With the curtain almost drawn on one of the most frantic and unpredictable Championship campaigns to date, the fate of four teams still hangs in the balance.
The mini-tournament used to determine the final promoted side offers a unique dynamic.
On paper, the side that finished third usually look the strongest of the quartet. However, they’re burdened by the reality that they narrowly missed out on automatic promotion, while the sides in fifth and sixth have often experienced late bursts of form to grab a playoff place.
All of this makes picking a favourite for the third and final promotion place far more than a case of just ‘best side wins’.
So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at the matchups ahead of this season’s Championship playoffs, and analyse which side is best placed to experience Wembley euphoria.
Oh, what could have been for Thomas Frank’s side.
Having notched seven wins from seven after the three-month break - including impressive wins against fellow-promotion chasers Fulham and West Brom - the Bees were hot on the heels of Slaven Bilic’s side in second.
Just one win from their final two games against lowly Barnsley and Stoke City would have secured promotion to the Premier League, but they bottled it.
Two defeats from two see them enter the lottery of the playoffs.
Frank’s men face sixth-placed Swansea in their semi-final, a side they’ve enjoyed success against this season.
The Bees did the double over the Swans this campaign, with a 3-1 win at Griffin Park taking their aggregate score against Steve Cooper’s side to 6-1 after their emphatic 3-0 victory at the Liberty Stadium in October.
No side has scored more than Brentford in the league this season, while only champions Leeds United have conceded fewer, making their failure to secure automatic promotion particularly curious.
If football was played on paper you’d be foolish to back against Brentford, though with their late collapse still fresh in the memory, Frank has a big job on his hands if he’s to lift his players ahead of their semi-final showdown.
Similarly to Brentford, it was back-to-back defeats that spelt the end of Fulham's automatic promotion push - though they happened immediately after the three-month hiatus.
The Cottagers had looked well set for a place in the top two, but defeats at the hands of Brentford and Leeds in their first two games back saw Scott Parker’s side lose valuable ground on those ahead of them.
Since then Fulham have been in great form, with draws against in-form Wigan and West Brom their only dropped points in their last seven outings.
Parker’s men face fifth-placed Cardiff in their semi-final. The two sides met only a matter of weeks ago, with Fulham emerging victorious in a 2-0 win thanks to goals from Aleksandar Mitrovic and Josh Onomah.
The points were shared earlier in the season when the pair faced off at the Cardiff City Stadium, with Mitrovic yet again striking against the Bluebirds in a 1-1 draw.
Naturally, the Cottagers’ hopes of promotion rely heavily on the Championship’s leading marksman Mitrovic. The Serbia international has provided 40% of Fulham’s goals this campaign, and he’ll be key to their playoff hopes.
3. Cardiff City
The Bluebirds have done fantastically to secure a place in the top six this season.
When Neil Warnock departed the club in November 2019 they were 14th in the table, but the arrival of Neil Harris saw an upturn in results.
Despite some solid wins early on in the former Millwall manager’s tenure, Cardiff were unable to maintain their good form and looked destined for a mid-table finish.
However, three wins from their final three games has seen Harris’ side catapult themselves into fifth place, and a date with Fulham awaits them.
Despite some fine end of season form, Cardiff will need to overcome their wretched recent run against the Cottagers if they are to secure a place at Wembley. Not only have the Bluebirds failed to beat Fulham this season, they’ve also picked up just one win in their past ten meetings.
However, Cardiff have proven this season they’re capable of springing an upset - beating both Leeds and West Brom - and in a two-legged contest their impressive firepower could be enough to secure their passage to the final.
4. Swansea City
The Swansea squad are probably still in disbelief that they’ve managed to sneak into the final playoff spot.
Having kicked off their final game away at Reading three points behind sixth-placed Nottingham Forest knowing they needed a six-goal swing to overtake Sabri Lamouchi’s side, their 4-1 win at the Madejski Stadium somehow saw them leapfrog Forest after their 4-1 capitulation at home to Stoke.
A lack of consistency has marred the Swans’ season, though in Rhian Brewster they boast one of the hottest strikers in the league. The youngster has notched six goals in his last nine games and appears to be hitting form at the perfect time.
Cooper’s side have struggled against teams above them this season, picking up just two wins from their ten games against the five teams who finished above them, and a semi-final against Brentford looks a tough ask.
However, momentum is often key in the playoffs, and with just one defeat in the last seven games the Swans are in good form ahead of their clash with Brentford.
It’s never easy to predict the playoffs, with injuries and strength of character often having as much of a say as genuine quality.
Brentford’s recent slump will no doubt have Bees fans questioning their side’s mentality ahead of their game with Swansea, though in truth they should have enough to book themselves a place at Wembley.
The other semi-final is a tougher one to call, though Fulham’s strength in depth and the quality they possess at the top end of the field may just give them the edge over Cardiff.
Should Brentford and Fulham progress to the final we’ll be in for an absolute treat. Both sides can score for fun and neither will feel comfortable adopting the approach of just 'keeping it tight' (as we’ve seen on so many occasions in the second-tier showpiece).
Brentford’s hangover from their capitulation when the Premier League was within touching distance could have a huge part to play in this one.
Promotion Prediction: Fulham
Source : 90min