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Beags looks ahead to the end-of-season shoot-out

Features - Peter Beagrie Posted 2nd May 2012 view comments

They say the play-offs are a lottery and four teams have a ticket, but which side has the golden one?

You could make a case for any of them - West Ham, Birmingham, Blackpool and Cardiff have all had good seasons - and while I am tipping Ian Holloways' side it could go either way.

If you look at the points tallies in their last 10 games it shows that all of this quartet are in good form. West Ham and Blackpool have picked up 19 points from their last 30, Cardiff have 18 points and Birmingham have 17. There have only been three losses amongst their last 40 fixtures combined.

Blackpool: are they on the up once again?

Blackpool: are they on the up once again?

So in terms of momentum and form there's not a lot to choose between any of them and that's why the next fortnight is going to be so exciting.

As a former player, I just hope the games are settled by moments of magic rather than monumental mistakes. In these big matches, it's all about who can play the game rather than the occasion and that's where the managers earn their corn.

LIVE ON SKY SPORTS

Championship Play-Offs
Cardiff v West Ham
7.30pm, Thu, Sky Sports 1 HD
Blackpool v Birmingham
7.30pm, Fri, Sky Sports 1 HD
West Ham v Cardiff
4pm, Mon, Sky Sports 1 HD
Birmingham v Blackpool
7.30pm, Tue, Sky Sports 1 HD

The players who feel they have the most freedom could be the ones to come out on top.

West Ham

West Ham are perhaps the biggest of the four clubs and certainly have the most pressure on them. They were pre-season favourites for promotion, along with Leicester, because of the resources at their disposal, but I still think it's been a good season.

Sam Allardyce has managed the fans' expectations - they were expecting to bounce back up - but they've fallen short after too many home draws. Reading were the best team in the Championship and Southampton were the best footballing side, but West Ham still managed to push them both quite close.

Now they go into the play-offs in the knowledge that their away form has been brilliant all season and in the last few games they seem to be back on the goal trail at Upton Park as well. The negativity has disappeared since their big comeback against Birmingham and they should be very confident of reaching Wembley.

Their most important players are arguably Ricardo Vaz Te, Carlton Cole and Kevin Nolan who have provided the main goal threats and are in a rich vein of form.

Nolan has been a target for the boo boys at times, but has produced important goals in important games, especially away from home. He will be a key player for them, having tasted play-off success in the past alongside Big Sam at Bolton.

Without any natural wingers, the full-backs will be important too. Matt Taylor has always had a great delivery and may be called upon to supply the strikers. They have the players to play direct football and while I don't want them to go long I'd like to see them get the ball in the action areas more often.

Everybody associated with the club should be confident, but the Hammers have tasted success and heartache in previous play-offs. They lost 1-0 to Crystal Palace in the 2004 final, but returned the following season to beat Preston by the same scoreline.

Most people will make them the favourites to reach this year's final because of the way they finished the season - and it's hard to disagree with them. However, the margins are very narrow between the two sides.

Cardiff

Cardiff are on the longest unbeaten run of the four teams and are always there or thereabouts at the end of a Championship season.

They've been serial bridesmaids in the play-offs in the last couple of seasons. They were knocked out by Reading in the semi-finals last year and lost the final to Blackpool the year before that.

Blackpool are potential opponents in this year's final, but before they can think about revenge they need to focus on West Ham and making home advantage count in the first leg.

This season they have had to reinvent themselves after they lost their front four - Chris Burke, Craig Bellamy, Jay Bothroyd and Michael Chopra - and that's testimony to the great work Malky Mackay has done. I thought Dave Jones did a brilliant job for them too and his dismissal was unfair, but maybe it was time for him to take a break.

In the past we have seen them peter away at the end of the season, but they're on a 10-game unbeaten run and I feel it's a great achievement for them to get to the play-offs alongside three teams that were relegated from the Premier League last year

Can they get over the final hurdles this time? If they are to then I'm looking at creative players such as Don Cowie and Peter Whittingham, who has scored more than 50 goals and assisted 37 more in three seasons.

At less than £400,000 he has been quite a bargain and his set pieces have got them out of jail time and time again - as we saw when they were in a little bit of trouble against Crystal Palace last week.

Up front are two players from either end of the age spectrum in Kenny Miller and Joe Mason, who is full of heart and has been their main threat of late.

It's a very close game to call. People will look at West Ham's away form, but I don't think you can write them off, even if they lose at Cardiff in the first leg.

