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Steve Cooper’s side will have to deal with the pressure of being favorites, but they have the quality to emerge victorious in the EFL Championship play-off final.
Back Nottingham Forest to beat Huddersfield Town
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All eyes will be on the Champions League final this weekend, as Liverpool and Real Madrid battle it out for the biggest prize in European soccer. But that titanic tussle at the Stade de France just outside Paris is not the most lucrative match taking place in the coming days. That honor, believe it or not, belongs to the EFL Championship play-off final, the winners of which stand to pocket at least $170 million for winning promotion to the Premier League. One of Huddersfield Town or Nottingham Forest will be filled with joy at Wembley Stadium on Sunday; the other will experience only despair.
The play-offs were introduced into the Football League calendar in the 1986/87 season. They were part of a 10-point plan to encourage higher attendances at games in England, and were originally supposed to be in place for just two years. But the instant success of the end-of-season tournament, which enlivened the regular campaign and produced a thrilling denouement to it, meant the play-offs were retained and have remained in place ever since.
With so much at stake, it should not come as a surprise that Championship play-off finals tend to be tight, tense affairs. Seven of the last nine editions have featured two goals or fewer, and the two exceptions featured three apiece. You have to go back to 2011, when Swansea City beat Reading 4-2, to find a genuinely thrilling encounter.
A lack of goals should not be mistaken for a lack of entertainment, though. The play-off final is one of the highlights of the season: thousands of fans descend upon Wembley and invariably produce a special atmosphere, while the matches themselves tend to have something on them until the very end.
Indeed, only three times in the last 16 years has a team won a play-off final by more than a one-goal margin. We can expect Huddersfield Town vs Nottingham Forest to be another close contest on Sunday.
Huddersfield were the great overachievers of the 2021/22 Championship season. Before a ball had been kicked last summer, they were the third-favorites to be relegated to League One behind Blackpool and Peterborough United. But Town were never even close to going down: the lowest they fell in the table post-August was 11th in early December, before they quickly climbed back into the play-off positions.
Carlos Corberan will no doubt look to use his side’s status as underdogs to Huddersfield’s advantage. They have not been under any pressure this term and, in a sense, will therefore feel like they have nothing to lose on Sunday. Whereas there is a sense of expectation around Forest given their history, few expect Huddersfield to win promotion – even now they are just 90 minutes away from doing so.
Town finished one place above Forest in the table, amassing two more points over the course of 46 games. However, the Terriers scored fewer goals and conceded more than their upcoming opponents. And they arguably do not have quite as much star quality as Forest, several of whose players are likely to be in the Premier League next term whatever the outcome this weekend.
For Nottingham Forest, it has been a long 23 years. That is the amount of time the two-time Champions League winners have been absent from the top flight of English soccer. They have even sunk as low as the third tier in that time, and in truth they have never really got close to returning to the Premier League – until now.
Steve Cooper has done a remarkable job at the City Ground. When he took charge in September, Forest were at the foot of the table having won just one of their first eight games. Had the season started when Cooper was installed in the dugout, Forest would have been promoted as champions, two points clear of Fulham.
The big question surrounding Forest is whether they will be able to handle the pressure. They certainly did not look comfortable in the second leg of their play-off semi-final against Sheffield United: Forest were hanging on towards the end of that match before advancing via a penalty shoot-out triumph. Play-off finals are so often about which team best handles the occasion, and Forest as the favorites will be tested even more than Huddersfield in that regard.
Overall, though, it is worth backing Cooper’s team to get the job done. They have greater strength in depth than Huddersfield, and more players who can produce moments of individual quality to win a one-off game. There is a sense of destiny around Forest this term and they can finally end their exile from the Premier League on Sunday.
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|Huddersfield vs Nottingham Forest Information|
|Teams||Huddersfield Town vs Nottingham Forest|
|Location||Wembley Stadium, London, England|
|Time||Sunday, 29 May 2022, 11.30 AM EDT|
|How to watch||ESPN|
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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