Remember the curse of fourth? Well that’s not really the case anymore – two of the last three PO winners had finished fourth at the end of the regular season, but what’s really noticeable is that over the last decade third placed teams have been promoted as many times as fourth, fifth and sixth place sides combined.
If the trend over the last decade continues, Reading will be back in the Premier League next season and Fulham will still be knocking around in the Championship. However, this is the Championship and nothing is straightforward: the mini league based on the games between the four qualifiers indicates that Fulham and Reading were far better than the others and Huddersfield were appreciably worse than the other three.
Basically, each team has an obvious weakness and if that can be exploited by their opponents we could have some interesting games. I have a feeling that whoever wins promotion to the Premier League may last only one season: with Middlesbrough rejoining the Championship after losing at Chelsea earlier this week, that’s a distinct possibility.
Fulham v Reading (Sky Sports 2, Saturday, 5:30pm)
Only one defeat in their last ten games at Craven Cottage, but the thing that stands out straight away is that they’ve conceded in nine of those ten games and they’ve had to come from behind in two of them. Only Barnsley and Rotherham conceded more goals at home than Fulham this season, but only Brighton, Newcastle and Norwich scored more goals in front of their own fans. Fulham’s strong point is their home record against the teams that finished in the top half of the table: they lost 2-1 to Brighton at the start of the year, but that’s it.
Reading have won four of their last ten aways but they also lost 7-1 at Norwich over that period, failed to score in three of those games and only kept two clean sheets. However, even though only Brighton, Fulham and Newcastle only won more away games this season, the Royals’ hot streak away from home came in the early part of the season and it’s noticeable that when they were beaten 5-0 at Fulham at the start of December they weren’t nearly as impressive. If they’d not had consecutive last minute away wins at Blackburn and Bristol City it’s fair to say that Reading may not have been in this position: they may be about to be spectacularly exposed.
Verdict: there’ll be goals in this game. Five of the last six meetings in the league between these sides in the league at Fulham have produced at least three goals. Reading have only won two of those encounters, their last victory coming in a Premier League game in May 2013.
The game finished 1-1, but Fulham had to come from behind to earn the draw after Jonathan Obita had given Reading the lead.
Huddersfield v Sheffield Wednesday (Sky Sports 2, Sunday, noon)
On paper, this looks like a classic Yorkshire derby with little to chose from between the clubs. Dig a bit deeper and you start seeing it from a very different perspective.
Town’s highest league position for 17 years indicates that they’re here on merit, but their win over Reading in mid-February was their only victory against their competitors in the playoffs and they’ve only won three of their last ten games – and that includes only half of their last six at home. This season they lost both games to Sheffield Wednesday without scoring and since 2000 they’ve only beaten Wednesday twice in nine games where they’ve had home advantage.
Ominously, Wednesday have been here before and although playoff success following playoff failure is rare, it’s not unknown. They’ve only lost twice on the road since January and were one of only four teams last season that had a positive away goal difference, which is one of the vital statistics for a team looking for promotion. That’s one way of looking at it: the other is that the away wins at Newcastle and Huddersfield were Wednesday’s only victories against teams that finished in the top half of the table and they’ve not improved in that respect since last season.
Verdict: I can see this going two ways. Either it’ll be a cagey, low scoring draw or Wednesday will take a decisive lead into the second leg. I think it’s entirely possible that Huddersfield may be ‘pleased to be here’ rather than having any real expectations for promotion, but I’ve been very wrong before about the playoffs.
Update: cagey, low scoring draw. 0-0.
In other news, Hull City have been relegated from the Premier League. As there’s only one team left to be confirmed in next season’s Championship line up, I’m going to start researching the previews 🙂