Thursday, 7 May 2009

Play-Off Preview

Well, it’s that time of year again. The annual opportunity to rip off twelve sets of football league supporters is upon us. Three of those groups of fans won’t mind too much, while the other nine will be needlessly disappointed as they lose out in a competition that didn’t really ought to exist. Yes, it’s time for the divisional play-offs!

Seriously, this competition is a total waste of time. Just promote the teams that finish highest up in the division; it’s quite simple really. I don’t understand the logic behind potentially promoting a side who have proven that they aren’t among the best sides in the division over a whole season, but who have been lucky enough with injuries and form to win a handful of games in late April and early May. The whole point of a season is to work out who is best in a season, not a couple of weeks; if it weren’t, Hull would be playing in Europe. Still, at least Wembley gets a few extra games to stage, so that people like me can help pay off the ridiculous fees required to build the bastard place, a place that didn’t even need building. I’d also love it if someone could explain to me why the Football League say that I can’t have the home leg included on my season ticket and I have to pay £16 to sit in my own seat.


With that off my chest, I’m now going to preview the Championship pay-offs. I mean play-offs. I’d love to have done them all, but my missus has been down from Scotland and I’ve not got a day off now until May 14th (when I’m going racing) so I’m a busy boy and this is your lot.

Let’s start with my own team. Sheffield United are the favourites; logical based on the fact that we finished third, three points clear of Reading in fourth and six points clear of sixth placed Preston. Something I picked up on whilst watching the final game of the season is that people are referring to us as “the form team”, which is frankly laughable and makes you question just how relevant form is in football. They are of course referring to our excellent long-term away record, but form is supposed to be about recent events. Prior to the Selhurst Park match, we had scored just two goals in four games. Now, we have scored just two goals in five games, winning two and drawing two. The defeat was 1-0 away to play-off rivals Burnley, who have completed a double over us this year, in a match where we played terribly; the two 0-0 draws were against poor, bottom half of the table sides (one at home, against a side who had ten men for three quarters of the match) and the last victory came courtesy of a penalty, in a 1-0 home win over Swansea and if I’m brutally honest, we didn’t look very good at all in that match. Fair enough, 1-0 away at Reading was a good result, but that's going back to Good Friday.

Some form that is. Add in the season ending injury to my player of the season Gary Naysmith (below), the questionable fitness of actual player of the season Matt Kilgallon and the complete lack of a creative midfielder and I simply can’t have us at any price, let alone the best price (Boylesports) of 12/5. Oh, another thing – does anyone like trends? Six seasons ago, we lost in the play-off final. Six seasons before that, we lost in the play-off final.

Scott recently told me that I regularly play down United’s chances of success. I conceded that he was right, but it’s worth mentioning that the chat came the night before I suggested that we’d draw with lowly Forest, which we did.

United’s opponents will be Preston, who celebrated as though they had won the league when scraping into the play-offs on goals scored, after beating QPR 2-1 (with thanks to Sheffield Wednesday for beating Cardiff). Preston have made the play-offs twice, making the final twice, but failing to win twice. Like United, they’ll be keen to make it third final lucky but Alan Irvine sounded very, shall we say, “realistic” on Sky Sports News last night. More keen to talk about how far they’d come since he took over and how they almost went down last year, he seemed very downbeat in talking about North End’s play-off hopes. With four wins from their last four matches, including 2-1 away at Birmingham and 6-0 at home to Cardiff, they are the real “form” side in my eyes and with no pressure of expectation, they shouldn’t be underestimated and 7/2 (Coral, Bet365, Stan James & SkyBet) looks interesting. Of course, the 5.1 on Betfair looks even more interesting.

That said, I don’t personally think the Lancashire side hold anything that United should fear. Jon Parkin (right) is a handful, but should easily be negated by the perfectly balanced Blades defence (strength and aggression in Morgan, pace and finesse in Kilgallon, assuming he’s fit). The two meetings earlier in the season were relatively close, but the draw at Deepdale ought to have been a United win and the 1-0 win for the Blades at Bramall Lane ought to have been by even more, but United were stuck in a lean spell, unable to hit the target. United’s points haul away from home is second only to Championship winners Wolverhampton Wanderers (and even then we lost fewer games on the road than Wolves) and that should prove the difference; I envisage a draw on Friday, with United pinching it at the Lane.

Reading look ugly, even at a best price of 5/2 (Blue Square & Coral). Supporter unrest and a shocking home record of late (their last home win was on February 7th against Preston) means that Burnley will not be too concerned about their trip to the Madejski for the second leg, particularly if the Clarets continue their impressive home form in the first leg (five wins from five, including a win over Sheffield United). The Royals have real injury concerns too, as Hunt, Harper and Armstrong are all set to miss the semis, with Little and Lita also unlikely to feature. Of the four contenders, I have to say that Reading look the least likely candidates for promotion and I’ll be looking to lay at the current price.

Burnley have a couple of injury doubts in the form of Wade Elliot (below) and Clarke Carlisle, whilst defender Rhys Williams won’t feature as his loan has expired. I still can’t see Reading troubling the Clarets, though this doesn’t bode well long term, as Burnley have had a gruelling schedule what with their cup exploits and their squad isn’t the largest. That said, they have been the side for the big occasion this year, with excellent results against Chelsea, Arsenal, Wolves and Sheffield United, so if they get through to the final, which I expect they will, they must be respected.

To wrap up then, I’ve got to say that this is set to be one of the closest Championship play-offs in a long time and I honestly can’t find much value in terms of betting. If forced, I’d predict Burnley to beat Sheffield United in a scrappy final, but I don’t think the best price of 3/1 (SkyBet & Bet365) is much cop, given Burnley’s long and tiring season. I will be laying Reading though – they are slight favourites for promotion on the exchanges as I type, which is absolutely comical.


Reading for promotion
Lay @ 3.5 (Betfair)
To win 3pts


TheHat said...

Nice read sir. I think I agree with your selection of finalists but can't pick a winner at this stage.

TBH I'd like to see Burnley promoted for a reason that escapes me atm.

The Kenster said...

I want Sheffield United to win -I'm considering putting a bet on them.
Screw Pessimism.
Also the playing down of Preston makes me think the manager knows something negative about the side which he's not revealing. I know I'm reading too much into it probably, but anyway, I think every time I've placed a bet on Preston they lose for me.
Nice read, and I agree with your opinions of the whole playoff principle.

moDtheGod said...

Job done tonight. We had chances to win it, but then I guess they did too, hitting the woodwork twice. We played football and they struggled to break us down, their goal was a bit fortunate.

I can't see us losing at the Lane, I still fancy us to pinch it by the odd un. Bring on Burnley.

moDtheGod said...

"I envisage a draw on Friday, with United pinching it at the Lane."

"I still fancy us to pinch it by the odd un. Bring on Burnley."

So spot on then. Assuming Reading don't beat Burnley tomorrow. Which they won't. And it'll be another shit game to watch.

Hope I'm wrong about the Blades Burnley final.