THE BIG MATCH

Sheffield United thrust themselves up from the Play-Off positions to the top of npower League 1 with victory on Saturday and have the chance to cement their spot when they host Leyton Orient tonight.

Danny Wilson's Blades have won their last four matches, culminating in them going top with a hard-fought 1-0 success at Bournemouth - who themselves could have hit the summit with a victory.

Now their task will be staying there over their final 13 games as they look to return to the Championship at the second attempt.

Wilson told Blades Player: "Russell [Slade - Orient's boss], wherever he has managed, he has done very well and I have to say he's doing great again at Leyton Orient.

"He knows this neck of the woods, he knows how we play, he knows the club and what is expected of us and he will have his troops well prepared for when they come here.

"I don't think it's any different from a lot of games but he has got a little bit of an affinity to the club so that might give an extra incentive to win it."

Orient are not completely out of the Play-Off picture themselves but with 12 points to make up on sixth-placed Bournemouth they will need to start their charge soon.

The Londoners are 13th and have the added disadvantage of the teams around them having games in hand, while they lost 1-0 at home to Crawley Town on Saturday just days after heartbreakingly missing out on a visit to Wembley for the Johnstone's Paint Trophy Final.

Manager Slade, a former Sheffield United coach and caretaker manager, told Orient Player: "They [Sheffield United] are just solid, they grind you down, they are a big, strong, physical side who can play as well, they mix it up and can do both sides of the game.

"They have been up and around it for most of the season in that top four or five and have got themselves to the top now so they won't want to let that go, that's for sure.

"With their support and their tradition they will want to go up automatically so it's a big game for them as well."

KEEP AN EYE ON

The incredible turnaround at Hartlepool United could take another step towards safety tonight when Pools host Crewe Alexandra in an npower League 1 clash at Victoria Park.

Hartlepool looked down and out earlier in the season when they went from the start of September to the end of December without winning a match but they have bounced back well.

They are unbeaten in their last six games, winning four of them, and taking into account when they broke their long winless run at Sheffield United in December they have lost only two of their last 10 to leave themselves second from bottom, eight points adrift of the safety line.

Boss John Hughes told the Hartlepool Mail: "We've got to be careful with expectations and take each game as it comes, that's served us well so far.

"Crewe are a good team and they're above us in the league for a reason. They might be better than us but it's not always the best team which wins a football match.

"We have the confidence and momentum right now. The next six weeks are Saturday-Tuesday matches - but that's brilliant, bring it on. As a footballer you'll get nothing better, especially when you're playing at the top of your game - you're in the zone.

"We've got that winning feeling now."

Crewe have a trip to Wembley in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy Final to look forward to but in their first season back in League 1 they have 11 points to make up if they are to challenge for a Play-Off place.

A 2-1 win at Coventry City on Saturday will send them to the North East in good heart and they will begin tonight's round of fixtures from 11th in the table.

Boss Steve Davis told The Sentinel: "We want to get to 50 points as quickly as we can. That's what I wanted at the start of the season.

"It's a great effort from everybody, and the quicker we can get there the better, so we will try to do it at Hartlepool.

"You could see my intent against Coventry on Saturday. The changes we made during the game were to win it, not to defend for a draw so that's the attitude me, the staff and the players will show from now until the end of the season."

ELSEWHERE IN THE DIVISION

So tight is the npower League 1 table at the moment that any one of six teams could end up on top after tonight's fixtures.

Sheffield United have the upper hand going in to the games with five other clubs all breathing down their neck and aiming to usurp the leaders.

Closest to the Blades are Swindon Town, a point behind them in second, with the Robins - still managerless after Paolo Di Canio's departure - hosting Bury in a game that is important for the visitors, too.

The Shakers are currently third from bottom, eight points adrift of safety, and with just five wins all season they will have to make their move soon if they are to get out of trouble.

Swindon are one of a trio of teams on 59 points with long-time leaders Tranmere Rovers and Doncaster Rovers all on the same mark.

Only goal difference separates the three with Tranmere in third and facing a home game against Notts County, who are 10th on 48 points - 10 adrift of the top six - having been among the early front-runners themselves.

Doncaster, who were top of the table themselves only a couple of weeks ago, complete the teams closest to Sheffield United and face a trip to Shrewsbury Town, who are 17th on 40 points, eight clear of the relegation zone.

The teams in fifth and sixth, Yeovil Town and Bournemouth, are both on 58 points with Yeovil heading to fourth-bottom Colchester United - three points from safety - while Bournemouth are at home to Coventry City, who are eighth but have eight points to make up on the top six.

Sandwiched in between Bournemouth and Coventry are Brentford, who are well placed for, at least, an assault on the Play-Offs as they are on 55 points, with games in hand on the teams above them, and a visit to 12th-placed Crawley Town their challenge.

Hoping to potentially gatecrash the Play-Off party are ninth-placed Walsall, nine points adrift of the top six with 12 games still to play, starting with tonight's visit to 16th-placed Carlisle United.

A point behind Walsall are Notts County, then come Crewe Alexandra, Crawley and Leyton Orient, while Milton Keynes Dons in 14th will not have given up on reigniting their challenge as they are 13 points adrift but have played only 31 games, as have Crawley who have 12 points to make up.

The Dons are on the road tonight as they head to Portsmouth, who are now four points adrift at the bottom of the table and 12 away from getting out of the bottom four, though their off-field troubles continue to rumble on.

Completing tonight's fixtures is the encounter between Scunthorpe United, who are 20th and three points clear of the relegation zone, and Stevenage, who are 15th and eight points ahead of their hosts.

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