This season’s edition of The Biggest Game in the Entire History of the Universe ™ is here again and this season Middlesbrough and Norwich will compete for roughly a 50% chance of being relegated or a 90% chance of finishing in the bottom half of next season’s Premier League. That’s not me being sarcastic either: since the second tier became the Championship ten seasons ago, five playoff final winners have lasted just one season in the Premier League and only one team (West Ham in 2006) has won the final and gone on to finish in the top half of the Premier League at the end of the following season. Last season’s playoff finalists (QPR) will be rejoining the Championship in August.
Monday’s game is live on Sky Sports 1 (2:00pm) with the actual football starting at 3:00pm. If you’re interested in who is going to win the last promotion place from League One, I’ll make no apologies for making a shameless plug for my League One Playoff Final preview here; why not make a Sunday afternoon of it by watching Hull and Newcastle trying to avoid relegation to the Championship earlier in the afternoon? That was sarcasm by the way…
The Curse Of Fourth appear to have ended in dramatic fashion when QPR won last season’s final with a last gasp goal from Bobby Zamora, but that was the first time a fourth placed finisher had won the final since Charlton beat Sunderland on penalties in 1998 and Rangers lasted one season in the Premier League. Boro have spent five of the last six seasons outside the top ten in the Championship and as this is only their second playoff campaign then I think it’s fair to say this game is a rare opportunity to do something unique.
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Boro have a good record against the other three playoff teams and although their convincing playoff win over Brentford went to form, don’t forget that Aitor Karanka’s side lost half of their last ten aways. That’s why probably they’re in the playoffs rather than on the beach after the open topped bus parade; Boro had the best defensive record in the Championship this season (21 clean sheets) and the defence first approach that’s worked for Karanka over the past couple of seasons could work in a one off game like this. On the other hand, Middlesbrough scored the fewest total goals amongst the sides in the top six (they were shut out twice by Bournemouth, Leeds and Reading), could find it hard to replace Patrick Bamford if they go up and could struggle to come from behind on Monday.
Key player: Grant Leadbitter. A goalscoring midfielder is what every Championship club needs and the 29 year old Mackem has almost doubled his previous best total this season. Has tons of experience in the Championship but has played at the highest level in the past and could do so again. Won’t need much motivation.
Looking back at the pre-season preview for the Canaries, it strikes me that I was pretty much on the mark. Norwich began well after being relegated but were knocked off top spot at the start of October and by the end of the following month had dropped into mid table, which is more or less what I predicted. What many of us didn’t see coming was the appointment of Alex Neil in January; that was the catalyst for a sustained promotion bid and although Norwich never regained top spot, Neil’s record at this level has been very impressive. The problem is that his record also unsustainable; but the immediate issue is whether Neil is a good enough manager to win one game and on current evidence the answer is yes.
There’s no doubt that the Canaries deserve to be one game away from an immediate return to the Premier League. They beat Watford and Ipswich twice during the regular season by aggregate scores of 6-0 and 3-0 respectively. Only Bournemouth lost fewer games this season and Norwich only failed to score in three league games at Carrow Road and four times on their travels. However, here’s where the big red warning sign starts flashing. The only team that stopped Norwich scoring in both league games was Middlesbrough, who were one of only two clubs to win both games against the Canaries (for the record, the other was Reading).
Key player: John Ruddy. The giant goalkeeper made 90 Premier League appearances over the three seasons the Canaries played in the top flight after promotion in 2011 and is still young enough to make an international comeback after a broken finger ruled him out of the England squad for Euro 2012. Ever present this season and helped to keep fourteen clean sheets in 2014/15 which included five in the ten games against the other clubs in the top six.
Head to head
Norwich have only won once in their last ten games against Middlesbrough in all competitions, a 1-0 win in October 2010 that was just after Gordon Strachan’s departure from the Riverside and was also on my list of games to keep an eye on that week. Boro have won five of the remaining nine matches but have been a couple of high scoring draws that might be worth recalling on Sunday. In May 1993 they shared six goals on Teeside and almost 12 years later it finished 4-4 at Carrow Road!
This is only the fourth time the teams finishing third and fourth have met in the playoff final over the last decade. The third place finisher has won two of the last three; the last time in 2008, when Hull beat Bristol City. All three of those games finished 1-0.
Since 2005, fourth placed finishers have gone 1-3 in finals and all of those games have been settled by no more than one goal.
Six of the last ten finals have featured less than two goals and in seven of them only one team has scored. So it won’t come as much of a surprise that 1-0 has been the most common score in the last ten seasons and even less of a surprise is that eight of the last ten finals have been won by a margin of one goal. Only Watford in 2006 and Swansea in 2011 have had a higher margin of victory, which implies next season’s final might be one sided…
This will be the first final without a team from London, the South East or Lancashire taking part since 2008.
If – as seems likely looking at the stats immediately above – we’re looking at a tight, low scoring game then the advantage is with Middlesbrough. That’s also the pattern in the recent games between the sides but as I mentioned earlier in this post, if Norwich take the lead then Boro may be forced out of their comfort zone and I’m not sure that coming from behind is their strength.
All being well I should be able to update after the game. If you’re interested in who might be coming up from the League One final, why not have a wander over to Buzzin’ League One Football to read the preview.
Update: Norwich were promoted to the Premier League following a 2-0 win over Middlesbrough his afternoon. The Canaries scored twice in the first 15 minutes and as I mentioned above, Boro were unable to come back.
In other news…Leeds hired Uwe Roesler…Derby have fired Steve McClaren…Preston will be back in the Championship after thrashing Swindon 4-0…and I’ll be back next month with the first day fixtures for next season and any other housekeeping.