May 11, 2016

Who will come out on top in the Championship play-offs?

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When Mike Dean finally brought proceedings to an end on Saturday afternoon after 99 minutes of football at the Riverside between Middlesbrough and Brighton, the teams who would play out this seasons Sky Bet Championship Play-Offs were confirmed. It was final day heartbreak for Brighton, with the 1-1 draw seeing Boro take the second automatic promotion spot by virtue of their superior goal difference, a mere two goals greater than that of their south coast counterparts. But all is not lost for the Seagulls, as they drop into the play-offs, often described as the “best”, although clearly the most tense, method of promotion to the Premier League.

Joining Brighton in the play-offs are Hull City, Derby County and Sheffield Wednesday. The latter three had all confirmed their status as play-off contestants prior to the final day’s events, although Hull and Derby did have the small matter of which side would be at home in the second leg still to play for. In this article we will take a little look at all four teams, who may be best equiped for the play-offs and what the history books suggest may be the most likely outcome.

The teams and their form

Brighton & Hove Albion

Brighton have had a magnificent campaign, spoiled only by their final day disappointment at Middlesbrough. Having finished 20th last season, only two places above the relegation zone, few expected Brighton to maintain such a strong push for automatic promotion throughout the campaign. After an incredible run of 21 league games unbeaten at the start of the season, the Seagulls succumbed to a 3-0 loss at home to Middlesbrough. Failing to win in their next five games, many expected the club to fall away as we headed into the New Year, but Brighton showed they were no flash in the pan, and went on to finish on a highly-creditable 89 points, with only 5 league defeats all season.

Currently unbeaten in 14 matches, if Brighton can extend that run to 17 matches, they will be assured of a place in the Premier League next season. The run shows that Brighton are, and have been all season, hard to beat. Well-drilled, well-organised and with a great team spirit, the Seagulls go into the play-off’s off the back of two draws, although they won their five games previous to that.

Hull City

Following a 1-0 win away at Ipswich on February 23rd, Hull City sat at the top of the Championship with a game in hand. It is for this reason that a fourth place finish is a rather diminished achievement. With a starting XI which often features as many as nine full internationals, the Hull squad is a strong one, and one which should have recorded automatic promotion this season, were it not for their inconsistency and sloppy away defeats. Still, the Tigers end the season with 83 points and a fourth place finish, despite serious off-field issues and a less than positive attitude surrounding the club at times.

Markedly inconsistent since the end of February, Hull City have managed to put something of a run together ahead of the play-offs. An embarrassing defeat to already relegated Bolton was sandwiched in between two impressive victories against in-form teams, in Brentford and Rotherham. The most important thing for Steve Bruce, perhaps, will be that his team are scoring again, 15 goals in their last 7 games representing a drastic improvement following the goal scoring slump which troubled them previously. It’s worth nothing, though, that this has been twinned with a poorer defensive record.

Derby County

It has been an unusual season for Derby County. Following some big spending in the summer and once again in January, they shocked many people when they dismissed manager Paul Clement, without having a replacement lined up, instead putting academy coach Darren Wassall in charge of first team duties. Like Hull, Derby led the division, having been top of the league at the start of December, but fell away as they did last term. The second half of this season was not as cataclysmic as Steve McClaren’s collapse though, as the Rams did at least remain solidly within the play-offs and have put in a number of noteworthy performances under their rookie manager, giving the Derby faithful some confidence heading into the play-offs.

Derby have known it would likely be the play-offs – no more but no less – for some time now, but that didn’t stop them seemingly building some momentum towards the end of the campaign. Unfortunately for the Rams, a run of four consecutive wins was cancelled out by the club failing to win any of their final three league games. Draws with Sheffield Wednesday and Brighton were creditable, but a defeat to Ipswich on the final day was disappointing, not least due to the serious injury picked up by George Thorne.

