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Hammer Time: West Ham look best equipped of the Championship playoff teams to make it back to the Premier League

East London club look best equipped for Premiership survival but recent history points to high-stakes heartache looming

Looking at the four clubs involved in this year’s playoffs for the final promotion spot, West Ham United have the look of a Premiership outfit vying with three second-tier competitors. The Hammers however must be kicking themselves for needing the playoff lottery ticket at all. Having started the season with the tag of hot favourites and a squad boasting plenty of established Premier League stars, West Ham have had to settle for third place behind champions Reading and then Southampton, who clinched successive promotions against the odds. Should West Ham manage to successfully negotiate the playoff minefield the signs are good that they could quickly re-establish themselves as Premier League stalwarts. Carlton Cole, Kevin Nolan, Mark Noble and Rob Green are just some of the names within their ranks that are already proven players at the top level. The East London outfit also boast impressive Championship attendance figures with regular crowds over 30,000. They will surely be hoping that promotion will see this figure surge upwards. The new Olympic Stadium too lies in wait to house the faithful. An experienced top-flight manager in Sam Allardyce is the final string to the hammer’s bow. Big Sam though, will surely know that it is not necessarily the team that is most ready for premiership football that gains it, and certainly that finishing third counts for nothing in a playoff showdown.

The playoffs are often labelled unfair due to the fact that a team finishing well off the pace can gain promotion ahead of sides which have outperformed them over the course of the season. Some would say that justice was done last season as Swansea, who finished in third playing attractive football, emerged from the playoffs to take their hard earned Premiership place. 2010 however saw Blackpool spring a surprise and book their spot after finishing sixth in the league. Similarly fifth placed Burnley shot down third placed Sheffield United at Wembley in 2009.

West Ham’s opponents in the first of the semi finals, Cardiff City, are more familiar than most to the playoff hurt. Last season Cardiff lost to Reading in the two-leg semi-final after being undone by Blackpool in the final the previous year. The side from the Welsh capital have been running near the front of the pack in the Championship for a number of years now, also narrowly missing out on a playoff spot in 2008. Cardiff have made steady progress but fans of the Bluebirds have had to look on with envy as bitter rivals City establish themselves as a Premiership side. The positive surely here is that if Swansea can go up and stay up then why not Cardiff? Many neutrals witnessing the heartache for the Welsh side in recent years may like to see them promoted but the playoffs are truly unforgiving and hold respect for neither the league table nor sides with multiple near misses.

Ian Holloway’s Blackpool shocked everyone, most likely including themselves, winning promotion in 2010. The club clearly was not ready for the unexpected step up and despite entertaining football fans up and down the country both with their often superb attacking style and regularly mind-boggling press conferences from Holloway, the Seasiders eventually washed up back in the second tier. This time they take on Birmingham in the second semi-final and while many people would like to see them back, it has to be said that Blackpool are the least likely of the four to survive long term. Bloomfield Road holds only just over 16000 and the club lacks the financial potential of the other sides involved.

After a run of successive draws Birmingham City may have discovered their form at the right time, beating champions Reading on the last day of the league campaign. The Blues are no stranger to Premiership football and should they emerge from the playoffs would without doubt have a fighting chance of stabilising themselves in the top flight. No one would deny boss Chris Hughton his place in the Premiership after a somewhat harsh sacking at Newcastle United. The St Andrews side are in danger of becoming the country’s number one yo-yo team, but with some Premiership experience in the squad and Hong Kong businessman Carson Yeung likely to provide investment, should they go up Birmingham have the next best chance after West Ham of staying there. Promotion would surely taste even sweeter should ex-manager Alex McLeish and bitter rivals Aston Villa drop the other way.

West Ham in third racked up 86 points in the championship this season; that’s 10 more that Birmingham and 11 more than both Blackpool and Cardiff. They scored more than the other three sides and conceded less. They also won five more games than Cardiff. All this though, counts for nothing in the playoff battle; ultimately it will be down to who holds their nerve and a bit of luck in what are sure to be five dramatic games of very high sakes drama. The playoff final itself is often dubbed the “richest game in football”. Promotion to the Premier League party is said to be worth well over £100million, mostly from additional television revenue. Not bad for any promoted team, especially one entering through the back door.

By Francis Johnston

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Europa League Preview: Tottenham, Fulham, Stoke and Birmingham in a confusing European adventure

The draw for the group stages of this season’s Europa League has thrown up a number of difficult and interesting challenges for England’s representatives, with qualification through to the knock-out stages far from assured. This term it will be up to Tottenham, Fulham, Stoke and Birmingham to do the nation proud, and test their wits against some cultured European opposition.

Tottenham were drawn in Group A, and have been given one opponent on their doorstep, and two on the other side of the continent. Shamrock Rovers, Rubin Kazan and PAOK FC will look to further frustrate Spurs fans after their slow start to the campaign, and will have taken comfort in Harry Redknapp’s men being outplayed and beaten by both Manchester clubs in the space of six days.

The Russians will provide the most difficult opponent, and were unlucky not to make the Champions League; Kurban Berdyev’s side lost out narrowly to Lyon in the qualifiers. The Tsentrainyi Stadion is a hostile environment to enter, and a host of Russian internationals and familiar face Obafemi Martins will make the away tie in particular increasingly difficult. PAOK are not the force of past decades, but, like the Russians will make the away leg uncomfortable. The Irish champions will be sure to put up a fight in the emerald isle, but may find similar treatment to that distributed to Hearts in the qualifying round forthcoming at White Hart Lane.

Stoke have arguably got the most difficult task in front of them, with travels to the far-fetched lands of Israel, Turkey and Ukraine; Maccabi Tel Aviv, Besiktas and Dinamo Kiev lie in wait. Tony Pulis will be happy he has Wilson Palacios and Peter Crouch at his disposal, in what should be a tricky campaign. The Turks have European calibre and experience, and will look to capitalise on the English outfit’s lack of past action in the continent. Stoke’s direct style of play will be countered by a technically gifted midfield trio of ex-Real Madrid playmaker Guti and Portugal international duo Ricardo Quaresma and Simao Sabrosa.

Kiev are top of the Ukranian Premier League currently have attacking options that could be the downfall of the side from the Britannia, with Andriy Shevchenko and international team-mate Andriy Yarmolenko sure to cause Ryan Shawcross and company problems. Tel Aviv meanwhile will be the least threatening member of the trio, but the distance to the away leg will ensure a win is not guaranteed.

Fulham have a mixed group comprising Twente, OB Odense and Wisla Krakow. The Dutch side crashed out of the Champions League qualifiers at the hands of Benfica, but have a strong team; despite this a deadline day move saw Bryan Ruiz swap De Grolsch Veste for Craven Cottage, which could be the difference between the sides. OB were unlucky not to make the group stage of the top tournament, as they were eliminated by Spaniards Villarreal, despite winning the first leg. Krakow offer up an unpredictable element, but should not be underestimated as they are Poland’s current champions.

Birmingham may find the going tough especially with a squad depleted after relegation and will most likely focus on their domestic fixtures in an attempt to make it back to the English top flight, rather than a European adventure. Club Brugge and last year’s defeated finalists Braga should be too strong for The Championship side, who will target the fixtures against Slovenian outfit Maribor as winnable games.

The English sides will travel to the four corners of the continent in this year’s group stage, have drawn difficult opponents, and will have to be at the top of their game if they are to progress.

Published – http://soccerlens.com/europa-league-preview-tottenham-fulham-stoke-and-birmingham-in-a-confusing-european-adventure/78376/

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