Championship play-offs: Brighton and Derby favourites
As heavyweights Derby and Hull City clash in the second semi-final, can the Seagulls regroup to see off Sheffield Wednesday?
With the top and bottom of the Premier League all wrapped up before the final game of the season, the Championship play-offs take centre stage this weekend.
The final is billed as the most lucrative fixture in sport, with the winners in line for a £150m windfall if they reach the Premier League.
This year, Brighton & Hove Albion face Sheffield Wednesday in the first semi-final, with the two games on Friday and Monday. Derby take on Hull on Saturday and Tuesday.
But who is best placed to reach the promised land this season?
The Seagulls suffered heartbreak on the final weekend of the regular season in their do or die clash with Middlesbrough[. The Seagulls were level on points with Boro but needed to beat them to go up automatically. A 1-1 draw was not enough and now Chris Hughton's team must regroup for the play-offs.
"To reach 89 points and not make the top two is a unique and potentially deflating occurrence," says Sky Sports, but they cannot afford to feel sorry for themselves, with promotion still within their grasp.
They are unbeaten in 14 games going into the first leg at Hillsborough, but history is against them, says The Guardian. "The Seagulls' recent record is not encouraging, having lost semi-finals in 2013 to rivals Crystal Palace and being comprehensively beaten by Derby in 2014."
There is better news from the BBC, which notes that the team that finished third in the table has been promoted in three of the last five seasons. Shoot magazine makes the Seagulls favourites to reach the final at Wembley.
That would give them a second shot at glory following the showdown with Boro. "Brighton can be the first team to have TWO £170m games in a season if they make the final," says The Sun. "And this time they should have that winning feeling."
Hull finished fourth in the table, six points behind Brighton and five ahead of semi-final opponents Derby. But had it not been for a run of ten games without a win midway through the season, the Tigers would have been in the mix for an automatic spot.
The have "a squad packed with Premier League quality, who conceded only 12 goals at home all season", notes Sky Sports.
However, they have still not shaken off their form problems and have only seven wins in their last 20 games. They also lost twice to Derby this season.
"Should Hull fail again, you can expect a mass exodus on Humberside, with frozen-out Tom Huddlestone first in the queue. While there will be major question marks over the future of boss Bruce," says The Sun.
This will be the Rams sixth appearance in the play-offs, notes The Guardian, and they have been promoted only once. But Derby will be hoping for better things this time round.
Derby began the season as promotion favourites under Paul Clement, but he was sacked after a string of disappointing results and replaced by Darren Wassall, in his first major role. He has done well at Pride Park and has "stabilised the club, established a relatively settled team and eventually guided them to some good results", says ESPN.
"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."
Ian Holloway of Sky Sports agrees. "On their day, they can wipe the floor with anyone," he says, predicting that they will beat Hull and make the final.
Sixth placed Wednesday finished a distant 15 points behind opponents Brighton in the league, but believe they can end their 16-year exile from the top flight.
They are also one of only five teams to have a 100 per cent record in the play-offs, says The Guardian (the others are Dagenham & Redbridge, Doncaster Rovers, Fleetwood Town and Manchester City).
Like Leicester, Wednesday have a Thai owner in Dejphon Chansiri, who targeted a return to the top flight within two years when he took over in 2015. Could Wednesday emulate the Foxes with another unexpected triumph?
"Boss Carlos Carvalhal has adapted brilliantly to England's most demanding division with an infectious enthusiasm that has rubbed off on the players," says The Sun, but Brighton will be a tough nut to crack. "Taking on the high-flying Seagulls, though, will be their ultimate test and it is vital they take a lead back to the Amex if they are to have a chance of reaching Wembley."
Ian Holloway of Sky Sports believes they can do it, though. And that would set up a thriller on the South Coast on Monday.