Premier League: The Battle for Football's Biggest Prize
Following the completion of the championship season on Saturday, we now know which four sides will be competing for the most expensive prize in football.
Southampton’s crushing 4-0 victory over Coventry ended their seven-year Premier League exile and condemned West Ham to a place in the playoffs, whilst Cardiff’s victory at Crystal Palace sealed the final spot ahead of Middlesbrough.
One of West Ham, Birmingham or Blackpool could be set for an immediate return to England’s top flight, or will Cardiff join the elite for the first time?
One thing for sure is there will be plenty of twists and turns before the final at Wembley on Saturday, May 19. Here is your guide to the playoffs.
The pressure is all on West Ham to return to the promised land after an absence of one season. Installed as the bookmakers’ favourites to win the league at the start of the season, the Hammers looked certain to go up, but in the end a run of five successive draws in March allowed Reading to steal a march and seal promotion. Now the pressure is on Sam Allardyce more than ever to bring some success back to Upton Park.
Allardyce has been in this situation before, and his experience will be vital to West Ham’s chances. Although West Ham have dropped a number of points at home through the course of the season, home advantage will be key in the second leg.
Going into the playoffs as favourites could work against the Hammers, especially against Cardiff, who are the underdogs. The fact that the club surrendered promotion to Reading in the final weeks could also play on their minds.
Key Player: Kevin Nolan
It may have come as a shock to see Nolan trade Newcastle for West Ham at the start of the season, but his experience could be the difference between a return to the Premier League or not. The former Bolton man is the club’s second top scorer with 12 goals, and you would not bet against him popping up with another important strike in the playoffs.
After a mass exodus at St Andrews in the summer, many people did not expect Birmingham to be in the running for an immediate return to the elite. It looked as if it could be a long season for the Blues after a slow start coupled with Europa League action, but after winning their games in hand, they soon climbed the league table.
Chris Hughton’s experience of the championship has proved vital to the Midlanders, and he could be rewarded with another promotion after guiding Newcastle back to the Premier League in 2010.
After losing one game at home throughout the course of the season, the second leg is going to be key to Birmingham’s chances. The Blues will be going into the playoffs full with momentum after not losing in the league since a 4-1 defeat at Portsmouth in March.
It’s hard to pick faults in Birmingham after they surprised everyone both in the league and in Europe. Whilst their home form is brilliant, their away form is average, so they will need to be at their best to stop a strong Blackpool side in the first leg.
Key Player: Nathan Redmond
Redmond has been one of the finds of the season after Hughton promoted him to the Blues’ first-team squad. Utilised on the flanks or behind the striker, the youngster could prove vital in the run-in. If the Blues are struggling, it could be Redmond who may swing the game in their favour.
After entertaining everyone with their positive attitude in the Premier League last season, nobody expected Blackpool to be in with a shot of an instant return. The departures of Charlie Adam, David Vaughan and DJ Campbell in the summer looked as if they could harm their promotion chances, but Ian Holloway has managed to inspire his side once again.
Blackpool’s positive attitude and energy could see them make an instant return to the Premier League against the odds. Their experience of the playoffs two years ago could prove key as well, as the experience of Barry Ferguson and Kevin Phillips in their ranks.
The Tangerines have only won one game against their playoff rivals all season, and that came in Cardiff following a 3-1 win in February. Holloway will be hoping his team can improve its form against the top sides to have a chance of regaining its Premier League status.
Key Player: Kevin Phillips
Despite his age, Kevin Phillips still manages to hit the back of the net. Whilst it may be his namesake, Matt, who has stolen the headlines this term for his side, the striker has gone about his business as usual and come up with some important strikes. Birmingham’s decision to release the striker at the end of last season could come back to haunt them.
The underdogs to win promotion could well be the side to cause a major shock. With one of the brightest young managers in the game in Malky Mackay, Cardiff could well join Welsh neighbours Swansea in the Premier League in 2012. The Bluebirds reached Wembley earlier in the season after progressing to the Carling Cup Final, and that experience in qualifying competition could be key.
Mackay has plenty of experience with playoff football from his time with West Ham, Norwich and Watford, and he could be the man to help the Bluebirds end their playoff hoodoo. The underdog tag could benefit his team, especially in the semifinal doubleheader against favourites West Ham.
The club’s playoff hoodoo could work against it once again after recent failures in the end-of-season lottery. The defeat against Reading in the semifinals last term as well as the heartbreaking defeat against Blackpool in 2010 cost them a place in the Premier League in the past, but Mackay could well be the man to end their dismal run.
Key Player: Peter Whittingham
It comes as some surprise that no Premier League club has snapped up Whittingham in the past after a number of successful years in Wales. The former Aston Villa man boasts a cultured left foot that has scored and created countless goals for the club down the years. The 27-year-old likes to dictate play for Cardiff, so don’t be surprised to see him running the show.