Wolves feel the bite of the Blues
Monday's table-topping Championship encounter between west Midlands rivals Birmingham and Wolves might have given us a few answers.
Ultimately, however, Birmingham's 2-0 victory only threw up more questions.
It was a passionate, feisty encounter, almost old-fashioned in the way gritty defending and full-bloodied tackling eclipsed any of the more aesthetic aspects of the beautiful game.
Wolves boss Mick McCarthy admitted afterwards that he had been more than happy as he watched the opening half hour of a contest that he described as "a game that was going nowhere".
With his team five points clear of Birmingham going into the fixture, a draw would have obviously suited him even if he insisted prior to the match that his team would be trying to take all three points. Had they won it would have taken a monumental loss of form over their final five games to deny them promotion.
Now, McCarthy's team are just two points clear at the top.
Bizarrely, the contest seemed to turn in Blues' favour after their skipper Lee Carsley was sent from the field following his horrific challenge on Chris Iwelumo deep into the first half.
The home team took the lead soon afterwards and never really looked like surrendering it. That Birmingham deserved to win seems to me fairly obvious and you could hardly say they were not worth their second goal.
McCarthy said his team were masters of their own downfall and talked about schoolboy defending, but equally disturbing was the bluntness of Wolves' attacking threat, especially after Blues had lost one of the division's best defensive midfielders when Carsley was dismissed.
Earlier in the season McCarthy's youthful side won deserved plaudits as Sylvan Ebanks-Blake and Iwelumo reaped the benefits of a plentiful supply of crosses from two out-and-out wingers in Michael Kightly and Matt Jarvis.
Kightly is out for the season and Iwelumo was stretchered from field after Carsley's challenge on Monday, raising doubts over the role he will have to play in the crucial weeks ahead. Jarvis started from the bench while Ebanks-Blake, the Championship Player of the Year, was missing on Monday as he recovers from injury. Crucially for Wolves the 23-year-old should return for Good Friday's home match against Southampton.
I spoke to Wolves assistant boss Terry Connor in the week before the game and he delved into Sir Alex Ferguson's lexicon of footballing terms when he said the season had reached "squeaky bum time".
I'm told that Wolves fans are far from convinced their team are home and dry - and if they didn't agree with Connor before Monday I'm sure they do now. Fingernails could soon be in short supply in Wolverhampton.
Do you think Wolves will make it over the line or will they suffer a repeat of 2002, when rivals West Brom agonisingly snatched second place from their grasp?
Not entirely surprisingly, McCarthy refused to be drawn on the significance of Monday's result, choosing merely to state the blindingly obvious fact that it now meant Birmingham were just two points behind his team.
Incidentally, a lesser man than McCarthy might have tried to distract attention from his team's performance by focusing on Carsley's horrific tackle on Iwelumo. Not McCarthy. In his no-nonsense Yorkshire accent he made it blindingly clear that he did not think there was anything malicious about what Carsley did.
And what of Birmingham City?
I was talking to a journalist the other day and he told me that he had been to watch Blues six or seven times this season. They had not impressed him once but neither had they been beaten. That seems to sum it up perfectly.
Blues were worthy of their three points on Monday. Particularly impressive was the way they harassed and harried their opponents, rarely giving Wolves any time on the ball. It is a virtue to admire and yet it would be wrong to describe Blues' performance as particularly outstanding.
There was little fluency to their play and very few passages when they totally dominated yet they got a result. It is the story of their season.
Birmingham have scored 49 goals, fewer than any other team in contention for promotion. For a team that boasts the likes of Kevin Phillips, Cameron Jerome, Garry O'Connor, James McFadden and Sebastian Larsson that is clearly disappointing.
Many of their key attacking players have been injured at one time or another but Blues have a squad of the depth and quality that is the envy of most of the division. They have misfired all season yet are now tantalisingly close to an immediate return to the Premier League.
The key to understanding why is the number of goals they have conceded.
Birmingham's defence has been breached just 33 times in 41 games. It is the finest defensive record in the Championship and chairman David Gold paid handsome tribute to goalkeeper Maik Taylor and the back four in front of him in his match programme notes. He should also have mentioned Carsley, a player who has made a decent career out of stifling opponents and missed just one game all season going into Monday's match.
The fact that Blues have been better at the back than the front perhaps explains why Monday's attendance of 25,935 was the first to break the 20,000 barrier since the FA Cup tie against Wolves on January 13. The lingering disillusionment following last season's relegation might also explain the sense of apathy, but there was certainly no shortage of atmosphere on Monday.
You could almost reach out and touch the tension radiating around St.Andrews at the start of the match, a feeling that gradually turned to unbridled joy for most inside the stadium as the game wore on and the conclusion became increasingly inevitable.
Birmingham boss Alex McLeish talked about the role the supporters had to play in his programme notes and it was a theme he returned to time and again as he spoke to the press afterwards.
He described the mood in the dressing-room as "euphoric" and although he conceded that he would still rather be in Wolves' position he was talking in terms of pushing on and winning the title. "We have given ourselves a massive shot in the arm," said the Scot.
McLeish felt his team's performance had answered a few questions and with players such as Phillips, McFadden and O'Connor fit again his team should in theory approach their final few games with great confidence. Blues, after all, are now unbeaten in their last six games.
Monday's match was arguably the biggest in the Football League so far this season, as the top two in the Championship slugged it out to take a significant stride closer to the prize of the Premier League. It had the feel, if not the quality, of a top-flight fixture and one if not both clubs will surely be keeping heady company next season.
Blues and Wolves have five games left, while Reading and Sheffield United have six games left and are six points behind Birmingham.
The Championship undoubtedly has its detractors and I have heard time and again this season people opine that it is a very average division.
And you could argue that the passion at St.Andrews hinted at the desperation to leave it behind but the state of the table should ensure a finale to the season rich in drama, joy and disappointment.