With just six games remaining of the season, we now have a clearer idea of who will be filling those all-important places at the top end of the table. With the top 3 places likely to be occupied by any combination of Swindon, Torquay, Crawley, Shrewsbury or Southend, our focus is on ensuring qualification for the lottery of the playoffs. Southend, currently five points ahead of us, may be catchable, but our real competition for a playoff spot is from Cheltenham, Crewe and Gillingham. With four points separating these teams, the competition for those final two playoff places will be fierce, so let's take a more in-depth look at the run-in to assess who will be filling the playoff places on May 5th, and who will be looking enviously upwards.
A quick glance at the table would put Cheltenham as our biggest rivals for the playoffs, but in truth their recent terrible form suggests they may not last the distance. Just a month ago Cheltenham were just one point from the top of the table, but a run of seven games which saw them fail to win in the month of March and pick up just two points in that time leaves them clinging to that final playoff place. However, after facing tough trips to Swindon, Shrewsbury and Southend, as well as tricky home games against in-form Northampton, Gillingham and ourselves in March, their run-in to the end of the season looks slightly easier. As we ourselves know from past experience, there is still plenty of time to recover from a 'Mad March' and go on to win the playoffs. Struggling Barnet are the next team to visit Whaddon Road, followed by matches against midtable Rotherham and Accrington sides with little to play for. They finish the season against Bradford and Plymouth, both of whom may still be fighting for survival, but the highlight of Cheltenham's remaining fixtures is their trip to Crewe on April 21st . If Cheltenham's current form continues, however, they could be well out of the running by the time by the time they visit Gresty Road.
When Crewe visited the Kassam back in January and walked away with a lucky three points they looked distinctly average, and indeed their position in the league at that time would suggest that they were. However, they appear to have hit form at just the right time, notching up impressive victories against Swindon and away at Gillingham, and taking 14 points from a possible 21 last month. A tricky tie awaits them on Good Friday, as they travel to third-placed Crawley and the aforementioned clash with Cheltenham, as well as another difficult trip to Torquay also look set to test the Alex. If it should come down to the final day, Crewe will have to face an Aldershot side that have been in impressive form of late, but have probably left it too late to give themselves much to play for. Crewe's good form will stand them in good stead for the coming month, especially with Cheltenham faltering, and if they can snatch a playoff place, their momentum could make them daunting opposition in the playoffs.
Not long ago, it appeared as if it would be a straight battle between Oxford and Gillingham for the final playoff place, but the poor form of Cheltenham and good form of Crewe have complicated things somewhat. Nevertheless, the Gills remain very much in the frame. They have, however, suffered from inconsistency all season and it's a trend that does not seem to be about to change any time soon. Recent results show an impressive 3-0 away victory against Cheltenham followed up a few weeks later by a surprise defeat to Burton Albion, demonstrating a season-long trend of inconsistency from a side that has arguably underperformed this year. Gillingham's upcoming fixtures also look tough, starting with a potentially decisive trip to the Kassam on April 14th, followed by a series of tricky matches against Swindon, Northampton and Morecambe. With just 4 points separating them from the playoff places, Gillingham are certainly still in the mix, but they will need to find the form that has eluded them all season and time is running out.
As for ourselves, we have built up a decent head of steam in 2012, losing infrequently and more recently stringing together some good results. However, Saturday's poor showing has knocked confidence somewhat and raised a few questions about our own consistency. With an incredibly tough run of matches between now and the end of the season, we cannot afford to put in another performance like Saturday's. The good news is that, nestled nicely in the playoffs in sixth position, our destiny is in our own hands and with home ties against Torquay, Southend and Gillingham remaining, we also have the chance to dent our rivals' chances. Nevertheless, there is still that nagging doubt. The last time we faced a similarly difficult run of fixtures was back in November, when we managed to lose all five matches we played. However, in recovering from that poor spell and gradually building a promotion push we have demonstrated great resilience and strength of character. We've also demonstrated an ability to respond positively to the pressure of big matches, and goodness knows there will be a few of those between now and the end of the season.