Sheffield United: What has to happen on the final day for The Blades to reach the play-offs

For a moment, it seemed as if the pieces were about to fall into place.

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QPR v Sheffield United: Three goals and lashings of bottle see The Blades take a...

Middlesbrough were drawing. Blackburn Rovers were losing and at The Den, Millwall were being frustrated by already relegated Peterborough. Sheffield United, who less than 24 hours earlier had beaten Queens Park Rangers eight miles across London, would be confirmed as one of the Championship’s four play-off finalists.

By the time the penultimate round of second tier fixtures had been largely completed, the race for the top six remained wide open. Not as congested as it had been, with Rovers dropping out of contention after being beaten by AFC Bournemouth. But both Chris Wilder’s side and Gary Rowett’s squad remain in contention; recording the wins which will see them enter Saturday’s games two and three points behind fifth-placed United.

Paul Heckingbottom, the Sheffield United manager: David Klein / Sportimage

“I always warned it would go right down to the wire,” Paul Heckingbottom said. “That’s what we’ve been getting ready for. There’s no surprises. All we’ve got to do is try and focus on us, taking care of our own business.”

WHO FACES WHO: Sixteenth in the table when Heckingbottom took charge in November, United meet leaders Fulham this weekend. Now fifth, they face arguably the toughest test of all the four sides still hoping to qualify for the end of term knockouts. Luton Town, now in sixth, face Reading in Bedfordshire after being thrashed 7-0 by Marco Silva’s side.

Middlesbrough, now managed by Heckingbottom’s predecessor Chris Wilder, are seventh after beating Stoke City. They travel to Preston North End while Millwall, in eighth, are preparing for a trip to Bournemouth. Scott Parker’s men, currently second, face third-placed Nottingham Forest tonight.

THE STATE OF PLAY: As well as their respective points tallies, there is little to separate Luton, United, Middlesbrough and Millwall when it comes to the other measures used to decide league rankings.

Sheffield United are involved in one of the tightest races for the play-offs in years: David Klein / Sportimage

United and Luton both had goal differences of plus 14 until the latter’s loss at Craven Cottage, compared to plus 12 and plus nine respectively. English Football League regulations state that if teams finish level on points and their goal differentials are also equal, then goals scored comes into effect. Luton have bagged 62, United 59, Wilder’s men 58 and Millwall 53.

THE NEXT CALCULATION: In the unlikely scenario clubs can still not be separated, then the EFL uses their ‘head to head record’ over the course of the campaign to decide its rankings. In order of precedence, the governing body would look at points gained, goal difference and then goals scored.

United would trump Luton, having ground out a goalless draw at Kenilworth Road in August and then beaten them 2-0 in the return at Bramall Lane.

They lost 2-0 on Teesside, before avenging that defeat with a 4-1 win when Middlesbrough travelled to South Yorkshire. Millwall, however, have beaten United twice since competition began last summer.

Sheffield United beat QPR at Loftus Road on Friday night: David Klein / Sportimage

The EFL states that the total number of wins and then goals scored in away fixtures would then be used to decide league positions. United, Luton and Middlesbrough boast 20 victories apiece.