Championship: Who will prevail in the play-offs?

Play-off finals managers: Mark Warburton, Aitor Karanka, Alex Neil and Mick McCarthy
One of Brentford, Middlesbrough, Norwich or Ipswich will join Bournemouth and Watford in the Premier League

The regular Championship season has ended. Now the real drama begins.

This week, the four teams occupying third to sixth in the final table will embark on the play-offs with one aim: victory at Wembley on Monday, 25 May and a slice of the riches and prestige on offer in the Premier League.

The final itself is famously billed as the richest game in world football, with roughly £120m on offer for the winner next season, before the bar is lifted again courtesy of the Premier League's hugely lucrative new TV deal starting in 2016-17.

But first, teams must survive the tense, nail-biting, exhilarating or heart-breaking experience of the semi-finals.

This season's promotion race has been the closest since the division was renamed the Championship in 2004, and with eight points separating Norwich, Middlesbrough, Brentford and Ipswich in the table, the play-offs promise to be just as tight.

But which team will be celebrating at Wembley at the end of this month? BBC Sport looks at the form, facts and prospects of all four Premier League hopefuls.

How did the regular season end?

Bournemouth players celebrate with the Championship trophy

The automatic promotion race in the Championship went right down to the wire, with Watford sealing promotion with a game to go and Bournemouth confirming their place alongside the Hornets (and pipping them to top spot in the table) on the final day.

As late as April, Norwich and Middlesbrough had held a place in the top two, with the latter even topping the table with three games to go, before having to settle for third and fourth respectively.

Final Championship table (top eight)

Ipswich flirted with disaster at the start of April by dropping out of the top six for the first time since October before a strong run of three wins and a draw set up an all-East Anglia semi-final with Norwich, despite a 3-2 final-day loss at Blackburn.

Having sat on the cusp of the play-off spots for the final few weeks of the season, Brentford beat Wigan 3-0 on the final day to dramatically snatch a top-six spot from Derby, who had started the day two points above them in sixth.

Wolves, who beat Millwall 4-2, finished with an inferior goal difference to the Bees - the Londoners' reward is a semi-final tie with Boro.


Last time in top flight: 1946-47 Ground capacity: 12,763 Record signing: Jota (£1.5m from Celta Vigo, 2014)

Play-off semi-final home leg:Brentford 1-2 Middlesbrough

Home result v Middlesbrough this season: 0-1

Andre Gray of Brentford celebrates scoring with team-mates and manager Mark Warburton

Brentford have surpassed all expectation during their first season in the second tier in 22 years to give them a chance of plying their trade in the top-flight for the first time since 1947.

Pretty on the eye and courageous on the ball, the Bees are more than just efficient under the management of former city trader Mark Warburton, who was an unknown when he was appointed in December 2013.

Should Brentford reach the Premier League they will embark on the adventure without their current boss, who is set to step down in the summer after a difference of opinion with the board about how the club should move forward.

Their dramatic final-day dart into the play-offs means Warburton's men possess that much-treasured confidence and momentum as they look to give their manager the perfect leaving present.


Last time in Premier League: 2008-09 Ground capacity: 34,988 Record signing: Afonso Alves (£12.8m from Heerenveen, 2008)

Play-off semi-final home leg: v Brentford, Friday 15 May (19:45 BST)

Home result v Brentford this season: 4-0

George Friend of Middlesbrough celebrates as Patrick Bamford is congratulated by team-mates behind him

So near and yet so far; that is the story of Middlesbrough's regular season.

Aitor Karanka's side were so good between October and February (with a run comprising 10 wins and just one defeat in 18 games to take them top) that automatic promotion looked more probable than possible.

With the likes of Spaniard Kike and on-loan duo Patrick Bamford and Jelle Vossen in attack and Dimitrios Konstantopoulos in goal, Boro possessed not only the firepower but also a solidity at the back to overcome a downturn in form during February and March and keep the automatic promotion race alive until the penultimate round of fixtures.

With just two games standing between them and an end to their six year top-flight exile, Boro are again so near to the big prize. They will be determined to capitalise on their second chance.


Last time in Premier League: 2001-02 Ground capacity: 30,311 Record signing: Matteo Sereni (£4.8m from Sampdoria, 2001)

Play-off semi-final home leg: v Norwich, Saturday 9 May (12:15 BST)

Home result v Norwich this season: 0-1

Daryl Murphy (centre) is congratulated by team-mates after scoring

Understated, underrated, under the radar; such qualities have worked to the advantage of Mick McCarthy's strong, efficient side this season.

Midway through the season, the Tractor Boys were second in the table courtesy of just one defeat in 20 games - a run that included eight wins in 10 in November and December - and yet there were still those who doubted their ability to last the course.

Biggest East Anglian derby since 1985
Ipswich and Norwich met over two legs in the 1984-85 Milk Cup semi-final. Mich d'Avray gave Town a 1-0 win in the first leg at Portman Road, but goals from John Deehan and Steve Bruce won the second leg at Carrow Road and the tie for City.

Ultimately, the automatic promotion naysayers proved correct, with a return of just one point from four games at the start of March proving particularly costly, but McCarthy's men were not to be denied a second shot at the Premier League.

With Daryl Murphy enjoying his best ever season in front of goal (27 goals) they pose a threat to any side in the division and will go into the derby semi with Norwich as underdogs; just how McCarthy likes it.


Last time in Premier League: 2013-14 Ground capacity: 27,244 Record signing: Ricky van Wolfswinkel (£8.5m from Sporting Lisbon, 2013)

Play-off semi-final home leg: v Ipswich, Saturday 16 May (12:15 BST)

Home result v Ipswich this season: 2-0

Norwich manager Alex Neil

Despite a very promising start to the season, Norwich looked to have blown their hopes of an automatic return to the Premier League when a winless January dropped them down to 11th before manager Neil Adams resigned just five days into 2015.

However, Adams' replacement Alex Neil arrived from Hamilton, bringing with him some of the resilience and discipline instilled in the Canaries by fellow Scot Paul Lambert during their last charge to the top-flight and immediately began constructing another Premier League promotion push.

Odds in Norwich's favour
Since the play-offs were introduced in 1988-89, the team which has finished third in the Championship has gained promotion via the play-offs 35% of the time, compared to 27% from fifth place, and 19% for fourth and sixth.

An impressive run of just three defeats in 22 matches under Neil propelled them back into the reckoning and left them just three points shy of second-placed Watford at the end of 46 matches.

Norwich undoubtedly have the form and, in the likes of Bradley Johnson, Graham Dorrans and Cameron Jerome players with top-flight experience and expertise, but there is a danger this could be nullified by the derby ferocity of their semi-final with Ipswich.

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