Preview: The Contenders for the Championship Play-Offs

EFL Championship 2019/20: Hull vs Brentford - tactical analysis - tactics

The Championship season is on the verge of its conclusion and the identity of its play-off candidates is almost certain. Brentford’s shock loss to Stoke City has hugely damaged their automatic promotion prospects and left them reliant on the unlikely scenario of West Brom dropping points at home to a QPR side with nothing left to play for. Swansea, meanwhile, need to win and hope Cardiff lose to a Hull City side in complete freefall in order to steal the last available play-off spot from their bitter rivals. We take a look at the likely play-off candidates and their prospective chances of gaining promotion to the Premier League.

Prior to their defeat to Stoke, Brentford had been in imperious form with a run of seven straight wins including victories over West Brom and Fulham. This certainly makes them favorites to win the play-offs, however, their confidence is likely to have been shaken by the missed opportunity for automatic promotion. Momentum is a huge part of the psychology of successful play-off campaigns and Brentford will hope victory in their final league can help them to return to a winning mindset. The goalscoring quality of players such as Ollie Watkins (25 goals) and Said Benrahma (17 goals) should give them plenty of room for optimism. Indeed, their overall goal difference is better than any other side in the Championship and with the exceptional talent in Brentford’s squad their main task must be dealing with the pressure of being favorites.

Fulham, however, have much greater experience in gaining promotion to the Premier League and achieved play-off victory as recently as 2018; beating Aston Villa 1-0 in the final. Aleksandar Mitrovic, the current Championship top scorer on 26 goals, played in that game and his experience of the big occasion could help Fulham to navigate the play-offs with greater ease. They are also in excellent form with victories over play-off rivals Cardiff and Nottingham Forest, as well as a credible away draw at 2nd-placed West Brom. Scott Parker will hope to guide his side to their third Premier League promotion and use their momentum to maximum effect.

One side decidedly lacking in momentum going into the play-offs is Nottingham Forest, who have drawn three and lost two of their last five matches; including a last-minute defeat to relegation strugglers Barnsley. The two-time European Cup winners will pray they can regain their early-season form in time for the big occasion. Lewis Grabban has been their stand-out performer this season with an impressive 20 goals and Forest may feel he needs to recover his electric best for the team to have a genuine chance of success. The Reds have not been in the top division since their relegation under Brian Clough in 1993 and will look to follow in Leeds’ footsteps as a grand, old club finally returning to the biggest stage.

Cardiff will enter as the outsiders but history tells us never to write off the side placed in sixth, with four sides achieving promotion from that position. The Welsh side will look to Blackpool as inspiration who achieved the feat most recently in 2009/10. Like Fulham, the Bluebirds have been promoted to the Premier League twice in the past and also went up in the 2017/18 season with Fulham. Their recent experience could be advantageous and they will need to exploit all possible avenues to gain the upper hand over three sides who all have superior goal differences this season. Indeed, Cardiff appear unfancied at current odds of 6/1 for promotion in the EFL Championship betting. Neil Harris will hope his men will play with the freedom which comes with lack of expectation and spring a shock in the play-offs. Stranger things have happened.

The play-offs are famous for their unpredictability and it is difficult to see a clear winner from this year’s batch once again. As anticipation builds for the season’s finale, who will blink first and who will hold their nerve for glory?