The Championship Playoff Final is often dubbed the most valuable game in world football.
One of Reading, Sheffield Wednesday, Huddersfield Town and Fulham will being playing in the top flight next season and will receive a slice of the Premier League’s television money as a result. The other three will have to pick themselves up for another campaign in the second tier.
Famously hard to predict, I’ll be reviewing the teams involved to try and work out who will win themselves a place in the Premier League for next season.
After a steady start to the season under the new manager Jaap Stam, Reading entered the top six in late October and have managed to remain there until the end of the season. Neither in contention for automatic promotion nor in danger of dropping out of the play-offs, Reading produced a remarkably consistent season, a couple of huge defeats (they lost 7-1 to Norwich in April) aside. Yann Kermorgant netted eighteen times whilst John Swift also had an excellent season, being nominated for young player of the year.
By finishing third, Reading get to play the second leg of their semi-final against Fulham at the Madejski Stadium. This could be a crucial advantage as Reading suffered just two defeats at home all season, the least of any side in the division.
Fulham won five of their last six games to overhaul Leeds United and finish sixth. After an indifferent start to the season – they didn’t win a game in September – Fulham ended the campaign in terrific form, losing just two of their final seventeen games. They scored as many goals as anyone in the league, and far more than any of their playoff rivals, sharing the goals around the team with Tom Cairney, Stefan Johansen and Chris Martin – all reaching double figures.
They will not worry about having to play the second leg of their playoff away from home, considering that only Newcastle picked up more points on the road than Fulham this season.
Having been in sixth place for much of 2017, six wins in a row during April saw Wednesday move up to fourth. The mercurial Fernando Forestieri scored twelve goals, but their success was built on a solid back four with only Newcastle and Brighton conceding fewer goals this season.
Having ended the season in sensational form, Wednesday can be confident of going one better than last season when they lost the play-off final to Hull City.
For much of the season, Huddersfield Town were threatening to gate-crash the top two, but after losing six of their final ten matches, had to settle for fifth. Elias Kachunga netted twelve times, though Huddersfield were the lowest scorers in the top six.
Although David Wagner has had the luxury of resting players ahead of the play-offs, his side’s recent league form must be a concern.
Reading vs Fulham:
Fulham’s goal scoring exploits should see them emerge victorious at Craven Cottage. They won 5-0 at home to Reading in December, but if they take any sort of lead to the Madejski, they should reach the final.
Sheffield Wednesday vs Huddersfield Town:
It’s hard to look past Wednesday when comparing the form of the two sides. They beat Huddersfield home and away in the league, keeping a clean sheet both times. It’s likely to come down to a single goal and with a player like Forestieri in the side, one would likely be backing Wednesday to get it.
Sheffield Wednesday should be able to reach the Premier League. Their solid defence and experience of last year’s final should stand them in good stead. Fulham triumphed in this fixture on the final day of the season, but this will be a game too far for them.