One playoff "final" down, one more to go. The game between Middlesbrough and Brighton at the weekend basically amounted to a preliminary version of the one-game promotion decider that makes grown men and women weep with tension. Middlesbrough held on for the 1-1 draw they needed amid the nerves and can kick back for a while, but Brighton have to deal with the illness-inducing terror of the playoffs.
Perhaps it was the occasion and the tension but Brighton looked tired at the weekend. During the past few weeks they have been vibrant and played some fine attacking football, but none of that was present at the Riverside: they looked heavy of leg and weary of mind, and Middlesbrough really should have been four or five goals up in the first half through chances created by defensive mistakes alone.
Dale Stephens faces a three-game suspension after his red card for gouging a hole in Gaston Ramirez's shin -- meaning he misses the whole playoff campaign -- while defender Lewis Dunk will also be absent from the first leg of the semifinal, still serving his own ban for a sending off. All of a sudden, things don't look quite as rosy for Chris Hughton's side.
"We don't have time to be too down about it," said a clearly disappointed, but still measured, Hughton after the game on Saturday. "It's a distraught changing room, and you want them to feel that way, because you know what it means to them. The game is about highs and lows, and you're always striving for the highs: the only way you can do that is by dusting yourself down."
Maybe Hughton is right in that there might not be enough time for the true disappointment of missing automatic promotion to set in before they must turn their minds to the playoffs. Equally, there might not be sufficient time to recover from it, either.
There's a commonly held idea that whoever finishes third is actually at a disadvantage, since they're dealing with the disappointment of not making the top two. However, it's not especially relevant in recent history and probably stems from a spell in the 1990s when five clubs in five years finished third, four points or fewer away from automatic promotion, and lost out in the playoffs. Since then, there hasn't been a great deal in it: since 2000, eight teams have finished third and gone up through the playoffs while eight have not. Of those that failed, four were close to the top two and all but one of those who did go up ended the "regular" season within four points of second. In summary, Brighton have as good a chance as anyone of joining Boro and Burnley in the top flight.
But what of the teams they will face in the playoffs? Brighton play Sheffield Wednesday in the first leg of their semifinal this Friday while on Saturday, Derby face Hull. Whatever happens, the final will see one team who didn't really expect to be in the promotion shake-up this term versus one that very much did.
Last season Brighton and Wednesday finished 20th and 13th, respectively, whereas Hull came down from the Premier League and Derby spent £25 million on players and hired Paul Clement, Carlo Ancelotti's former assistant, as their manager. The former two would have been pleased with measured progress; the latter will probably be disappointed not to have already secured promotion.
This season has also been slightly unusual in that there's been no surprise package or late surge from an unlikely contender: the top six are very clearly the best six teams in the division, particularly from around February, and as such there's not a great deal to choose between those striving for promotion.
Brighton are theoretically the best of the four remaining candidates, having finished six points ahead of nearest rivals Hull and having gone 13 games since their last defeat. But all of them have their strengths and perhaps most importantly for the playoffs, all have the proverbial "danger men," players who can create something or win a game from nothing.
Brighton have Anthony Knockaert and Jiri Skalak, two potentially brilliant wingers. Hull's Abel Hernandez was only outscored by two players in the division. Derby's options are plentiful but despite a poor run of form and a spell out of the side, Chris Martin still managed to score 15 goals and set up another 10. Sheffield Wednesday have Fernando Forestieri, possibly the most talented player in the division and a combustible character who is almost as likely to have a tantrum as score a goal.
Of the respective managers involved, Derby's Darren Wassall is possibly the only one whose future rests on promotion. Installed to replace Clement in February until the end of the season, Wassall stabilised the club, established a relatively settled team and eventually guided them to some good results. The sheer weight of talent at his disposal (he can usually name the likes of Darren Bent and Andreas Weimann on the bench) suggests that the Rams might have the best chance of anyone. The loss of George Thorne, who broke his leg at the weekend, will be a blow but is significantly cushioned given that Wassall can call on the likes of Jacob Butterfield or Bradley Johnson (fitness permitting), two midfielders who cost £10m last August.
But really, the playoffs can rarely be predicted. History and form can tell us a limited amount, but perhaps little of value. Games can turn around in moments, seasons down the drain in a heartbeat. It's wonderful, awful, exhilarating and often enormously unfair, usually all at the same time. It's going to be great.
The current state of play:
Promoted: Burnley (as champions), Middlesbrough
Playoffs: Brighton & Hove Albion, Hull City, Derby County, Sheffield Wednesday
Relegated: MK Dons, Charlton Athletic, Bolton Wanderers