BY: Craig Simpkin
It is perhaps one of the richest games in football, if not the whole of sport.
The Championship Play-Off final is worth an estimated £120 million to the winning team that wins and progresses to the riches of the Premier League, while for the loser it’s back to the grind for another year in English football’s second tier.
After 46 games only one point separated Norwich City and Middlesbrough in the league table, and now only 90 minutes separates the two teams between glory and despair. Monday’s Wembley showpiece sees Aitor Karanka’s ‘Boro, who have flirted with automatic promotion since the first day of the season, tackle Alex Neil’s in-form Norwich – who six months to go didn’t seem to have a prayer of promotion.
But an exceptional run for the Canaries – they only lost once in their last ten matches – saw them cruise to third place in the table on 86 points. Boro, who sat in the top two for a large portion of the campaign, had to settle for fourth place and 85 points.
Both sides enjoyed a safe passage through their respective play-off semi finals: Middlesbrough overcoming Brentford with ease in a 5-1 aggregate win, and Norwich overcoming their East Anglian rivals Ipswich 4-2. For the Canaries it is an instant chance of redemption: they were relegated from the Premier League during the 2013/14 season. Middlesbrough’s time away from the limelight has been slightly longer, six years and counting, and their ascent back to the top flight is long overdue.
Where will the game be won and lost?
Norwich will fancy their chances with a side full of Premier League experience. Their hot run of form should count for something too – they’ve won 16 of their 24 games under the charge of Alex Neil. Middlesbrough boasted one of the best defensive records in English football during the main campaign, conceding just 37 goals in 46 matches and keeping 21 clean sheets along the way.
Not that this will be a bore fest: both sides are committed to scoring goals. Norwich have Jonny Howson, Nathan Redmond, Graham Dorrans, Cameron Jerome, Lewis Grabban and Gary Hooper amongst their ranks. And Boro can call on the creative talents of Grant Leadbitter, Kike, Lee Tomlin and Patrick Bamford. This could be a great game to watch for the neutral.
How do the bookies see it going?
They see it as a pretty close game by all accounts: Boro can be backed from as long as 19/10, which is surprising considering they won both league encounters between the two sides, whilst Norwich are priced at 13/8.
You can back the draw (in 90 minutes) from 2/1. So, basically, the bookmakers aren’t quite sure which way it’s going to go either! But having taken all the facts and stats on board, if you like outside value then ‘Norwich to Win, Both Teams To Score’ can be backed from 5/1. Very generous.