Premier League hopefuls square up in Championship playoffs
The Championship Playoffs kick off tomorrow with a berth in next season’s Premier League the prize at stake.
Welsh hopefuls Swansea take on Nottingham Forest Thursday to start the round while Wales' other contender, Cardiff, travels to Reading on Friday in the first of a two-legged semifinal. (Both games live Thursday and Friday on Fox Soccer Plus from 240 ET.) The winners of the semis will meet at the end of the month at Wembley Stadium in the finals to join already promoted Norwich City and league champion Queen’s Park Rangers.
American fans might rightly ask: Why should we care? After all, Swansea is not exactly a household name in the States.
The answers are simple: This is one of the most thrilling end-of-season competitions in the sport, boasting some of the most exciting games and best atmospheres in all of football. One of these four teams will be playing with the big boys next season, and this is a chance for fans to get a glimpse of some of the best up-and-coming talent England's football has to offer.
There is much drama around the playoffs this year as well, starting with the team that was allowed to avoid them altogether: Queen’s Park Rangers, better known as "QPR" in England.
QPR were in danger of missing promotion altogether over the transfer and fielding of an Argentine player, Alejandro Faurlin, because his registration was owned by a third-party. Since the fiasco surrounding a move involving current Manchester City star Carlos Tevez to West Ham from Corinthians, the English FA has banned these kinds of transfer deals. Despite QPR being runaway leaders of the Championship, the team could have been docked points, thus throwing them into the playoff mix. Last week, the FA instead decided to fine the club $1.4m instead; the playoff teams decided not to contest the decision.
The hottest team coming into the playoffs is Nottingham Forest, winners of five of their final six games to snag the last spot in the playoffs at the expense of Leeds. But Forest have also had their share of heartbreak in recent years at this stage: they have lost all three of the playoffs they have previously participated in, most recently beaten this time last year by Blackpool.
Manager Billy Davies, one of the consensus managers of the year in the division, has experience at top level, having taken Derby up to the Premier League in 2007. (There, he struggled, lasting only four months in the job and leaving the club after his side collected only six points in fourteen games.) He’s currently embroiled in a cold war with Forest’s board of directors over transfer fees and wages and, in a strange twist, had his lawyer address reporters in the pre-match run-up over a number of topics he deemed "off-limits."
Forest club leader Lewis McGugan has been impressive in front of goal this year, with 13 goals; midfielder Guy Moussi is making a return to form after suffering an injury in February.
Their opponents will want to get an early jump out if they can in this road game. Swansea have proved extraordinarily difficult to beat at home this season and finished the league race with the second-stingiest defense, trailing only QPR in goals conceded. They also enter on a mild hot run, winning three in a row to drop Cardiff below them and snatch third place. But Swansea are also one of the great stories of the season, transforming from a club that was twice sold for a pound note twelve years ago into a team that is often referred to as a poor-man’s Arsenal.
Manager Brendan Rogers deserves the lion’s share of the credit, taking over the team on an unusual rolling contract, and now getting the Championship middleweights within touching distance of the Prem. Midfielder Joe Allen and winger Scott Sinclair have been key as well, with Sinclair leading the team in scoring with 24 goals across all play. Sinclair - a former Chelsea washout and still young at just 22 - has blossomed under Rogers and will be a key man for the Welsh side.
Friday’s pairing of Cardiff and Reading is a tighter pairing to call. Cardiff hasn’t been in the top flight since 1962 and their financial woes, which includes an ill-fated ticketing scheme that has their former chair, Peter Risdale in court over three counts of fraud, are amply documented. They also come into the game on a slide, missing out on the second-placed automatic slot by winning only one of their last four games.
Cardiff have talent, and manager Dave Jones (incidentally the longest-serving coach in the league) has done well to keep the focus on the field, where he has players like Manchester City loanee Craig Bellamy, midfielder Jason Koumas and forward Michael Chopra doing yeoman work.
High-scoring Reading started poorly but finished the second half of the season strongly to lift themselves into fourth place. Paced by Irish striker Shane Long, Reading has gotten production from all over the field, with defender Ian Harte and midfielder Jimmy Kebe making the Royals a handful in front of the net.