One of the most entertaining factors in sports is the nail-biting appeal of postseason competition. The pressures of performing in a win-or-go home scenario, no matter the sport, makes for some intense viewing and if your team is involved, even more so.
Welcome to the EFL Championship playoffs, where winning can change the future of a club's trajectory.
After gaining automatic promotion by finishing first and second, Wolverhampton and Cardiff City return to the Premier League next season but the third spot is decided by a mini knockout tournament between the teams that finished third through sixth in England's second tier: Fulham, Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and Derby County.
The semifinals are played in two legs (home and away for each club) and it all concludes in a pressure-cooker of a final at Wembley Stadium on May 26, where the winner grabs the final spot and a ticket to the EPL.
But this is more than just a promotion, invitation to the top flight and bragging rights.
A bump up to the richest league in the world also means a huge payday for these teams, thanks to the millions available in shared television rights revenue. If a team gets promoted, certain reports make it worth approximately $270 million. The price for promotion will most likely be bigger for next season, given the fact that international rights from China, India, Scandinavia as well as the existing U.S. markets make it a $4.5 billion package from 2016 to next year. That's some serious cash.
All that said, the Championship playoff final, from a financial perspective, has been billed as the richest match in the world. Here is how the four teams shape up entering the cauldron:
(Semifinals: at Middlesbrough on May 12, vs. Middlesbrough on May 15)
There is no doubt that Steve Bruce has the deepest, most talented team in the playoffs. From Conor Hourihane’s influence as a goal scorer and ability to protect the midfield, to Jack Grealish, the homegrown product that creates plays out of nothing with his footwork and vision. Jonathan Kodjia, coming back from a serious ankle injury, is still not at his best, but Bournemouth loanee Lewis Grabban has taken the responsibility of target man, having scored eight times in 14 appearances.
At the back, John Terry’s leadership and experience will be a bonus, but it’s James Chester, his center back partner, who has been outstanding all season. The issue for this Aston Villa squad is the Championship playoffs are completely unfamiliar territory, as the club has never involved in this situation. Also, the key will be how to play in the opening, away leg. Of its 11 losses in the regular season, Villa suffered nine of them away from Villa Park.
(Semifinals: vs. Fulham on May 11, at Fulham on May 14)
Gary Rowett’s squad has the league’s top scorer in Matej Vydra, the Czech Republic striker who scored 21 regular season goals. In addition, many factors fall in the team’s favor. For starters, Derby is no stranger to the playoffs, now appearing for the third time in the last five seasons, so this club knows exactly what to expect in May. Derby also loves to score goals, having netted 70 in the regular season (only Wolves, Fulham and Aston Villa scored more), and the threats go beyond just Vydra. There’s the experienced, 33-year-old David Nugent as well as Austria’s Andi Weimann. The club enters the playoffs on a three-game unbeaten run that includes a win over promoted Cardiff and a draw vs. Aston Villa.
(Semifinals: at Derby County on May 11, vs. Derby County on May 14)
Even though Cardiff City only gained a point last Sunday, the Cottagers blew their chance of automatic promotion after Birmingham City, fighting to stay in the league, defeated them 3-1 in the last day of the season. This is a talented team, which includes 17-year-old Ryan Sessegnon, one of the most exciting young players in Europe, who can basically play anywhere on the pitch and has been touted for a big-money transfer to an elite club.
The squad emulates head coach Slavisa Jokanovic's personality–cool, calm and collected–but the playoffs are a different animal, so it will need to make sure the defensive aspect of the team is focused and ready against Derby, which possesses a tremendous amount of attacking firepower. Much of Fulham’s consistency will depend on Tom Cairney, the talented midfielder who plays the role of architect. Almost everything positive that Fulham produces comes through him. In the end, if the West London club can replicate what it did for most of the regular season, a final is surely in the cards.
The club, as it has so often in its history, also features a pair of Americans, with defender Tim Ream a first-team regular and 19-year-old Luca de la Torre a player on the rise.
(Semifinals: vs. Aston Villa on May 12, at Aston Villa on May 15)
It’s been an interesting season in the Championship for Boro after being relegated from the Premier League last year. After a disappointing start, Tony Pulis replaced Garry Monk last December, and the ex-West Brom manager added much-needed stability, thus prioritizing a more simplistic approach to the club's game. Adama Traore, the ex-Barcelona B player who was sold by Aston Villa to Boro in 2016, has taken some time to adapt to the English game, but this season he’s been fantastic, using his incredible pace and strength to overwhelm opposing left backs.
Another key player is Patrick Bamford, who has improved since Pulis’s arrival. In the end, Boro’s fate in the playoffs mainly depends on the wide players (Traore and Stewart Downing) and how much the team can disrupt Villa’s fullbacks.