Cardiff can be expansive, they can defend really well and this game is very finely poised.

Birmingham

Speaking of finely poised, the other semi-final is even more so.

Birmingham have had an incredible season. They played their 60th game of the campaign last weekend and while you might have expected them to get worse, they have, in fact, got better.

They've scored 16 goals in the last five minutes of their games, which proves the benefit of having a manager like Chris Hughton. He might not have been 'box office' enough for Newcastle, but his experience and vision has been priceless at St Andrews.

He hasn't had much money to work with and there was a fire sale of important players after last year's relegation, but he has rotated his squad very well and found a route into the play-offs.

Chris Burke has been the stand-out performer with 13 goals and 16 assists. He's provided a regular supply line of crosses to Nikola Zigic, who has been very important to Birmingham after a disappointing start.

At the back, Curtis Davies has been a revelation. He was a disappointment in the top flight, but has performed like a Premier League stalwart this year.

I would also highlight Nathan Redmond, who has been given the opportunity to express himself and has the ability to turn defence into attack.

Can they extend their marathon season even further with a trip to Wembley? We'll soon find out.

Blackpool

Blackpool are my tip to win the play-offs because they offer something different to the other sides.

Like Birmingham and Cardiff, they lost a lot of players at the start of the season. Charlie Adam (who will be in the Sky Sports studio on Friday night), David Vaughan and DJ Campbell all moved on after relegation, but Ian Holloway has managed to galvanise his troops.

He hasn't compromised his attacking instincts either. Tom Ince has been a revelatory signing, Kevin Phillips has scored goals galore, Gary Taylor-Fletcher has a heart as big as a dustbin lid and Matt Phillips was brought back from his loan spell at Sheffield United at just the right time. He has been a real threat.

But the icing on the cake for them has been the return of Stephen Dobbie from Swansea. He was in the Blackpool ranks the last time they went up, he was a star performer for Swansea's promoted side last year and Holloway will be hoping he's a lucky talisman for them again.

But forget luck. He's a quality player who can operate in tight situations and use his intelligence behind the frontman. He's scored important goals already in their march into fifth place.

On wide open pitches, Blackpool seem to suffer less from nerves because they have so many good individuals who can hit you from all areas.

They have the most attacking options in their armoury and have an incredible belief to go forward. The manager trusts them and they have trust in each other - so that's why they're my favourites to go up.

But the Championship has embarrassed cleverer people than me as far as predictions are concerned. As ever, we value you the opinion of the supporters so let us know your predictions in the feedback form below and we'll publish them on the website...

Comments (19)

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Kyle Heys (Blackpool fan) says...

you could see that west ham had a lot of gaps at the back against cardiff in the 1st leg, if we get em in the final we will blister that defence UTMP

Posted 07:31 5th May 2012

Bapetel saleh Abubakar (Chelsea fan) says...

I'm just gonna go with west ham for the fact that they've topped the league for quite a while and then slipped up all of a sudden.....So they'd try everything possible to make up for that in the play-offs....Come on Hammers!!!!

Posted 04:16 4th May 2012

John Hill (Blackpool fan) says...

to be honest sam .. i dont think past league results matter now... this is now like a cup game not a league match...and if west ham are so good, why are they in the playoffs and not up! ...

Posted 22:03 3rd May 2012

Owen Oyston (Blackpool fan) says...

Erm, if West Ham are so good, why did Ipswich beat them 5-1 at home and 1-0 away??

Posted 17:28 3rd May 2012

Mr President (Blackpool fan) says...

Tough one to call this year. West Ham, have got to feel a tad despondent, having not clinched automatic promotion, having looked out and out certainties to go up, at one stage. However, they still have enough about them at the moment, to worry me. Birmingham - it has to be said - have had it tough this season. Playing catch up with the rest of us, after earning a Euro adventure. Zigic, has been a thorn in Blackpool's side in the past - and it's imperative, (if he plays?) that he's marked tightly, throughout both legs. Blackpool - are just pleased to have made the play-offs, after a year of rebuilding and initial despondency. They will go into each game whole-heartedly and give it their best - which usually means - all out attack, for the full 90 mins and beyond. : ) Cardiff City - I really feel for. They are always there or thereabouts and it's surely only a matter of time, before they claim a prized place in the Premier League. They haven't been quite at their best this season - but, they are still seasoned campaigners and only a fool would write them off. My forecast - Not easy but, I take both Cardiff and Blackpool to 'edge' through - for a repeat of the 2010 final. Based purely on the fact, that both clubs, have a decent amount of recent play-off experience.

