FRIDAY sees the start of the Championship play-offs so we asked Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) to check out the hot (and not so hot) bets ahead of the season finale.
Norwich City (19/10 Ladbrokes)
- Home Record: W12-D6-L5 (7th)
- Away Record: W13-D5-L5 (2nd)
- Last 8 Record: W6-D1-L1 (2nd)
- Record v Top-Half: W12-D5-L5 (2nd)
- Record v Play-Off Rivals: W3-D0-L3 (2nd/4)
Looking back on the ante-post odds for the Championship, it’s surprising to see Norwich rated fifth favourites to win the league at 11/1 behind Derby, Cardiff, Wigan and Fulham. Hindsight is great and all that but the Canaries dropped down to the second tier with a stronger squad than their two relegated rivals, more stability and greater experience at playing at this level. The only missing ingredient was a manager with the required expertise to drive the Norwich train back towards the Premier League.
It took time but eventually the powers that be cottoned onto the fact Neil Adams wasn’t the right man to take the Norfolk club forward and made a surprising move to bring in young and relatively unknown Hamilton boss Alex Neil. Sure, Norwich had picked up 10 points from 15 before Neil’s appointment but the drastic improvement on the pitch has shown little sign of stopping.
Since his arrival on the 9 January, Neil has guided the Canaries to a hugely impressive W15-D4-L3 – the 2.23 points-per-game average across those 22 fixtures would have given Norwich a grand total of 102 points over a 46-game season. Four points from their final nine (losing at home to Middlesbrough, drawing at Rotherham and beating Fulham) cost Neil his number aim of automatic promotion and now they face a do-or-die play-off semi-final against bitter rivals Ipswich…
Well the Carrow Road club showed no sign of pressure in putting their East Anglian neighbours away in both league outings this season and they’ll be confident of repeating the trick heading into the play-offs. Interestingly, 70% of teams finishing third over the past 20 years have successfully made the play-off final with only Nottingham Forest (2009/10) falling at the semi-final stage in the previous nine seasons. Five of those nine teams to finish third went on to win promotion.
So with the strongest squad – an experienced defence that’s adept at handling an aerial threat, a creative midfield and three excellent forwards to choose from – the Canaries are fair favourites. It’s also fair to say they are the side attacking the play-offs with momentum and form but would I be taking the 19/10 (Ladbrokes) on offer for promotion? Nope, it’s just too short to throw my money at.
Middlesbrough 12/5 (Betway)
- Home Record: W15-D5-L3 (1st)
- Away Record: W10-D5-L8 (5th)
- Last 8 Record: W4-D1-L3 (10th)
- Record v Top-Half: W12-D6-L4 (1st)
- Record v Play-Off Rivals: W5-D0-L1 (1st/4)
Middlesbrough continue to confuse rather than impress me. The 1-0 success they secured at Norwich showed all the hallmarks of a Jose Mourinho side and it’s no surprise that Aitor Karanka sees the Special One as a close allay. The Teesiders also claimed a well-earned 1-0 win at Derby in mid-March but five defeats from their other five away fixtures is of grave concern.
Boro enter the play-offs with the best home record in the league as well as topping the mini-league against fellow top-half clubs and top-eight rivals. On that basis, Karanka’s charges have to be given complete respect and of course I will. But there’s still something niggling away at me and I can’t quite put my finger on it.
Middlesbrough’s form since Valentine’s Day has been incredibly inconsistent (W8-D2-L6) and although they’re picking up plenty of clean sheets (a divisional-high of 21), they’ve just not been potent enough in front of goal. QPR managed to scrape their way into the Premier League last time out but it’s unrealistic to think that approach could work for a second successive season.
Finishing fourth is considered a bit of a hoodoo too. Last year Harry Redknapp’s R’s became the first side since Charlton in 1998 to win the play-offs having finished fourth. However, a date with Brentford should allow Boro to take the initiative; they slammed the Bees 4-0 at the Riverside before a smash-and-grab 1-0 win at Griffin Park in late January.
Karanka’s men are at their strongest when they control football matches and hold the aces; sitting deep, absorbing pressure and playing on the break. That might sound obvious but Boro have only trailed in 11 games this season and against Fulham we saw exactly what can happen when the Teesiders are asked to chase results. In the 11 fixtures they’ve fallen behind in, Middlesbrough have picked up only five points.
If someone put a gun to my head, I’d go against everything and put Middlesbrough up for promotion at 12/5 with Betway. It’s the best price on a side that’s unlikely to be taken apart but like Norwich above, can I honestly recommend a bet on Boro at that price? Nope.
Brentford 4/1 (William Hill)
- Home Record: W12-D6-L5 (8th)
- Away Record: W13-D3-L9 (4th)
- Last 8 Record: W3-D4-L1 (8th)
- Record v Top-Half: W7-D4-L11 (8th)
- Record v Play-Off Rivals: W1-D1-L4 (4th/4)
I’m absolutely delighted to see Brentford in the play-offs. The Bees thoroughly deserve it after a staggeringly good season following promotion from League One. The West Londoners have done it in style, playing a high-tempo pressing game mixed with a dash of silky short-passing football. They’ve been a breath of fresh air to the Championship.
So rather than focus on the negatives (Mark Warburton’s departure in the coming weeks), Brentford deserve praise and positive press. They started the season as 50/1 outsiders and whilst their form has ducked, dipped and dived in recent weeks, you can be sure the Bees will be buzzing at the chance to attack the play-offs.
