The Championship Play Offs Semi-finals will be decided this week, with Norwich taking on Ipswich after a 1-1 draw in the first leg at Portman Road, and Middlesbrough at home to Brentford after securing a valuable 1-0 away win over the Bees. Both ties are balanced on a knife edge, but home advantage could pay for Norwich and Middlesbrough, who both have the pleasure of playing the second legs in front of their own fans.
The First Legs
Norwich and Middlesbrough played out a fiery East Anglian derby on Saturday afternoon, and it ended all square after Paul Anderson’s equalizer for Ipswich cancelled out Johnny Howson’s opener for Norwich. Both managers admitted after the game that it had been a 100-mile-an-hour contest, and there was little to choose between the two teams. Norwich will probably feel that they have the slight advantage with the second leg at Carrow Road, and it promises to be a tense encounter.
Middlesbrough continued their remarkable record against Brentford with a 2-1 win at Griffin Park on Friday night, courtesy of Fernando Amorebieta’s late, late injury-time goal. It was a bitter pill for Brentford to swallow after they dominated the second half without finding a breakthrough, and they now face a tough task to turn the tie on its head up in the North East.
Middlesbrough v Brentford – Friday 15th May, 7.45pm
Middlesbrough have to be fancied to qualify for the final now with a one-goal advantage, simply due to their impressive defensive record. They had the best defence in the entire Championship over the regulation season, and only conceded 37 goals in their 46 league games. Another clean sheet here against Brentford would be enough to see them through to the final, and that will be one of their pre-match targets.
They can also be backed to make completely sure by winning the match over 90 minutes to put the tie beyond doubt. Middlesbrough also had the best home record in the Championship over the course of the season, winning 15 of their 23 home games, and losing just three times. Brentford were 4th in the Championship away table, so will have a little bit of hope that they can make it another successful away trip, but they lost 4-0 on their previous visit this season in September, and that doesn’t bode well.
The Bees have been punching above their weight for much of the season, and they probably didn’t expect to sneak into the play offs at the last minute. Their best chance of progression was to have won the first leg at home and brought a lead here with them, but coming to Middlesbrough to chase a lead could prove beyond them. The Smoggies are adept at defending with organization and hitting teams on the break, and that is exactly what they’ll try to do to Brentford on Friday night.
Ipswich fought back from the early disappointment of going a goal behind against Norwich last week, and their first-half stoppage time equalizer was no less than they deserved. This game could hardly have more significance with the chance to appear at Wembley, the potential for promotion, and local bragging rights all resting on one result.
Norwich have had the better of Ipswich over recent years though, and we expect to see that record continue at Saturday lunchtime. The Canaries have done the league double over the Tractor Boys already this season, and have won the last two meetings at Carrow Road. Their home record has been good in the Championship since new boss Alex Neal took over, and they’ve won 9 of the last 13 on home soil. The 33 year-old Scottish manager was poached from Hamilton, and he has been a revelation since joining the Norfolk club. They’ve steadily climbed the table since his arrival, and he took them to within a whisker of challenging for automatic promotion. He traveled back to Scotland after the Ipswich match to take a UEFA coaching course, but the fact that he doesn’t yet have his badges will matter little to the Norwich faithful if he takes them back to the promised land of the Premier League at the first time of asking.
Ipswich are another side who were one of the lesser-fancied to make it into the play offs, but they squeezed in despite a final day 3-2 loss to Blackburn. Their prominence this season has been helped by Daryl Murphy topping the scoring charts with 27 goals, but manager Mick McCarthy has assembled a typically well-organized side around him. The loss of on-loan winger Luke Varney to injury in the Norwich game will be a big blow, and Ipswich know that they will be up against it to get a result at Carrow Road.
They were joint top of the Championship home form table with Middlesbrough, only behind their fellow play offs contenders on goal difference, but away from home it’s been a different story. They were 10th in the Championship away form table, and a look at their recent record shows 7 defeats in the last 10 away games. Much like Brentford, the Suffolk club’s best chance of progression would have been to have taken a lead in the first leg, but they look vulnerable going into this one all-square.
It will be another blood-and-thunder affair, with both teams prepared to go toe-to-toe as often happens in derby games, but Norwich have the better quality and their class should show through in the end. They still have the nucleus of a Premier League squad, and with the feelgood factor that their new boss has installed, they can start booking their tickets to Wembley.
Championship Play Offs
Middlesbrough v Brentford – Friday 15th May, 7.45pm
Eric has been a sports journalist for over 20 years and has travelled the world covering top sporting events for a number of publications. He also has a passion for betting and uses his in-depth knowledge of the sports world to pinpoint outstanding odds and value betting opportunities.
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