Race for promotion: A look at the SkyBet Championship play-offs

SkyBet Championship playoff preview

3rd vs 6th (Brighton vs Derby: Thursday 8th May. Reverse Fixture: Sunday 11th May)

The championship playoffs get underway this Thursday, as 6th place Brighton face 3rd place Derby County. Brighton scraped into 6th place on the final day of the normal season, at the weekend. Thanks to a stoppage time header from Argentine Leonardo Ulloa, Brighton beat Nottingham Forest 2-1, and as Reading could only draw at home to promoted Burnley, the seagulls made it. Derby County have been consistent for most of the season, and would go into the playoffs one of the strong favourites. Manager Steve McClaren joined the club early in the season, replacing sacked Nigel Clough. Ever since his appointment, the rams have been in and around the automatic playoff spots, and finished the season 3rd, but 8 points off 2nd place Burnley and 17 off champions and rivals Leicester City.

Over the course of the season, Derby have scored more goals than Brighton, with 84 and Brighton scoring only a low 55. However, Derby have conceded more than Brighton and the south-coast team have 7 more clean sheets in total. Brighton have the second best defensive record in the league, and the best away.  However, both teams head into the playoffs in very good form. Brighton are unbeaten in the last 8 whilst Derby are unbeaten in their last 6 games, and have won their last five home league matches.

Brighton will be looking to key striker Leanardo Ulloa, who fired them into the playoffs to provide the spark they need. After missing 14 matches due to injury at the beginning of the season, the Argentine has scored 14 goals in 33 appearances. Craig Mackail-Smith’s timely return will be a boost for them. He has come off the bench 5 times after suffering a torn Achilles last March. In terms of Derby, their 23 goal hitman Chris Martin will be the one who Derby can rely on. The 6ft 1nch striker will be looking to get back into the Premiership as he failed to make his mark there with Norwich.

Brighton were in the playoffs last year, but were knocked out by eventual winners Crystal Palace in the semi-finals, so they will hope to have learnt from past mistakes. Derby also won the playoffs in 2007, beating West Brom in the final. So they also know what it takes.

Brighton will be trying to hold off Derby’s attacking threat in the first leg, and if they do so effectively, they will then look to take their impressive away form into the second leg, and I fancy Brighton to pull off a surprise victory.

3rd vs 4th (Wigan vs QPR:  Friday 9th May. Reverse Fixture:  Monday 12th May)

Wigan Athletic face QPR at the DW Stadium on Friday, with Uwe Rosler heading into his second playoff in as many years. This time last year, the German was preparing for Brentford’s playoff campaign, which ended in heartbreak as his side lost to Yeovil at Wembley. Fast forward a year, and the ex Manchester City forward is trying to fire Wigan back into the promised land, after relegation last year. They will face in the semi-finals a team who accompanied them in the drop last campaign, Queens Park Rangers. Harry Redknapp’s men were amongst the favourites for promotion at the start of the season, and have disappointed fans as the season has progressed. QPR haven’t dropped below fourth during the season, up until Christmas they were very much in the automatic promotion race. Wigan’s first half of the season looked like they would finish mid-table. But following Uwe Rosler’s appointment, they have secured themselves a comfortable playoff finish.

Wigan go into the playoff’s in not great form, only winning 2 out of their last 6 games, and losing the other 4. QPR go into them in average form, winning 3 of their last 6, drawing 1 and losing 2.

Wigan and QPR are two very similar teams. They both tend to concede few goals, but also don’t score loads either. QPR pride themselves on their defensive record, especially at home. Rangers fans have only witnessed 18 goals scored against them this season at Loftus Road, the second best record in the league, behind Burnley. Wigan also have a good defensive record, conceding only 4 goals more than QPR this season. In terms of goals scored, Wigan have scored 61 and QPR, 60. This proves just how similar the two teams are. When the two sides met at Loftus Road in March, only a Yossi Benayoun goal could split them in a tight and passionate 1-0 victory for QPR. Back in October, up in Lancashire, the encounter was also very tight and passionate, ending in a 0-0 draw.

One of Wigan’s main problems this season has been goals. Their top scorer, Nick Powell, has 12 goals and is one of their heavy threats. Their other midfield threats include long serving players James McCarthur and Jordi Gomez. QPR have a wealth of talent at their disposal. With Ravel Morrison, on loan from West Ham, being a main man in the promotion bid. But leading scorer Charlie Austin has returned from injury, and has scored 3 goals in 3 games, so will be looking to be firing on all cylinders heading into the playoffs. Rangers also have a depth of cover and alternations, including Junior Hoilett, Armand Traore, Bobby Zamora and Kevin Doyle, who can all chip in with goals and create vital chances.

However, Wigan have a vast experience at Wembley. After they won the FA Cup last year against Manchester City, and lost to penalties against Arsenal in the League Cup final; they are no strangers to Wembley.  QPR haven’t appeared in the playoff’s since 2003, where they lost to Cardiff in the final at the Millenium Stadium in Wales.

The game promises to be tight, and unlike the other playoff game, I don’t think it will be packed with goals. But with the depth of players and experience, QPR would be the strong favourites in my eyes.

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