Forest, Cardiff, Blackpool & Leicester…let the battle commence!

Who, though, will be celebrating this season? Whose numbers are set to come out in sport’s biggest lottery? All four of the sides in the running will fancy that this is their year, and all four have every right to believe that their time has come.

Forest have been a revelation this season, with Billy Davies having transformed the Reds from relegation candidates to promotion hopefuls in the space of 12 short months. A young, vibrant squad looked at one stage to be capable of snatching a top-two finish, only for the wheels to come off their bandwagon on the road. Third place is no mean feat, though, for a side that is still relatively inexperienced and has only been back in the second tier two seasons.

Much of their success has been built on a formidable record in front of their own supporters, with the City Ground now resembling the kind of fortress constructed by the legendary Brian Clough during the heady days of the 1970s. Few now relish a trip to the banks of the Trent, with Forest having taken 18 wins from their 23 home games this season and scored 45 goals in the process. The fact that the second leg of their semi-final showdown with Blackpool will be back in Nottingham could play into their hands, as a packed City Ground will provide imposing surrounds.

The only worry for Davies is that he oversaw only four wins away from home all season, finding the target just 20 times. That contrast in form does not bode well, as the contest could already be over by the time they head home – especially as Blackpool were the only side to complete a league double over the Reds during the course of the regular season.

Ian Holloway’s side have been the surprise package of the 2009/10 campaign, with their commendable consistency having thrown them into the mix. They have been there or thereabouts all season and fully deserve their shot at the big time, even if they did have to wait until the final day before securing a top-six standing.

The Seasiders have made a habit of ripping up the formbook this season, positively revelling in their role as the underdog. They may still be regarded as rank outsiders to go all the way, but Blackpool have proven on more than one occasion this year that you write them off at your peril and they will fancy their chances of returning to the top flight for the first time since 1971.

While the Seasiders have had to bide their time in pursuit of a return to former glories, Cardiff City supporters have had to wait even longer to enjoy their moment in the sun.

The renaissance is in full swing, though, with the Bluebirds heavily fancied to end a difficult season on the highest of high notes. They are undoubtedly the side that most requires the financial rewards that are on offer, with monetary problems having blighted the Welsh outfit of late.

Dave Jones has been able to put those issues to one side, though, with the experienced coach having generated a united front which has seen the whole club pull together in the pursuit of glory. Cardiff will feel that they have the firepower to blast their way into the Premier League, with the deadly duo of Michael Chopra and Jay Bothroyd more than a handful for any defence.

They also boast an intriguing blend of youth and experience and will be hoping that they have got that mix just right.

Standing in the Bluebirds’ way in the semi-finals is Leicester City, who have defied the odds to become strong contenders for a passage into the top flight. You would have thought that consolidation would have topped the Foxes’ wish list this term, with promotion out of League One only secured in 2009.

However, Nigel Pearson got his side off to a flier and they never looked back.

They also enter the play-offs as THE form side, with five straight victories ensuring that morale around the Walkers Stadium is at an all-time high. Leicester, along with Forest, have prior experience of life in the Premier League and know all too well how difficult life can be away from the brightest of spotlights.

There is a case, though, for arguing that the recent troubles of the East Midlands duo have helped to make them stronger, more determined and in many respects better prepared for another shot at beating the bouncers and hot-footing it onto the dance floor. The smart money suggests that it could well be Leicester and Forest who make it through to the final, although both are likely to want to avoid the other.

There is already enough at stake without adding local pride into the equation, with Cardiff likely to be relieved at seeing arch-rivals Swansea City fall narrowly short in their quest to enter the end of season shake-up – avoiding the prospect of an epic all-Welsh encounter.

Let us not forget about Blackpool, though, with the Seasiders seemingly the side under the least pressure heading into these crucial clashes. They will have placed lofty expectations upon themselves, though, and it remains to be seen whether they can provide a fairytale ending to a remarkable season.

All in all, the lottery that is the Championship play-offs appears to be as difficult to call as it has ever been – with little to separate the quartet gunning for glory. What is certain, though, is that the five fixtures involved will provide intriguing viewing and should not be missed at any cost.

Also, quite fittingly, the Championship play-off final is set to be staged on the same day as the UEFA Champions League final. Arguably the two biggest games in world football, in terms of the rewards on offer, take place within the space of five frantic hours, with the 22nd May shaping up to be quite some day in football circles.

Written By Jonathan Moulds

Article title: Forest, Cardiff, Blackpool & Leicester…let the battle commence!

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