Posted 17:02 3rd May 2012

Chris Hughton (Birmingham City fan) says...

I'm quite happy our chances are being down played.

Posted 16:14 3rd May 2012

D B (West Ham United fan) says...

Suits me, you keep ruling out the men in claret. You'll soon get a culture shock when Vaz Te teases your defence and makes them look like an U14 Reserve team misfit Plenty of experience behind us. COYI

Posted 15:41 3rd May 2012

Dave Rossall (Blackpool fan) says...

Maybe that was down to the tightness of the pitches Interesting to note West Hams pitch had been narrowed by 4 or 5 yards since last season. In particular the poor quality of the Blackpool pitch, which they had struggled several times on, having been more of a footballing side than the 'Ammers. Facing us if we are lucky enough to get through on a big expansive pitch like Wembley will be a different prospect entirely.

Posted 14:59 3rd May 2012

Stan Collymore (Birmingham City fan) says...

Last four games v Blackpool won 3 drew 1 - Blackpool struggle against big organised sides - and I think there back four is very weak and suspect to set pieces - i think we will win at a cater and meet West Spam in the Final

Posted 14:47 3rd May 2012

Joe Wilkins (Blackpool fan) says...

That's it then Sam. West Ham to beat Blackpool 8-1 in the final.

Posted 14:20 3rd May 2012

Sue Coleman (Cardiff City fan) says...

cardiff go into the playoffs without any pressure this season malky having rebuilt this side from scratch no one could have expected such a great season .if they can reproduce anywhere near there carlingcup final form they will take all the beating this side seems to be able to up there game in the big pressure matches and there seems to be a great team spirit in this side that wasnt there in previous seasons im all for it being 3rd time lucky for the bluebirds with a repeat wembley final against blackpool. come on you bluebirds

Posted 14:08 3rd May 2012

Oliver Reed (Nottingham Forest fan) says...

I would love to see birmingham go up i think the job Chris Houghton has done has been nothing short of amazing & i'm a forest fan!

Posted 13:50 3rd May 2012

Bluenose Sol (Birmingham City fan) says...

Birmingham drew at home to Cardiff and West Ham. We beat Blackpool 3-0! Birmingham have lost once at home all season. Just saying........

Posted 13:31 3rd May 2012

Will Fisk (Portsmouth fan) says...

Having watched my side play all of those sides this season, I was not majorly impressed by any of them. That said, they have had very good seasons in the circumstances, though West Ham may have some right to be disappointed. I think in terms of performances against us, Cardiff performed the best, whilst West Ham knew how to get a grind out the results. The winner of that semi will really fancy it in the final. I just think Blackpool might get caught out this time. I think not a lot has been made of Birmingham, and I fancy them to at reach Wembley. Going with my gut, because it really is an evenly matched playoffs this season, I'm going to go for Cardiff. I just think they're in good form and will be desperate to make up for their previous Playoff/Wembley disappointments. I think Malky Mackay is the sort of manager you want when it really boils down to it as well.

Posted 12:48 3rd May 2012

Matt Mckeown (Birmingham City fan) says...

For the first time ever i'm not that nervous going into the playoff's as a Birmingham fan. With the mass exodus or players, McJudas going to the Villa and the Hong Kong issues mid-table would have been an achievement for Hughton. Anything from here is a bonus...

Posted 12:36 3rd May 2012

Silvio Speed (Newcastle United fan) says...

Agreed with Peter, Blackpool will probably win the play-offs. But with the run Cardiff is on, they might just do it. I don't think West Ham have enough left in the tank to make the final. B'ham are a great team, but I think they'll just miss out.

Posted 09:35 3rd May 2012

Ian Carney (Blackpool fan) says...

Thanks Peter, i feel better having read your comments, and your theory on Blackpool grabbing promotion makes total sense. I was feeling pretty nervous about our clash with Birmingham on friday, but a lot more relaxed and confident about it now. 3-1, come on Pool ! cheers.

Posted 22:41 2nd May 2012

Damian Hull (Barnsley fan) says...

Blackpool have a fantastic records in the Play Offs too. Despite that i think Birmingham and West Ham have players with bigger game experience....

Posted 18:51 2nd May 2012

Sam Allardyce (West Ham United fan) says...

Erm, if Blackpool are so good, why did West Ham beat them 4-0 at home and 4-1 away, with ten men and a midfielder in goal?

Posted 16:22 2nd May 2012

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