It’s described as the richest game in English football, with the winners of the Championship play offs estimated to earn £170 million. Before the showpiece at Wembley, four sides must negotiate two-legged semi-finals after the end of the regulation season. Reading, Huddersfield and Sheffield Wednesday are guaranteed their place among the four, while Fulham could only be caught by Leeds and a 14-goal swing on the final day.
Sheffield Wednesday were the unlucky losers in last year’s final, going down 1-0 to Hull at Wembley after beating Brighton over two legs in the semi. The Seagulls have taken the automatic route to promotion this time around, but it’s back to the tension of the play offs for the Owls.
It’s quite a turnaround for each of the other three sides, who were near the lower reaches of the Championship last season. Fulham finished in 20th place last term, with Huddersfield only one better in 19th and Reading in 17th. At least the Royals and the Cottagers can boast some recent top flight experience though. Fulham were relegated in 2014 after 12 season in the Premier League, and this is just their third Championship campaign since dropping down. Reading spent two seasons in the top division between 2006 and 2008, and made a brief return in 2012-13. Huddersfield haven’t been a top flight side since 1972, and only returned to the Championship from League One in the 2012-13 season. Sheffield Wednesday have been absent from the Premier league since 2000, and have spent some of that time in the third tier. They were only promoted back to the Championship in 2012, but are now appearing in back-to-back play off campaigns.
There’s one game still to play in the Championship, with Wednesday and Fulham sparring against one another at Hillsborough next Sunday. Reading take a trip to Burton in their final match, while Huddersfield are at home to Cardiff. Reading and Wednesday occupy 3rd and 4th – the positions which will play the second leg of the semi final at home – with Huddersfield and Fulham 5th and 6th respectively. The Cottagers can’t improve on that position, but just a point separates the other three.
The Royals are the outsiders of the quartet to win promotion at +500 with SkyBet.
Jaap Stam’s side haven’t been out of the top five since the end of October, and they confirmed their place in the play offs with Saturday’s 1-0 win over Wigan. A result that also condemned the Latics to relegation. They come into this vital stage of the season in good shape after winning six of the last eight, and boast the strongest home record of all four contenders. That could be crucial if the second leg of their semi final is on home soil, and victory away at now-safe Burton on Sunday will guarantee that outcome. However, that eventuality would mean they face Fulham in the semi – the team with the second best away record in the division.
It’s been a great season for Reading fans, but they have witnessed their side concede plenty of goals. The Royals have let in 62 this season, more than anyone in the play offs, and 12 in just the last five games. That defensive frailty might just cost them.
Polar opposites, the Owls have only conceded 43 goals this season and boast the third best defence in the league behind Brighton and Newcastle. A win at home against play off rivals Fulham would guarantee a second leg at home, and a semi final against a Huddersfield side they’ve beaten twice this season. Regardless of that result, Wednesday have been performing consistently now for two seasons and the pain of last year’s play off defeat will be fresh in the memory. They’ve won six games in a row and are the form side coming into the end of the season.
The Owls beat play off favourites Brighton 2-0 at home in the first leg last season, before claiming a 1-1 draw away. They went to Wembley to meet Steve Bruce’s Hull, but were undone by a late Diame wonder-strike. The motivation to avoid such heartache again will be a powerful tool for Wednesday boss Carlos Carvalhal. Their defensive prowess will also be vital in these pressure games, and teams with a fondness for clean sheets are usually worth following in knockout competitions.
The Terriers have confounded expectations this season, with more pundits tipping them for relegation than promotion. David Wagner has done a brilliant job, and made clear his intentions to prepare fully for the play offs by resting 10 players in the 2-0 defeat at Birmingham last week. They’ve been in the top six since December, so if they are punching above their weight they’ve been doing it for some time, but they do come into this on the back of a run of just four wins in ten games.
The Cottagers have scored 83 goals this season and are by far the highest scorers among the play off hopefuls. They’re also on a great run of four wins in five, and drawing 1-1 with Brentford last weekend was enough to see them over the line barring miracles. The London club probably have the biggest budget of the four too, and the most recent Premier League experience.
It’s been a struggle for the London club over the last three seasons in the Championship, with a succession of managers and players passing through the doors. A sustained run of form helped them push into the play offs in April, but that was the first time they’d been in the top six all season. Perhaps it’s all come together at just the right time, but there are still enough nagging doubts to question their status as play off favourites.
Sheffield Wednesday to be promoted