The push for the Premiership kicks off, as the first legs of the Championship semi-finals take place this weekend.
On Saturday, 6th place Southampton host 3rd place Derby County. Southampton will be without skipper Claus Lundekvam, who suffered ankle ligament damage in the win over Southend in the final game of the regular season. Pedro Pele will play in Lundekvam’s place, while on-loan Polish striker Marek Saganowski is fit after a month out with a groin injury. There is no lack of play-off experience at the club as George Burley is preparing for his seventh play-off campaign at different levels. Burley has only had one success, a win in the finals at the old Wembley back in 2000 with Ipswich.
Derby boss Billy Davies is also experienced with the play-offs, and more so with the Championship play-offs after reaching the final in 2005 and the semi-final stage in 2006 with Preston. Derby have injury worries with Morten Bisgaard (calf) and super-sub Paul Peschisolido (heel) but should otherwise have a strong side to choose from.
Derby held the edge in their two regular season fixtures with a win in August and a draw in February.
The Scout’s pick: I like both clubs and both managers. They’ve built good sides and have been smart with loan signings. However, I have to pick a winner and the way the Saints have been playing in recent weeks gives them the edge. The had to push hard to make the playoffs while Derby was able to take the foot off the gas a little. I think the Saints will come out and try to play flowing football and are certainly capable of scoring plenty of goals.
On Sunday, the 153rd Black Country derby takes place between 5th place West Bromwich Albion and 6th place Wolverhampton Wanderers. There is a long, tense history between the supporters of the two clubs but recent derbies have been trouble free. West Brom currently have the lead in the derby’s history with 59 wins to Wolves’s 52.
The season series between these two clubs was split with one home win each.
Wolves manager Mick McCarthy is expecting striker Jay Bothroyd to recover in time for the Championship play-off semi-final first leg with bitter rivals West Brom. Bothroyd, who is the joint top scorer for the club this season with 9 goals, is struggling with a toe injury. For West Brom, Darren Carter is expected to make the squad after the midfielder completed a three-game ban, but Neil Clement will miss out while serving the final game of a four-match suspension.
The Scout’s pick: There hasn’t been a lot to choose between the two even in terms of recent form. Wolves are a hard-working side but overall I think West Brom has the deeper, more talented side. I am going to pick West Brom to go through to the final. Should West Brom make it to Wembley and beyond it will be the first time since the Premiership began in 1992 that the three teams who were relegated have come straight back up.