It is often said that for a Football League player or a fan of a Football League side in England, there is no worse a footballing fate than being on the losing side in a Championship Play-Off Final. After 46 league games, the excitement of winning a two-legged semi-final and the anticipation of a trip to Wembley, it must be difficult to take when the chance of mixing it with some of Europe’s elite sides disappears at the last possible stage. Especially at the end of an arduous and draining campaign!
Unfortunately this cruel fate is one that the players of either Blackpool or West Ham United will have to endure on Saturday. But with both sides having featured in the Premier League last season, you feel they will need no extra motivation to get back to English football’s promised land and secure the financial windfall that comes with winning what has been dubbed as “Football’s Richest Game”.
The two teams that are involved this season are particularly contrasting in their approach to the game and their style of play.
Under Ian Holloway, Blackpool has responded excellently to their relegation from the Premier League last season. Many of their fans feared it would be a long time before Blackpool were challenging at the top of the Championship again after selling star players like Charlie Adam, David Vaughan and DJ Campbell. But after some sensible rebuilding, Holloway’s men finished fifth in the Championship and are now consequentially one game away from returning to the top flight. The Tangerine army descending on Wembley will no doubt be confident of a victory after their 3-2 win in the 2010 final against Cardiff as well as a seven game unbeaten run to finish the season. Blackpool will be welcome back to the Premier League, as their style of football and adventurous nature was applauded and well respected in all quarters.
Whilst you could argue Blackpool have overachieved this season, the same could not be said for Sam Allardyce and his West Ham side. With Allardyce’s experience of getting sides promoted and arguably the best squad in the league at his disposal, automatic promotion was expected by the Hammers fans. Although Allardyce can still provide West Ham with a route back to the Premier League, it means that the pressure on his side will be enormous come Saturday afternoon. A defeat could result in catastrophic consequences for Big Sam, who is already viewed with mixed opinions at Upton Park as it is. He will be confident that his players have enough experience in these types of games to see the Hammers through and to reward their loyal supporters with a victory under the Wembley arch. Whilst Allardyce has been labelled as a long ball merchant by many, his West Ham side have played some excellent football so far this season, a style of play the Hammers fans would love to see more of in the Premier League next season.
If past meetings this season are any kind of barometer for the final then Blackpool fans should probably skip this section. West Ham won both meetings in the league campaign this season, after netting four times twice in 4-0 and 4-1 wins and Bloomfield Road and Upton Park respectively.
Route to the Final:
Cardiff City 0-2 West Ham (Collison 9’, 41’)
West Ham 3-0 Cardiff City (Nolan 15’, Vaz Te 40’, Maynard 90’)
Blackpool 1-0 Birmingham (Davies (OG) 45’)
Birmingham 2-2 Blackpool (Zigic 64’, Davies 73’; Dobbie 45’, Phillips 48’)
Likely Line Ups:
Green, Demel, Tomkins, Reid, Taylor, Noble, Nolan, O’Neill, Collison, Vaz Te, Cole
Gilks, Crainey, Eardley, Evatt, Baptiste, Ferguson, M Phillips, Angel, Taylor-Fletcher, Dobbie, Ince
Noble is West Ham through an through and he’ll be keen to fire his beloved club back to the top flight. Noble himself has been in excellent form this campaign and his creativity and vision have provided strikers such as Carlton Cole and Ricardo Vaz Te with a plethora of chances throughout. His influence will be key as West Ham look to break down The Seasiders defensive ranks.
Nolan was Allardyce’s main signing this season and they have worked together at Bolton and Newcastle in the past too. Nolan has been the Hammers leader throughout the campaign and his knack of grabbing crucial goals could see West Ham through in what will be a tense ninety minutes. Blackpool will have to track his runs and stay alert from set pieces if they are to nullify the threat he poses.
After the departure of Charlie Adam, Ian Holloway looked to Barry Ferguson to fill the gap left in their midfield and he has filled the role left by Adam. Ferguson is cool under pressure, good on the ball and strong in the tackle, providing a steadying influence on the Blackpool midfield this season. His role will be key in a congested midfield, with both sides likely to play three players in the middle of the park.
The emergence of Phillips has been a bonus for Blackpool this season. Whilst he did show glimpses of his potential during Blackpool’s Premier League campaign, he flourished in the side after a elongated spell in the first XI. He scored what eventually turned out to be the winner in the Semi Final against Birmingham and with him and former Liverpool man Tom Ince on either flank, the Seasiders best attacking options could from the wide areas.
I think West Ham will come through in this one. They have a lot of experience throughout their squad and pace and power all over the team. I think their more direct style will pose problems for the Blackpool back four and Noble and Collison should be able to get a grip on the midfield. West Ham have also been excellent defensively under Allardyce, so I think Blackpool will find it hard to break them down.
West Ham 2-0 Blackpool
For viewers in the United States, the game will be shown live on FOX Soccer at 10am ET.