the automatic promotion spots, they could yet be usurped by Scunthorpe, Rotherham or Leyton Orient.

At the top end of the game, most of the key issues have yet to be decided, including the Premiership title and which teams will be relegated. The title could (mathematically) still go to Leeds, especially as they have to play all three sides above them. More realistically, only Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea are still in contention, with United's game in hand making them the favourites. The run-ins for the top three are similarly difficult, with each having to play against at least three sides from Leeds (4th), Aston Villa (5th), Middlesbrough (7th), Derby (8th) and Spurs (9th). Arsenal have to play all five.

If Chelsea slip up, Leeds still have a chance of pipping them for the third Champions' League spot. The only other European issue to be settled is which of Villa or Boro will finish highest to claim a place in the InterToto Cup.

At the bottom of the Premiership, Forest are not yet mathematically down, but probably will be by Saturday night. The relegation battle could yet see Sheffield Wednesday (14th) dragged into trouble, but it is more likely that two of Blackburn, Charlton and Southampton will go down with Forest.

The Second Division title is already Fulham's, but Walsall, Manchester City or Preston could yet take the second automatic spot. The bottom 13 sides could still go down. The situation is similar in the First Division, with Ipswich and Bradford in contention to join Sunderland in automatic promotion, and congestion at the foot of the table.

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