The Championship is grueling, the Championship is ruthless, and the Championship takes no prisoners.
Only one will escape from Wembley on Monday at 10:00am ET with coveted promotion to the Premier League, while another will pack up and go home knowing they were so close but must instead reset for another season of hope.
Middlesbrough and Norwich City, two teams in the Premier League not too long ago, are hoping to make it back to the world’s biggest – and richest – soccer stage in what could be the start of a long stay. Both teams earned it as the table’s third- and fourth-place finishers, just a single point apart across a 48-game season.
Norwich has plenty to prove in this match. In their two fixtures against Middlesbrough during the Championship season, they were outscored 5-0, including a gutting 1-0 loss that saw an eighth-minute own-goal prove the difference at home.
The fact that Middlesbrough has held Norwich – a team that scored 88 goals across the regular season, third-best in the Championship – scoreless across 180 minutes is a testament to how good their defense is. The Smoggies conceded a league-low 37 goals across the season, the only team to allow under a goal per game. Compare that with those at the bottom of the Championship, such as the defensive records of relegated Blackpool (91 conceded), or that of the merry-go-round of Fulham’s back line (88 conceded) and you can see how ruthless the Championship can be on a poor or even mediocre defensive unit.
It is that defensive record that Middlesbrough will likely be slight favorites despite their lower league finish. But they can be beaten. Ironically, it was a loss to the aforementioned Fulham squad that sealed their inability to reach automatic promotion, a shocking 4-3 scoreline from Craven Cottage that proved if you get their backs against the wall, Middlesbrough may capitulate. Add to the irony that Middlesbrough have bolstered their already impressive back line with Fulham defender Fernando Amorebieta, who came over on loan towards the end of the season and has already made five appearances and scored a crucial goal.
For Norwich, their strength is in their form. They won six of their final eight league matches – with a lone loss to Middlesbrough, their only loss since mid-March – and tore apart Ipswich 3-1 at home in the second leg of their playoff semifinal to win the aggregate 4-2. Over the course of those final eight league games, Norwich conceded just six goals and scored 15; add in the two playoff semifinal legs and it’s 19 scored and eight conceded over their last 10 matches.
The Canaries are also the better goalscoring team, clearly producing a showdown that could result in a healthy amount of work for Middlesbrough goalkeeper Dimitrios Konstantopoulos. They outscored Middlesbrough in league play by 20 goals, and are outshooting their opponents by almost a full shot on target per game, a healthy margin over a 48-game season.
You can see what is developing here: Norwich attack against the Middlesbrough defense. Should it turn into a barn burner, that will favor Norwich, who will look to return to the Premier League after just one season down in the second tier, a feat that many hope to accomplish but few actually pull off. However, if the match grinds to a halt through the first 45 minutes, look for the defensive side of Middlesbrough to gain confidence and attempt to return to the top flight for the first time since being relegated on the final day of the 2008/09 season.
So who will live the dream? Fewer games have more at stake than this one, and we’ll know after 90 minutes at Wembley who will take the final place in the next installment of the Premier League.