The Play Offs: All Square After Round 1

After 90 seconds last Thursday evening, Swansea faced a nightmare scenario: Neil Taylor– who was only booked once during the regular season in the nPower Championship – was sent off for a challenge on Nottingham Forest’s Lewis McGugan and will miss this evening’s second leg (Sky Sports 1, 7:45pm kick off).

However, at times during the game at the City Ground it was difficult to tell which team had ten men – Forest were shut out at home for the fourth time this season as the Swans demonstrated why they had the second best defence in the division last season. Only QPR conceded fewer goals.

The second leg looks as if it could be just as tight. Swansea have won two of the last three league games against Forest, with the visitors having only won once since 2005/2006: a single goal from David McGoldrick was enough to earn Nottingham Forest all three points in December 2009.

Scoring was a problem for Forest last week and it could well be the same issue this evening: Swansea kept fourteen home clean sheets in the league this season  and only two teams (Forest and Portsmouth) scored more than one goal at the Liberty Stadium. Forest kept six clean sheets on the road in 2010/11 but only managed two in the last ten games and lost 3-2 to Swansea in March.

The other tie is also balanced on a knife edge. It was absolutely impossible to separate Reading and Cardiff City on Friday evening and tomorrow’s game (Sky Sports 1, 7:45pm) might be the one that has to go to extra time. The Bluebirds have only beaten the visitors three times in their last ten meetings with three of the last six games being drawn – and Reading were this year’s away draw specialists in the Championship, are currently on an eight game unbeaten streak away from the Madejski and haven’t conceded a four of their last five road trips.

Despite holding home advantage in the second leg, Cardiff’s recent home form hasn’t been that good. The 3-0 home defeat by Middlesbrough was surrounded by controversy about the behaviour of some of the players before and after the game and the hosts have only won two of their last six games at the Cardiff City stadium. Although this is a tremendously important game for both sides, the pressure is on Cardiff to perform – another failure to win promotion to the Premier League after their recent near misses could have a profoundly negative impact on the side from the Welsh capital next season. The possible loss of home town hero Craig Bellamy may be crucial: he limped off after 17 minutes in the first game.

With the playoffs underway and battle to stay Premier League reaching a climax next weekend, West Ham’s return to the Championship had looked inevitable from the start of the season. The Hammers last period in the Championship lasted two seasons and they reached the playoff final in consecutive seasons, losing to Crystal Palace in 2004 and beating Preston in 2005. It’s too early to say how they’ll do next season, but it might be the final chance for fans of Championship teams to visit The Boleyn Ground: it’s also highly likely that West Ham will feature in a lot of next season’s televised games – including a few that will have early kick offs following police advice.

UPDATE: Reading will play Swansea in the final at Wembley on Monday May 30th.

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Author: Mike Roberts

A football fan since the 1970s, I take my inspiration from the standard of writing that made Shoot! magazine streets ahead of anything else back in the day. I'm also a complete and utter stathead, which I blame on being exposed to American sports at the end of my teens.