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Ahead of their derby clash with Bristol City, Cardiff find themselves in an unlikely automatic promotion race in what feels like a now or never season

23 February ~ Cardiff are flying ahead of the Severnside derby against Bristol City on Sunday. After three consecutive wins over Bolton, Middlesbrough and Ipswich, they have opened up a four-point gap between themselves in second and third-placed Aston Villa. With a hefty 12-point cushion over seventh-placed Sheffield United, they are all but guaranteed a top-six finish, barring a complete collapse.

Chasing a record eighth promotion, the 69-year-old Neil Warnock led by example and his remarkable drive has inspired a club who were drifting before his arrival in October 2016. Warnock obviously saw something in Cardiff that no one else did because he has fashioned a side who are outperforming the division’s big spenders.

To give some sort of context, Aston Villa and Wolves have reportedly spent around £80 million and £65m respectively in the last couple of years, while Middlesbrough blew £50m in the summer and are not even in the top six at present. Cardiff’s spend during this period is in the region of £10m, a figure inflated by the recent £5m arrival of Gary Madine from Bolton.

A promotion challenge was never on the cards. Cardiff spent a small fortune getting to the Premier League, trying to stay there and then attempting to make a swift return. Those three seasons, between 2012 and 2015, resulted in cost cutting across the board, but Warnock has shown that ambition need not cost a fortune. With their parachute payments set to run out at the end of the current season, it really is now or never if they are to go back up.

Cardiff are very much a team in their manager’s image. The football on offer may be rather unsophisticated and full-blooded, but discipline and team spirit has been the team’s real driving force. They won at runaway leaders Wolves and thrashed Aston Villa earlier in the season. Cardiff’s trip to Villa Park in April now looks like a pivotal clash.

Cardiff were beaten by fierce rivals Bristol City back in November, conceding first before Omar Bogle equalised just before half time. His dismissal early in the second half invited pressure that resulted in a 2-1 defeat. Bogle’s Cardiff career never really recovered and he was shipped out on loan last month to Peterborough, despite only joining in the summer. This is never a game that needs to be hyped, but revenge and sustaining their impressive seven-match unbeaten league run is sure to add a little extra kick. Scott Johnson

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