Hammers & Saints dream of Premier League return

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It’s regarded as the richest game in football, but neither Southampton nor West Ham United want any part in it.

Such is the ‘lottery’ of the play-off final, that automatic promotion is the only certain way of securing a return to the Premier League for these two teams.

For Southampton, failure to finish in the top two would be a hammer blow after spending such a long period of time in the prominent Championship positions.

Only now have the Saints started to falter, losing at home to Reading – who swiftly took advantage to become champions – and then again at Middlesbrough over the weekend.

In contrast, West Ham United have found some decent form since their defeat to Reading at the end of March, winning three times and drawing twice in five Championship matches, scoring 16 goals in the process.

However, their poor home form is likely to prove costly when it comes to the crunch, with the Hammers winning just ten games at Upton Park this term in comparison to 14 wins for Saints at St. Mary’s.

On their travels, Sam Allardyce’s side have been impressive, and the 2-1 win at Leicester City last night means they still at least have a sniff-of-a-chance at automatic promotion. A big favour is needed from Coventry City, however.

Nigel Adkins’ side hit fantastic form in mid-season, and that has given them the advantage going into what is certain to be an enthralling final day in the Football League on Saturday.

The mathematics aren’t as simple as normal, although Southampton will know that a victory over Coventry City – who are already relegated – ensures promotion.

A defeat will allow West Ham through the door, providing they beat Hull City – who have nothing but pride to play for – at home. If the Hammers fail to win, then it’s the south coast club who will be celebrating at 2:30pm.

But, if Southampton draw, then it could be a party in the capital, providing the East London outfit can find the back of the net with some regularity against the Tigers.

The Saints’ goal difference is currently three better than West Ham, with Adkins’ side also scoring two more than their rivals. And, with a better head-to-head record should it be required, they hold a significant advantage.

That won’t stop West Ham from chasing a famous victory, with the knowledge that four goals will be needed if the unlikeliest of chances comes their way.

In fairness, a spot in the play-offs isn’t the worst prize in football for the loser. However, history shows that the team finishing third isn’t likely to make it all the way when it matters. Understandable, when you imagine the feeling of failure if not finishing second.

For Southampton, should things go wrong on Saturday, then they would become long-shots to secure a return to the Promised Land, with players and fans deflated at coming so close to a return to the English top flight.

Things aren’t quite the same at West Ham, but having pulled themselves back into contention, it would also be heartbreak if things don’t quite go the way they’d planned.

Blackpool and Birmingham City, both with recent top-flight experience, await whoever falters in the play-offs, whilst either Cardiff City or Middlesbrough will be the other side to make the cut after another enthralling season in the second tier.

And, whilst it's absolute magic for the neutral to digest, it's a nightmare for any team involved, particularly when you thought you wouldn't have to be. Here's wishing the team who finishes in third good luck on their quest to return to matches against Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea.

Something tells you they might need it.

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