Now that Newcastle have secured the Championship title, it’s time to relax and enjoy the rest of the domestic season as a neutral. Even among the Champions League and top domestic leagues, the Championship Playoffs has the possibility to be the most exciting thing left in this domestic campaign. Like most of the Championship season, the playoffs are pretty difficult to predict, all but Huddersfield comes in on good form, and it’s still hard to discount David Wagner’s industrious side.
Looking at past playoff results, form coming into final few games does dictate who’s more likely to get the final promotion spot. Only Ian Holloway’s Crystal Palace from 2013 have won the playoffs with the worst form of the four. Historically the form team does secure promotion, but over the last ten years only West Ham and Norwich have achieved that. In terms of league position, 3rd and 5th place have the both won promotion over 30% of the time, while 4th and 6th have achieved it much less frequently.
Onto this season now...
Reading vs Fulham
Having watched Reading a handful of times this season, I find it hard to believe they were the third best team in the league. A goal difference of four doesn’t inspire much confidence, but they were on the receiving end of a couple of big scorelines, notably a 5-0 loss to Fulham, and a 7-1 loss recently to Norwich. Despite that, they had the best form in the league over the last ten games of the season, and they are third for a reason.
Fulham on the other hand come in as the trendy pick for many, not just their late season form, but also because they’ve gained more points than any team since November. Their double over Newcastle was impressive, especially the second match, and Tom Cairney appears to be the most creative player in the league. Historically, if a 6th place team is to win promotion, they have to come in on wave of good form, and Fulham have done that.
The two split the points this season, with Reading winning 1-0 at home, and Fulham 5-0. Like many, I’m giving Fulham the edge here. Despite losing some of their better youth prospects recently, they still have a squad of young, talented players who are confident. Reading’s more experienced side is well coached by Jaap Stam, it wouldn’t be surprising for them to pull out two professional results. Like I mentioned though, it’s not just Fulham’s recent results that give them the edge, but the fact they’ve been the best over in the league over a long stretch of time.
Sheffield Wednesday vs. Huddersfield
Wednesday have been here before, it was only a Mo Diamé wonder goal that separated them from Hull in the final last season. Again, not a team that put it together very consistently throughout the season, but they’ve put together a good run that ultimately got them ahead of Leeds and in the playoffs. That run of results should help, as well as the experience of players like Steven Fletcher and Fernando Forestieri. Like Fulham, they also did the double against Newcastle this year, executing a compact backline and counterattack to perfection. It might be a similar tactic Carlos Carvalhal against possession hungry Huddersfield.
Wagner’s side reminds me a bit of Nottingham Forest during our last promotion season, challengers for promotion all season, but falling off just in time for the playoffs. Some of that is down to Wagner resting his players, that might come in handy after an arduous season with a thin squad. Still, there was a big dip in form by the entire squad, there’s a reason, despite Newcastle’s late season dip, there was never a serious challenge for that second promotion spot. Having said that, their season has been a remarkable achievement already. Surely David Wagner will have his suitors if they don’t achieve promotion. From what they’ve done so far, it wouldn’t be shocking if they took it a step further.
These two are harder to separate for me, despite Wednesday taking six points and now allowing a goal in their two match-ups this season. Ultimately though, Rafa showed everyone how to beat this side in March, and we already know Wednesday can do it, having done it to us twice. If Huddersfield can keep Wagner, you can expect them to be in a similar position next season. For now though, I think they’ll come up just short.
A final at Wembley, and ultimately, the Premier League, awaits for these four. I think everyone will have their own preference on who they want in the Premier League. Personally, I’d like to see a historic team like Sheffield Wednesday return to the top flight, and I think they will. That would also give us a shot at Cairney in the summer, and give the Premier League a bigger northern city to balance out the current southern dominance. They all have their pros and cons, whether you look at it from the perspective of Newcastle, or the Premier League as a whole. Most importantly, as neutrals, we should expect one of the more exciting playoffs in recent years. All four have a good claim to the spot, and the three left behind will lend themselves to what should be a difficult Championship season next year.
Who do you think we will see in the Premier League with Newcastle?
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