THE BIG MATCH

The stakes will be high on Saturday when Middlesbrough and Cardiff City to go head-to-head in the npower Championship.

Hosts Middlesbrough are just outside the Play-Off places and will be looking to return to the top six, while the visitors remain well placed at the top with an eight-point advantage, though that could be cut by the time they kick-off at the Riverside Stadium.

Boro have won just once in their nine Championship games this year and that has seen them drop out of the top six, leading to boss Tony Mowbray saying in the week that they face a "12-game season" as they bid for promotion.

Defender George Friend told The Northern Echo: "Cardiff have a very solid back four. I think they've had the same back four bar one or two games for the whole of the season. That makes a big difference. Most successful teams keep continuity in that area of the field, and that's a big thing for them.

"They're a counter-attacking side and they remind me of Queens Park Rangers when they went up - when they score, they don't really let anyone through.

"That's what they're about, but they're not particularly pretty and when we played down at their place, we were the better side. I was surprised by how little football they actually played and how direct they were. I definitely feel confident we can beat them."

Cardiff continue to set a pace unmatched by anyone else in the Championship this season and they start the latest round of fixtures eight points clear at the top.

That could have been reduced to five by Saturday with second-placed Watford playing on Friday night, but their position remains commanding regardless of the Hornets' outcome.

Winger Tommy Smith told South Wales Echo: "If things go right and they [Middlesbrough] put the ball in the net they look like a team who could put four or five past you. It's something we need to be aware of and we will be.

"It's about commitment from us, working hard and making sure we match them.

"But we are confident on the road, we've managed to balance things out which is great. It's nice to know you can go away and be as confident as you are when you are at home.

"Boro will be wary of us turning up there and maybe taking the three points of them."

KEEP AN EYE ON

This weekend's npower Championship fixture list kicks off with two games on Friday night and one of them could be pivotal at both ends of the table as Wolverhampton Wanderers host Watford.

Wolves have slipped in to the bottom three and they remain without a victory since the appointment of Dean Saunders as manager back in January.

They are currently two points adrift of fourth-bottom Barnsley, who have also played a game less, and Saunders has called on the Molineux faithful to give his players their backing.

He told www.wolves.co.uk: "We need everyone pulling in the right direction - I mean everyone - and I don't care how we get it, we need three points against Watford, and we can do it with the help of the fans.

"We might not be playing great football at the moment, but they can suck the ball over the line when they're really at it.

"When we kick-off, I'd rather everyone just get behind the team, because that's all everyone wants. A lot of our players live around here and will be in the country for the rest of their lives, and the embarrassment of not winning kills all of us."

Gianfranco Zola's Watford side have the best away record in the Championship this season and reached the top two last Saturday with a 2-1 win at home to Derby County.

They have won their last two away games without conceding a goal, scoring two at Ipswich Town and four at Birmingham City, and with seven wins from their last nine overall they will travel to Molineux full of confidence.

Zola told Hornets Player: "There are two things in them that I don't like which is they are struggling, and the second one is that they have a lot of quality.

"Those two things make me very suspicious and very cautious and therefore we will need a lot of concentration otherwise we will get a problem because certainly they are a good team and will give it their best shot, and we need to be better than them.

"You can be sure that they will have a proper go, they will be focused, hungry on the pitch, and we have to have the same. There are no excuses. We know the importance of the game and we need to do better than them."

ELSEWHERE IN THE DIVISION

Friday night's other npower Championship fixture sees promotion-chasing Crystal Palace head to Derby County.

Palace cannot improve on their current fourth position even with a win at Pride Park as they are four points adrift of third-placed Hull City, and they will be looking to bounce back after a defeat in their last outing - 1-0 at Sheffield Wednesday.

Derby are 12th and have not won in five since beating Huddersfield Town at the start of February, but they remain formidable in front of their own fans with just two Championship defeats at home all season and none since before Christmas.

Above Palace are Hull, who are level on points with Watford and behind them only on goal difference ahead of their home game on Saturday against Birmingham City, a match that sees Tigers boss Steve Bruce coming up against one of his former clubs, with the Blues now 16th and seven points clear of the relegation zone.

If Palace don't pick up maximum points at Pride Park then the lowest they can drop on Saturday is fifth, which would mean they had been overtaken by Leicester City.

The Foxes picked up a good win in midweek against Huddersfield and are currently a point behind the Eagles but with a far superior goal difference ahead of their visit to Ipswich Town, who are 20th and four points ahead of the bottom three.

Behind Leicester at the moment, in sixth, are Brighton and Hove Albion, who have returned to the Play-Off places on the back of three wins and a draw from their last four - including victories over Hull and Cardiff City.

Gus Poyet's men are at home to Huddersfield, who currently sit 18th with a six-point advantage ahead of the relegation zone.

Behind seventh-placed Middlesbrough are Nottingham Forest, three points adrift in eighth, and from there the picture gets a lot tighter with just four points separating Forest from Millwall in 14th.

Billy Davies has sparked new life into Forest since his return and after resounding wins in their last two fixtures they travel to 19th-placed Sheffield Wednesday in Saturday evening's televised fixture.

Two points behind Forest are Leeds United, who host Millwall on Saturday lunchtime, while locked on 45 points in 10th and 11th are Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers respectively - with Bolton at fourth-bottom Barnsley and Blackburn hosting bottom side Peterborough United.

Then come Derby, Burnley and Millwall all on 44 points with Sean Dyche's Clarets on the road to Charlton Athletic, who are 15th and a point behind Millwall.

Saturday's final game involves the team second from bottom, Bristol City, who will be looking to close a three-point gap on Barnsley as they travel to Blackpool, who are 17th and only six points above the drop zone themselves.

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