Analysis of the Championship playoffs
The four-team English League Championship playoffs begin Thursday to determine which team will earn promotion to next season's Premier League alongside Reading and Southampton, and the more than $100 million prize that comes with it. Three of the four playoff participants are looking to come back on the bounce after being relegated from the Premier League last season. Let's take a look at the two teams that will be playing in England's top-flight league next season, and the four teams vying to join them.
• Reading finished first in the Championship with 89 points, clinching promotion with a 1-0 win over Nottingham Forest on April 17. Reading was nearly promoted last season, losing 4-2 in the playoff final to Swansea City. The Royals had a two-season stint in the Premier League (in 2006-07 and '07-08), finishing eighth in their first year up but 18th in the next, and they were relegated on goal differential.
• Southampton finished second in the Championship with 88 points, clinching promotion with a 4-0 win at home on the final day of the season. Southampton returns to the Premier League for the first time since the 2004-05 season, one year after earning promotion from League One. Southampton had the best home record in the Championship this season; its 16 wins were two more than any other side.
• West Ham United finished third in the Championship, two points shy of automatic promotion. The Hammers were promoted to the Premier League via the playoffs in the 2004-05 season, spending six seasons in the top flight before finishing bottom of the table last season. West Ham had the best away record in the Championship (13-4-6), taking more points away (45) than at Upton Park (41). The Hammers scored more goals (81) and conceded fewer (48) than any of the other sides in the playoffs.
• Birmingham City has been up and down between the Championship and Premier League three times since its initial promotion after the 2001-02 season, and is aiming to come back on the bounce all three times. Birmingham lost once at home in the Championship this season (13-1-9), allowing 14 goals in 23 matches. The Blues weren't quite as good away from St. Andrews (7-9-7), but were the only one of the four playoff sides to score more goals away than at home.
• Blackpool reached the Premier League via the playoffs in the 2009-10 campaign, defeating fellow playoff hopeful Cardiff City 3-2 at Wembley Stadium. The 2010-11 campaign was Blackpool's first and only one in the Premier League, as the Seasiders finished 19th and were relegated. Blackpool allowed 59 goals league play this season, six more than any other side in the playoffs.
• Cardiff City is the only club in the playoffs without Premier League experience. Cardiff is in the playoffs for the third consecutive season, clinching a spot with a win at Crystal Palace on the final day of the campaign. The Bluebirds reached the playoff final two seasons ago, losing out to Blackpool, and fell in the semifinal to Reading last May. Cardiff scored 66 goals this season, 13 fewer than any of the other playoff sides.