English Championship Play-Off Final & Scottish Cup Final Preview
Championship Play-Off Final
Saturday 19th May 2012
Another compelling season of Championship football is set to reach a thrilling finale on Saturday as Blackpool and West Ham United do battle at Wembley in a bid to reclaim their top flight status and pocket a handy $100 million in the process.
While many pundits expected the Hammers’ star-studded side to bounce back up to the Premier League at the first attempt, far fewer predicted that Blackpool would find themselves just ninety minutes away from doing the same.
A huge amount of credit must therefore go to both Tangerines’ boss Ian Holloway and the club’s board who kept faith with the outspoken Bristolian in the wake of last season’s relegation heartbreak.
Holloway himself has kept faith with the open, cavalier style of football that won the Lancashire side so many friends during their inaugural season in the Premier League, with only Southampton and Saturday’s opponents, West Ham, scoring more goals than the men in orange over the course of the regular season.
Blackpool made a fairly indifferent start to the campaign, taking time to readjust to the differing demands of the Championship and the loss of key men such as Charlie Adam, David Vaughan and DJ Campbell, but since the turn of the year they have lost on only four occasions, the most recent of those defeats coming at Reading back in late March.
They reached Wembley courtesy of a hard-fought 3-2 aggregate victory over Birmingham City in their semi-final, with even Holloway admitting that if the Blues had forced the second-leg at St Andrews into extra-time, he wouldn’t have fancied his side’s chances.
But having survived that tough examination in the West Midlands, the optimistic orange hordes will descend on Wembley this weekend unfazed by the fact that West Ham won both fixtures in the regular season by scorelines of 4-0 and 4-1 and confident that their heroes can produce a repeat of their dramatic 2010 triumph over Cardiff City.
In terms of potential match-winners, Thomas Ince, son of former Manchester United and England midfielder Paul, has produced a string of eye-catching performances since arriving from Liverpool last August.
Operating wide on the right, the 20-year-old has tormented full-backs throughout the division, chipped in with a handy return of seven goals and done enough to suggest that he won’t look out of place in the top flight should his side prevail on Saturday.
On a less positive note, the young winger can expect a torrent of abuse from the West Ham fans given that his father remains a figure of hate at Upton Park following his controversial move from the Hammers to Manchester United way back in 1989.
At the other end of the experience scale, 38-year-old striker Kevin Phillips has been used more sparingly this season, but has still helped himself to an impressive 17 goals and even his presence on the bench will be enough to cause concern for West Ham.
Phillips’ namesake Matt has also made a significant contribution to the Tangerines’ cause since returning from an early-season loan spell at Sheffield United, while the talismanic Stephen Dobbie continues to etch his name into Blackpool folklore.
The Scottish striker became a club hero back in 2010 when he arrived on loan from Swansea and scored six vital goals as the club clinched promotion and this year he has returned in identical circumstances to do the same again.
Still on Swansea’s books, he marked his second home loan debut for Blackpool by scoring twice in a vital 3-0 win over promotion rivals Southampton and has since added another four, including one at Birmingham in last week’s semi-final second-leg.
In midfield, meanwhile, Holloway will be relying on Scottish international Barry Ferguson to assert his dominance over the likes of Kevin Nolan and Mark Noble and much will also be expected of goalkeeper Matt Gilks who has been in superb form once again this season.
So what of West Ham?
Well the Hammers will make the short trip across the capital as short-priced favourites to clinch promotion, but that is a pressure they have had to bear for the entire campaign to date.
Boss Sam Allardyce inherited a core of talented if slightly disillusioned players when he succeeded Avram Grant at the end of last season and was also given a decidedly generous transfer budget to work with by Championship standards.
But it’s not all been plain sailing at Upton Park this term.
While their fans like to sing “We’re West Ham United, we play on the floor”, that laudable ideal has not always seen the light of day as Allardyce has favoured the more direct style of football that served him during his time at both Bolton and at Saturday’s opponents Blackpool.
In fairness to the prickly Hammers boss, his approach has simply been a pragmatic one, mixing short passing with a decent dose of long ball football as and when the circumstances and opposition have demanded it and ultimately, as long as he fulfils his brief of achieving promotion at the first attempt, the level of muttered complaints at Upton Park will doubtless die down considerably.
It was West Ham’s record of fourteen draws that derailed their bid for a top two place and it didn’t help Allardyce’s popularity rating that eight of those draws came at home, but the men in claret and blue won seven of their last ten games and completely outclassed Cardiff over both legs of their semi-final clash.
James Tomkins has been a cornerstone of their success with his superbly accomplished displays at centre-back, while Matt Taylor has also impressed with his sweeping attacking forays from full-back, Kevin Nolan remains a massive goal threat from midfield and when he’s in the mood, former England target-man Carlton Cole is a real handful for any defence.
Welsh midfielder Jack Collison is another Hammer who has been in decent form recently, but he will have to undergo a late fitness test ahead of Saturday’s big clash after dislocating his shoulder in the second-leg of the semi-final against Cardiff.
Given that both of these sides are far more comfortable going forward than they are defending, the Wembley crowd and the millions watching around the world should be treated to an absorbing, high-stakes spectacle this weekend.
Blackpool are no respecters of reputations and certainly won’t be intimidated by either the occasion or their opponents, but West Ham have a clear edge in overall quality and should just edge a thriller to book their passage back to the promised land.
Prediction: Blackpool 2-3 West Ham United
Scottish Cup Final
Saturday 19th May 2012
Edinburgh will resemble a ghost town this Saturday as the followers of Hearts and Hibs de-camp en masse for Glasgow’s Hampden Park and only the second-ever Scottish Cup Final meeting between the city rivals.
