Sunderland gatecrashed the playoffs, Luton Town proved what a well run club they are and Coventry City vs Middlesbrough promises to be a shootout classic. All this and more from the final round of the regular Championship season...
TEAM OF ROUND
As final days go, this one went pretty well perfectly for Sunderland. The odds were against the Black Cats getting into the play-offs, with a two point deficit meaning at least one result needed to go their way and the only acceptable outcome from their game at Preston was a victory. We'll get onto other matters going their way during the remaining segments of this column and focus on the bit that Sunderland could control.
Preston were dispatched with a three goal, 11 minute, second half flurry. Amad Diallo bent a left footed beauty into the top corner, Alex Pritchard beautifully stroked home a second and a typical Jack Clarke dribble and finish sealed the deal.
The win means Sunderland enter the end of season knockout phase with a run of our wins in six and unbeaten in nine. Whilst I try and warn people off cliches about a team 'coming from nowhere to win the play-offs' this would seem to have all the ingredients. Back on March 17th with 37 played, Sunderland were in 12th position and 8 points behind Millwall in 6th. They've timed their run to perfection, can they continue it for three more games?
PLAYER OF THE ROUND
Ben Brereton-Diaz (Blackburn Rovers)
In amongst all the play-off drama was the story of a player signing off for his club with a stunning performance. Blackburn's Ben Brereton-Diaz was just Ben Brereton when he joined the club and for the first few seasons there was seen as a bit of an expensive flop. Since he added the Diaz, BBD has become one of the most sought after Championship strikers and reports suggest he's already signed a pre-contract agreement to join Villarreal in the close season.
The unfortunate victims of BBD's last hurrah for Blackburn were Millwall, the side who started the final day in sixth with a two point lead knowing a win guaranteed play-off football. The Lions looked a dead cert to take their place after racing into a 3-1 lead at half-time and then came the comeback. Joe Rankin-Costello pulled it back to 3-2 and then a Brereton-Diaz double stunned The Den and sent Millwall out of the top six.
It was fitting that BBD signed off with two trademark goals both scored after arriving from out on the left. Brereton-Diaz owes a lot to former Rovers boss Tony Mowbray for helping unlock that potential, considering Mowbray's current side Sunderland were the beneficiaries of the Diaz double, maybe that's payback enough!
TALKING POINT OF ROUND
Glass ceiling gone?
It's a rite of passage now that all Championship creators create a 1-24 list of predictions prior to each season starting. A thankless task where one is required to painstakingly analyse about a million separate moving parts in order to do the impossible and forecast the entire league table. Football fans are well known for taking things far too seriously and being wise after the event, so although these predictions can hang over the maker during the season, in conclusion they are a very useful time capsule.
Although people don't believe me I tend to take the scientist's line of actually enjoying being wrong about a hypothesis when it is stress tested and going back and analysing why it didn't stand up. Take Luton Town for example, I predicted the Hatters would finish in seventh place just outside the play-offs with the wealthier teams forming a bit of a glass ceiling for those highly performing lesser resourced sides. I added that I felt conflicted as Luton did finish in the play-off spots last season and actually looked like they had a better squad after a good batch of recruitment.
As they're very good at, Luton broke through that glass ceiling to finish third, although in truth it was never really there. The three teams I thought would obstruct their progress were Norwich, Watford and West Brom, all receiving parachute payments and very well versed in second tier promotion. People tend to get dragged into a bit of binary hell when it comes to parachute payments, they are simultaneously a huge advantage but not a guarantee. A competent parachute team should make the top six but if the don't achieve competence then well run clubs in the mould of Luton will happily take their place.
LOANEE OF THE ROUND
I'll just be honest from the word go here and admit that Cameron Archer being loanee of the week is a bit of a red herring just to shoehorn in the two remaining play-off sides into the column. Archer did spin and strike to equalise Gus Hamer's opener in Boro and Coventry's 1-1 draw, but that's not really the story here.
Coventry and Boro have taken rather different routes to the play-offs and having played each other on the final day will now go into battle twice more with the stakes raised even more. Although that's only really true for Boro, they were guaranteed to finish in fourth going into this game whereas Coventry could still possibly have been caught and not made the postseason spectacular. That narrative actually encapsulates much of the season for these two, with Boro changing course from Chris Wilder to Michael Carrick early enough in the season to be a top four lock for the longest time. Coventry took a far more circuitous route to their final destination via a farcical pitch issue hampering their start and taking them until the final two games to make up for.
It's going to be a splendid semi-final in prospect with the two progressive sides being run by two highly thought of managers, one in his first season in Carrick and the other Mark Robins has been there and done it. We also get the subplot of two of this season's best attacker's Coventry's Viktor Gyokeres and Boro's Chuba Akpom going head to head to try and shoot their team to Wembley. Let's do it all again at the weekend!
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