A third club will follow Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion into the Premier League when the Championship playoff final is contested on Aug. 4. Here, NewsFromSport explores why each of the four playoff candidates would make a fine addition to England’s top flight.
A final-day defeat to Barnsley could be excused – the Tykes were completing a remarkable escape from relegation under promising manager Gerhard Struber. But Brentford’s 1-0 surrender to an uninspiring Stoke City side a few days prior was unforgivable, and it broke an eight-game winning streak.
The Bees, like many top Championship clubs, had shown a tendency to choke. They should’ve taken West Brom’s spot in the automatic promotion places, but they had to make do with their highest league position in 73 years and the lottery of the playoffs.
Brentford are probably the neutrals’ favorite to earn promotion thanks to their pretty, possession-based football and intelligent recruitment strategy. Neal Maupay’s departure to Brighton & Hove Albion last summer appeared to be a serious blow to Brentford’s promotion hopes, but Thomas Frank’s decision to have winger Ollie Watkins spearhead the attack was inspired. Watkins racked up 25 goals while Bryan Mbeumo and Said Benrahma flanked him superbly for much of the season; the latter has drawn lazy but otherwise apt comparisons to fleet-footed compatriot Riyad Mahrez.
The playoffs will test Brentford’s mental fortitude more than their playing ability. Few would contest that the west London side is the best of the four teams battling for a Premier League berth, but Sunday’s 1-0 first-leg defeat at Swansea City suggests Brentford’s late-season slump may have scarred them.
Plenty of Cardiff City fans were left unimpressed when the club appointed Neil Harris in November. It didn’t seem a particularly ambitious hire, especially for a side that had only just dropped into the Championship.
But the Cardiff hierarchy clearly valued continuity. With Harris’ predecessor, Neil Warnock, one knew what to expect: route-one football performed by a gaggle of experienced yet dependable lower-league journeymen. The same Warnock-approved players were still in south Wales after the veteran manager left just 16 matches into the campaign, so someone needed to ensure they continued playing to their strengths.
Enter Harris, who commonly had Jed Wallace punt crosses in the vague direction of 6-foot-2 Lee Gregory while managing at Millwall. Harris doubled down on that game plan last summer when he signed 6-foot-6 Matt Smith from Queens Park Rangers. Harris was already overseeing a brand of football very similar to what Warnock was implementing at Cardiff. The Bluebirds just needed to do it better.
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If you like old-school hoofs upfield and floated deliveries into the box, Cardiff are your team. They would be the Premier League’s retro club. Cardiff won more aerial duels than any other Championship side over the 2019-20 season, while their league-best 28 set-piece goals constituted 41% of their conversions.
On paper, Fulham should have finished the season in the automatic promotion places. But who knows where they’d be without Aleksandar Mitrovic.
The Serbian fought off Brentford’s Watkins to become the Championship’s top scorer with 26 goals. Coupled with his two assists, those tallies meant Mitrovic contributed to 44% of the Cottagers’ league goals. He’s not fast and he doesn’t link particularly well with the midfield, but he’s a ruthless poacher. He, more than anybody else at Fulham, deserves to be a top-flight player.
Beyond Mitrovic, though, it’s quite hard to get excited about Scott Parker’s squad. That seems a peculiar thing to say about a club that invested over £100 million prior to its 2018-19 Premier League season and boasts seasoned Championship standouts like Tom Cairney, Anthony Knockaert, and Ivan Cavaleiro. But it’s difficult to see exactly what Parker is trying to achieve. The ex-England midfielder has struggled to devise a formula that suits his talented group of individuals.
Fulham’s selling points for a neutral? Potentially another Football Manager-esque splurge if they return to the top tier, as well as moments of brilliance from their well-paid players. The latter was evident in Monday’s 2-0 first-leg win over Cardiff City when Josh Onomah slalomed through bodies before poking the ball past Alex Smithies for a delightful solo effort.
Don’t be fooled by the names of Swansea’s two most recent goalscorers in Andre Ayew and Wayne Routledge. The team assembled by Steve Cooper certainly doesn’t have a throwback feel.
Given Cooper’s resume – he orchestrated England’s triumph at the Under-17 World Cup in 2017 and formerly served as head of youth development at Liverpool – Swansea’s current makeup is no great surprise. After talismanic pair Daniel James and Oli McBurnie left for the Premier League last summer, Cooper put much of his trust in young players. Ben Cabango, for example, had only played in the Welsh Premier League before Cooper’s arrival, but he’s now a key first-team regular at age 20.
Cooper has made the most of his contacts in the loan market, too. Rhian Brewster has scored 10 times since coming aboard from Liverpool in January; Chelsea’s Marc Guehi has been immense at the back, especially since the restart; and Conor Gallagher, another loan acquisition from Chelsea, has been a bundle of energy behind the two-pronged strikeforce of Ayew and Brewster. All three on-loan stars played for Cooper during England’s Under-17 World Cup win.
The youthful exuberance of Cooper’s Swansea side would undoubtedly enhance the Premier League, and the Swans should feel confident that they can see out the second leg against Brentford. Their change to a 3-4-1-2 formation at the start of July has been a great success, while the Bees have struggled to break down three-man defenses throughout the season.