It’s often said that if you’re going to get promoted from the Championship to the Premier League, going via the playoffs is the best way to do it.
Of course, managers, players and supporters of those clubs in English football’s second tier would snap your hand off for an automatic promotion place. But going up via this bespoke end-of-season competition must be wonderful. Not only is it more lucrative, but a day out at Wembley and lifting a trophy at the national stadium just adds to the whole experience.
After an engrossing season at the top of the Championship, these matches are set to be absorbing. Here’s a detailed look at the two semi-final ties as the quartet of competitors bid to secure their spot at the Wembley final on May 25 (live on beIN SPORTS and fuboTV).
Brentford vs. Middlesbrough
Friday May 8, 2:45PM ET, Griffin Park, beIN SPORTS and fuboTV
Friday May 15, 2:45PM ET, Riverside Stadium, beIN SPORTS and fuboTV
The first playoff fixture should be an intriguing clash of styles, as the entertaining attacking ethos of Brentford will go up against the defensive cohesion of Middlesbrough.
Aside from league champions Bournemouth, Brentford have played the most aesthetic brand of football in the division. Mark Warburton’s men have thrilled during their first season in the second tier for 21 years, showcasing a marriage of intensity and ingenuity throughout the campaign. At one stage they were well in the hunt for an automatic promotion hunt, but a fifth place finish represents a startling achievement for this team.
It’s going to be engrossing to see quite how they fare against the best defensive outfit in the division. Aitor Karanka’s side have founded their campaign around a stringent back-line and have shown on many occasions this season they’re a team that relish these big ties, as was evident in wins away at Manchester City and Norwich earlier in the year.
Their mental state coming into this one could potentially set them back, however. After winning away at the Canaries with three games remaining, Boro had automatic promotion in their hands. But a defeat to Fulham in the next match set them back and you just wonder if this group of players will come into this one ruing letting that slip.
Against a Brentford team that have already exceeded expectations this season, that will be a dangerous mindset. Warburton is set to leave the Bees at the end of this campaign regardless of whether they go up and given the marvelous job he’s done at Griffin Park, these players will be desperate to send him out on a high.
Going to the Riverside needing a win will be tough for Brentford and as such, the first leg of this one at the atmospheric Griffin Park will be absolutely crucial.
Alex Pritchard, Brentford: On loan from Tottenham Hotspur, Pritchard may be diminutive in stature, but he’s the heartbeat of this Bees team.
The 22-year-old is blessed with the intricacy and intelligence needed to flourish at this level and Warburton will be looking to him to grasp this game in midfield.
Patrick Bamford Middlesbrough: Voted as the division’s best player earlier in the campaign, Bamford has proven himself to be one of the country’s most exciting young prospects.
The on-loan Chelsea man is a wonderfully gifted forward; keep an eye out for his intelligent movement, refined link-up play and clinical finishing should chances arise.
Ipswich Town vs. Norwich City
Saturday May 9, 7:15AM ET, Portman Road, beIN SPORTS and fuboTV
Saturday May 16, 7:15AM ET, Carrow Road, beIN SPORTS and fuboTV
The second playoff game will be an East Anglia derby, with local rivals Ipswich and Norwich looking to progress after what will be two high-octane legs.
Like Boro, Norwich will be disappointed not to have secured automatic promotion. Granted, before Alex Neil took over there seemed to be little chance of the Canaries mounting any kind of promotion push, but a stunning run of form since the turn of the year under the new boss propelled them to the brink of the top two.
However, that loss to the Teesiders all but ended their automatic hopes and while they arguably have the best squad in the division, psychologically they may well be a little jaded. But Neil should have no problem getting his players up for this derby game.
If they are not at full tilt, Ipswich have the class to capitalize. In Mick McCarthy they have a manager who knows what’s required to secure promotion to the Premier League and their industrious playing style makes the Tractor Boys extremely difficult to beat. In a game which is set to be tenacious but tense, that fortitude will be vital.
Norwich do seem to have a little bit more ingenuity about their play and given their stunning form over the second half of the campaign, should come into this one with confidence.
But given they only had their playoff spot confirmed on the final day of the regular season, McCarthy’s men should play without the expectation levels that have so often hampered fancied sides in this format.
Daryl Murphy, Ipswich: Murphy comes into the playoffs after plundering an exceptional 27 league goals and so often this season his forensic finishing has been the difference for the side in blue.
The 32-year-old is enjoying a blistering renaissance as he approaches the twilight of his career and given how tight these games are likely to be, his supreme predatory instincts could swing the tie Ipswich’s way.
Bradley Johnson, Norwich: At the heart of Norwich’s surge up the table in 2015 has been Johnson, who has been an eminently positive influence at the heart of the Canaries midfield.
Whether it’s breaking up the play with his defensive instincts of surging forward with the ball, Johnson knits everything together brilliantly for Neil’s men; expect the midfielder to relish the battle in the middle of the pitch throughout these two firebrand fixtures.
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