Whoever wins the Championship play-offs is immediately installed as the bookies’ favourites to be relegated from the Premier League the following season.
Looking at this season’s batch of play-off hopefuls, however, you fear they may have a point.
Barring a major disaster, Leicester and Burnley will finish as this season’s top two, and deservedly so. They’ve been the two best teams in the league by a long way, and the other sides have failed to match their quality and consistency all season.
That level of domination, though, means that the play-offs will have a real ‘best-of-the-rest’ feel to them. There will be no side competing in the play-offs this year that has challenged for automatic promotion at any point, and the team that wins promotion via the play-offs will find promoted life very tough, you would think.
While that arguably makes the league more exciting, it also makes it easier for teams with not-so impressive records to gain promotion.
For example, the teams that can now realistically qualify for the play-offs are QPR, Derby, Wigan, Reading, Forest, Ipswich and Brighton. Some teams below them may hit a vein of form, but at the moment they look like the only contenders.
I find it hard to pick from those seven a team that I am confident will win the play-offs. A few months ago it would have been QPR, but their form since January has been very poor. Derby’s early form under Steve McClaren also appears to have evaporated, and they have only won one of their last six games.
Uwe Rosler’s Wigan are in terrific form at the moment, and are probably the current favourites, on form alone, to win promotion. However, they have lost eleven matches this season, which is a lot for this stage of the season, with nine games still to play. Reading have also lost eleven and have found consistency hard to come by all season.
Of course, Hull went up last season having lost fifteen games, and seem to be secure in the Premier League, but in truth Cardiff and Fulham have been the two poorest teams in that league this season, and a lot of transfer activity has been needed to keep The Tigers’ heads above water.
Nottingham Forest sacked Billy Davies, and Owner and Chairman Fawaz Al Hasawi admitted he took the decision because the team hadn’t showed promotion potential in recent matches, particularly in the 5-0 defeat to bitter rivals Derby.
With a new manager, Forest could win the play-offs. They have some exciting players and a tremendous history and stature, but they have proved incapable of turning draws into wins (they have drawn fifteen matches this season). A team that gets into the top six on draws alone will find it very difficult were they to win promotion.
Ipswich and Brighton are two hard-working, honest teams who have found styles that have been effective for them. However, their overall records are not that impressive. Brighton, for example, have only scored 39 goals this term. Their performances, meanwhile, haven’t been impressive enough to suggest either side is ready for a step up to the top tier.
The gulf in class between the top two and ‘the rest’ is evident, but that isn’t to say that the team who grabs the third promotion place is doomed to failure. They will, however, need serious investment to survive in my opinion.
The play-offs is a great showcase of excitement and joy, at least for those fans who see their team win them, but this season the winners will have it all to do in order to survive next season.