The most expensive game of the football season is the Championship play-off final. It’s the one game with the greatest prize money in football. And yet, it is a game that some teams desperately want to avoid playing in. For those teams hunting automatic promotion, the play-offs represent a lottery they would prefer not to be involved in. For most of this season two teams have stood out as the most likely to fill the two automatic promotion places on offer. Newcastle United and Brighton and Hove Albion have dominated the Championship league table for nearly six months now. No other team has occupied either of the two automatic promotion places since mid October.
For the majority of the season, very few would have bet against Newcastle and Brighton taking the austomatic promotion place. They are still the favourites to do so. Check any betting site, such as footballbets.tips, and you will see that all of the bookies are still reckoning on a Newcastle and Brighton top two finish. However, it is far from straight forward. Recent form suggests that nerves are setting in and form is being affected. Those looking to chance their arm on an outsider may well be in with a chance of cashing in on a surprise finish. So who will finish in the top two places? Will Newcastle and Brighton hold on, or will one of them be pipped by Huddersfield – or even Leeds United?
At this stage of the season it has less to do with who you are playing against than it does with how you are playing. Form matters. Newcastle currently top the table with eight games to go. One point ahead of Brighton, they have lost only one of their last 12 games. However, look at the form tables and they are not even in the top half. Over their last six games they have picked up only 2 wins – ironically away to two of their rivals, Brighton and Huddersfield. Newcastle also appear to have an advantage in that five of their remaining eight games are at home. That could be a poisoned chalice though. Newcastle’s home form has been surprisingly poor. The expectant nature, and nerves, of the home support is proving to be an extra burden on the Magpies.
Brighton are not fairing much better. Since losing at home to Newcastle they have gone on to lose twice more against Nottingham Forest and Leeds United. However, Brighton’s home form does seem to be rock solid. Apart from their recent loss to Newcastle they have excelled when playing at home. No other team has picked up more points at home this season. With four of their remaining games to be played at home, you would back them to pick up an automatic promotion place. Having missed out last season, Brighton have the experience of a promotion run-in. That experience could be vital in the coming weeks. Last season’s pain may be one of the strongest assets in their locker.
If any team had looked like threatening the top two then it has been Huddersfield Town. A very strong start to the season that saw them leading the division has not petered out. Where other strong starters such as Norwich City and Bristol City fell away, Huddersfield have stayed in contention. Their game in hand could see them close to within 3 points of Brighton and four points of Newcastle. For long periods Huddersfield looked like they had the capacity to keep the pressure on the top two. However, since losing at home to promotion rivals Newcastle, Huddersfield have looked less strong. Two nervy one-nil wins were followed by a weekend thrashing at the hands of Bristol City. Has their confidence gone? It would be foolish to right them off, but they need to recover quickly to maintain their automatic promotion push.
The last team that could feasibly sneak an automatic promotion place is Leeds United. The Whites started the season slowly but have improved as the season has gone on. Their weekend win over Brighton sees them only eight points behind second place Brighton, and nine behind Newcastle. With only eight games left, and a vastly inferior goal difference, they have probably left it just too late. However, form matters and Leeds United are the form team out of the top four. As nerves appear to hit the three teams above them, Leeds United could yet pull off a miracle and steal one of the two promotion places. Leeds United are definitely the long shot, but fortune favours the brave – and this time the btrave have form on their side.
So who will gain automatic promotion? In all likelihood it will be Newcastle and Brighton. They have the strongest squads and are sitting in pole position. Most are still backing them to hold on. It is no certainty though, and we all know that football can be a funny old game!