Once the dust had settled on the results of the weekend the general consensus was that City’s most likely route to the Premier League, if it is to be achieved, will be via the play-offs. The bookies agree with some drifting us out to 4/1 for a top two finish.
MyFootballWriter colleagues have, this week, scribed eloquently on the prospect – and prospects – of a two-legged semi-final followed, perhaps, by a fitting and timely return to the scene of the Milk Cup win thirty years on – albeit Wembley now has a rather different look.
To mark the thirtieth anniversary of said triumph in such a way is indeed a romantic notion but, for me, the thought is a tiny bit terrifying. It would only be fitting if City were to win. And for many of us the pain of the Millenium Stadium, thirteen years on, is still raw.
Others have quite rightly pointed out the benefits of a mindset that accepts the play-offs as the likely route with anything else a bonus – and you can be sure that’s precisely the line Alex Neil will be taking – but I’m not quite ready to chuck the towel in.
So, in a probably futile attempt to grasp at the faintest glimmer of ‘automatic’ hope, allow me to make a case for a top two finish. This, with a fair wind and some smiling gods, is how it could pan out:
Brighton 1 Watford 0
Chris Hughton to mastermind an unlikely home win. The Seagulls will snatch an early goal – probably against the run of play – and the Hornets, for almost the first time in the run-in, will be found wanting. The momentum is currently with Jokanović’s men but with them due a blip they may find it difficult to break down a back-line that has been well drilled by its defence-minded coaching team. Think back to October and November 2012 when Hughton masterminded 1-0 home wins over both Manchester Utd and Arsenal in the space of a month – it’ll be one of those.
Fulham 1 Middlesbrough 1
Having succeeded at Carrow Road last Friday night, Karanka and his merry men will looking to bag another away win but their poor away form – for which last week was a trend-bucker – will rear its ugly head again. While Patrick Bamford, him of the limp, is expected to be fit, it is unlikely he’ll be 100 per cent fit. Jelle Vossen, him of the injured shoulder, collar bone, ankle and knee, looks less likely to make it. The Cottagers, after a poor season, will be keen to sign off in front of their fans with a decent performance. 1-1 for me.
Rotherham 1 Norwich City 2
Of course it is not going to be straightforward – that’s not our way – but with the Millers desperate for points they will leave space in which City can counter-attack. If there is one thing we have been good at since the arrival of Alex Neil it is responding positively to a defeat, and now we’re in the realms of ‘nothing to lose’ any shackles will be well and truly off. While a raucous home crowd will make for a lively atmosphere, I expect City to get their noses ahead and hopefully stay there. One thing we don’t need is an early Rotherham goal, which would enable them to park the bus; a scenario I’m not currently prepared to even entertain.
Bournemouth 2 Bolton 2
The pressure is already starting to show at the Goldsands Stadium. Last Saturday’s dramatic 98 minutes against a Sheffield Wednesday side with nothing to play for suggests to me that they are, almost for the first time, feeling the heat. Bolton, with Neil Lennon at the helm, love nothing more than to shatter a promotion dream (just as they tried and came so close to achieving against City) and won’t be allowed to give anything less than 100 per cent. Perhaps a late equaliser for the Cherries but no more than a point.
Charlton 1 Bournemouth 1
At the time of writing, Charlton have only lost once in April; the same number of defeats they suffered in March. They are now a very different proposition to the one faced by City in February, although even then City made heavy second-half weather of getting the win. Eddie Howe’s men will be in a position of having to win; one that is incredibly tough to face, especially with a squad not accustomed to such pressure. I predict a nervy, tense afternoon at the Valley and I don’t envisage the Cherries keeping a clean sheet. They may pay a heavy price for being the only one of the top four playing away on the last day.
Middlesbrough 2 Brighton 0
The Boro’s good home form will stand them in good stead when crunch time arrives. If Messrs Bamford and Vossen benefit from the cotton wool in which Karanka is bound to wrap them and are able to make the starting XI then it is hard to see Hughton’s Seagulls making too much of an impression – although history tells us his teams have a habit of turning it on away from home on the final day (although on only the final day) . Even so, I envisage a reasonably comfortable home win.
Norwich City 2 Fulham 1
The end of the hoodoo! It has to end some time and given the state of flux in which the Cottagers find themselves there can be no better time for City to end what has been one of the most miserable runs in football. Of course it won’t be straightforward, and few of us will be surprised if City concede early, but given the stakes and the steely resolve of the man steering our rudder I expect to see a dominant City performance – one that will see them squeak home by the odd goal. It will invariably be tense and nail-biting but I see the old place rocking to the tune of a late Gary Hooper winner.
Watford 1 Sheffield Wednesday 0
Faced with a ‘must-win’ the Hornets’ should have just enough in the tank – especially with their posse of in-form strikers – to see off a Wednesday side who, despite wanting to finish on a high, may have used up their favours for others in the earning the draw at Bournemouth (and who now have one Glenn Roeder as part of their management team). With the ‘goals-for’ column almost inevitably coming into play they will be straining every sinew to better their tally but I don’t envisage the Owls’ defence – which is the fourth best in the Championship – buckling under the pressure. I predict a one-goal win for Watford.
So, what do you think? Feasible? Well, this is where it would leave us:
. Pld GD Pts
1. Norwich 46 +40 88
2. Watford 46 +39 88
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
3. Middlesbrough 46 +34 88
4. Bournemouth 46 +47 86
As Brucie once said, “that’s all there is to it” – those lovable Teessiders miss out on goal difference and City are champions! A little fanciful maybe and of course sprinkled liberally with yellow and green magic dust but given the oddity that is the Championship it’s not beyond the realms.
The downside is that predictions are notoriously not my thing – Nostradamus I most certainly am not – but I have picked the odd winner at Yarmouth races at greater odds than 4-1.
Convinced? As ever, only the passage of time will tell – and anything other than a win at Rotherham will render the last 1000 words void – but let’s not yet write off our chances of a top two finish. There will be further twists.
Never mind the danger…