Sheffield Wednesday

Return to the Premier League has been a long-time coming for Sheffield Wednesday fans, their absence currently standing at 16 years since the Owls were a top flight club, having spent four of those seasons in the third tier. There was an air of optimism around Hillsborough this season though, as Carlos Carvalhal seemed to have built a strong team at this level. The loans and signings of the likes of Gary Hooper, Fernando Forestieri, Daniel Pudil and Barry Bannan proved to be shrewd pieces of business. Whilst the club were never in the hunt for an automatic spot, they looked a good bet for the play-offs from the end of March, and ultimately finished on 74 points, 5 clear of seventh-placed Ipswich Town.

Sheffield Wednesday head into the play-off’s in the worst form of the four clubs that will contest the end of season promotion battle. Just one win in their last six games represents a very poor return for the Owls, most disappointingly losing 4-1 to Bristol City and drawing 0-0 with MK Dons. On the bright side for Wednesday, they go into the play-off’s with virtually a clean bill of health. Only Filipe Melo and Modou Sougou will miss out, and both would be unlikely to feature anyway.

The Stats

How much you read into the ‘stats’ is up to you, but we’ll give you them anyway. If one looks back over the last 20 second tier play-off’s, history shows the side who finishes in third place wins the play-off’s most often. There is something of an anomaly in the results, and poor news for Hull City, as over the last 20 seasons, the team who finishes 4th has only gone up via the play-off’s twice. The full sample shows 8 sides who finished 3rd went up, 2 who finished 4th, 6 who finished 5th and 4 who finished 6th. As for the semi-finals, over the last decade, the team who finished third has an 82% chance of reaching the final, to sixth place’s 18%, whilst the percentages for 4th and 5th are much closer, standing at 55% to 45% in favour of the side who finishes 5th.

The Matches

Brighton & Hove Albion vs Sheffield Wednesday

Brighton are the favourites to progress to the final in this clash, and understandably so. They come into this match on a 14 game unbeaten run, whilst Wednesday have won only one of their last six. A full 15 points separates the two sides in the final league table, although of course that will stand for nothing when the first ball is kicked on Friday night. The two games between these two sides this season have both ended scoreless, and one wouldn’t be surprised if both games are low-scoring once more.

A lot will depend on how Brighton deal with missing out on automatic promotion. It is crucial that the Seagulls don’t let their heads drop, because Wednesday will be bouncing and take advantage of any such psychological weaknesses. I, for one, can’t see that happening though. The Brighton squad are a tight-knit bunch, and well-motivated by Chris Hughton. However, one problem for Brighton could be the absence of Lewis Dunk and Dale Stephens. Whilst the former will definitely miss out, Brighton are appealing Stephens’ red card against Middlesbrough, so we will have to wait and see on that front.

Ultimately, it is my belief that this tie rests on the outcome of the first leg. Sheffield Wednesday are very good at home, especially when there is a big, noisy crowd at Hillsborough, which there undoubtedly will be for this one. Brighton come into the game with their excellent unbeaten run, and Wednesday need to win, probably by a two goal margin, as it is difficult to see Brighton not winning the home game by at least one goal.

Hull City vs Derby County

It is virtually impossible to predict the game between Hull City and Derby County. Steve Bruce rested players away at Bolton, leading to a dreadful performance, but they came back fit and fighting for the final game against Rotherham, and were scintillating going forward at times. Derby have an aggregate 6-0 lead over the Tigers this season, having pulled off a convincing double against the East Yorkshire club, although they will be without key man George Thorne now.

It will be interesting to see who comes in for Thorne. There is no like-for-like change within the Derby squad, and Darren Wassall could call upon any three of Craig Bryson, Jeff Hendrick, Bradley Johnson, Jacob Butterfield and Will Hughes, or even switch to a midfield four. The most likely tact by Wassall would be to bring Bradley Johnson back into the fold, and drop Will Hughes into a slightly deeper role vacated by Thorne. Steve Bruce meanwhile will almost certainly name the same starting XI which thumped Rotherham 5-1 on Saturday, calling upon his most experienced and big name players.

Derby must win the home leg, one would imagine, given Hull City’s home record this season. The Tigers have put in a number of lacklustre away performances this season, and if they do so again, they will be turned over, although Steve Bruce appears convinced his players will turn on the style for the big occasion. Between how Derby react to Thorne’s absence and which Hull City will turn up, this tie has too many variables to predict.

Featured Image: All rights reserved by Adam Bowie

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