Middlesbrough v Norwich
Championship Play-Off Final, Wembley
Live on Sky Sports 1
Aitor Karanka’s side (whose name is spelt correctly above, unlike on the final tickets!) eased past Brentford, as predicted, with a comfortable 3-0 win at the Riverside on Friday night to book a deserved place in the final. With a full-house behind them, Boro controlled the game from the off and once Lee Tomlin had put them ahead after 23 minutes the tie was all but won.
They have hit form nicely at just the right time, having won five of their last seven games with just the one loss – that faintly ridiculous 4-3 defeat at Fulham on the penultimate weekend of the season. Confidence seems to have been fully restored after the defeats at Bournemouth and Watford, which had left both the playing staff and fans wondering if they had quite what it takes to win promotion.
Top-scorer Patrick Bamford was left on the bench- obviously not quite 100% fit – and wasn’t required on Friday in the end. Karanka will have to decide whether to stick with the starting XI who were so impressive or recall the Championship Player of the Year, if he is declared fit.
The Canaries reached Wembley with a 3-1 win over rivals Ipswich at Carrow Road to the delight of the home crowd. After a tight first 45 minutes, the game was effectively decided early in the second-half when Christoph Berra was dismissed for handball on the goalline and Wes Hoolahan converted the resulting spot-kick.
Although Mick McCarthy’s ten men showed typical character to hit back and equalise, they conceded two more goals and Alex Neil took his record as Norwich manager to a hugely impressive 16 wins from 24 games in charge. Under the Scot they have garnered more points than any other side in the division in 2015 – the only reverse in their last 13 games was the 1-0 defeat at home to Boro in front of the cameras last month.
Lewis Grabban is available again after serving a three-match ban but will have probably to settle for a place on the bench at best with Cameron Jerome and Nathan Redmond both likely to keep their starting spots after scoring on Saturday. Neil’s meticulous planning included a two-day trip this week to London for his squad to visit Wembley and familiarise themselves with the surroundings.
Over/Under 2.5 Goals
The last two Championship play-off finals have been decided by a solitary goal – Crystal Palace upsetting Watford in extra-time in 2013 and then 10-man QPR’s dramatic late win over Derby 12 months ago. Six of the last 10 have ended up 1-0 and this seems to correlate to the financial rewards for a place getting greater and greater year-by-year (anywhere from £120-150 million is the figure being banded around for winning promotion this time) and with so much at stake it’s not surprising nobody wants to risk giving anything away.
Third and fourth booked their places at Wembley as the play-offs went to form on this occasion and anyone who has followed the Championship throughout the season would testify that these two were the best of the four sides involved and we have the right final.
Given how closely-matched they were in their final league positions, separated by just a point, and with both in fine fettle currently, I expect a tight, low-scoring game here. We’re unlikely to see one of the seven or eight-goal thrillers which seemed to be the norm in this Championship play-off final at one time and that makes unders the recommended best bet at [1.71].
This looks like a coin-flip to me though the match odds market has moved away from that conclusion during this week with Norwich now the favourites at [2.68] and Boro available to back at [2.96]. As the two sides were separated by just a point after 46 games and look very evenly-matched, the draw would be best value bet at [3.35] in this market.
Boro think they have the slight psychological advantage having won both games in the regular season. We can put a line through the 4-0 thrashing at the Riverside near the tail-end of Neil Adam’s ill-fated reign in Norfolk but although the 1-0 win at Carrow Road last month was a close affair, Karanka’s side feel they know how to get the better of their opponents here.
With that in mind the Teesiders look the value at [2.12] to lift the trophy here – either after 90 minutes, extra-time or penalties and backing them in the promotion 2014/15 market is the second recommended bet.
Surprisingly the final two years ago was the first goalless draw in a second-tier play-off final in any of its incarnations since they reverted from the initial two-leg format to a one-off game at Wembley in 1990.
It’s been a tough season tipping these live Championship games but I’ve still got the chance to end it in positive territory and my gut instinct is telling me to go with a third bet here – it’s the final after all! I just feel the two sides are so evenly-matched that it could remain goalless after 90 minutes, taking us to extra-time and possibly penalties so I’m backing the 0-0 at  in the correct score market.
Back under 2.5 goals at [1.71] *Best bet
Back Middlesbrough to win promotion at [2.12]
Back 0-0 in the correct score market at [10.0]
Check out the view from Norwich from Betfair resident Canaries fan Mark Tranter and the take from Boro from B.B’s very own Mike Norman
Staked: 151 pts
Returned: 146.35 pts
P/L: – 4.65 pts
*2pts best bet if stated
1pt other recommended bets