Saturday, May 26, 2007

Play-off Weekend

This weekend sees the climax to the English Football League season as the three divisions below the Premiership hold their play-offs to decide who gets the last available promotion places.

The play-offs have become a valued part of the football season in England. They were first introduced in 1987 when the First Division (as it was then) reduced in size from 22 teams to 20. For the first three years, they were contested between the team that had finished immediately above the automatic relegation places in one division and the three teams from the division below who'd just missed out on automatic promotion. In 1990, the format changed to that which we know today where all four contesting teams were from the same division, aiming for promotion.

The Finals to all three divisional play-offs, as this weekend, are played at Wembley when available, and this undoubtedly adds to the excitement and sheer sense of occasion. The thing is, not everyone's a big fan of the play-offs. That's because technically you could finish third in your division (which in years gone by would have earned you automatic promotion) but see a team that finished sixth take your place in the division above. And if that division happens to be the Premier League with all its financial benefits, it does tend to sting just a little bit.

Anyhow, who are the gladiators that will be battling it out for greatness and glory this weekend? Let's take a look...

League 2 Play-off
Bristol Rovers v Shrewsbury Town
Saturday 26 May 2007

This looks likely to be the closest of all three games this weekend with barely anything to choose between the two sides. Both Bristol Rovers and Shrewsbury have tight defences – Rovers keeping 22 clean sheets this season – and they both have useful attacking lines too.

If either team look to have some sort of edge, it'll be Rovers whose form towards the end of the season was rather better than their opponents. They'll also be hoping to rely upon the talents of Richard Walker who finished third top goalscorer in League 2 with 13 goals.

Another sign of the closeness between the two teams can be seen in the results of their three meetings this season. At the Memorial Stadium back in August, Rovers ran out 1-0 winners, the score was repeated in their Johnstone's Paint Trophy match last January thanks to a Walker goal, and in the league rematch at Gay Meadow in March, the match ended goalless.

When Rovers were relegated to what is now League 2 back in 2001, they struggled for the first few years, almost ending up relegated again to the Conference, but they rallied to a mid-table finish the next two seasons and 2006/07 sees their best chance to climb out of the bottom tier for quite a while.

They'll be hoping to make the most of the occasion, but promotion may not come as easy to them as Shrewsbury who hauled themselves out of the Conference in 2004 and will want to use the impetus to go up again as Yeovil have done in recent years.

It's going to be too close to call, but if I had to go for either of the two, my money would be on Rovers. Not much money, mind you...

League 1 Play-off
Blackpool v Yeovil Town
Sunday 27 May 2007

As previously mentioned, Yeovil are undergoing something of a rebirth. Their status as a Football League club only arrived in 2003 when they were Conference champions, but in their second season in League 2 they finished Champions again. So after promotion in 2003 and 2005, will they do the same in 2007?

Well it'll be tough, that's for sure. Blackpool finished third in League 1 this season, two places above Yeovil and the Seasiders form going into the play-offs was excellent – just one defeat in the final quarter of the season. Blackpool were also the highest scorers in the league with 76 goals, but despite a poor end to the league for their opponents, Yeovil redeemed themselves with a five-goal pounding of Nottingham Forest in the play-off semi finals.

When the two teams played each other this season in the league, Blackpool took four of the six points – a 1-0 win away to Yeovil in March following a 1-1 draw at Bloomfield Road last October – but the scores show them both to be closer than they seem.

So with Blackpool taking centre stage at Wembley for the first time in as long as anyone can remember, who's to say the spirit of Sir Stanley Matthews won't play apart in taking them back to the top flight again? The rebuilding work is already underway and the only thing that can stop them is a Yeovil side who are already making their own history with the achievements of the last five seasons.

Championship Play-off
Derby County v West Bromwich Albion
Monday 28 May 2007

And so to the big one – the right to own the golden ticket to the promised land. Whoever wins out of Derby and West Brom will next season play in the Premier League, earning considerable wealth as they do so.

Derby dropped out of the Premier League in 2002 and have achieved very little ever since, except for an appearance in the play-off semi-finals in 2005. That defeat to Preston didn't throw them off the scent too much, though, as they return once again in 2007 to face a West Brom side that have seen Premier League action as recently as last year.

The Baggies enter the match as favourites despite finishing one place below Derby in fourth this season. The key to their status has undoubtedly been the form of two of their front men – Diomansy Kamara (second top scorer in the Championship with 20 goals) and Kevin Phillips (fourth best with 16 goals) who have made West Brom top scorers in the league overall. Derby have little that can match with that, except possibly for Steve Howard who has also scored 16 this season.

Both teams have been inconsistent during the play-off run-in and in Derby's case it almost cost them their place in the Final. A 4-3 win on penalties over Southampton proved necessary for them to go through while West Brom edged past local rivals Wolves 4-2 on aggregate in a close-fought encounter.

Even their head-to-head results have given few clues to which team is the more superior. Derby won their home match 2-1 in November and West Brom won at The Hawthorns 1-0 a month later.

So who do I think will win? Well, my heart says Derby as I'd like to see them have another try at playing in the Premier League, but my head says West Brom. Albion boss Tony Mowbray has got his side playing some good, exciting football this season, and it'd be a shame not to see that again next year against the big teams.

All in all then, three fascinating matches to look forward to. Victory and jubilation will undoubtedly go to some, while a summer of gloom and doom will sadly await the rest.

7 comments:

MJ said...

Great site here Chris, insightful analysis is welcomed anytime. Came across it today when I was reading comments over at Soccer Shout, which is also a great website for soccer fans.

Just wanted to mention my own new blog (www.cbbes.blogspot.com). Give it a look sometime and leave some comments, feedback from readers is very important to me.

Chris (B Squad) said...

I was sad when Forest ended up losing that heart-breaker. I'm not a fan, but I like the idea of Forest. After a fairly successful FA Cup run you could see that this team could stay up if they were promoted. I do think Yeovil will continue their amazing story.
As for the championship, I have to go with West Brom. They've were on a great run to end the season, and it has carried through.

MJ said...

Disregard the address listed in my last post.

New site is www.englishsoccertalk.blogspot.com

Chris O said...

We'll do our best to come and visit, MJ!

In agreement with everything you say, Chris B. Fingers croseed for Forest next time... :)

Smart said...

Congratulations to Derby - always good to see a team finish a close third get what they deserve after 40+ games.

On that performance they wont long in the Premiership however, but congratulations anyway.

HaveYouSeenLucky said...

With what limited knowledge I have, I am happiest for Blackpool. That is all.

Smart said...

I think I agree with you there, haveyouseenlucky.

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