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The Championship Play-Offs begin on Saturday and EFL pundit Gab Sutton dissects the strengths and weaknesses of all four candidates for promotion, before picking his winner!

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Why they might win it


They don’t lose many games.

Rob Edwards’ side have lost just one of their last 20 league games, and that defeat came against champions Burnley, who have been a class above the rest this season.

In that timeframe, the Hatters have conceded just ten goals, with a defensive trio of Gabriel Osho, Tom Lockyer and Amari’i Bell proving devilishly hard to breach.

Edwards has got Town playing more football on the deck than seen under predecessor Nathan Jones, whilst making them even better organized, and still capable of threatening from crosses, as wing-backs Cody Drameh and Alfie Doughty impress.

Marvellous Nakamba offers athletic defensive protection in midfield, freeing up Jordan Clark and Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu to roam and create.

Two up top, meanwhile, gives opposing defences no room to breathe, while each of Luton’s rivals is expected to start with just the one centre-forward.

Carlton Morris and Elijah Adebayo have a combined 38 goal involvements between them this season: double trouble.


Why they might not


Besides Morris and Adebayo, nobody else in the Hatters squad has scored more than three league goals: Clark, Campbell and Mpanzu haven’t chipped in enough from midfield.

Luton’s fitness concerns are more minor than that of some of their rivals, but there’s some debate as to whether Osho can play back-to-back 90 minutes, not long after returning from injury.

It’s also a team arguably low in pedigree, with eight of their first XI having previously played in the lower divisions, where some of their rivals have squads with a greater proportion of players who have come through at elite academies.




Why they might win it


Middlesbrough have been perhaps the most complete attacking side of the four.

Aaron Ramsey’s selfless energy from the right, Riley McGree’s direct running from the left and Cameron Archer’s stretching of the game from the top has created the space for Chuba Akpom to be arguably the Championship’s top performer.

Expected to be on the way out after an uneventful loan spell at PAOK in 2021-22, Akpom has astonished neutrals, starring in the #10 role with a whopping 28 league goals!

Left-back Ryan Giles is the league’s joint-top assister, meaning, setting up 11: he missed Monday’s meeting with Coventry, but is expected to be back to face them when it matters.

Since Michael Carrick took charge in October, and switched from Chris Wilder’s 3-5-2 to a better balanced 4-2-3-1, Boro have scored 65 goals, more than anyone in the league in that timeframe: seven more than Burnley, 18 more than anyone else.


Why they might not


Michael Carrick has enormous potential as a manager, but he’s the least experienced of the four.

Rob Edwards is young but even he won the League Two title with Forest Green last season, Mark Robins has already achieved two promotions in his second stint at Coventry alone, while Tony Mowbray has had 19 years in the industry.

On top of that, Boro have defensive concerns, especially over the centre-back partner for the imperious Darragh Lenihan, and key man Jonny Howson is not expected to return.

There are some doubts over Ramsey’s availability, though it could be that he’s been rested in the last four games: a theory fuelled by the fact he’s been called up to the Young Lions squad for the Under-20s World Cup, which is happening in the same month as the Play-Offs.

While form under Carrick has been fantastic, there has been a drop-off: eight points from the last 24 available.

Part of that could be down to circumstance, as they knew their Play-Off fate for much of that time, but if recent form is deemed key, Boro’s leaves something to be desired.




Why they might win it


Mark Robins’ journey with Coventry City has been astonishing, with the returning manager picking up the club from it’s lowest ebb in 2017, winning the EFL Trophy, two promotions including the League One title, and continual progression culminating in a highest finish in 17 years.

The story has created an emotional bond between Robins and the Sky Blue Army, something simply impossible for Edwards, Carrick and Mowbray to have at Luton, Middlesbrough and Sunderland – regardless of how well they’ve done – having taken charge in-season.

Not only that, the Midlanders boast easily the best centre-forward in the competition in Viktor Gyokeres, who has been a thorn in opponents with his strength, stamina, persistence, skill, agility, and ruthless finishing, bagging 21 goals with 10 assists to boot.

Gus Hamer, meanwhile, is an excellent midfielder: energetic and tenacious, with an eye for a stunning long-range pass.


Why they might not


Coventry are not a two-man team, by any stretch – the likes of Kyle McFadzean and Callum Doyle have fared superbly in defence – but they do rely on Hamer and Gyokeres heavily for flair and individual quality, in an otherwise functional, industrious unit.

If opponents can find a way to nullify the duo, therefore, Coventry could struggle for alternative ideas.

And, while Luton, for instance, have wing-backs like Cody Drameh whom they can be happy with both defensively and going forward, Coventry don’t have a jack of all trades.

Robins tends to pair a steady but limited wing-back in Fankaty Dabo or Jake Bidwell, with a more gifted but enigmatic type in Brooke Norton-Cuffy or Josh Wilson-Esbrand, on the right and left respectively.

This may bring balance, but it may also allow opponents to target the more talented wing-back and funnel the ball across to the favourable side, or keep a speedy outlet behind the one who stays high up the pitch.




Why they might win it


The attacking midfield options.

In the trio behind the striker in Tony Mowbray’s 4-2-3-1, Patrick Roberts, Jack Clarke and Amad Diallo have all enjoyed stunning individual campaigns.

Roberts and Clarke are stunning ball-carriers, with the former being one of the most creative wingers in the league, and the latter being directly involved in 20 league goals this season.

Diallo, meanwhile, is capable of the spectacular and has a huge future, potentially, at Manchester United.

With Dan Neil bringing class and craft with a swagger from midfield, whilst gaining a combative edge, Sunderland will be an entertaining prospect.

Mowbray’s charges have a mix of prodigious international talents, with brilliant characters who ensures the team always displays the intangibles: spirit, togetherness and belief.

One of the reasons Sunderland have been able to overcome the defensive injury crisis, more of which anon, is the character of players like Luke O’Nien.

Capable of playing anywhere across the back-line or in midfield, O’Nien has an elite mentality: any challenge that comes his way, he’ll attack with unerring belief, which is a huge part of why he’s been able to swim in situations where others with the same natural ability would sink.


Why they might not


Defensive injuries.

Dan Ballard, Danny Batth, Aji Alese and Corry Evans are all absent, while Dennis Cirkin and Lynden Gooch are doubts.

Trai Hume and Luke O’Nien have, somehow, forged a surprisingly impressive makeshift defensive pairing, but even that could be broken up through necessity, if Cirkin and Gooch are both absent, with Joe Anderson potentially coming in to make his fourth senior appearance, and winger Jack Clarke dropping into a full-back position.

It’s been hard enough for Sunderland to overcome the injuries up top, where Ross Stewart and Ellis Simms both picked up long-term lay-offs in the first half of the season, leaving the Black Cats short of a focal point.

It’s credit to Mowbray’s adaptability, and the squad’s mentality, that they’ve been able to find the answers in adversity, but it’s surely sub-optimal to have those issues going into the Play-Offs.




Sunderland have done incredibly well to get this far with injury problems across the course of the season in defence and up top, but those issues might see them – just – miss out on the final, though with plenty of heart, hope and belief for the future.

Middlesbrough are at their best in open, entertaining games, which makes for an exciting Semi-Final against Coventry, because of the threat the Hamer-Gyokeres combination can pose in transition.

The Sky Blues might have two of the three best individuals in that game, but Boro will have the greater multitude of attacking threats – especially if Ramsey is available – which could see them come out the right side of what will be a pulsating encounter.

That same array of forward quality could also see Michael Carrick’s side have the edge against Luton in the final…

Middlesbrough to win promotion – 7/4

Odds are correct at the time of posting

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