Championship Play-off Semi-final, 2nd Leg Preview – Blackpool hope to make narrow lead over Birmingham count

Birmingham host Blackpool in the second leg of their play-off semi-final on Wednesday evening, in what is likely to be a much more exciting affair than Bank Holiday Monday’s deciding clash in the other semi, where West Ham comprehensively brushed Cardiff aside in a 5-0 aggregate win. Blackpool enter St Andrew’s knowing that avoiding defeat will guarantee a date with the Hammers at Wembley after the Tangerines triumphed 1-0 at Bloomfield Road last Friday.

Birmingham enjoyed a fine end to the regular season, going nine matches without defeat, so the Blues were dealt something of a psychological blow in the first leg. On the other hand, they were arguably let off lightly, with Ian Holloway’s side spurning several decent second-half chances that might have put the tie beyond their opponents’ reach.

Chris Hughton was quite rightly unhappy with his side’s performance, though hinted that merely an improvement could be sufficient to overturn the Blues’ deficit.

“We have a deficit of only one goal and we’ve been strong at home all season. And, if we’re better than we were on Friday night, we’ll have a chance,” Hughton told BBC Sport on Tuesday.

“They were better than us in the first leg. We just didn’t keep the ball well enough. We need to be safer with possession. But it can be a funny game. The goal that settled it was a shot going wide which took a wicked deflection. And we had the best chance from Marlon King [who hit the post] right at the end,” he added.

Birmingham’s home record this season has indeed been excellent, with a 3-1 loss to Nottingham Forest their solitary blip. Only Southampton enjoyed a better points haul at home, but even they were beaten on four occasions. The Blues beat champions Reading at St Andrew’s in the final fixture of the season, and as for the corresponding league fixture between the semi-finalists, that was a 3-0 triumph for the hosts on New Year’s Eve, and included red cards for Blackpool midfielder Barry Ferguson – formerly of Birmingham, of course – and Holloway. Birmingham fans everywhere will be hoping for a similar outcome, and the staff at Blackpool are well aware that the Blues’ faithful could play their part.

“You look at the fans they brought [to Bloomfield Road] and the passion of their fans is unbelievable,” midfielder Tom Ince, whose shot brought about the goal that separates the sides, told BBC Sport.

“It’s going to take every ounce of everything we’ve got going down there with their crowd and their passion. It will be a great night. I’m looking forward to it. The Brummie people love their football. Passion? You won’t get better than there. It’s absolutely brilliant,” added Holloway.

All of which suggests that Blackpool may have to do more than simply protect their lead, and Ince insists they plan to attack. Cynics may argue such a statement is merely kidology, but then again his manager has been in this situation before and that could count in the Tangerines’ favour. Two seasons ago Holloway’s side, who had only secured sixth spot on the final day, beat Nottingham Forest 2-1 at Bloomfield Road at the same stage. Rather than defending in numbers, Blackpool travelled to the City Ground and won 4-3 in a pulsating second leg. There may not be as many goals on Wednesday, but one suspects it will still be a thriller.

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