The most prestigious game in the world of club football, the UEFA Champions League Final, takes place at Wembley Stadium on Saturday but it is Monday’s Npower Championship play-off final which is dubbed
The reason for that are the vast sums of money on offer to the club who make it in to the Premier League, not just the following season, but with the promise of parachute payments to come, even if the top flight dream turns to dust inside one season.
Bank Holiday Monday will see Reading and Swansea City bring down the curtain on the 2010/11 domestic season, and both clubs present compelling arguments as to why they should be in the top flight next season. Reading are the form horse going into the final. From mid-February, The Royals produced a run which saw just one defeat in their final 16 league games, and saw them knock Everton out of the FA Cup in the 5th Round.
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The run earned manager Brian McDermott a new contract, a move which was rewarded as he eased Reading into the play-off places. A hard-fought draw against Cardiff City at home in the first leg of the semi-final was followed up by a stunning 3-0 second leg win against the self-destructing Welsh side.
With a strong defence, superbly marshalled by skipper Matt Mills, the set piece quality of wily veteran Ian Harte, pace on the flanks through Jimmy Kebe and a striker on fire in Shane Long, Reading have all the tools to make a return to the Premier League, three years after their relegation.
Swansea City though have had a magnificent season, and are poised to be the first Welsh side to play in the Premier League, a fact which is sure to rile their near neighbours Cardiff City after their play-off heartache last season.
Brendan Rogers has carried on where previous managers have left off, and has continued the Swans slick passing style. A miserly defence at the Liberty Stadium which saw them concede just 11 goals at home in the League has been backed up by some sparkling attacking play. Scott Sinclair, the former Chelsea youngster, has blossomed under Rogers who was his former reserve team boss at Stamford Bridge and had a big hand in his formative years.
Widely regarded as one of the most attractive sides in the Championship, their recent form has been stunning, thrashing Norwich City who went up automatically, before blowing away Millwall and Sheffield United in the closing games of the season.They also have grit, as they showed in the semi-final first leg away at Nottingham Forest, where despite playing with 10 men for 88 minutes, dominated the game by keeping possession thus gaining a priceless 0-0 draw. That determination saw them still in the tie for the home leg, which they won 3-1 with another sparkling display.
Added spice, if needed, is thrown in by Rogers having formerly been the boss at Reading. All the ingredients are there for a game worthy of culminating a superb finals weekend. The two sides are so well matched that even the bookies can’t split them. You can bet though that one of them will be cashing in at the end of the day.