Advertisements

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

Advertisements

Relegation dogfight intensifies; the contenders facing the drop

Let’s face it; obviously no-one wants to get relegated, but a relegation scrap can be as exciting as the race for the title, and this year there are an added number of clubs in the mix to be demoted to The Championship. The cost of relegation from the Premier League is a massive one financially and emotionally; a club can lose up to £40 million worth of television money, attendances can drop, your best players will look to jump ship in order to retain Premiership football and well, there’s the heartbreak if you’re a fan of a team that finishes in the bottom three that will spoil your summer. 40 points has been stated as the expected target to survival; so who are this year’s relegation threatened clubs, and what chance do they stand of staying up?

Wolves

Mick McCarthy’s men sit bottom on goal difference at time of writing on 25 points, and can blame a terrible away record for their current predicament with only one win and five points away from Molineux this campaign. They have looked more of a threat at home, and gave their season a shot in the arm with a historic 2-1 win over leaders Manchester United a couple of weeks ago. Wolves fans will know they missed a glorious chance to steal a march on fellow bottom feeders West Brom  in their last outing,  the Baggies grabbed a injury-time equaliser. Wolves actually have a fairly good fixture list for the run-in, with only Spurs of the top six teams yet to play. They face Blackpool at home this weekend, and must win if they are to stand a chance of avoiding Championship football next season.

Prediction – relegated

Blackpool

The Seasiders have been a revelation in their first season amongst English football elite, with Ian Holloway instilling a passing football mentality and great work ethic to his team. Blackpool started the season well and up to Christmas showed no fear to record some memorable victories. However 2011 has been more of a struggle, and there are signs that Holloway’s men are running out of steam. However the Seasiders caught Tottenham daydreaming of European glory in mid-week, and claimed an invaluable three points that puts a buffer between themselves and the team in the bottom three. They have performed better away from Bloomfield Road than at home, and need a few more wins to secure safety. The game against Wolves at Molineux is an important one, and if they can escape without defeat should be safe.

Prediction – safe

West Ham

West Ham are a big team in big trouble; they currently are on 25 points and sit one place above Wolves on goal difference. They were bottom at Christmas, which is always an ominous sign, but will be boosted by a good win in the FA Cup in midweek. If they are to stay up they need to win home games, and have six of their last eleven at Upton Park. The defeat at home to Birmingham a couple of weeks ago was a massive blow to their chances, and Avram Grant’s men are staring into the last chance saloon. The fact that the Hammers’ board have backed Grant to lead them to safety should unite the London club, and they have their next two games at home against Liverpool and Stoke, which they need to capitalise on if they want to be playing in the Premiership when they move to the Olympic stadium.

Prediction – safe, but only just

Birmingham

Alex McLeish has done an excellent job at Birmingham given the limited resources at his disposal, but the Scot has one huge problem; his team does not score enough goals. The Blues have only found the back of the net 25 times in 26 games and must start converting chances to avoid being dragged back into the mire. Their form at St Andrews should be enough to keep them up, but McLeish will not be able to rest easy until his team win a couple more games.

Prediction – safe

Aston Villa

Villa are too big a club to go down surely? Right? Wrong. Gerard Houiller’s men have had a terrible first season post Martin O’Neill and are sitting precariously in 16th on 30 points. The Birmingham club have lacked bite in the final third and some flimsy defending has cost them points, drawing too many games and losing their proud home form from seasons past. Houiller has spent big to bring in Darren Bent in January, and the responsibility lies on him and fellow England men Young, Agbonlahor and Downing to get them out of this mess. Vitally, Villa have still to play West Ham, Wigan, Wolves and West Brom, which should decide their fate.

Prediction – safe, but still a very poor season for Villa

Wigan

Wigan have been one of the most inconsistent sides in the league this year, at times looking to play good football and young players showing potential to compete at this level, but mostly they have lacked direction in midfield and leaked soft goals. Roberto Martinez’s men are sitting in the dropzone in 18th, and alarm bells must be ringing around the DW Stadium. To boot, The Latics have one of the toughest run-ins, with their next two games against Manchester United and City, and still with Tottenham and Chelsea to play. To stand any chance of survival they must work together to grind out results, which at this stage are more important than the brand of football Martinez wants them to play.

Prediction – relegated, and may finish bottom

West Brom

Roy Hodgson has taken on a tough test, and will need to utilise all his managerial experience and know-how to avoid perennial yo-yo side West Brom from dropping back to The Championship. The Baggies are sitting in 17th place, one point ahead of Wigan and home draws against fellow strugglers Wolves and West Ham in their last two games have not eased pressure on the club from The Hawthornes. West Brom have a tough run in, and if they are to avoid the drop must continue their relatively strong home record, and will need the fans to get behind them, Adrian Chilles and Frank Skinner included.

Prediction – relegated

So in my opinion it will be the three W’s, West Brom, Wolves and Wigan who will face the agony of relegation and the heavy upheaval of trying to wade through The Championship to make it back to English football’s top tournament. A lot will depend on the games the struggling sides play against each other, but this season’s fight for survival should provide a very close and enthralling finale to the 2010/11 season.

Published – http://www.caughtoffside.com/2011/02/25/premier-league-relegation-dogfight-contenders-facing-the-drop-and-predicted-outcomes/

%d bloggers like this: