LONDON - Manchester United might be running away at the top of the Premier League but the battle at the other end of the table and between the teams fighting to reach the top flight is the tightest for many years.
Right up until last week more than half the teams in the Premier League were anxiously scanning the fixture list as they sought to reach the magic 40-point mark that usually spells safety.
At the same time a dozen clubs went into the last three games of the Championship programme hoping either to make one of the two automatic promotion places or grab a place in the four-team play-offs that opens the way to the richest division in the world.
Queens Park Rangers thought they had secured promotion on Saturday when they drew 1-1 with Hull City but an injury-time winner for Norwich City against Derby County meant the hundreds of fans who had joyously invaded the pitch had to curtail their celebrations.
The west London side are still almost certain to return to the top flight for the first time in 15 years as they are five points ahead of Norwich and six ahead of third-placed Cardiff City with two games to play and a massively superior goal difference.
Founder members of the Premier League in 1992, but relegated in 1996, QPR have climbed back to prominence under the ownership of motor racing supremo Bernie Ecclestone, former Formula One team boss Flavio Briatore and Indian billionaire Lakshmi Mittal.
With a stadium capacity of 18,000 Rangers will need more funds along the way to punch their weight but Ecclestone, who may sell his 62 percent holding, said this week that there was no need to spend crazy money.
"You see a lot of these clubs today that are nowhere near as high in the league as we are, playing people that have fallen from the top and beating them, so there is no need to spend these fortunes," he said.
All is not rosy at Loftus Road, however, as a Football Association regulatory commission will rule next week on seven charges relating to the club's transfer and contract renewal of Argentine midfielder Alejandro Faurlin.
If found guilty at the May 3 hearing, they could face a points deduction.
If Norwich are promoted they will hope to avoid a repeat of the 2004/2005 season when, having gone up to the Premier League as champions, they suffered an immediate relegation and five years later found themselves in the third division.
Cardiff had a taste of the big time when they reached the FA Cup final in 2008 but have not been in the top flight for 50 seasons with some desperately lean times since then.
Swansea, Nottingham Forest, Millwall, Burnley and Leeds United are the other remaining realistic challengers.
Swansea famously topped the old first division for a while in 1981 having climbed from the fourth division in four years - only to plummet all the way back down again in the next five.
Forest, of course, gate-crashed the top flight spectacularly in 1977/78 when they won the league in their first season up and went on to win back-to-back European Cups.
Also founder members of the Premier League, they were last in it in 1999.
Reading enjoyed two memorable top-flight seasons from 2006-2008 while Leeds slipped out in 2004 and Burnley were another one-season wonder when they went down last season having been away since 1976.
Predicting which teams go the other way is proving a difficult job with so many clubs bunched together.
However, last weekend's results hauled half-a-dozen towards safety, including Sunderland whose win over Wigan Athletic ended a run which had brought them just one point from nine games.
West Ham United are bottom on 32 then come Wolverhampton Wanderers (33) Wigan Athletic (34), Blackpool (34), Blackburn Rovers (35), Birmingham City (38) and Fulham (39).comments