The first of two mouth-watering Championship play-off semi-finals kicks off on Thursday evening, with Brighton welcoming third-placed Derby. Both teams are in fine form, with Brighton, who had hovered in and around the top 10 for months, unbeaten throughout April, while Derby ended the season with 16 points from a possible 18.
On a final day that saw massive drama at both ends of the table, the hosts will probably go into the game with the greater spring in their steps, having secured their place in the top six with a goal in the dying seconds to defeat Nottingham Forest and better Reading’s result against Burnley. Naturally, manager Oscar Garcia was bullish afterwards. “They have beaten us twice this season but we will be ready this time. We will be prepared and we will look to beat them this time around,” he said.
Derby’s form going into the final day was hugely impressive, not least because they had been chasing a losing battle for automatic promotion for several weeks as Burnley saw off any nerves to finish eight points clear, but the Rams refused to lose heart. Many raised an eyebrow when Nigel Clough became the first Championship manager to be axed despite the club starting the season solidly and employing its policy of nurturing youngsters into the side. But the change proved a terrific decision as under Steve McClaren Derby shot up the table and ended with a points total that would have been good enough for automatic promotion last season.
“When I took the job I would have said you were mad if you had told me we would finish where we are, but the players have been magnificent,” McClaren acknowledged.
Unlike Brighton and Derby, Wigan go into the play-offs in rotten form, having lost five of their final seven league fixtures. It was a strange season for the Latics, who took a long time to get going under Owen Coyle and were stuck in mid-table in December, having largely enjoyed their best performances in the Europa League, in which they narrowly missed out on progress from the group stages.
Like Derby, however, a change in management proved more than fruitful, with Uwe Rosler replacing Coyle and leading Wigan on a run that propelled the Latics into the play-off spots in the first week of March. Their place looked assured but the dip in the final few weeks meant that a top six place was only confirmed in their penultimate fixture at Birmingham and the club ended the season with a buffer of just two points.
Rosler said after Wigan’s final fixture, a 4-3 loss at Blackburn, that he had the play-offs in mind and rested several players, and the same was true of forthcoming opponents QPR, who made seven changes on the final day at Barnsley. The two go head-to-head in the second semi-final on Friday.
The Hoops were hot favourites to return to the Premier League but after a fine start tailed off badly from the automatic promotion spots in February. In fairness, their fall to fourth can be partly attributed to the loss of top scorer Charlie Austin, who suffered a shoulder injury that sidelined him for several weeks. Austin returned to action in April, however, and notched his 100th career goal at Barnsley. Harry Redknapp’s side will enter the game as slight favourites.
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