Championship Play-off Preview – Cardiff City face West Ham hoping to make it third time lucky

Cardiff City host West Ham on Thursday in the first leg of this season’s play-off semi-finals on Thursday evening. It’s a familiar feeling for the Bluebirds, who face the scenario for the third season in a row after confirming sixth spot on the final day. Manager Malky MacKay will be hoping to achieve what Dave Jones failed to do last season and take his side up to the Premier League, where they would reunite with their Welsh rivals Swansea City.

On this occasion, of course, Cardiff are the outsiders at the semi-final stage, where they will meet a bang-in-form West Ham side who beat them at the Cardiff City Stadium just over a month ago. The Hammers finished the regular season with the second best away record in the Football League, and though much has been made of their comparitively poor home record, they ended the season with two straight wins at Upton Park, including the 6-0 mauling of Brighton.

On the other hand, if there is one genuine case for Cardiff, it’s that the Bluebirds have experienced the art of winning a two-legged semi-final this season when they saw off Crystal Palace to reach the Carling Cup Final. It’s a scenario that hasn’t escaped MacKay’s attention.

“This group of players have already been through this sort of thing this season, with the Carling Cup semi-final and final. That will benefit us. We need a timeline of how organised you are going into the semi-final and what you do in that time leading up to it,” the Cardiff boss stated after his side clinched sixth place at, uncannily, Palace.

“I have been in the semi-final situation as a player with West Ham, Norwich and Watford. It is about staying calm and having a game plan,” he added.

Cardiff’s conquerors two seasons ago were Blackpool, who beat them 3-2 in a pulsating final at Wembley, and the Tangerines take on Birmingham in the second semi-final on Friday. It’s been a fine achievement by Ian Holloway’s side to reach the play-offs, having had to re-group following their relegation from the Premier League and the departure of key players including midfielders Charlie Adam and David Vaughan.

Along with the flamboyant Holloway, Blackpool have an intriguing lucky charm in midfielder Stephen Dobbie. This is the third season in a row Dobbie has featured in a play-off campaign, and he’s been on the winning side in the previous two. The attacking midfielder was on loan at Blackpool from Swansea two seasons ago and scored a vital goal in the club’s dramatic semi-final win at Nottingham Forest before making a second-half appearance in the victory at Wembley. Last season he starred for his parent club, netting a goal in the Swans’ 4-2 win over Reading.

The Tangerines also possess the prolific Kevin Phillips, who scored 17 goals in 40 appearances and made the Championship Team of the Season at the ripe old age of 38. Birmingham fans will be hoping the curse of the former striker doesn’t materialise in the next couple of games.

The Blues are the team to have defied all odds in reaching the top six this season. Despite a clearout last summer following relegation from the Premier League, and having to negotiate a mind-bogglingly long fixture list due to their involvement in the Europa Cup, Chris Hughton’s side have maintained a startlingly high level of consistency.

Following Roy Hodgson’s appointment as England manager on Tuesday, Hughton has become the subject of speculation linking him with the now vacant job at West Brom, which isn’t the best of timing, but as it stands the club has denied any approach. There are potentially three more energy-sapping games ahead, but it would be foolish to write Birmingham off, even though Blues fans would probably prefer it that way.

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