By JOHN BOSCHINI
England's League Championship playoffs have been called the most lucrative games in global soccer and with the millions of pounds in Premier League funds going to the winner, it’s difficult to argue with that sentiment.
The teams that finished the 46-match regular season third through sixth in the league table square-off over two legs before the winners meet at Old Trafford in a one-off final. Normally, the final would be played at Wembley Stadium in London, but a UEFA mandate saying Wembley couldn’t be used for two weeks before the Champions League final forced the English FA into a venue switch.
The playoff semifinals kick off today, with Swansea City taking on Nottingham Forest (2:45pm, Fox Soccer Channel). Robbie Findley will be desperate for his first English goal as his sixth-place Nottingham Forest is searching for its first return to the Premier League since 1999. Nottingham had been a fixture near the top of the Championship table most of the season before stumbling heading in early spring. A late-season surge helped Forest hold off Leeds United for the final playoff spot.
The playoffs also have a distinctly Welsh flavor as Cardiff City and Swansea City vie for the chance to break into the top-flight of the English game. Cardiff has not been in the top division since 1962 while Swansea has been one of the most entertaining sides in the Championship this season with fluent passing and a stingy defense.
Here is a look at the semifinals of the Championship playoffs:
No. 3 Swansea City vs. No. 6 Nottingham Forest
Findley could become the latest United States’ international to make the move into the English Premier League as Nottingham Forest survived a nine-game winless slump after the new year to finish sixth. The former Real Salt Lake striker has been hampered with injuries since arriving in England during the January transfer window but has started to break into the squad.
The Reds face off against Swansea City, one of the two Welsh sides in the playoffs. The first match takes place in Nottingham where Forest has lost only twice.
Swansea is led by a stout defense that has allowed less than a goal per game. The offense is led by former Chelsea striker Scott Sinclair. The English native has netted 24 goals for Swansea this season. Since a 0-0 draw with Portsmouth at the end of April, Swansea’s offense has exploded for 10 goals in its last three games.
No. 4 Cardiff City vs. No. 5 Reading
There isn’t a hotter team in the English game than Reading at the moment. After a mediocre start to the season, Reading has lost only once since Feb. 15 and has powered its way to fifth in the table. Be on the lookout for Irish international Shane Long, who has scored 22 goals.
Reading has a penchant for playing well in high-profile games. It made deep runs in the last two FA Cups and knocked off Everton in this year’s fifth round.
The expectations for Cardiff City were extremely high coming in to the season with addition of Manchester City loanee Craig Bellamy. The Welshman has joined with Jay Bothroyd and Peter Whittingham to create a dangerous attack. Cardiff was poised to challenge for an automatic promotion spot but a series of poor results saw the Bluebirds fall behind their Welsh rivals into fourth place.
Here is the schedule for the League Championship playoffs. All games are scheduled for 2:45 p.m. and can be seen on Fox Soccer Plus:
Thursday, May 12
Swansea City at Nottingham Forest
Friday, May 13
Cardiff City at Reading
Monday, May 16
Nottingham Forest at Swansea City
Tuesday, May 17
Reading at Cardiff City
What do you think of this season's playoffs? Excited to see Findley make a charge for the Premier League, or would you rather see a Welsh side earn promotion? Could Reading be considered the favorite despite finishing fifth?
Share your thoughts below.