THE BIG MATCH

Cardiff City continue to set the pace at the top of the npower Championship and with 15 points collected from the last 18 on offer they have stretched their gap at the summit to seven points.

It's a healthy position to be in with 26 games played and the Welsh side have another opportunity to keep clocking up the results on Saturday when they play host to Ipswich Town.

They remain formidable on their own patch with just one defeat at home so far all season and they will be looking for that form to continue into 2013.

Striker Craig Bellamy told South Wales Echo: "It's always good to be top at any stage of the season. But in this league it can be taken off you within a week, we know that.

"It's important to take each game as it comes. I know it's an old cliche, but the players will do that.

"Against Ipswich we've got to work as hard as we have for the last four or five games and as hard as we have all season. If we do that we give ourselves a very good chance of getting another three points.

"I'm not paying too much attention to where we are in the table right now."

Ipswich haven't been in bad form of late either, with three wins and a draw from their last six matches, although the run has not been enough to take them higher than 19th in the table.

They do have a five-point cushion over the teams in the relegation zone however, and head to South Wales boosted by winning their last two npower Championship away games - 2-1 at Charlton Athletic and 2-0 at Wolverhampton Wanderers.

The year started off on a bad note with a 3-0 defeat at home to Brighton and Hove Albion, so Mick McCarthy and his men will be looking to put that right.

McCarthy told Ipswich Player: "They [Cardiff] are a very good team. They've been re-branded, the Bluebirds are now playing in red and they have got a new stadium.

"Everything seems to be going their way. Malky has done a good job. He's a pal of mine and is going in the right direction."

KEEP AN EYE ON

It's all hotting up in the npower Championship's Play-Off places and two of the teams currently in the top six meet on Saturday.

Middlesbrough are the hosts and their visitors Watford face the long journey north with both sides having their eyes on a result.

Boro start the day in fourth, level on points with third-placed Crystal Palace but behind on goal difference, and trailing second-placed Hull City by two points, so a win could see Tony Mowbray's men move in to the top two depending on other results.

They go into the game in good form with four wins and two defeats from their last six outings, but are taking nothing for granted.

Mowbray told The Journal: "You just need to win three or four games on the bounce and see where that takes you. I don't think we can sit here and discount anybody.

"We realise how tough it is and we just keep going. Watford is another chance for three points for us. When I look at the other fixtures this weekend, nobody has any easy games.

"Cardiff are at home to Ipswich, you think they'll beat them and yet you might have thought that when they played Peterborough United the other week."

Watford begin the weekend sixth on 40 points and cannot move any higher as they trail fifth-placed Leicester City by four points, so preserving their top six status will be their aim.

The Hornets are clear of seventh-placed Millwall only on goal difference, while Leeds United are two points further back in eighth, and then comes a trio of teams on 37.

Gianfranco Zola's men lost 4-3 at home to Charlton Athletic on New Year's Day but prior to that had won three from five to keep themselves in the pack.

And Zola told the Watford Observer: "It's very important for many reasons. First of all, you want to beat the teams that are competing with you for a Play-Off position.

"Games, like the one on Saturday, will be massive for us to win. Also in terms of confidence, if you win, it's another big boost.

"It's certainly going to be a tough game for us but we are confident and we have good form away from home. So we think we can do well there."

ELSEWHERE IN THE DIVISION

The npower Championship fixtures kick-off on Friday night with a televised clash between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers - two sides who have gone through managerial changes in recent weeks.

For Wolves it's the first match under the guidance of Dean Saunders, who has taken the Molineux hot-seat to replace Stale Solbakken after leaving League 1 side Doncaster Rovers in the week.

He finds his new employers 18th, with 31 points to their name from 26 games, and they are four points adrift of their 13th-placed visitors.

Blackburn's own managerial situation has been up in the air following the departure of Henning Berg and while it looked like caretaker Gary Bowyer would be in charge for the rest of the month, at the time of writing, they were in talks with Blackpool boss Michael Appleton over a move to Ewood Park.

If Appleton does leave Bloomfield Road for his third job of 2012/13, having started the season at Portsmouth, the Seasiders' first action without him would come on Saturday with an away fixture at Charlton Athletic.

The two sides can barely be separated, sitting 14th and 15th, with Charlton trailing their visitors by a single point.

Second-placed Hull City have been flying in recent weeks and will be looking to maintain their advantage over the teams behind them with a home match against third-bottom Sheffield Wednesday, who need the points themselves in their fight to get out of the relegation zone.

That is the day's 5.20pm kick-off live on Sky Sports and by the time they start, Hull could find themselves overhauled by Crystal Palace, who are in Lancashire to face Burnley, while Middlesbrough can also go above them by beating Watford.

Leicester City start the day in fifth ahead of their away trip to second-bottom Bristol City, while the two teams just outside the Play-Off places, Millwall and Leeds United, travel to 16th-placed Bolton Wanderers and bottom side Barnsley respectively.

Just below them, the teams in ninth and 10th meet as Brighton and Hove Albion host Derby County.

Peterborough United are only out of the bottom three on goal difference ahead of their visit to Nottingham Forest, who are 11th in the table, while immediately above Posh - but four points clear - are Birmingham City, who are on the road to 17th-placed Huddersfield Town.

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