Image from the Mirror
The regular season in the Football League came to an end this weekend, which means one very exciting thing – the Play Offs are back! While they may be overshadowed by the culmination of Europe’s top competitions, they still provide drama and passion that not even a Champions League semi-final can match. Remember Sheffield United’s 5-5 draw with Swindon a few years back to claim a 7-6 aggregate win in the semi-finals? And Swansea’s dramatic 4-2 win over Reading in the play off final at Wembley in 2011 which changed the fortunes of the Welsh side for half a decade. These games matter, and we’re about to find out who out of Reading, Huddersfield Town, Sheffield Wednesday and Fulham will join champions of England’s second division Newcastle United and Premier League newcomers Brighton and Hove Albion in football’s big time, the promised land – the Premier League.
The Royals finished third in the Championship and despite being a long way off the top two who gained automatic promotion, will still be named favourites to claim that last promotion spot. Former Manchester United defender Jaap Stam has done an excellent job in his first season at the Madjeski Stadium, without really changing too much of the Reading personnel. Yann Kermogant is their key man, and the 35 year-old has had his best ever season, scoring 18 goals in the league this season, including 9 in his last 9 games. The EFL veteran will be hoping to carry this form on in the coming games, starting with their first leg tie away to Fulham on Saturday. Former Chelsea youngster Jon Swift is another play to look out for, the tricky winger has come up with some key moments for the Royals this season, and his side will need him to produce some more again over the coming week. Reading come into the play offs in good confidence, but not great confidence. In recent weeks, they have struggled in tricky games, most notably 3-0 defeats against fellow promotion candidates Brighton and Preston, and a whopping 7-1 defeat to Norwich, so they do have some frailties. They’ve also picked up some wins along the way, but those have come against some of the division’s weaker sides, where they have really struggled over the line, for example 2-1 and 1-0 wins over already relegated Rotherham and Wigan respectively. The Berkshire side have also never gained promotion from the play offs, failing in all six of their previous attempts, so their ‘favorites’ tag doesn’t tell the full story.
The Terriers were involved in the relegation fight last season, but a change in manager has led to a change in fortunes, as Town raced to the top end of the table early on in the season and have never left. The man at the helm is David Wagner, a former assistant to Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp, who also rejected the vacant Wolfsburg manager’s job mid-season to stay and help Huddersfield try to get promotion. The Yorkshire side have played some excellent attacking football with Elias Kachunga leading the way this season with 12 goals to his name, forming a devastating attack force with fellow striker Nakhi Wells and Dutch winger Rajiv Van la Parra. Manchester City loanee Aaron Mooy has been a pivotal part of Town’s midfield while on-loan Liverpool goalkeeper Danny Ward has been formidable between the sticks this campaign. However, despite their goal-hungry squad, the Yorkshire Terriers come into the play offs in poor form, with only one win in their last five, including defeats in their last two home matches at the Galpharm Stadium, where they host Sheffield Wednesday on Sunday in their first leg encounter. If they want to make the Premier League for the first time in their history, they’re going to have to find the confidence to deal with the pressure, as they are the clear underdogs.
Carlos Carvahal’s side suffered play off heartbreak last time around as they lost to Hull City at Wembley last May, and will be aiming to go one better this year. They will, once again, be looking at Fernando Forestieri for goals, with him being the focal point in the Wednesday attack, while January signing Sam Winnall has led the Owls’ scoring charts since his move from Barnsley. Their key player, however, has been goalkeeper Kieran Westwood, who has been pivotal in the Sheffield side’s success this season, with a club record 16 clean sheets in the league. Wednesday are in very good form going into the play offs, especially away from home. Apart from a meaningless encounter with Fulham on the last day of the regular season where they lost 2-1, they have won six on the bounce, including their last three away from home, which will be key ahead of the clash away to Huddersfield.
Like Huddersfield, Fulham were flirting with the idea of relegation to League One last season, but a late play off surge this time around means that they will be contesting a Premier League place, ahead of Leeds United. They are led by Slavisa Jokanovic, who gained automatic promotion with Watford two years ago before being unfairly replaced before the following campaign by Quique Sanches Flores. The Cottagers have a young and re-energised side compared to the team that was relegated from the Premier League in 2014. Tom Cairney is the league’s highest scoring midfielder with 12 goals on top of his 10 assists during the regular season, while Ryan Sessegnon has been dubbed the new Ashley Cole by many, as the 16 year-old is slowly becoming the most sought-after teenager in English football. The west London side also have a very good home record, which they should use to their advantage on Saturday against Reading.
If Fulham can use their first-leg home advantage to full effect on the weekend then they should qualify for the final easily. Reading have been shipping far too many goals recently and the Cottagers look a much more confident side. Huddersfield, meanwhile, have had a fantastic season, but it will probably come to an end come Tuesday as Sheffield Wednesday cannot afford to slip up again in the play offs, and like Fulham, come into the semi-final encounter on much better form. That means a Fulham vs Sheffield Wednesday final and while Fulham have the more recent Premier League experience, it’s Wednesday who have the play off experience and that should get them over the line come next weekend. It would be great to see the Owls and Hillsborough back in the big time, as they are still a very big club in England and they are heading in the right direction as a footballing side. Though, as previously mentioned, it’s the Play Offs, and anything could happen…