The Championship play-offs are here, with the fate of four clubs set to be sealed across two semi-final legs, before the ultimate showdown in what is known as ‘the world’s richest game’ on May 27 at Wembley Stadium.
Fans of Sunderland, Coventry City, Middlesbrough and Luton Town, all currently maintain dreams of seeing their team lift the play-off final trophy, and securing a place among English footballing royalty next season.
How did they get here? Who are the key players to watch out for? And what are the strengths and weaknesses of each side? Let’s take a look at the runners and riders in this years Championship play-offs.
Semi-finals: first leg (H) vs Luton Town, Saturday 13 May, Stadium of Light, 17:30 kick-off. Second leg (A), Tuesday 16 May, Kenilworth Road, 20:00 kick-off
Looking to make it back-to-back play-off final wins, Sunderland have enjoyed a remarkable 2022-23 season under the management of Tony Mowbray. Their campaign has been made even more impressive when you factor in that not only have they achieved a 6th place finish in their debut season back in the second tier, but by doing it with the youngest squad in the division.
Sunderland’s forwards have also been forced to pick up the reigns in the goalscoring department, following the loss of their hitman, Ross Stewart, whilst also having striker Ellis Simms cruelly snatched away from them after his loan cut short by Everton. And they duly obliged, as only Burnley, Sheffield United and Middlesbrough scored more league goals than the Black Cats’ 68 this season.
How I here you ask? That’d be down to their electric stable of wide players that’ve been terrorising defences all season long. 13 goals and three assists from Amad Diallo, nine goals and 11 assists from Jack Clarke, five goals and seven assists courtesy of Patrick Roberts, you get the picture.
One thing that could let Sunderland down in the play-offs is injuries, as an already paper-thin squad has been handed a further blow following their final day fixture at Preston. It was revealed by Mowbray that key defender Dennis Cirkin had severe swelling on his ankle, to the point he couldn’t move it at all, and looks a major doubt for the first leg at least.
Semi-finals: first leg (H) vs Middlesbrough, Sunday 14 May, CBS Arena, 12:00 kick-off. Second leg (A) Wednesday 17 May, Riverside Stadium, 20:00 kick-off
Another of the Championship’s surprise packages this season, Coventry City have quietly been progressing in the division since their promotion from League One in 2020. And under the stewardship of Mark Robins, whose taken the Sky Blues from League Two the precipice of the Premier League, they’ve become one of the most well-drilled and toughest to beat sides in the division.
Indeed, their 20 clean sheets was only bettered by runaway title winners Burnley, and only the league’s top three sides had a fewer goals conceded per match total than Coventry’s 1.0 (per Opta Stats). So it’s evident that if this is to be their year, Coventry will have done it by being extremely effective at keeping the ball out of their net, whilst being clinical in attack.
The success of the Sky Blues this season can largely be put down to two key men in particular at opposite ends of the pitch, goalkeeper Ben Wilson and striker Viktor Gyokeres. Both were named in the Championship Team of the Season, with Wilson’s aforementioned clean sheets numbers, and the Swedish striker providing 21 goals and 10 assists, it’s easy to see why.
One area for potential concern however is the distribution of goals in the team. Coventry’s next top scorer after Gyokeres is central midfielder Gustavo Hamer with nine, followed by Matt Godden’s eight (two of which were penalties), before you get to Jamie Allen and Kasey Palmer’s six and three goals respectively.
So if for whatever strange reason Gyokeres isn’t his usual self in these play-offs, do they have enough firepower throughout the rest of the squad to get them over the line?
Semi-finals: first leg (A) vs Coventry City, Sunday 14 May, CBS Arena, 12:00 kick-off. Second leg (H) Wednesday 17 May, Riverside Stadium, 20:00 kick-off
It’s been quite the rollercoaster season on Teesside, as Middlesbrough found themselves in 21st place and just one point above the Championship relegation zone when Manchester United legend Michael Carrick was handed his first full-time managerial role with the Boro.
Since then, the club have been on a constant upward trajectory, having propelled themselves to a 4th place finish, whilst also unlocking the potential of forward Chuba Akpom, whose 28 goals earned him the honour of being named as top scorer, and Player of the Season in the Championship.
But it hasn’t all been about Akpom, as they’ve reaped the rewards of the loan market too. Striker Cameron Archer arrived from Aston Villa in January, and has contributed 11 goals and six assists in just 20 league games, meanwhile Wolves loanee Ryan Giles leads the league in assists with 11 from left-back.
Only Burnley have scored more league goals than Boro’s 84 this campaign, a pretty amazing feat considering their aforementioned struggles early on in the season. However, there has been a constant annoyance for Boro this season, and that is their frustrating knack of conceding cheap goals.
Boro are grappling with some injury woes however, as fellow Aston Villa loanee Aaron Ramsey looks a major doubt to feature at any point throughout the play-offs, whilst winger Marcus Forss and stalwart centre-back Dael Fry both face a race against the clock to be ready to contribute in the semi-finals.
Perhaps more of a worry for Middlesbrough however, just Reading and Queens Park Rangers respectively have kept fewer clean sheets than Boro’s 10 this season, with Reading being relegated to League One in 22nd and QPR just avoiding the drop in 20th place respectively.
Considering they haven’t been able to find a remedy for this ailment throughout the course of the campaign, it would appear unlikely that would change heading into the play-offs. So, will this be the undoing of Boro’s promotion dreams?
Just a decade ago, Luton Town were playing non-league football in the National League. Since then, they’ve risen up the EFL pyramid before eventually earning promotion to the Championship in 2019, and they’ve stuck around ever since.
Like their promotion rivals Coventry City, the Hatters have slowly grown into the second tier, after 19th and 12th placed finishes before their first taste of the play-offs last season. And despite losing over two legs to Huddersfield Town, Luton had wetted their appetite for promotion, and had put the league on notice to start taking them seriously in that pursuit.
And if some people hadn’t taken them seriously then, they certainly are now, as a 3rd place finish and a 14 game unbeaten run to end the season stretching back to February 25 for Rob Edwards’ side, has filled Kenilworth Road with confidence that this is their time.
There’s one player in particular, however, that has been vital to Luton’s promotion push this season, and that is their 20 goals and seven assists superstar, Carlton Morris. He’s been an absolute handful for defences all season long, and if there’s going to be a Hatters player that will have the biggest say in their play-off destiny, it’s likely to be the former Barnsley man.
However, similar again to Coventry, the supply of goals runs worryingly thin outside of Morris. Second top scorer Elijah Adebayo has seven, but beyond him, the next best is four players tied on three goals and a handful tied on two.
Indeed, Town’s 57 league goals are the fewest among the play-off teams, and only Blackburn, Watford and Preston have scored fewer in the top half of the division this season. They do however have no known injury concerns going into the play-offs, something that can’t be said for any of the other teams. Could Luton’s fully fit side be the deciding factor come the end of May?