After a gruelling 46-game league campaign, tomorrow lunchtime sees the quest for the promised land of the Premier League and its much sought after television revenue enter the final stage as the play-offs for promotion begin on the Lancashire coast. The four hopeful teams have a rich history. Twice European champions Nottingham Forest face Blackpool, who have had their best finish since 1977. Last season’s League One winners Leicester City play Cardiff City, the side that was so nearly involved in 2009’s play-offs, in the other semi-final.
If history is anything to go by then the team that has finished third has gone on to win promotion to the top flight most often: seven times since 1989 when the competition became solely about going up. It is also often said that if a side sneaks into the top six during the closing stages of the regular season then they have momentum. This time around the Tangerines benefitted from the lack of firepower displayed by Cardiff’s bitter rival Swansea City to pip them to the final play-off place. The in-form D. J. Campbell has netted six in six whilst strike partner Brett Ormerod is having something of a renaissance in the autumn of his career having returned to his old stomping ground last winter. Blackpool’s one-to-watch tough will need no introduction to Rangers fans. Charlie Adam has scored sixteen goals and contributed eight assists from midfield. His excellence for the Bloomfield Road outfit sees him take a rightful place in the team of year.
Ian Holloway’s side will come against the twenty-eight goal partnership of Dexter Blackstock and Rob Earnshaw. Away from the City Ground Forest have been woeful; taking only two points from a possible eighteen, but they have scored in all but one of their games on the road since the end of February. Billy Davies’s team have secured a solitary victory on their travels in 2010. The signing of Polish international Radosław Majewski on a permanent basis is a boost to the club irrespective of play-off success, but there is no disguising the fact how dreadful Forest’s away form is and they will not wish to see a repeat of the 3-1 league defeat at the hands of the tangerines on April 17th. It should not come as a surprise if they flood the midfield tomorrow lunchtime in an attempt to frustrate Blackpool and win the tie at home in the week.
Reds club captain Paul McKenna has been out with medial ligament damage since March and has an outside chance of recovering, but is more likely to feature in the final should the tricky trees progress. Blackpool must win at home to stand any chance of making it one step further. For me Forest are favourites to go up despite the away record because all they need is a draw in the first leg as they have been much stronger at home.
Turning our attention to Sunday’s clash, Leicester have to perform well at the Walkers as Cardiff’s away record has been quite good, winning nearly half of their matches on the road. A repeat of the 1-0 Leicester home win on March 13th in all probability would not be enough as Cardiff have the league’s joint top scorer Peter Whittingham (20) and talisman Michael Chopra (16). The former Newcastle striker is partnered by target-man Jay Bothroyd who has twelve assists and eleven goals. This destructive firepower and midfield flair combine to pose a real problem for the foxes. The return of Matty Fryatt from injury is timely for Nigel Pearson, but Leicester are not without their own talented players. Danny N’Guessan offers pace wide and Paul Gallagher, a player who I have always believed to be excellent at Championship level, can partner Fryatt or Martyn Waghorn and be effective on the wing.
Cardiff have not impressed me as much as their Midlands opponents defensively this season. Mark Hudson has been solid, calling upon his years of experience at this level, but another former Crystal Palace player has in my view been disappointing. Mark Kennedy was clearly past his best when he was at Selhurst Park, but he is not a full-back. Having lost his pace as wingers do when they enter their early thirties he simply did not developed the defensive skills needed to convert him into that position. The foxes similarly have a mixture of youth and experience in the back four. Centre half Wayne Brown knows all about the playoffs having achieved promotion with Hull in 2008. The stage could well be set for Peruvian Nolberto Solano, in the twilight of his career, to turn on the magic.
So much hinges on the first leg in both the ties. Forest should be contesting the final, but who they will face is so difficult to call. From the fans’ perspective a Midlands derby with Leicester would be the preference. Wednesday evening could well be a late night at the Cardiff City Stadium. As far as promotion to the promised land goes I feel Billy Davies has best overall squad, followed by Dave Jones’s bluebirds. Blackpool lack that dimension of real quality apart from Adam. Should they achieve promotion their side would require almost an entirely new XI in order to even compete to avoid relegation. My prediction is that the city of Nottingham will be celebrating two promotions for its clubs come May 22nd at Wembley.