Questions will be asked about just how much the Warburton news has affected the players and we can see that when rumours broke about his possible axing in early February, Brentford were averaging 1.79 points-per-game across those opening 29 games. They picked up 1.53 points-per-game in their final 17 (W7-D5-L5) – it’s easy to point out the correlation between the two but perhaps the surprise factor slowly evaporated and opponents were more accustomed to their high-energy approach?
One thing is for sure; Warburton’s going to have to work out a way for his team to beat the league’s leading lights. The Bees picked up 67% of their points against teams in 14th and below and recorded W2-D1-L7 figures against the top-six. They showed enough guile and craft to unsettle Middlesbrough at Griffin Park but whether they can get the better of the Teesiders over two legs remains to be seen.
Going on previous trends, fifth-placed finishers have the second best record for reaching play-off finals and clinching promotion across the past 20 years – four of the past six Championship play-off finals have been contested by teams finishing in fifth and so on that basis, you might be piqued by the 4/1 from William Hill that Brentford book their place in the Premier League next season.
Ipswich Town 9/2 (Bet365)
- Home Record: W15-D5-L3 (2nd)
- Away Record: W7-D7-L9 (10th)
- Last 8 Record: W4-D2-L2 (6th)
- Record v Top-Half: W9-D7-L6 (5th)
- Record v Top-6: W2-D1-L3 (3rd/4)
Hands up if you’re happy for Mick? I’m sure I’m not alone in raising both hands to the sky. I’m delighted to see his work with Ipswich rewarded with a place inside the top-six. Having spent pennies on the squad, Big Mick’s transformed the club from no-where men to contenders.
Rewind to New Year’s Eve and Town were sitting pretty in second (W13-D8-L3) but their 2015 form almost cost them a play-off place (W9-D4-L9). Whilst their road form has deserted the Tractor Boys, McCarthy’s men have remained mightily impressive at Portman Road. The 19 points taken from 24 on offer at HQ since February is the sole reason behind Ipswich’s top-six finish.
For all the warm applause coming from my direction, I must admit I’m a little nervous about their semi-final date against rivals Norwich. Town failed to score in both league meetings with their bitter neighbours this term and just when it matters most, it looks like Ipswich are running out steam and more importantly, defensive shape and structure.
McCarthy’s troops have kept just three clean sheets this calendar year and whilst they displayed tremendous tactical acumen and work ethic to win away at Watford, you just wonder how many more times this current crop can pull off the unexpected, especially in a pressurised derby and play-off environment.
We know Ipswich will be gritty. We know they’ll probably be unsexy, probably fairly direct and one-dimensional but is that enough? The Canaries coped immaculately in their earlier duels and although Freddie Sears’ injection of pace alongside Daryl Murphy’s willing runs could cause problems, I just think they’re going to come up short.
The romantic in me would love to see the Suffolk side back in the Premier League for the first time since 2002. Four of the last six sixth-placed sides to reach the Championship play-off final have gone on to win promotion but sadly, I reckon the 9/2 (Bet365) odds on promotion reflect their chances. A semi-final exit looks most likely and another season fighting in the second tier looms.
Championship Play-Off Trends
Below is a full list of the past 20 Championship play-off positions and how they've played out. I adore statistics and whilst the table can make interesting reading, it's worth taking the trends with a pinch of salt. This is the play-offs and this is the Football League after all…
|1994/95||Reading (RU)||Bolton (W)||Wolves||Tranmere|
|1995/96||Crystal Palace (RU)||Stoke||Leicester (W)||Charlton|
|1996/97||Wolves||Ipswich||Sheff Utd (RU)||Crystal Palace (W)|
|1997/98||Sunderland (RU)||Charlton (W)||Ipswich||Sheff Utd|
|1998/99||Ipswich||Birmingham||Watford (W)||Bolton (RU)|
|1999/00||Ipswich (W)||Barnsley (RU)||Birmingham||Bolton|
|2000/01||Bolton (W)||Preston (RU)||Birmingham||West Brom|
|2001/02||Wolves||Millwall||Birmingham (W||Norwich (RU)|
|2002/03||Sheff Utd (RU)||Reading||Wolves (W)||Nottm Forest|
|2003/04||Sunderland||West Ham (RU)||Ipswich||Crystal Palace (W)|
|2004/05||Ipswich||Derby||Preston (RU)||West Ham (W)|
|2005/06||Watford (W)||Preston||Leeds (RU)||Crystal Palace|
|2006/07||Derby (W)||West Brom (RU)||Wolves||Southampton|
|2007/08||Hull (W)||Bristol City (RU)||Crystal Palace||Watford|
|2008/09||Sheff Utd (RU)||Reading||Burnley (W)||Preston|
|2009/10||Nottm Forest||Cardiff (RU)||Leicester||Blackpool (W)|
|2010/11||Swansea (W)||Cardiff (RU)||Reading (RU)||Nottm Forest|
|2011/12||West Ham (W)||Birmingham||Blackpool (RU)||Cardiff|
|2012/13||Watford (RU)||Brighton||Crystal Palace (W)||Leicester|
|2013/14||Derby (RU)||QPR (W)||Wigan||Brighton|
|Reached The Final||70%||50%||55%||30%|
(RU) = Runners-up