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This is the playoff before the playoff. The Championship decider to determine which club joins Burnley as the second side to win automatic promotion takes place Saturday as host Middlesbrough (in second) takes on Brighton (third) with the winner earning a spot in the Premier League.
The advantage is with Middlesbrough, known as Boro, because it is at home and only needs a draw. It has only lost twice at home all season, to Bristol City (Matchday 4) and Nottingham Forest (Matchday 28). Boro has also spent more money than anyone else in the league: in January it signed striker Jordan Rhodes for £11 million, a fee that would make some top-flight clubs blush, and its rivals have not been slow to point out Boro’s bigger budget (in terms of transfers and salaries).
Both teams have had chances to seize the initiative and fallen short; last week, Boro drew 2-2 at Birmingham, and Brighton, playing two days later and needing a home win over Derby to leapfrog into second place (making a draw against Boro enough), faltered, drawing 1-1 and losing key defender Lewis Dunk to a red card. He will miss the Boro game and the first leg of the four-team playoffs, if his side is there.
And that is why this game is so important. The side that ends up third has no guarantee of making it through the playoff system: when, over two games, the third-place finisher plays sixth-place finisher and fourth plays fifth before each winner faces off in a winner-takes-all final at Wembley Stadium at the end of the month.
The winner will net a guaranteed £170 million payout, over three years, for reaching the Premier League. The other side does at least have statistics on its side: in 29 years, the third-placed side has gone through 11 times (38%). Of the 18 who missed out, six were then promoted the following year.
Boro has been through this before. Last season it was top of the league with a month to play, dropped to fourth and lost the final to Norwich–which had finished third–3-0. Coach Aitor Karanka appeared to have cracked under the high expectations in March, reportedly threatening to resign after walking out of a team meeting. He was talked back into the job but a second season of disappointment will surely end with his departure.
There is more stability at Brighton, which was fighting off relegation into League One 18 months ago and has been a surprise promotion candidate under coach Chris Hughton, perhaps the polar opposite of the volatile Karanka. Hughton steered the side to safety last season, but you can’t quite compare what he’s done to Leicester: the team won just one of its last 11 games, so there was no clue that it would start this campaign so well, going unbeaten for a club-record first 21 games.
While Boro broke the bank on Rhodes, Brighton signed winger Anthony Knockaert for an undisclosed fee and Jiri Skalak, a little-known Czech winger from Mlada Boleslav, who have both played an important role since joining. Knockaert was awarded Player of the Month award for April.
“It’s not necessarily about what is spent,” Hughton said. “It’s about how you use what you have and getting the best out of the team and doing the best you can.”
Both sides are currently 14 points ahead of sixth-placed Sheffield Wednesday, who is also in the playoff. In all but one of the last 29 seasons, Brighton and Boro’s point total of 88 points would be enough for automatic promotion. The exception was Sunderland, which reached the playoff final in 1998 and lost a heart-breaking penalty shootout 7-6 to Charlton Athletic.
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“Whichever team loses out will have to face their recent playoffs demons as Boro were beaten in last year's final whilst Brighton lost two semifinals in 2013 and 2014,” said Richard Foster, author of ‘The Agony and The Ecstasy: A Comprehensive History of the Football League Playoffs.’ “It will be a severe test of their spirit.”
Boro has drawn its last three games and Karanka has tried to turn last season’s disappointment into a positive.
“It was a good lesson for everybody, I think,” he said. “Last season we lost the final because we weren’t ready to get promotion. I don’t want to say we are ready this season because I don’t know, but we are more mature, more experienced, better players–especially when we play at home.”
There is more pressure on Karanka and Boro this time around–but if there was any justice, the team that misses out Saturday should go on and win the playoff.