As the previous clash occurred back in 1896, this Cup Final derby will be new territory for all involved and promises to throw up enough colour, drama and passion to keep even the most neutral of observers enthralled.
The rivalry between Heart and Hibs may not be as infamously volatile and downright savage as that of Celtic and Rangers, but the respective sets of supporters nevertheless retain a mutual loathing of one another and place a huge emphasis on city bragging rights season in, season out.
Hibs will head into the final as underdogs not only because of their poor showing in the SPL, but also because they have not managed to lift this trophy since 1902, despite appearing in eight finals since then.
Not that manager Pat Fenlon will mind his charges flying under the radar.
The undemonstrative Irishman took over the Easter Road hot-seat from Colin Calderwood following the latter’s sacking in November and was charged with preventing the men in green and white from slipping out of the top flight.
A 4-0 victory over Dunfermline a fortnight ago ensured that Fenlon achieved that key objective and the club’s success in the Cup has come as something of an added bonus.
The road to Hampden has been a relatively smooth one for Hibs, with neither replays nor extra-time required at any stage, although they did avoid two classic potential banana skins in the form of away trips to Cowdenbeath and Ayr in the 4th Round and Quarter-Finals respectively.
SPL rivals Kilmarnock were bundled out at Easter Road in the 5th Round, while in the Semi-Final at Hampden Park, Garry O’Connor and Leigh Griffiths were the goal heroes in a hard-fought 2-1 victory over Aberdeen.
In contrast to their Cup form, Fenlon’s side struggled for consistency in the league, winning five, losing five and drawing two of their final twelve games and enduring the agony of defeat in all three of their derby meetings with Hearts.
So can the side that finished six places and 19 points adrift of their city neighbours buck that trend and pull off the sweetest of upset wins on Saturday?
Well manager Fenlon remains quietly confident that they can and he certainly has several players at his disposal with the potential to shine on the big stage.
Garry O’Connor helped himself to an impressive tally of 16 goals this season, ten of which came in his first eleven appearances, while vastly-experienced Northern Ireland international Ivan Sproule has provided plenty of assists from his position on the wing and won’t be fazed by the magnitude of the occasion.
Fenlon has also brought a number of players in from his native Ireland including highly-rated attacking midfielder Eoin Doyle and versatile young defender Matt Doherty who has impressed since arriving from Wolves on loan.
Another loanee worth keeping an eye on is rangy midfielder Tom Soares who cost his parent club Stoke nearly $2 million when they signed him from Crystal Palace and has adapted well to life north of the border.
Midfield duo Jorge Claros and Pa Kujabi, meanwhile, are both expected to be fit having been rested for the final league game of the season at Inverness, but spare a thought for luckless former Arsenal goalkeeper Graham Stack who played 33 games this season only to pick up a thigh injury during the Semi-Final win over Aberdeen and consequently miss his shot at Cup Final glory.
As for Hearts, they have one or two injury concerns themselves, most notably in the form of Craig Beattie. The ex-West Brom and Swansea man bagged the winner in the Semi-Final win over another of his former clubs, Celtic, but is battling to overcome a hamstring strain in time to feature.
Scottish international and defensive mainstay Andy Webster has also spent plenty of time in the treatment room this week, but the club remain confident that he will recover from the groin soreness that forced him from the field during last weekend’s defeat at the hands of Celtic.
A longer term concern for Hearts fans, meanwhile, is the ongoing uncertainty regarding the future of popular boss Paulo Sergio.
The 44-year-old Portuguese will be out of contract immediately after the Cup Final and as yet, the club’s directors have refused to confirm that his services will be retained.
Having guided Hearts to a creditable fifth-place league finish and secured Europa League football in the process, it would seem a little strange were Sergio not to remain in charge at Tynecastle, but the club’s current board have moved in mysterious ways in the past and there could yet be a twist in the tale.
In terms of their journey to Hampden Park, the Jambos took the scenic route, requiring replays to see off both SPL rivals St Johnstone and St Mirren in the Fifth Round and Quarter Finals respectively, having earlier scraped a 1-0 win over amateur side Auchinleck Talbot at Tynecastle in Round 4.
Then came a date with Celtic in the last four and a dramatic, controversial victory that will long be savoured by the fans who travelled to Hampden Park to witness it.
Rudi Skacel gave Hearts the lead two minutes after the break, only for Gary Hooper to level for the Bhoys four minutes from time.
Extra-time loomed, but when a shot from Hearts skipper Marius Zaliukas struck the arm of Celtic midfielder Joe Ledley in the box, referee Euan Morris pointed to the spot. The decision prompted uproar among those in green and white, but Beattie held his nerve amidst the tumultuous scenes and calmly fired home to book his side’s place in the Final.
Czech midfielder Skacel will be a key man for the Jambos again on Saturday, looking to add to his impressive haul of 16 goals for the season, while Moroccan trickster Mehdi Taouil is also a potential match-winner if he can produce his best form on the day.
Hearts undoubtedly have the edge in terms of overall quality and will head into the Final off the back of a solid SPL campaign, while Hibs were living on their nerves until as recently as a fortnight ago and would rather draw a veil over their miserable efforts in the league.
Yet this is a one-off Cup Final and a local derby to boot and that undoubtedly muddies the waters significantly.
Outsiders they may be, but Hibs feel that this is the year when their great Cup drought will end and there’s some value to be had in backing them to do just that.
Prediction: Hibernian 2-1 Heart of Midlothian